The High Price of Failure
As Adele Jones winds up another shift waiting tables at the Lamp Post family restaurant, she pauses for a moment to read some new fan mail. The envelope is marked only with her name and the restaurant's, no address, but by now the postal service knows where to find her. Some letters just say "Adele Jones, Georgetown, Del.'' until late spring, Jones was a mathematics teacher at Georgetown's Sussex Central High School. Then her school district fired her and made her a celebrity. Correspondents for The Chicago Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor have written about her plight. Bookers for national newsmagazine shows and Donahue have called; so have television producers and a representative from Paramount Pictures. Letters of support have poured in from all over the country-- from Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington state.
The attention is gratifying, but what Jones would really like is to have her job back. She was fired, she says, because she gave too many students Ds and Fs in her Algebra II class. These grades distressed school administrators, who worried that they would damage students' self-esteem and turn them off to mathematics altogether. They blamed Jones, saying that the Ds and Fs--"negative grades,'' in their terminology--were evidence that she was an incompetent teacher.
Jones had a reputation for being a tough, dedicated teacher who expected a lot of her students. In return, she gave a lot of herself, arriving at school at 7:15 every morning and staying until 6 at night to tutor students who were having trouble in her class. So when she argued that she was fired because administrators were more concerned about making students feel good than educating them, people listened.
Jones, who is 33, grew up in Milford, Del., and has lived in the southern part of the state all of her life. Her family is here, and she has just built a new house that she hopes to keep. Ten years ago, after studying mathematics education at the University of Delaware, Jones took her first teaching job in Milford. A year later, she jumped to the Indian River School District, teaching at Indian River High School for six years before being transferred to Sussex Central.
Her troubles began in the fall of 1991, when she was put on an individual improvement plan designed to bring her student failure rate into line with the rest of the school's. Last school year, she taught under another improvement plan, but, by the spring, administrators had concluded that she should be dismissed. After three days of public testimony, a hearing officer agreed, finding that she was incompetent and insubordinate. On June 21, the school board voted 6-4 to fire the tenured teacher.
During the public hearing, district administrators submitted evidence showing that during the 1990-91 school year, 42 percent of Jones' students failed and another 21 percent earned Ds. The following year, things improved somewhat: 27 percent of her students failed and 26 percent got Ds. An analysis of the teacher's grades beginning in September 1990 showed that the percentage of students earning either Ds or Fs in any one marking period ranged from a low of 32 percent to a high of nearly 70 percent.
John McCarthy, principal of Sussex Central, makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like these negative grades. He believes they have all sorts of harmful effects on students, convincing them that they can't be successful in math and shouldn't try, making them feel like failures, and contributing to some students' decisions to drop out of school. Educators today, he asserts, are bending over backward to find ways to keep kids in school and engaged in what he calls "math learning.'' That includes motivating them, being "bat picker-uppers when kids strike out,'' and using positive, instead of negative, reinforcement.
At the hearing, the principal explained that his views weren't just his opinion but were based on research. "I could fill this room with research on how giving kids positive grades creates better learning and raises scores,'' he testified. "There isn't any research that says if you fail kids, they do better.''
Adele Jones just couldn't bring herself to do that, to "give'' students positive grades. She may be old-fashioned, but she believes that students should earn their grades. To do well in her class, she says, they had to learn to take notes and keep a notebook of math problems, to do homework every night, and to stay alert. Most kids who did that, she notes, passed the course.
As for calling Ds "negative grades,'' she begs to differ. "I've seen kids jump for joy to get a 70 in my class because they knew they had earned it,'' she says. "The shallow stuff, the pat on the back and feel good about yourself--I can see right through it, and the kids can see right through it, too.''
Jones' and McCarthy's different perspectives on education came to a head over the question of what Algebra II was all about. Jones says she viewed it as a college-preparatory course--the gateway to higher mathematics in college. "I believe in hard work and don't accept excuses,'' she says. "When students go to college with a credit for Algebra II, the college expects them to have learned those concepts. If they haven't, they may not be ready for pre-calculus.''
But McCarthy, who was a music teacher and a band director before becoming an administrator, views the subject as more fluid, something that might mean different things in different places. "Math is just a big body of knowledge; what is Algebra II across the nation, anyway?'' he asks. When he taught band, he adds, he certainly didn't expect kids to finish the year as musicians--but he did want them to know more about music than they knew before.
The students in Jones' Algebra II class were of average ability, not honors students. Because Delaware only requires two years of mathematics for high school graduation, McCarthy argues, schools must do everything possible to encourage such youngsters to study more than the required amount. Failing them in large numbers, he believes, does just the opposite. Between 35 percent and 50 percent of the graduates of Sussex Central typically go on to college, many of them to the local community college. But many people in the county didn't even graduate from high school, he says, particularly those over age 50.
In that context, he says, all the talk about preparing students for college struck him as "ludicrous.'' Instead, the goal should be to keep students studying math. "If they drop the class, they will stop their math learning,'' he says. "We can make a show to the public and tell kids they shouldn't be taking more math, or we can find out where they are in math and take them to a new place.''
Judging from the outpouring of interest in the case, though, many Americans agree with the mathematics teacher. They seem to have been particularly irritated by local administrators' belief that schools should set "unanxious expectations'' for students--a phrase borrowed from a leading education reform network.
"Setting lower standards in order to provide students with unanxious expectations is a farcical way to run a school,'' fumed a letter writer from Mesa, Ariz., "and it occurs to me is just the sort of reason why this country's state educational system is in the poor condition it is today.''
No one in Georgetown, a Colonial hamlet founded in 1791 as the seat of Sussex County, could have anticipated that the firing of a lone teacher would cause such an uproar. The county, known as "Delaware's Dixie,'' is an agricultural community where life moves slowly. At the heart of Georgetown is The Circle, ringed by an imposing redbrick county courthouse, the town hall, and family court. Every two years, people here observe a 200-year-old tradition called Return Day, gathering in George- town the day after an election for speeches, parades, music, and a feast of roasted ox.
In a community as small as George- town, people tend to know each other, and news travels fast. Word of Jones' firing came as a shock to students and teachers, few of whom knew that she had been working under an improvement plan for two years.
When the Sussex Central students heard that the teacher had been dismissed, many walked out of school in protest. Some carried hastily scrawled signs with impertinent slogans such as "I Failed Ms. Jones' Class and It Was My Fault'' and "Just Because a Student Is Failing Doesn't Mean the Teacher Is.''
From there, the ripples spread outward. Craig Karsnitz, Jones' lawyer, says he thinks people have reacted emotionally to the case because they harbor deep suspicions about the quality of public schools. The decision to fire Jones, says Karsnitz, who is being paid by the state affiliate of the National Education Association, only serves to confirm worries that schools are more interested in placating students than in educating them. "The sad thing is that Adele Jones' is an extreme case,'' he says, "but how many teachers are pressured and yield to that pressure either subtly or overtly?''
Leading educators have, of course, weighed in. To Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, what happened to Jones offers a dramatic illustration of why the United States needs national education standards. It is just too difficult, he notes, for teachers to fight against school boards, parents, and students who are satisfied with inflated grades.
"Ms. Jones mistakenly thought 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 in July. "The school board has set her straight on that.''
By voting to fire Jones, the school board members laid the blame for students' dismal grades squarely on her shoulders. Before the vote, however, they debated what signals terminating her would send.
Said board member Bruce Rogers: "I think the positive signal we're sending is we're concerned about the future of our children, and, when 60 percent of the children fail, there's something wrong. We can't have 60 percent of the kids that are incompetent all the time. So it's not 'Don't fail them'; it's 'Teach them so they will learn.' ''
But for board member Reginald Helms, balancing the expectations for teachers against those for students was harder to do. "We have read about self-esteem, and being successful, and positive feedback, and that's a wonderful thing,'' he mused. "But when do we say [to students], 'I'm sorry, you're just not performing up to expectations?' ''
McCarthy is particularly sensitive to how Sussex Central students are faring because he is working on a doctorate on "student outcomes,'' using data from his school. Every quarter, he prepares an analysis showing the school's overall grade distribution and the breakdown for individual teachers, which he then distributes to them. Typically, about 5 percent of the students in the school fail, he says, although in the mathematics department the numbers are usually higher, about 8 percent.
When a teacher is either passing or failing too many students--which McCarthy says has happened only about five times in his five years at the school--he holds a conference with the teacher. "We have to start asking, 'Am I teaching the materials correctly if a large number of students are failing?' '' he explains. "It might be that they're using a poor testing instrument or teaching way over students' heads.''
But the problem that kept cropping up with Jones' grades was unlike anything McCarthy had ever seen. There was reason to believe the teacher was the problem, he says, because most of the students who failed her classes were doing well in--or at least passing--their other subjects. And she had had similar problems with poor grades at Indian River High in 1989, when administrators had expressed "serious concern'' about the 48 percent failure rate for the second marking period.
The debate over Jones' teaching, McCarthy says, reminds him of the age-old question of whether you teach the book or teach the child. "Most modern-day educators would say you teach the child,'' he says.
What Jones should have done, McCarthy and other district administrators maintained, was to begin her instruction at "Algebra I and a half'' if her students weren't ready to plunge directly into Algebra II. "You take them where they are; that's part of teaching,'' he argues. "If you go back to Algebra I and a half, then in October or November you can start Algebra II.''
That notion struck Jones as wrongheaded at the time and still does. She wonders whether the school would be better off if, instead of watering down the Algebra II curriculum, teachers took a hard look at the Algebra I curriculum to make sure that students are prepared for the next level of difficulty. "It seems like we're going backward,'' she says. "It's hurting the kids.''
Administrators in the Indian River School District are aware that their schools aren't perfect. That's why Sussex Central has, for several years, been part of a statewide school reform project affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools. The coalition, founded by Theodore Sizer of Brown University, has developed nine "common principles'' for improving high schools. These principles-- and other goals developed by the Sussex Central faculty--are prominently displayed on posters tacked to the light-blue walls of the school.
In a nutshell, the principles say schools should focus on helping adolescents learn to use their minds well, that they should keep their goals simple and help students master essential skills and competencies in certain areas of knowledge. Teaching and learning should be personalized, with no teacher having responsibility for more than 80 students. The climate should be one of trust, decency, and "unanxious expectations,'' described as "I won't threaten you, but I expect much of you.'' To graduate, students should not just accumulate course credits but actually demonstrate mastery of central skills and knowledge. The "governing metaphor'' of the school should be student as worker rather than passive consumer, and teacher as coach rather than provider of instruction.
McCarthy is proud of his school's involvement in the statewide reform effort and notes that it has resulted in faculty members' forming leadership teams and committees and has prompted discussion of such topics as failure and dropout rates and students' self-esteem. Guest speakers have visited Sussex Central to talk about helping kids get back in the "fast lane'' and about how to use positive, rather than negative, reinforcement.
But while Sussex Central may have succeeded in not threatening its 900 students, it is not clear that high expectations have been conveyed to them. The principal doesn't seem troubled about reserving high standards for honors students. And his interpretation of the phrase "unanxious expectations,'' tied as it is to grades, doesn't jibe with Sizer's. What the aphorism is supposed to mean, Sizer says, is that schools must have high expectations for students but must also create a climate that allows them to tell their teachers when they don't understand something. Students aren't going to do high-level work, he maintains, unless they are in a setting that allows them to make mistakes and learn from them.
If students don't do the work, he adds, "they aren't going to learn anything, and we as teachers can stand on our hands. The kid has to do three-quarters of it. We're good for 25 percent.''
Rather than being viewed as workers, students at Sussex Central are talked about as if they are fragile eggs that will shatter without delicate handling. At the hearing last spring, McCarthy and Earl Quillen, the district's coordinator of instruction and supervisor of mathematics and science, left no doubt that they were very concerned about what students felt. What they actually knew was another matter.
"I have made it very clear that one of my goals is to decrease the failure rate, to make sure that kids feel good about learning, stay in class, stay in school, and do well,'' the principal testified. Students, he said, should "feel good about instruction, feel good about teaching and learning.''
Said Quillen: "If you improve student performance, you improve their self-esteem and also improve their grades and make them feel better.''
These attitudes struck Ann Mueller, chairwoman of the mathematics department, as lopsided at best. Certainly, they are out of sync with the Coalition of Essential Schools' idea that students should learn how to learn and teach themselves, coached by knowledgeable teachers. "The impression I got from the hearing,'' Mueller says, "is that kids are boxes, and it's our responsibility as a teacher to see how much we can stuff into that box, with no responsibility by the kids.''
"There is no student accountability, no student responsibility,'' Jones says, with no bitterness in her voice.
In their zeal to keep students in school and feeling good, Indian River administrators talk almost exclusively about teachers, apparently believing that their efforts alone can ensure this outcome. But on a breezy summer night in Rehoboth Beach, a popular Delaware resort town full of pizzerias, taffy stands, and discount stores, several of Jones' former students laugh at that idea. As they finish their jobs scooping ice cream and selling novelties, the students joke easily with Jones, who has come to the boardwalk with a reporter.
Kids who flunked Jones' class, says Norman Kennedy, a senior at Sussex Central, "were sleeping. They don't want to learn. They goof off, and they talk.
"When I first heard she was fired, I was so shocked,'' he adds. "There are so many teachers who are worse than her. We were hoping that she would help us with our trig this year.''
Says Steve Yakish, a senior who earned an A in Algebra II last year: "If you fail her class, it's either because you didn't pay attention, or you didn't care. You didn't have to do that much--just do your homework and pay attention.''
The worst part about the whole affair, in the view of Jodie Edwards, another senior, is the message the school administration is sending to students. Those, like Jodie, who did what Jones asked of them and succeeded, feel that their success has been cheapened. "All the principal talks about is making us feel good,'' she says, "but I feel better when I know I actually did it than when I'm just given an A. I've been in classes where I just sit there and pass with no problem. But she's the best math teacher I ever had. I actually learned something in her class, and I can remember it.''
Some students have become a bit cynical. "I guess the system wants to just pass kids to get them out,'' says Adrienne McNair, who graduated in June and is headed for college in North Carolina. "It's not fair.''
Even students who flunked Jones' class didn't have much to say for themselves. One student who testified at the hearing admitted that he had not put forth much effort. "I guess some of it could be attributed to a lack of study,'' said Walter Hall Jr., who graduated from the high school in 1992, "because I wasn't really, like, into the books hour after hour. But in the rest of my classes, I was doing fairly well, and it was only testing that gave me a problem.''
He added that his parents had wondered how he could be getting such good grades in most classes without studying.
Throughout the two years that Jones was on the improvement plan, administrators did not question her knowledge of the subject matter. The problem, they said, was that she didn't know how to teach it.
They based their recommendations for improvement on the "effective teaching model,'' a generic approach to presenting material to students developed by Madeline Hunter and other education gurus. They asked Jones to assess students at the beginning of the year so she would know what they knew. They advised her to use more "guided practice''--that is, to teach the class how to do a problem, help students solve one, and then gradually ease out of the lesson so students can work on their own. They recommended that she begin classes with "warm-up exercises'' to get the students thinking about mathematics and that she try cooperative learning. And they sent her to observe another mathematics teacher in the district.
What would really have helped, says Mueller, the math department chairwoman, is for the district to have purchased some up-to-date textbooks that contain the new methods and practices recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The ones now in use for algebra date from 1982 and don't contain the new techniques and approaches recommended by the council. Although the district has paid for Mueller to attend NCTM conferences, she complains that she does not have the money or support to purchase the materials and the training that teachers would need to put the ideas into practice.
After following her supervisors' instructions, Jones' students' grades improved somewhat. "I thought I had done what they wanted me to,'' she says, "but it was still not good enough.''
Unlike some other teachers at the school, Jones refused, on principle, to grade her students on a curve. She believed that students should be graded on what they had learned, not on what they had learned in comparison to what others had--or had not-- learned. In Algebra II, she based about 75 percent of students' grades on quizzes and tests, believing that they needed to get used to the grading method used in college, where professors don't care whether you come to class or keep a notebook.
But the night before spring break last school year, Jones cracked. When she calculated her final third quarter grades, she figured that 38 percent of her students would fail. Her job was on the line.
"She called and was crying and saying, 'What should I do about these grades?' '' Mueller recalls. "She decided to just pass everybody, to make them happy. She was torn up that night.''
Later, that emotional decision would come back to haunt her. David White, the Wilmington lawyer who presided over the public hearing, called Jones' admission that she had altered her third quarter grades "scandalous.''
"For a teacher to admit that she altered her grades in any proportion, let alone in such a staggering number as those in the third marking period, raises serious doubt about the very integrity of the public school system,'' he wrote. "I am convinced that the district did not simply ask Jones to change her grades or curve them as a means of demonstrating student success.''
Teachers here offer varying explanations for why so many of Jones' students failed. The mathematics department chairwoman, who taught honors Algebra II next door to Jones, blames the curriculum and placement of students in the class. Some lowertrack students spend two years on Algebra I and then enter Algebra II, along with students who completed Algebra I in one year. She says her complaints about the situation have gone unanswered for years. "They don't look for problems,'' Mueller says of administrators, "because if they see them, then they will have to deal with them.''
While Mueller never formally observed her colleague's class, she says the two often discussed teaching strategies and went over test questions together to make sure they reflected the material. She considered her colleague to be a good teacher. At least, she says, when Jones' students advanced to her classes, "they were whipped into shape. They knew they had to take notes.''
Gerald Peden, a veteran social studies teacher at Sussex Central, locates the fault in Jones' grading policies. His analysis of the problem shows how uneven the grading policies are at Sussex Central; each teacher has the academic freedom to devise his or her own method. Peden, who only bases 40 percent of students' grades on tests, maintains that if Jones had taken into account things such as projects and class participation--as he does--more of her students would have passed. In fact, he analyzed his own grade book and found that if he had weighted tests as heavily as she did, 67 percent of his students would have received Ds or Fs. "I thought she was doing a nice job,'' the social studies teacher says. "She was one of the hardest-working teachers in the building.''
The distressing news that Peden's students appeared to be faring no better on tests of their knowledge than Jones' caused a flurry at the hearings. McCarthy says, however, that he knocked a hole in Peden's theory by comparing the failure rates of all the math teachers who graded heavily on tests. Jones' students, he says, still failed in greater numbers. But Peden argues that many of those teachers may have curved their grades and says teachers often don't stick to the grading plans they submit to the principal's office.
The way district administrators handled Jones' case so distressed Peden, who was Delaware's teacher of the year in history in 1990 and in economics in 1991, that he quit his job. He has taken a new position teaching and coaching in nearby Cape Henlopen. If it is a teacher's fault when students fail, he wonders, isn't it the district's fault when teachers fail? "I firmly believe that they did not try to help her,'' he says.
All of the emphasis on bringing failure rates into line with the schoolwide average, coupled with the dismissal of Jones, has demoralized teachers at Sussex Central. "This is the most amazing thing I've ever observed in my whole life,'' Peden says. "Teachers have told me they are just giving grades now. To cave in and give grades would make it difficult for me to sleep at night, and she's the same type of person.''
Both Peden and Mueller insist that there are other teachers in the school district who fail more students than Jones did. One, in fact, is a mathematics teacher. Mueller points out these failure rates on the chart she keeps of all the mathematics teachers' grades. The principal says it may be true that other teachers failed as many students in one or two marking periods but that Jones had a persistent pattern of failing students year after year.
If some teachers at Sussex Central were just as tough as Jones on kids, others were perceived to be much easier. There is, for example, a geometry teacher named John Botto who taught students how to make tie-dyed T-shirts and homemade beer, showed a film of Alice in Wonderland, and took students out to the parking lot to learn how to jump-start a car. Botto, who says he is proud of his "creative flair'' in the classroom, explains that each exercise was designed to teach his students about the practical applications of math. "I do a lot of book stuff, too,'' the teacher says, "and I resent the fact that I'm getting a bad rap. I put a lot of time and energy into my courses, and I'm proud of what I do.''
While most teachers were reluctant to criticize a colleague, Jones will say that the geometry course made her job harder. "The kids, when they get in there, realize they don't have to work, and they slack off,'' she says. "It's a matter of getting back that work ethic.''
But McCarthy rejects the suggestion that students did not fare well in Jones' class because of what other teachers did or failed to do. "I consider those activities real good teaching,'' he says of Botto's lessons. "It's a cop-out to blame other teachers. You hear that all the time. Even if it is true, you don't punish the children for an adult problem.''
There are, of course, other possible explanations for Jones' dismissal. Her supporters wonder whether district administrators soured on her after she filed a grievance for being involuntarily transferred out of Indian River High School.
The issue of the grievance did not come up at the hearings, but the fact that the children of two school board members had not done well in her class did. And a special education teacher at Sussex Central testified that the assistant principal, Tim Buckmaster, had told her that he wanted to clean up the school, starting with Adele Jones. Buckmaster testified that he did not recall making that comment.
Finally, some people wonder if the fact that Jones has been dating an African-American man for years didn't have something to do with her troubles. Interracial relationships, they say, don't go over very well in this conservative county. Jones says she has no idea whether the relationship was held against her. "Knowing this is Sussex County,'' she says, "it could be.''
"There are some local issues,'' says Karsnitz, Jones' lawyer. "It is impossible for us to tell how much effect any of that had on this.''
The Delaware State Education Association has appealed Jones' case in the county Superior Court. Her dismissal can only be reversed, however, if the court determines that legal errors were made in the termination. Judges are prohibited under state law from considering the merits of the case, a prohibition the state teachers' union hopes to replace with legislation that would give tenured teachers the right to a new hearing.
Meanwhile, Jones plans to continue waiting tables and looking for a new job, possibly with a local business. Things could be worse, she jokes: She has received generous "pity tips'' at the Lamp Post restaurant.