Strive for A's Not D's

Our schools need to promote higher standards. LAUSD should and can become a leader in the country of a movement to move kids towards true college readiness.
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Superintendent John Deasy this week announced plans to adjust pre-approved changes to the graduation standards for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the country. This choice partially delays a brave plan LAUSD school board members passed in 2005 to raise graduation standards. Intended to go into effect next school year, the LAUSD school board graduation plan would have made it necessary for LAUSD students to take the required classes to make it four year public colleges, which includes raising the passing grade from a D to a C.

Earlier this week Deasy introduced a plan that would allow students to continue to receive D's on their transcripts for one additional year while reducing the credits to graduate from 230 to 160. While he keeps the college readiness standards, I believe his basic plans are flawed.

Academic scholar Mike Rose famously wrote, "Students will float to the mark you set." With D's in the teacher arsenal, they allow students to float near the bottom. With lower units to graduate, many other students will float at the bottom because failure will become a viable option as they can spend significant time during the school year repeating core classes rather than advancing.

Many brave school districts and charter schools around the country are eliminating D's, requiring college readiness standards, and pushing kids to take more rather than fewer units to graduate. Their students are doing better. They are not dropping out. They are not repeating classes multiple times. They are going to college.

In high schools across California, when students receive D's in core college readiness classes, they can graduate from high school. However, they cannot qualify for any of our public four year colleges for two reasons. None accept D's in core college readiness class, and all have minimum GPA standards. Moreover, to qualify for the University of California system, they must also complete 11 out of 15 required college readiness classes by the end of 11th grade. Truly competitive students take more the 15 classes, including honors and AP classes.

Currently, college readiness among LAUSD students is dismal. Less than 50% of seniors take the required college readiness classes to qualify for a public four year university in California. Even worse, only 15% of students who started in 9th grade and made it to graduation last year qualified for admissions to a University of California or California State University campus.

One of the major reasons is the huge prevalence of D's.

The D is a grade I've never quite understood. If students do enough work to get a D, then how hard is it for the teacher and student to work towards a C? If they do so little work that they get a D, then don't they truly deserve an F? At least with an F, they are forced to retake a class.

Yet for one more year D's will become a default grade for thousands upon thousands of teachers and students.

I meet LAUSD kids all the time who have received many D's. They are so much smarter than these grades. Some are happy with these grades, while others want to remake their records. Yet in these tough economic times, they have limited ways to make up these grades. Because of severe budgets, LAUSD has cut summer school for most students and has proposed severe cuts to other ways kids can remediate their grades-including adult school and online courses.

Moreover, budget cuts have led to significant counseling cuts throughout the district, state, and country. When I visited several high schools in March to promote college access, I met schools with limited resources to help kids make it to four year colleges. They help students graduate but stop there for the majority of students.

Sadly, a high school diploma is no longer enough to help most students make a decent living. There are fewer and fewer jobs available where high school graduates can receive living wages, career advancement, and benefits. Unemployment rates for these students are staggering. Additionally, research shows California's economy needs 100,000 more college graduates every year to make our economy more viable. Finally, community colleges in California are increasingly challenging places for students with low GPAs to make it through to AA degrees or four year colleges.

To help decrease the high school dropout and college readiness rates, Deasy should be focusing on increasing rigor in academic instruction. Rather than embedding it into the school day, he should be emphasizing multiple paths towards academic remediation, including support classes, smaller class sizes, tutoring, and summer and adult school. He should be increasing not decreasing intensive academic and college counseling in schools.

Our schools need to promote higher standards. LAUSD should and can become a leader in the country of a movement to move kids towards true college readiness. Keeping D's in place for an additional year and cutting core services allows the low bar to remain in place, and in my mind, is more indicative of the grade the Superintendent should receive for his current efforts.

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