Superintendent DeMaria and the “kids who don’t care”

Getty Images/Sam Edwards

As part of the most recent state budget, Ohio lawmakers created alternative graduation pathways for the class of 2018 in response to widespread fears on the part of district administrators that too many students would fail to pass the seven End Of Course (EOC) tests that are administered during high school in the four core subjects.

We at Fordham strongly opposed this move because we believe it will hurt students in the long run. We weren’t the only ones who questioned it. Nevertheless, the alternative pathways became law. Recently, State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria indicated that objections such as ours were not well founded.  Specifically, he told reporters:

The students who aren’t going to do well in college and in the workforce are those who don’t take their education seriously and a GPA increasingly both in research and in practice has been shown to be a far better indicator of a student’s readiness for college success and frankly for workforce success than any standardized test.

Whether, when, and how GPAs may be a better indicator of readiness than standardized tests is a subject for a different day. Let’s focus instead on the Superintendent’s assertion that students who aren’t doing well in college are those who “don’t take their education seriously.”

Yes, there’s a grain of truth here. Those who don’t work hard or flat out don’t care about their education are likely to struggle in school, in college, and well beyond. The greatest teacher on the planet cannot force an unwilling student to learn. But it’s wrong to go from that reality to the suggestion that every Ohio kid who struggles academically or in a job just didn’t take education seriously. Dr. DeMaria is a smart and caring fellow who surely understands that it’s not always lack of will on the kid’s part.

I taught high schoolers. I can still recite the names of those who looked me in the eye and told me they didn’t care about school or about what was happening in my class. But that list is far, far shorter than the number of kids I taught who cared deeply about their education but still failed my class, the state test, or both. They didn’t fail because they didn’t care. They failed because they read at the fourth-grade level in ninth grade, and while they may have made two years of growth in my class, that still didn’t bring them up to grade level. They failed because the school system had failed to educate them before they got to my class. Many were kids who worked hard, participated with enthusiasm, and didn’t cause trouble. Their previous teachers felt bad about failing them (and heaven forbid schools retain them) even though they hadn’t learned what they needed to learn in order to be ready for the next grade. Good kids. Well-meaning teachers. Ineffectual instruction.

Some of the students who failed my class or the state EOC arrived with straight As. Many turned in their homework every day and hung on every word I said in class. Some came in for tutoring after school, before school, and on Saturday. Do you know how hard it is to get teenagers to come to school if they don’t have to be there? They don’t come unless they care. I taught hundreds of students during my teaching career, and I can say one thing with complete and utter certainty: The vast majority of my students cared profoundly about their education and their future.

I didn’t teach in Ohio, but I doubt that Buckeye kids are much different from those I taught. I’m willing to wager that there are thousands of students across this state who care deeply about their educational success, even if they haven’t experienced much of it. But just like my students, these students have been passed from grade to grade because they show up and behave well and because they participate and turn in their homework. They get good grades, but they fail their state tests. Many of these students have probably come to the conclusion that state tests don’t actually matter. Why should they care about a score report they get once a year when the report cards they get four times a year say they’re doing okay?

But then they get to college and get pushed into remediation instead of credit-bearing courses. Or they get out into the workforce and aren’t sure how to write an email or read a technical manual or calculate percentages. Their boss is unhappy, or their professors are unimpressed, and they feel both overwhelmed and betrayed. They probably end up asking a version of the question that I was repeatedly asked by students during my teaching career: How did I perform this poorly when I got all As?   

I taught in high-poverty urban schools. But those aren’t the only places where students get high grades and GPAs that don’t necessarily match their achievement. A recent article in The Atlantic examined research on grade inflation and found that students enrolled in private and suburban public high schools are awarded higher grades than their urban peers despite similar levels of talent and potential. In fact, between 1998 and 2016, the grade point averages of students at private high schools and suburban public high schools went up even as scores on the SAT went down.

Yes, kids have a responsibility to take learning seriously. But so do the adults who are charged with making sure that they learn and are held to a high standard of achievement. Those adults include legislators who recently punted on the future of some of those kids. Those adults also include the State Superintendent. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.