Dear Educators: Please Don’t Go Down the Pity Pathway

The pity pathway starts when educators and parents aren't honest about how students are doing in school. It's easy for kids to get onto, and hard to get off.

I’m sitting at a table with my daughter’s sixth grade teachers, the middle school director and assistant director. I had asked for a quick conference, because she was at the midpoint of the year in a new school and I wanted to get a clear sense of how she was adjusting to what felt like a more rigorous learning environment. I didn’t want to be muddled. Armed with her latest grade report from the school’s online parent portal, I proceed to ask about her academic performance in class and on benchmark assessments.

But before any real data is presented, I’m pummeled with compliments on her behavior and willingness to help others. I stop the group — that’s all very nice, but I don’t need to hear about her behavior. I know my child behaves. That’s never been the issue. GIVE ME THE DATA!

We start with math: “Your daughter had one of the highest scores in sixth grade! We’re so excited about that. One thing you need to know is that our interim and benchmark tests can be kind of hard because they are nationally normed and don’t consider what the kids are learning locally.” Cue eye roll. I ask what her actual score was. Well, she scored in the 14th percentile. Meaning, more than 4 out of 5 students who took the test nationwide did better than she did. WTF!!!!?

Next, English: “Here are your child’s most recent test scores.” I review the document. Her Lexile level is low, and while I can’t pinpoint exactly how low in the moment, I know this score indicates that she did not experience any real growth at her old school. I know she is testing at least one grade level below.

I ask her teacher to tell me what Lexile range she should be reading at. The answer? “Well, she’s really not that far behind. All of her classmates are having similar difficulties.” Wrong answer! I ask again. After a few minutes, it is determined that not only is my child testing low, she’s testing roughly 2.5 grades below her level. After chatting with her other teachers with continued frustration, I leave the meeting feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

That was a few weeks ago. My frustrations don’t end with my own child. I work with the families of over 100 students in the New Orleans area. I’ve sat in similar conversations where the data is watered down and getting straight answers about how students are doing leave teachers feeling like they’re caught in the proverbial headlights, administrators wanting to know who I am to be “coming down on teachers like that,” and parents feeling like they are in class with Charlie Brown!

Here’s the problem. After meetings like this, the words parents walk away with aren’t words that spur action or concern. They hear “really well,” or “not that far behind,” or my personal favorite, “so much growth and progress.” These are words meant to keep people calm and feeling fine, because agitated parents are troublesome parents. And most of us are quick to accept those words, because hearing the harder ones means that work has to be done at school AND home.

This is a huge challenge, and my daughter is hardly the only one affected by it. Recently, I attended report card conferences at a local high school. As a Navigator, I support three students there, all from different families. Performance is all over the map for these kids but there were themes that applied to all of them, like basic lack of effort and poor time management skills. But the biggest common theme is pity grades. Students don’t earn grades below a 60 or 67 if they do at least some work. It could be totally wrong, but absolute failure is no longer an option. As such, there are lots of D’s on report cards. D’s are passing grades and will get a student promoted to the next grade or out of high school. It doesn’t matter if they are ready for the adult world anymore. These students were getting lots of pity grades.

Teachers tend to think that students like these are lazy or suffering from the normal hardships of high school life, but I disagree—their challenges started a long, long time ago.

The truth is, these issues began in kindergarten, when little Jimmy and Suzie were in class learning how to engage in school and learn at the same time. When their parents were told that, even though their children didn’t know all their alphabet sounds and sight words, they would be ok to go to first grade, where they should be able to catch up.

Now it’s third grade, and Jimmy can barely read and Suzie can read but not comprehend, but it’s ok, they are wonderful children and will be able to “close that gap” in fourth grade.

Now it’s sixth grade and Suzie and Jimmy aren’t very responsible and still are struggling to read, so actual books couldn’t possibly be sent home, so they should be ok with these photo copies. Don’t worry about those test scores; your child is doing fine, they are just a formality — your child is making A’s and B’s (sure, she failed two tests, but she is participating so well in class)!

Now it’s tenth grade, and neither Suzie nor Jimmy are very engaged in class. Their heads are down and eyes are glazed over in confusion and boredom. Their grades were curved so they wouldn’t truly fail (after all, we don’t want the situation to feel hopeless).

And now it’s time for graduation, and the only way for Suzie and Jimmy to go to college is to start with no-credit remediation classes at the community college or find a four-year university to enter under special admissions and high costs. All because expectations weren’t aligned or held as high as they should have been.

This is the pity pathway. It’s easy to slip onto and hard to get off. And that’s partly because there’s no one clearly to blame. Well-meaning educators clearly play a role, but parents aren’t absolved. Some of us don’t want to hear that our child is struggling any more than teachers want to deliver that news. And our kids don’t always do their part in putting forth the effort they need to or focusing as they should.

I’m working hard to right the past wrongs of my own inaction regarding my child’s educational experience while trying to not to feel ashamed that my struggles mirror the same struggles of the families I work with. It’s hard not to feel like I’m supposed to have it all together and do everything right. Making progress at this point feels like we’re chasing a ten-ton ball down a mountain when something more could have been done when it only weighed ten ounces back in first grade.

So, teachers and parents, how about this. Let’s all tell the absolute truth to each other and develop aligned plans to support our students. Let’s set the bar high and work diligently to meet it instead of low goals and expectations that perpetuate passing the buck to the next teacher. Balance trophies and certificates with scaffolded accountability measures and a real focus on whether kids are actually learning what they should.

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