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Anatomy of a Grievance: Being Asked to Change Students' Grades

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The day after I submit grades for the first marking period of the year, I get a visit from the assistant principal. She walks into my classroom carrying a huge stack of forms.

"You're going to have to change all of the failing grades to passing," she says, slapping the papers on my desk.

Dallas Independent School District, Grade Correction Form, the heading reads.

"What?" I ask.

"You're going to have to change the grades. Too many failed."

I had heard that kids were promoted without proper skills, but I hadn't expected to see the sham up close, and so soon. I hadn't expected to be ordered to participate in it. I had been a middle school English teacher for three weeks, the second half of the first grading period. The children had a string of substitutes for the first half. No viable grades or evaluations were left for me, probably because none could be taken with so many people floating in and out of the classroom.

Soon after I arrived on campus, I was instructed to give a test worth 15 percent of the grade and a project worth 20. I could not give a test after just two and a half weeks. It would take the students, seventh-graders, about six to settle down. I suggest some other means of evaluation, or even no evaluation. It was not the kids' fault that six people taught the class during those first six weeks. They could have figured a rabbit would show up next. No, I am told firmly, I will have to give the test and project.

I teach what I can. I write a test. It's pretty easy, and I prepare the kids for it for days. Three-quarters of them fail.

The project is something the department head creates, and the rest of us have to duplicate it. Write about someone who is important in your life and draw pictures, paste photographs, show and tell. I pare the assignment down to one paragraph, and one photo, if at all possible. I notice that there are packages of colored construction paper and markers in a cabinet, so I hand them out. I devote two days of class to the very important project. Of my 64 students, 14 turn in the assignment. I give the students three extra days to complete it, right up to the minute that grades are due in the computer. I get 14, that's it.

"Ms. Johnson," I say, outraged. "I gave the required assignments, and they failed."

"It doesn't matter. When in doubt, just give them the 70. It's so much easier," she says, smiling. "Here are the forms. Get them to me by Friday."

I write an email to the principal, and Ms. Johnson, stating that I will not put my name on a legal document that is fraudulent, let alone supportive of a policy that pretends students are successful when they are not. The students earned the grades, as did the ones who did not fail. I know to save the forms.

Later, I look up "when teachers are asked to change grades in Texas," and hit upon the Texas Education Agency Code, which clearly states that administrators may not request that a teacher alter grades when they have been given according to district standards.

The next day, I am ordered to attend a meeting in the principal's office. I bring a union representative with me. The principal tries to throw the union rep out of the office, but caves in when she suggests he call the NEA attorney, instead. It is possible that the two fine educators have plans to fire me right then, until the union person makes herself comfortable at the principal's oval table. They give me a "new assignment." They take away my 64 students, sending their schedules into disarray, without warning. The kids find me in my classroom, asking questions. They are confused, rebellious. They write statements of protest on the board. They send petitions to the administration. They had just begun to feel secure in the class.

The principals divvy up the students and add them to the other English classes, raising their rosters by nearly 12. I am assigned 25 ESL students with limited English. I am not an ESL teacher. The other teachers raid my room for desks, acting funny. I tell them to send anyone to my class, whenever they need to. I am ejected from the English department, prevented from attending meetings or receiving information and materials from the other teachers, and am no longer part of a seventh-grade team. I am de-teamed. A planning period is taken away. I am directed to sit with the band teacher at a faculty meeting. I wear the scarlet F, for Failer. I am energized.

I guess my supervisors at the middle school were used to intimidating teachers into doing things that are unconscionable. There is a very clear administration-teacher schism at this place, with aggressive tactics for keeping track of and punishing infractions -- "Omissions of Opportunity," they are called. There are 800 of them. If they spot you doing something wrong, they put an "Omission of Opportunity" form in your mailbox and make you sign it. They didn't realize that stumbling on illegalities such as altering grades for purposes of inflating passing records, i.e. passing records that reap federal funds, is the kind of thing that gets me going. A chance to expose outright dishonesty and abuse, where children are sacrificed for the jobs of adults? Manna from heaven.

I file a grievance.

I collect 25 pieces of evidence, including incriminating emails, dated photographs of my desolate classroom (it was four days before the ESL kids arrived), and the actual grade-changing forms, which are accessible, by the way, only to administrators. I report to the appointed district office and am given 30 minutes to tell my story to the district's attorney, employee relations witness and Ms. Johnson, who is required to sit quietly.

"Since when is it ever a good thing to increase class size?" I ask them.

"How would I have gotten these forms if a principal hadn't given them to me? I don't even have loose leaf paper in my classroom. Or a pencil sharpener."

The employee relations person shakes her head.

"How would I know that I had the most failures, 49, of any teacher in the school, if an administrator hadn't told me? Who loses here? Is it me, or is it the kids?"

It was an open and shut case, I knew, as a practicing non-attorney. Easy peasy.

Ms. Johnson smacked gum like a kid in, well, the principal's office. She swiveled in the swivel chair. Guilty. Caught red-handed.

A month later, I receive the decision in the mail. The district has found that "the Dallas Independent School District did not act in an arbitrary, capricious or unlawful matter... the claim is without merit." I can drop the case or pursue the next step. I pursue the next step, realizing that the steps could be as phony as the grades, and the denial of any grade-changing. A chain of lies. And the process looks so democratic. So, here I go, again. I'm sure that by the time I get the next set of findings, I'll be one of 4,000 teachers fired due to budget cuts. Or more likely, for something more exciting. Stay tuned.