Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said today she'll be monitoring any changes principals or teachers make to student marks and disciplining anyone who boosts grades without cause.
The Inquirer has reported that teachers around the district say they feel pressure to pass students who don't deserve it, even those who rarely go to class and don't do work. Ackerman said she became aware this spring of the decades-old practice, which she has condemned.
There's no excuse for any teacher or administrator who doesn't tow the line, said Ackerman, who sent an email to all teachers last week advising them to give students only the grades they earned.
The new tracking will catch grade changes for report cards due out tomorrow.
"To me, it's bordering on insubordination if it happens now," said Ackerman. "I'll talk to personnel about what kind of actions I can take against people who now have decided that they're going to do what they want to do even though our position is clear."
But, Ackerman acknowledged, she has no way of detecting and fixing passing grades already awarded to undeserving students by teachers who say they are being pressured by principals and the administration to keep failure numbers low.
"I don't know that I can go back and singlehandedly look at all of this," Ackerman said. "My job now is to make sure that it doesn't continue in the future."
Ackerman said she can only track grade changes from this point forward. If principals want to change a grade, they are supposed to inform teachers in writing. Teachers can request a grade change as well.
Ackerman said she will be looking at all schools for large numbers or patterns, she said.
She said she became aware of the pressure to pass in April, at a monthly teachers' roundtable meeting. She also learned then that students could earn no mark lower than a 50, even if they do no work.
"I was just shocked, and I hadn't heard of anything like this before," said Ackerman, who has also led school systems in Washington D.C. and San Francisco.
Beginning next year, she said, there will be no 50 minimum - students will earn any grade they deserve, even if it's a zero.
But the superintendent does want teachers to do everything within reason to make sure students succeed, she said - including giving hard-working students chances to earn extra credit.
The pressure to pass, Ackerman said, probably stems from her holding principals' and teachers' feet to the fire.
"There's been no accountability for adults," Ackerman said, referring to practices she found when she arrived in the district last July. "Remember, this is the first year that principals may be losing their jobs or being demoted if they don't perform."
Last year, only 13 of the district's 10,000 teachers were disciplined for poor performance.
Ackerman has earned the ire of principals and teachers alike for her stance. The two groups - who don't always see eye to eye - wore red today and will dress in blue tomorrow to show solidarity for each other's causes.
"I came here to take a last stand for children," Ackerman said. I'm not against teachers and I'm not against principals, but I am for children. I think it's easy to make me the sort of villain, but that deflects the real issue about accountability for adults."
Ackerman also today sent a letter to teachers reiterating that she's requiring them to sign individual contracts for the first time in decades.
Union officials have directed their members not to sign the contracts, which they say are legally unnecessary and in violation of their collective bargaining agreement.
The superintendent, and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, whose letter to her she also passed along to teachers, say that the contracts are mandated by Pennsylvania school code. Ackerman also says the individual contracts are necessary for the district to keep tabs on how many classroom spots it will need to fill in the fall.
Ackerman wrote to teachers: "The decision to sign the contract that you will receive in the next few days is your choice. But please understand that the consequences for not signing will be dictated by state law, including any disciplinary action taken by the district."
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is scheduled to meet tonight to discuss the upcoming negotiations.