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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Reversal of Fortune: October 1993

Reversal of Fortune: October 1993

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When we first wrote about Delaware algebra teacher Adele Jones in October 1993, she was not teaching equations but waiting tables at the Lamp Post family restaurant. The previous spring, the Indian River school board, acting on the recommendation of Jones' principal at Sussex Central High School in Georgetown, had fired the veteran teacher. The grounds the board offered—"incompetence" and "insubordination"—were vague, but everybody in the small agricultural community knew that Jones' heavy-handed grading had led to her dismissal.

During the 1990-91 school year, Jones had given 42 percent of her students F's and 21 percent D's. The next year, Sussex principal John McCarthy put Jones on an individual improvement plan designed to bring her failure rate into line with the other teachers in the school. Things improved—only 27 percent of her students failed that year—but not enough to make McCarthy happy.

The principal argued that the "negative" grades bruised kids' self-esteem and turned them off to math and school. He wanted Jones to grade on a curve and lean less heavily on quizzes and tests. He also suggested that Jones lower her expectations: If the kids weren't ready for Algebra II, she should teach Algebra I and a half. "When large percentages of kids fare poorly, good teachers go back, reteach, blame themselves, and say, 'I haven't done my job.'" he explained at the time. The bottom line: He wanted Jones to "improve" her students' grades.

But Jones, who had a reputation as a knowledgeable, dedicated teacher, wouldn't budge. Nor was she contrite. She believed that students should earn their grades. Those who took notes, did their homework, and stayed alert, she pointed out, passed her class. "I believe in hard work and don't accept excuses," she said.

Fed up, McCarthy recommended dismissal, and in the spring of 1993, the local school board voted 6 to 4 to fire Jones. When Sussex students and their parents heard the news, they were outraged. More than 300 students walked out of classes in protest, some carrying signs that read: "I failed Mrs. Jones' class, and it was my fault" and "Just because a student is failing doesn't mean the teacher is."

That's when the national news media caught wind of the story. The articles and reports were followed by stinging criticism, as columnists and other commentators blasted the Indian River district for failing to support Jones and her efforts to hold students accountable. To Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, what happened to Jones dramatically illustrated the need for national education standards. Without them, he said, teachers are at the mercy of fickle administrators and school boards. "Ms. Jones mistakenly thought that her job was to teach algebra and grade her students fairly, passing those who learned the material and failing those who did not," Shanker wrote. "The school board has set her straight on that."

With assistance from the Delaware affiliate of the National Education Association, Jones appealed her dismissal in superior court. In January 1994, Superior Judge T. Henley Graves ruled that the board had failed to review all the exhibits in the case before voting to dismiss Jones. He also declared that a board member whose children had earned poor grades from Jones should have recused himself from the vote. Graves ordered the Indian River board to revisit the Jones case.

On March 17, 1994, the board voted to reinstate the teacher they'd fired almost a year before. Asked recently to explain the reversal, Gregory Hastings, a longtime member of the Indian River board, declined to comment. But Jones' lawyer, Craig Karsnitz, believes the reversal was due to local pressure. "There was a tremendous amount of support to hold students accountable," he explains. "And the students made their feelings known. I had so many students call me up to say they would testify and help support her." It also helped that three new members had joined the board since the initial vote. All three voted for reinstatement.

Two weeks later, Jones returned to Sussex Central as a full-time teacher. About that time, she received a check from the district that included back pay for the time she had missed.

This year, Jones is teaching three 90-minute blocks of math at Sussex: two Algebra II courses and Applied Geometry. She likes what she's doing and has no plans to leave. John McCarthy was still principal when she first returned to her classroom, but he's since left for another job.

Although Jones continues to hold students to high standards, she says she doesn't "obsess" over grades. "It's about learning," she declares. Still, she admits that her students' grades are about the same as before she was fired, maybe a little better. She doesn't know for sure because she doesn't keep a tally.

Students only fail her class, she insists, if they sleep through it or just don't try. "I tell the children, 'You need to listen to me. You need to take notes, and you need to do your homework. You need to be responsible for yourselves and get in here before school for help when you need it.'"

—Meghan Mullan

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 23

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