D.C. teacher quits over grading, disruption

December 15, 2013

Caleb Rossiter recently quit his job as a ninth-grade algebra teacher at the Friendship Tech Prep public charter school in Southeast Washington because, he says, his supervisors pressured him to artificially inflate failing grades and ignored his safety concerns by sending two disruptive students back into his class.

Such administrative mindlessness is common in American public schools. It has been a source of teacher frustration for decades. Many who watch D.C. schools closely might be surprised to hear this happened at Tech Prep, run by the well-regarded Friendship Schools charter network. Patricia A. Brantley, the network’s chief operating officer, says the school did nothing wrong.

She said the school and Rossiter “have a fundamental difference in belief about the way that students should be served. We do not separate students [whom] teachers don’t want to educate or throw them out.”

But Rossiter, a 62-year-old college professor and policy analyst, didn’t want his failing students removed from his class. He wanted them to do the work they needed to learn. Bad grades are a useful way to communicate that. Squelching his effort to sound an alarm seems in tune with the tendency of American high schools to let disengaged students slip through to graduation. Schools nudge slackers along with passing grades for limp performance or use shortcuts such as credit recovery courses, which deliver passing grades for just a few weeks of online work.

Rossiter told me he thought he was going to be fired “for refusing to raise to D’s the 30 percent of my students who earned F’s in the first quarter.” He said an administrator told him “this can’t be.” Rossiter said he was told “it would damage the school if grades were reported to the Charter School Board, showing that the students were ‘not on track to graduate’ — which of course they are not.”

Tech Prep principal Doranna Tindle said Rossiter failed to factor in the accommodations to which students with disabilities were entitled, which might have affected the number of students who earned passing grades. At one point he suggested that the special education teacher who worked with him could teach algebra to the special education students, while he dealt with the rest of the class, which rules don’t permit. Rossiter said he didn’t know that, thinking the arrangement would work because the other teacher was so good. He detailed his close adherence to the accommodation rules and said both the disabled and non-disabled groups included students who were failing.

He was bothered by what happened when he ejected two students for turning over their desks. He asked that they be sent back only after he and administrators met with them and their parents. The students came back, but he never got the meeting. Tindle said she brought in one of the parents but made “a judgment call” not to include Rossiter because she wanted to discuss several other issues.

Tech Prep is a sixth-through-11th-grade school that plans to add 12th grade next year. It focuses on developing skills in science, technology, engineering and math, its Web site says.

The most glaring difference between Rossiter’s experience and what happens at D.C. schools with the highest proficiency rates for disadvantaged students is the lack of team spirit. Teachers at successful D.C. schools often confer with each other and with administrators about each student. They bring in parents when grades slump. Tindle said Tech Prep also promotes teamwork, but I think the failure to include Rossiter in the parent meeting was a sad lapse.

Tindle is a good principal stuck with a national discomfort about giving F’s. She didn’t fire Rossiter, and she looked for solutions. One might be to let good teachers follow their best instincts.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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