I'm truly not incompetent. I know you must think I am when you get that student in your class who did so well in high school but doesn't seem to know anything about math. You wonder what the heck is going on down there in high school, why can't those darned teachers teach these kids anything? Do high school math teachers know any math at all?
We're not incompetent. We really do know math. But we operate under an entirely different set of rules than you do.
Hear me out.
See, you might think that the grades I assign should reflect a level of competency and fluency with course material--that a student who gets an A did an exceptional job and has an exceptional grasp of the material, that a student who gets a B did well above average and has a reasonably strong grasp of the material, etc.
Oh, if only that were so.
Maybe for most students it is that way, but for a small but growing number of students, the grade I assign is sometimes entirely independent of the student's mastery of the material, and I'm required to assign a higher grade than what you and I think the student should receive. In fact, I'm legally required to assign this higher grade, even if the student can't meet any reasonable standard of competency. How can this be, you ask? Well, I don't know about how this works at your level, but here in high school we're hogtied by a federal law that's been effectively stretched and abused; that law is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504 of that law.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was written to protect the rights of those with physical or mental impairments, and to provide training for people with handicaps. Section 504 of that law specifically requires "reasonable accommodations" in the workplace--or in the classroom--so that the "disabled" can fully participate in all areas of society. And therein lies the root of our issue.
Now don't get me wrong. I understand that diabetics need to be allowed a snack in class to control their blood sugar, even though no one else can eat in class. I understand that an obese kid won't be able to walk across campus in our 5-minute passing period and will need extra time to get to class. I understand that an asthmatic needs to be allowed to carry his inhaler with him, even though we don't generally allow students to carry prescription medicines around with them. I understand that students who are hard of hearing, or with vision impairments, might need to sit near the teacher at all times. And if that's all we were talking about when it comes to Section 504, then grades wouldn't be an issue, and you wouldn't think I'm a dolt.
But wait. Included in the definitions is one small phrase about the law's applicability to students with specifically designated learning disabilities.
Now can you see the problem? Can you see the potential for abuse?
I'm here to tell you that it's not potential, it's here. It's abused. It's chronic. It's gross.
And I'm just a lowly minion who's told what to do and threatened with federal sanctions (and lawsuits and disciplinary action) if I don't comply. If I don't give certain grades, the entire weight of the federal government comes down upon me.
All it takes to get a "504 Plan" is one doctor to say a child has a problem, and voila! A "504 Plan", as it's called, and a cushy ticket to A-grade-town. Even high school students--they could have been seen by a doctor in 2nd grade, and if that doctor said they have ADD or "oppositional defiance disorder" or a "sequencing issue" or "verbal processing difficulties" or "dyscalculia" or whatever, then here's what happens. School officials--sometimes in consultation with a teacher, often not--meet and come up with a "plan" that will bypass the student's disability and get the student Stanford-ready--a silver bullet!--and then that "plan" is imposed upon the teacher who will, since it has the force of federal law behind it, enforce it to the letter or face severe sanction. And that plan will periodically get updated as the student gets older, but no parent in his or her right mind is ever going to have accommodations removed from this "plan"--they like seeing high grades on report cards, and don't want to accept that their kid isn't truly as capable as they want them to be--so what happens is that as time goes on, even more requirements are imposed on teachers. Eventually, these requirements become educationally unsound, but as a teacher I'm still required to obey them. Often these requirements involve how I assess the student's knowledge, and sometimes they even impose specific grading requirements.
Again, don't get me wrong, I'm all for helping students who need help. What I'm against is having to assign a grade--and most people, especially my fellow educators, interpret a grade as indicating some level of course mastery--that in no way reflects mastery or knowledge at all. And what's worse, there's no way to indicate that the student got that grade because of excessive accommodations. When your university admissions team looks at that student's transcript, they see great grades and everything is wonderful.
When you get the student and they can't do anything in your class, you might wonder how this student ever passed the math classes required for university admission. You'll think I'm incompetent--how could this student, who knows nothing, earn such grades in a math class that's an entry ticket to college?
Please, don't blame me. And don't think of this as reflecting on my integrity as a teacher. I have to console myself with the thought that I'm merely an arm of the state in this case; the grade is not a reflection of me, my beliefs, my teaching ability, or of my assessment of the student's abilities. No, in too many of these 504 cases the grade merely reflects what those above me, and those who came before me, want me to put on that transcript.
Yes, that belief structure is the same heartless one we hear all too often, "I'm just doing what I'm told, just doing my job."
Well, now that kid's your problem. We both know this isn't right. I hope you fare better than I did in this battle.
And lest anyone think I'm violating confidences here, this is not about any particular student or any particular event. This is not a venting caused by any recent student, parent, administrator, or 504 Plan imposed upon me. This is truly just a general venting on a topic about which I'm very passionate because it is abused so much.
Update, 12/15/12: On a related note:
Eighteen-year-old Jared DeWeese is severely disabled. He cannot walk, talk, read or write. Nevertheless, WSB-TV reports, he is receiving straight A’s in several courses, including algebra, biology and world history at a school in Gwinnett County, Georgia.What is the explanation? It's quite similar to the explanation for including educationally unsound requirements in 504 Plans:
Now, Jared’s father, Wes DeWeese, is publicly questioning exactly how such a feat is possible, given his son’s limited aptitude and cognitive skills.
“My wife and I were pretty astounded,” Wes DeWeese told WSB-TV. “Glad he’s getting 90s and 100s. But he can’t do any of these. He has the mental capacity of a six-month-old.”
A spokesperson for Gwinnett County Schools, Sloan Roach, said that the district is merely following the Georgia Department of Education’s policies and regulations. Those regulations require schools to provide students with disabilities — no matter how severe — access to the same academic courses other students take.
“We take those courses you see other students taking and we adapt those courses,” Roach told WSB-TV.
Roach added that students with disabilities, such as Jared, are graded based on “participation” with the curriculum.