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Friday, January 9, 2009

What about the 40% who didn't pass?

In a January 2007 interview, I offered a statistic to (then) Spokane Superintendent Dr. Brian Benzel:

“Forty percent of the students didn’t pass the math requirement,” I noted.
“But sixty percent did,” he said encouragingly.
“I know,” I persisted, “but if you’re a parent of one of the 60%, then woo-hoo for you, but if you’re a parent of the one of the 40%…”

Dr. Benzel assured me that overall, grades are up. “As recently as 5 years ago, 60% didn’t (pass), and 40% did,” he said. “We’re being very clear in what these learning targets are, and it’s contrary to the way most of us adults went to school. We were all compared to our peers. We weren’t compared to standards. We were scored on norm-referenced tests, where we were measured against a mythical group of students from 20 years ago or 10 years ago.”

And then … he proceeded to blame it on the students: “If there’s a problem after 4th grade, this thing called free will comes into play. The choices that students make take on grave power in a person’s willingness to learn. Up through 4th grade and 10 years old, kids tend to do pretty much what we tell them to do.”

It sounded as though Dr. Benzel was explaining the 40% failure rate in part by saying students were deciding to not learn. Are you shocked? Dr. Benzel isn’t alone. A high-school teacher in Spokane echoed this theory in a May 2008 Letter to the Editor, writing: “The real breakdown in our current model of education is, in part, the growing number of students who simply don’t want to learn… These are likeable, worthwhile kids, but they have been influenced by our culture, their sense of entitlement or a teenage lack of foresight, and concluded that the classroom isn’t worth their time.”

In the fall of 2007, I asked a district administrator about the scores on the 2007 Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). I showed her the district Report Card, pointing out how the math scores dropped grade after grade until Grade 10, when just 48.1% of students passed the math WASL. “What about 6th grade,” I asked her, “where just 57.9% of the students passed the math portion of the WASL?” Her response: “How do we know that 60% isn’t good?” She said it might be good, depending on where that group began.

These exchanges show you the vast difference in thinking. I don’t look to the students to find out why 40 to 60% of them don’t pass the WASL. I don’t believe that 40 to 60% of them don’t want to learn or come to school not ready to learn. If the situation weren’t affecting children, these statements from educators might even be funny.

Try this statement on for size: “The real breakdown in our current model of health care is, in part, the growing number of patients who simply don’t want to get well.”

Or how about this: “The real breakdown in our current model of national defense is, in part, the growing number of citizens who simply don’t want to be protected.”

It isn’t all that often that 60% is “good.” If you expect a score to be zero, and instead it’s 60%, perhaps 60% is a huge relief. But it isn’t good.

  • It isn’t good on a battlefield. (“Sir, 60% of the men have guns and ammunition.”)
  • It isn’t good in a hospital. (“Ma’am, 60% of our patients lived through the night.”)
  • It isn’t good at the dinner table. (“You get to eat 60% of your meals.”)
  • It isn’t good in college. (“Sixty percent of you will get textbooks this year.”)
  • It isn’t good as a score in the classroom, and it isn’t good as a pass rate on the WASL.

I don’t see a 60% pass rate as “great gains.” I understand that the figures matter with respect to NCLB requirements, but what about the 4 out of 10 children who didn’t pass? I don’t celebrate because this year (for example), 61.8 percent of students made it as opposed to only 59.3 percent last year. To me, both figures are pitiful. I’m not looking to slowly eke our way up over three decades of struggle. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t happen right now, this year, on their watch. We’ve been teaching math and science in this country for hundreds of years. How did it suddenly get to be so hard?

It’s a travesty that only 60% pass the math portion and even fewer pass the science portion. It’s a complete district failure. Imagine how the students see themselves. It’s shameful, when, with a more effective learning environment, most could have learned what they needed to know. How can we even communicate when I see 60% as a failure, and they see it as potentially good? I was shocked that district administrators would go on the record saying 60% might be good – and then defend that statement against my shock. They can continue to write their own reality, but you and I know the truth. A 60% pass rate isn’t good. It might be an improvement. It might be the best you can do. It’s certainly better than zero. But it isn’t good.

Queried about the 40% of students who didn’t pass, Dr. Benzel wanted to focus on the 60% who did. You’ve sure got to hope your child’s one of the 60%.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January, 2009). "What about the 40% who didn't pass?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

The aritlce was posted January 12, 2009 at at


dan dempsey said...


I think that the free-will argument does have some validity. When students see few consequences for doing less than their best and often less than an adequate job inappropriate patterns may form.. bad habits.

Social promotion coupled with "differentiated instruction (gone wild)" has often produced a poor learning environment.

I think the Superintendent was correct in his free-will assessment, but he seems to have missed a point about education and training.

When a condition exists which promotes bad habits, it is the superintendent's responsibility to make changes which will lessen the creation of the bad habits. Instead he chooses to blame students with bad habits.

It is really difficult to change a system to produce positive academic gains. When those in charge are unable to recognize what things need changing.

To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data.

That explains why we seldom see any significant academic improvement.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Dan. Public schooling is a social contract between the community and the school. It is a bit like going out to eat, only you are told what to eat and how to eat.

If the customers are satisfied then a contract exists. If school is perceived as a barrier to people's enterprise or education, then the contract becomes meaningless.

The resistance teachers are facing at school is because students do not feel obligated to follow the rules. Schools cannot pen arbitrary standards and then impose a curriculum that fails for the majority of students.

The 40% failure rate on a standardized test is a drop in the bucket. This is hardly about free will (more orthodox pessimism.) Their standards confuses fate with free will. Only Calvin would agree with your principal's outlook.

Anonymous said...

The standards movement treats grades as money when they argue their point of view. Grade inflation for one, but that is only one similarity and it is seldom observed that inflation is universal in high performing classrooms. That was one poor excuse used for putting ill-prepared students in AP classrooms when enrollments in these programs were dropping.

Everyone is above average in these classrooms and the high brow world appears flattened.

If low performing classrooms suffer from low grades, then they must get their currency from elsewhere, otherwise students wouldn't attend. Their currency is naturally their friendships with other students which can be measured for instance by their text messaging or keeping track of friends on myspace. Some friends sell their friends for cyber money. But I'm getting sidetracked.

More important is the fact that grades measure the validity of the contract between the satisfaction of a student and their teacher's efforts. While there are two standards for winners and losers, the standards movement can no more impose their will to raise student performance than I can bark at the wind (or howl at the moon!).

Anonymous said...

Plato created the 'free will' argument regarding slavery. Slaves prefer living as slaves. Do students believe it is easier to dropout of school?

From our experiences, we know that is not the case. So you see, there is no parallel that exists between students and slaves, the 'free will' excuse is not a rational argument.

Natural slavery was the doctrine provided by the NSF to put an end to the Civil War. Lincoln gave them the task of shortening the war and they failed. If students are failing of their own volition, then why have school? Why do we pretend to call ourselves a Democracy?

Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Hi Laurie!

I thought of you when I read Jay Mathew's column in this weekend's Washington Post. It was like he was channeling your blog.

Keep fighting the good fight on behalf of parents and their children. It's a hard row to hoe, but your efforts are extremely valuable.

Cheryl vT

Spedvet said...

Who are all these blow-hards, Laurie? Blaming the students, in any form, is placing the onus of learning upon students. If the onus of learning is upon students, they why on earth do they need teachers or schools?

It's unbelievable the amount of drivel that passes for educational theory that anyone would pay attention to. As if motivating students isn't part of an educator's job description. As if making student realize they are capable of learning and achieving isn't part of their job description. As if trying and trying and trying some more, until the teacher figures out a way, isn't part of their job description.

There is a saying in education that isn't often heard, but I've heard it. And teachers and administrators who care about kids and know what they are supposed to be doing -- teaching -- know this saying well:

If the student didn't learn, the teacher didn't teach.

The notion that public education is like a contract between a community and a school, or "that grades measure the validity of the contract between the satisfaction of a student and their teacher's efforts" is nonsense. It is nonsense because the only contract is with the taxpayer, who keeps putting money into institutions who cannot begin to explain what it is they are doing with the funding they receive that actually teaches kids anything. Yet, they know they must have more of it.

Now if the business of teaching kids was run more like medicine, or construction or engineering -- or any other kind of profession where the professionals are first trained how to do the job with methods that actually work, and then they pass some kind of competency test to demonstrate they have mastered both the material and the application... then we might be on to something. What we have instead is an entire industry where the teachers come out ill-prepared out of ed school, knowing little or nothing about what is the most effective way to teach math and reading, combined with administrators and school boards that a) couldn't recognize an effective teaching methodology if it bit them in the ass; and b) has neither the common sense nor the inclination to usefully spend funding on getting the teachers they employ trained in these methodologies, who are then expected to perform against state-created standards (developed by the very same people who either run or ran the school districts)that measure ridiculous, fuzzy things such as "the ability to synthesize information" and "demonstrates appropriate number sense" instead of actual measurable standards such as "find the main idea of the paragraph" and "be able to find the sum of single digit integers", and the public finds itself in this situation. Asinine people running school district who have no business doing so. All at the foot of the taxpayer, who is also too dim-witted to realize what is going on.

THAT is why public education is failing.

Richard Reuther said...

Here is story that is a sidelight to the discussion about "the other 40%."

My wife and I worked in the same middle school in a large Puget Sound area district. We were, by most measures, successful and well liked among staff and students.

In spite of our successes, and the successes other senior teachers, when a new principal (and a year or so later, a new superintendent) arrived, the senior staffers were bullied out of their jobs. Most of the senior staff were the superior teachers, if WASL scores mean anything. Don't we judge teacher success by their students' WASL scores; aren't there those who want to tie teacher pay to WASL scores?

We ran National History Day, a nationally recognized social studies curriculum, in our classroom. Our students regularly completed projects that received regional and state recognition. It is a powerful curriculum for the teaching of upper level thinking skills. The students who made the most progress in NHD were frequently the less successful students in school. NHD provided student choice of topic and project type (five categories and a new one just added last year-historical website); it was rigorous; it could be integrated into other subject areas; it could be "scaffolded" to previous student knowledge. NHD was EXACTLY what the principal said he was looking for.

But instead, NHD was used by the principal as a fulcrum to get rid of us. "What's best for kids?" Eliminating good curriculum and dedicated teachers or strengthening the curriculum? Several actions were taken against us that reduced our ability to bring this quality education to the students. Our ability to collaborate was eliminated by moving me to another grade level with no accompanying educationaly valid reason. I was told explicitly that I was not to use NHD, that to would be covered in another grade (it wasn't), or that it didn't fit scope and sequence (it was listed in district curriculum guides as an approved anchor task). My wife's drama class was taken away from her and an extra history class added increasing her load from 115 to 140 doing NHD. At the same time the principal threatened to take away my honors class, where I continued to do NHD, because he wanted to "lighten my load," implying that I was in over my head. Well, he set me up to fail and then complained that I had while he failed to provide evidence to back up his claim (a skill we teach in NHD).

Other senior staff members were also isolated by switching their assignments from LA to Math or Math to Shop. The principal eliminated the democratic election of department chairs, unilaterally declaring that a "historical precedent" existed for the principal to name chairs. Well, yes, twenty years earlier; more recently, however, departments elected the chair from within, rotating every year or so and choosing teachers of all experience levels to take charge. He also unilaterally eliminated the practice of the Instructional Council giving input into teaching assignments while allowing his favorite department, math, to make their own teaching assignments. Within two years of his arrival, I was asking myself, "How do you teach democracy when you work in a dictatorship? What model does that present to the students?"

Other bullies were recruited and empowered to push senior staff around, as well. If you read the literature on bullying, you will find that this frequently happens either because the presence of a powerful bully allows others to also bully or because others want to curry favor (or just survive). Variously, I was bullied for correctly applying modifications clearly outlined in a child's IEP; I was professionally attacked in staff meetings on more than one occasion; my wife was verbally assaulted by the principal twice in four weeks and professionally threatened; we were constantly reminded in public and private that "if you don't like it here, you can go someplace else"; the Japanese teacher was scheduled with more students than she had books and then excoriated when she "complained"; an application only for-high-school-credit biology class was sabotaged by the principal who enrolled unqualified students into the class and then harangued the teacher for "failing" as a teacher when those students failed the class; any accomplishment by a senior teacher was ignored-one of our students qualified to go to Nationals in Washington, DC and the principal's first reaction was public disbelief: just after we announced the accomplishment on morning CCTV, the principal came on and said," I can't believe they did that." It was not said in joyous wonder but in a "curses, I'll get you next time, Dudley Doright" fashion.

The over-arching strategy was to create choas for senior staff and them remind them that "if you don't like it here, you can go somepalce else." It worked. Eventually, even I could take no more emotional, mental, physical or professional abuse. Within three years, nearly 200 years of experience "retired" from that one building. (The school is now in chaos; the students openly bully and are unruly in the hallways; the faculty, now much younger than before, has little experience in student management; the faculty is seeking a "no confidence" vote regarding a replacement principal. By eliminating the senior teachers, the school was made less "safe" for learning.)

It went on and on for three years; repeated attempts to alert union or upper management of the problem were minimized ("let's just say you have a personality conflict with the principal") or ignored ("I've talked to the principal and he tells me that the things you are reporting just didn't happen").

The tipping point was reached one day in March '06 when I witnessed the principal and office manager (one of the more effective bullies in the building-the "silent treatment" was her specialty) threatening two students with being removed from the school to go to the principal's house to rototil his yard while wearing matching bib overalls (so they would look funny) as a punishment for "screwing off for the last two years." Kidnapping, false imprisonment, slavery, and humiliation.

This was not the first time I had witnessed this type of behavior toward students. But I vowed it WOULD be the last. Bullying your teachers is one thing, but doing it to the students is something else. How much "free will" is involved here?

I "blew the whistle" (I sent an e-mail to the office manager demanding that she stop bullying me and others; it's what we teach the kids to do-tell the bully to stop. I cc'd it to everybody who had refused to listen to me as well as all staff in the building) and was immediately removed from my teaching duties (insubordination and harassment; THAT'S really amusing-I was accused of harassing the harassers)and put on administrative leave while the bullies continued to run wild in the building. I was promised an "investigation" to be completed "by Friday." Nearly four weeks passed before I was "interviewed." In the meantime, no one "investigated" in the building or talked to any senior staff to ask about what was going on. It was as if nothing had happened; I had been "disappeared" just as in a South American dictatorship. In fact, the eventual "investigation" of the principal and office manager (begun only after I resigned) was set up in a room across the hall where the office manager could see who was volunteering to speak to the HR guy. How many teachers do you think walked that gauntlet? When I objected to this arrangement, the HR guy moved it to the ad building where at least five teachers dared to speak up (putting themselves in jeopardy) confirming my story. Former employees were not allowed to give evidence (there is no fulcrum for former employees to be silenced with). He never contacted any of the eleven or twelve people I listed as witnesses for my side. Great investigation!

When I was called in for examination, it was clear that this would be a crucifiction of me, not an investigation of the bullies. My union rep said nothing-not one word-during the entire meeting. At the end of the session, I mentioned to him that he hadn't said one word; "You did pretty well by yourself," was his reply. Thanks, but I would appreciated something more. The district HR "investigator" began attacking from the moment the door closed. When I brought out my 2" thick three ring binder of collected e-mails, faculty meeting minutes, contemporaneous writings of mine and other senior staff, they stopped dead in their tracks; their jaws quite literally dropped. Suddenly, they could not paint me in the pejorative as a "disgruntled employee" (to be disgruntled is to be MADE angry by an outside force; it is not something you choose to do) or a "nut case." They could not ignore the evidence that I had collected, but they didn't fully review it, either. They didn't WANT to know what I knew because they would have to discipline one of their own, something of a cardinal sin for administrators.

Even though I had stopped them, I couldn't save my job; I had to be sacrificed as an example to any other teachers who might get the idea that they have any power in the system. I was offered a "settlement agreement" which paid out my contract for the year, required me to resign my job, and prevented me from suing them. The union guy said, "This is the best offer you'll get from the district," as he shoved it in my face. Really protecting your members there, WEA.

My wife "retired" in December '06 when she reached the minimum age of 60 to qualify for her pension. Lost wages until "normal" retirement, reduced pension and Social Security benefits, paying out-of-pocket for health care for six years, loss of interest on moneies not placed in 403B accounts: our monetary loss is estimated at $800,000. The health and psycholocial costs are, as they say, priceless. We continue to suffer from PDSD, prolonged duress stress disorder, a cousin of PTSD.

Six weeks or so later, the principal announced that he had found a "wonderful job in the private sector" and took a year's leave of absence. A year later he was back as one of three finalists for assistant superintendent for teaching and learning-the guy who had eliminated quality teachers and programs in our building through bullying was up for the teaching and learning job. If you seek justice, you will not find it here. The following fall the office manager "went somewhere else" and took a job in a local community college.

I was invited by the HR guy to "keep in touch" and when I did, eventually a "no trespass" order was issued against both of us because our continuing communication was "deemed threatening and disruptive" which meant that they finally understood that we were not going to "go someplace else" (even though we had moved 220 miles away), we were going to continue to fight the bullying that we had endured and that we knew still was going on in the district. Since we were a continuing political threat to the administration, they lied (or to be kind, misrepresented the facts) and in the filing papers stated that we were a physical threat to staff and students. Former colleagues were warned to not communicate with us throguh district equipment but that was interpreted by all that they would be fired if they talked to us at all. Oddly, we had rarely called any of our former colleagues as doing so put their careers in jeopardy. Since such orders are not reviewable by the courts, we could do nothing to stop the continuing harassment by the district.

The laws of the state of Washington are weak regarding bullying of and by adults. Kansas and Florida have laws that include adults in their school bullying laws. This provision should be enacted in Washington. We are urged to create and maintain a "safe" learning environment. That is impossible when the teachers are being bullied out of the building.

And the students know it. Since much of our curriculum is informed by the interests of our students, both of us talked about bullying in our classrooms; talk about the acquisition of Mexican lands as a bullying issue and they are right there. Invariably, a student would ask, "Is Mr. X bullying you, too? Mr. Reuther?

We have to take the kids as they come to us; loved and supported at home or stepping over a drugged out parent as they leave for school. Of that 40% that aren't passing, I would guess that at least half are disabled learners just because they don't feel "safe" at home or at school.

If we could create safe homes and schools and get another 20% passing, wouldn't THAT be something!! Properly punishing bullies, student and adult, would go a long way to accomplishing that goal.

Anonymous said...

I agree there are way to many disabled students at high school. They were fine when they came in.

Without a whistleblower law protecting teachers, employees will continue being persecuted for speaking out. A teacher is very dependent on administrators for support and encouragement and it is not surprising that some teachers are being diagnosed with PDSD. The WEA is the weak link and a poor advocate. Your union leaders should be excoriated for not protecting teachers. The reform movement would quickly vanish if unions started protecting teachers and sued. The fact that your union has failed to set a precedent, does not prove the law is correct.

Anonymous said...

Hold on a minute, let's break down some of your arguments here. We can start with the doctor and patient one. Question 1) Which patient will more likely respond to a doctor's treatment for a stroke or heart attack: A) The patient who continues to eat a high fat diet despite the doctor's efforts to get him or her to stop (patient behavior). B) The patient who refuses to exercise despite the doctor's explanation that this will greatly reduce the risk of both (patient behavior). C) Th patient who actually follows the doctor's guidelines (patient behavior). Now, question 2) What percentage of Americans get little to no exercise putting them at greater risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and a host of other diseases, despite the best effort of our doctor's to educate them? A) 0% B) 30 % C) 60% (the answer is C - did we see that number somewhere else, oh yeah, this article!).
OK how about the national defense argument. In actuality it is the very lack of interest by the very citizens of this country in our national defense policy combined with lack of any kind of response, that has taken the reputation of the US to an all time low, and has, by many accounts, increased the risk of terrorist attack as we are doing a great job of disenfranchising people all around the work and actually increasing the number of potential terrorists.
Here's my point, educating human beings is more than a matter of "changing the curriculum." I agree that this is one piece of the puzzle that would help immensely. However, there are so many other factors that the educators you are slamming face on a day to day basis and that you dismiss with little to no understanding of what actually works for every kid in school, not simply kids of privilege.
Last point, and then I'll drop my rant. What is one of THE best educational practices for improving the achievement of students' K-12 and beyond? Answer - parents reading to their children every night. How many of the "40%" do you think actually received this treatment?

Anonymous said...

"Parents reading to their children every night. How many of the "40%" do you think actually received this treatment?"

Your argument is a conjecture and cannot be proven (show me the research). It is these common-sense arguments that lead to trouble when we talk about reforming education. We are reforming an institution, not the child.

Nor does reading to children every night prove that children will be successful in school.

You cannot dispute that dropout rates are becoming unmanageable and people are tired of schools where the majority of students experience at least one failure 25% of the time every six weeks. Moreover the majority of D's and F's are in math and science.

If schools were using traditional curriculum then there wouldn't be the same objections. But there are there are three major changes that should be examined more carefully.

1. Why is the state using a test that is aligned to a minimum set of skills for hs graduation or a floor? Why does the test cost taxpayers $24 per test to correct?

2. Why does the reform curriculum use non-standard algorithms? Especially when OSPI and the DOE deny the algorithms are not substandard. Why are high achieving students less successful in math when compared to the same group of students 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. There is a greater probability today that students compared to their parents will not go to college.

3. An evaluation of the studies that evaluated the reform curriculum will show that the methodology was flawed. In most cases, the number of students evaluated were of no consequence. Students who failed to finish the evaluation were not included. Worse the schools that were compared were not identified. Finally, nearly all the comparisons were done with 'other' reform curriculum.

So lets keep the arguments limited to what school can change. People don't change, but our government can. I'm all for stopping social promotion, but schools have become increasingly exclusive and the majority of our students don't achieve success anyway. So stop spreading these terrible lies.

What our communities need is time to heal, not more change.