Once widely derided for its abysmal performance, District of Columbia Public Schools has become a shining national example of education reform in recent years, in part due to their rapidly rising graduation rates. In October 2016, President Obama touted the nation’s record-high graduation rates as proof that aggressive education reforms were “making progress,” specifically highlighting DCPS: “Right here in D.C., in just five years, the graduation rate in [DCPS] went from just 53 percent to 69 percent. … That’s something to be really proud of.” January’s alarming report, however, found extensive fraud in DCPS graduation rates, raising serious concerns about how we know progress when we see it.
The report found that last year, a third of DCPS graduates received diplomas in violation of district policy. Twenty percent had too many absences, and 10 percent missed half the school year. Fifteen percent took “credit-recovery” courses – abbreviated make-up versions of courses for students who previously failed – without ever taking the original courses. Even within credit-recovery courses, 15 percent of graduates passed with excessive absences. Yet another issue was grade changes, where administrators pressured teachers or took it upon themselves to change grades, with over 4,000 such instances in a single high school. Without these shortcuts, DCPS’ record 73-percent graduation rate would have fallen to around 48 percent.
Who could have told DCPS leaders that this fraud was happening? Teachers could have. In fact, they tried, but to no avail. Following the celebrated 2017 Ballou High School graduation, teachers alerted district officials of graduates’ excessive absenteeism. After a month of inaction, Ballou teacher and union representative, Monica Brokenborough, emailed Chancellor Antwan Wilson and filed a formal grievance. Again, no response. Brian Butcher, a Ballou government teacher, refused when students and administrators asked him to give make-up work right before graduation so they could pass his course. Both teachers lost their positions last year, and both believed it was retribution.
Often, district leaders must take alarms from disgruntled teachers with a grain of salt, but Brokenborough and Butcher were not alone in their convictions. A December Washington Teachers Union member survey found that more than half of DCPS high-school teachers thought their school’s graduation rate was inaccurate, and 60 percent had felt “pressured or coerced” into passing students that did not meet expectations. Teachers knew – some even objected – but DCPS officials were not asking, or even listening.
DCPS may have the most recent scandal, but the same pattern is evident in districts across the country. For instance, Nashville’s graduation rate jumped 12 points in eight years, even as teachers complained about online credit recovery’s poor quality. When Chicago Public Schools introduced online credit recovery (where students can receive full course credit in as little as eight days), the union decried the lax academic standards. New York City’s rate skyrocketed 24 points in 10 years while teachers joked that “vehicles better roll up their windows when they pass by our school or they will have a ‘drive by diploma’ thrown in their car.” Prince George’s County, Maryland, changed final grades and ignored excessive absences until employees raised an alarm to the governor. San Diego teachers warned of rampant cheating in online credit recovery, which the district then expanded anyway, reaching a record 91-percent graduation rate.
Teachers are the boots on the ground in schools, but too often their voice is ignored in the pursuit of top-down reforms. This is not a new issue. As my colleague Rick Hess puts it in “The Cage-Busting Teacher,” “Teachers feeling isolated, frustrated, undervalued, and under attack is nothing new. In fact, that’s kind of how our K–12 system was designed. … It was built by reformers trying to dictate teachers’ work and also by teacher advocates intent on adding new safety bars around teachers.”
When reforms seem to go right – like each successive record-high graduation rate – district officials, reformers and policymakers get to celebrate. But when teachers raise real implementation concerns – like unearned grade changes or students’ absences – they get labeled as grumpy or whiners. Some get sidelined like Brokenborough and Butcher, others fear retribution and many learn speaking up is just pointless. That is dangerous, because silent teachers keep districts from knowing when things start slipping sideways.
These tendencies are why teachers’ unions have important roles in keeping education reform in check. Teachers’ unions are often painted as either heroes or villains. Certainly there are instances where they have played either role, but the fact is that they are neither uniformly hero nor villain. When unions are not there to amplify and protect teachers’ voices, teachers are demoralized and at a higher level, school systems lose a key means to protect themselves from foreseeable and obvious error.
Of course, teachers’ unions are not pure hero either. They have their axes to grind, so district leaders therefore have to sift through their positions carefully to manage reforms well. Sometimes policies are needed that keep teachers’ unions, and teachers themselves, in check. But just as often, unions and teachers are needed to keep policy in check.
Aggressive attempts to boost graduation rates are a case of the latter. Some damage in DCPS may have been averted if DCPS had prioritized teachers’ voices. Some could be avoided if the DC teachers’ union had produced their survey years earlier, when these trends were nascent. Governors, mayors, and district leaders should partner with local unions to reveal – building by building – what teachers see coming out of the push for graduation rates. Only boots on the ground can dependably flag where school reforms might be stuck in reverse, and keep abuses like those in DCPS from sprouting. Teachers and their unions can instruct us on school reform, if they take up the challenge, and if we will listen.