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Phila. schools chief denies being behind alleged pressure-to-pass policy

Amid allegations of widespread pressure to pass even the most lax students, Philadelphia School District chief Arlene Ackerman yesterday told all teachers that she was not behind the push.

Arlene Ackerman wrote: “This is not a School District policy.” (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Arlene Ackerman wrote: “This is not a School District policy.” (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)Read more

Amid allegations of widespread pressure to pass even the most lax students, Philadelphia School District chief Arlene Ackerman yesterday told all teachers that she was not behind the push.

"Students should receive whatever grade they earned based on their performance and work in your class," Ackerman wrote in an e-mail to the district's 10,700 teachers.

Three teachers at South Philadelphia High School - and others around the city - have said that they felt pressure, both implied and stated, to pass students, even those with chronic absences and little mastery of the most basic subject matter.

Since The Inquirer reported on May 31 the push to pass at South Philadelphia, teachers from several schools throughout the district have said in interviews that similar conditions existed at their schools.

In an interview last week with an Inquirer editorial writer, Ackerman said she had launched an internal investigation of the teachers' complaints at South Philadelphia High. She also said that the pressure to pass was likely not an isolated problem.

"I think it is probably happening in more than South Philadelphia," Ackerman said. "I don't think that it was just isolated at this one school, unfortunately."

Ackerman has also said that the pressure to pass did not come from her.

It's unclear how and from whom the pressure is being exerted, however.

Though the principal is a respected leader, one high school teacher said, there's still a definite sense that the onus is on the teachers to do anything to keep students from failing.

The principal "is getting a lot of pressure from downtown to pass kids along," said the teacher, who feared retribution and spoke on condition of not being named.

Starting in spring, the teacher said, teachers have been required to do an enormous amount of documentation before failing students. That's on top of the district's "Comprehensive Student Assistance Program," which mandates teachers document supports given to struggling students.

"They make it really difficult to fail students," the teacher said. "You have to do all this paperwork, and I know people who will pass their kids because they don't want to do it."

In the letter to teachers, sent yesterday afternoon, Ackerman acknowledged that "some of you may have been asked to modify grades so that no students receive less than a 59 as their final grade in your class."

But she's not behind that directive, the superintendent said.

"I want to make it clear to you that this is not a School District policy, nor do I agree with this practice," she wrote.

At South Philadelphia, teachers say the pressure is both implicit and explicit and has come from principal Alice Heller and other administrators in teacher-training sessions, meetings, and a memo asking them to give students makeup work and credit for fulfilling promises such as showing up on time and wearing a required school uniform.

Heller has also said that no ninth graders would be held back, regardless of how many courses they've failed. Instead, they are to be given 10th-grade courses and required to make up the ninth-grade work before graduation, she said.

Heller was one of at least six principals who recently received letters that they would be reassigned for the fall. She said she planned to fight the transfer, which officials refused to explain.

In her e-mail, Ackerman said that students needed support, but not free passes.

"While we must work to ensure students receive the instruction and supports that will help them be successful in the classroom, we must also be clear that grades are earned by the student and not just given based on an arbitrary practice," Ackerman wrote.

Another high school teacher told The Inquirer that the push to pass was ingrained among teachers.

"There's this sense of, 'I don't want to rock the boat. I don't want to be the one to get written up. It's not worth it to stand up.' I guess you don't ever want to be the one teacher who failed a senior when everyone else passes them. It's been a daily conversation here," the teacher said. The teacher also asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Ultimately, the teacher said, students who pass without skills to succeed at the next level suffer.

"There's such pressure for us to pass these students. Administrators are so keen on the numbers, but nobody seems to be concerned about where these students are," the teacher said.

The teacher said a large number of students at the school are 17 or 18 years old and cannot read or write.

"It's not a small minority," the teacher said. "They must have had a succession of teachers who felt the need to pass them."

Lisa Haver, a sixth-grade teacher at Harding Middle School, said that she had never been told she was failing too many students. But the system has certainly shifted over a number of years, she said.

It used to be the responsibility was on the student to show up every day, prepared, learn the material, and pass. Now, it's on the teachers to justify that they're failing a student, even one who has 100 absences or who can't write a sentence, Haver said.

"If you're having too many kids who fail, or you have kids who are not reaching that level on benchmark tests, the school district is saying, 'What are you doing wrong as a teacher?' " Haver said. "It goes from your elementary schools to your middle schools up to your high schools."

And though she does her best to grade every student fairly, based on the work they've done, it's tough, she said.

"Can I tell you honestly I've given a kid a D that didn't deserve it, that should have failed? Of course, all the time," Haver said. "You just can't do all the paperwork that's necessary."