“Too Good To Be True” Proves to be False

On June 29th NPR broadcast a remarkable story to the nation, the “feel good” tale of a struggling high school in Washington, DC.  The 4-minute story breathlessly asserted, “While in the previous year only 3% of students could meet the city-wide performance standards in reading, this year every single senior–all 191 of them–has been accepted into college!”  Moreover, the piece reported that 164 of 191 seniors at Ballou Senior High school had earned diplomas, meaning that, in just one year, the school had raised its graduation rate from 57% to better than 85%.   As Kate McGee of member station WAMU reported:

So how did this dream become a reality? It started with a pledge from the class of 2017 when they were just juniors looking ahead to their final year of high school.

But it was a strong support system within D.C. Public Schools that made it a reality. For months and months, staff tracked students’ success, often working side-by-side with them in the school library on college applications, often encouraging them to apply to schools where data show D.C. students perform well.

The reporter tacked on two disturbing facts at the end of the piece, one of which contains a highly misleading internal contradiction, calling all seniors ‘graduates‘ while acknowledging that 26 of these ‘graduates‘ had not done the work necessary to earn diplomas. (The punctuation error in the print version doesn’t help matters).

More than a quarter of the teaching staff quit before the end of the school year — that’s not usually a good sign. And out of the nearly 200 graduates, 26, are still working toward their high school graduation — hoping to earn their diploma in August.  

The reporter did not explain why so many teachers had left, nor did she dig into the school’s boast about 100% admission to college.   An obvious question–How do 26 students who haven’t yet graduated from high school get admitted to college? Which colleges accept non-graduates?–were apparently not asked, and we were not told whether any local colleges automatically accept everyone with a high school diploma.

A quick visit to the website of the University of the District of Columbia reveals that “All students who have earned a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent are eligible for admission to the Community College.”   One wonders how many Ballou seniors had been accepted there.  After all, how much does that 100% mean if a lot of students have been accepted by a college that accepts everyone?  And the reporter might also have followed up by asking how 26 non-graduates got college acceptances.  How does that work?

What’s more, given that Ballou High School is in the District of Columbia, a school district that has been plagued by years of academic corruption, the reporter and her editor(s) ought to have approached this story with heightened skepticism.

(Because context matters, it’s worth noting that The Washington Post had reported two months earlier that all Ballou seniors were applying to college, a first.  So apparently this was a simple “Let’s follow up and find out how many get accepted” kind of story and not a more skeptical “Will colleges accept students from a school where 95% cannot pass the city exam?” approach.)

The cliché, “When something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t,” applies to this story, big time, and five months later, on November 30th, NPR walked back the story with this editor’s note.

Since this story was originally published, we’ve done additional reporting. We spoke with 11 current and recent Ballou teachers and four recent Ballou graduates, and we reviewed hundreds of attendance documents, class rosters and emails. They show that many students graduated despite chronic absenteeism. Records show half the graduates missed more than three months of school, or 60 days.

NPR could as easily have said, “Whoops, we got just about everything wrong the first time around,” because, sadly, it did.  In the new report (which runs for nearly 8 minutes), listeners were told, ”

We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.  According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. 

After the piece aired, I was told, quite a few listeners were upset and angry about what they felt was an incomplete story.  At least one person, a school district employee, leaked documents revealing just how badly NPR had missed the mark.  Here’s how NPR explained it:

An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.

Because the devil is in the details, this longer excerpt is worthy of attention. It reveals just how low administrators were willing to go.

“It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was,” says (history teacher Brian) Butcher.

WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers — as well as four recent graduates — who tell the same story: Teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.

“It’s oppressive to the kids because you’re giving them a false sense of success,” says one current Ballou teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.

“To not prepare them is not ethical,” says another current Ballou teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It’s rumored that certain administrators filled out and submitted college applications for students who had no interest in attending. They were then called to the office and told to sign the applications….all in the name of achieving that 100% success rate. NPR’s follow up report, which is a 1000% improvement, still does not include an important fact: The University of the District of Columbia, accepts all DC high school graduates.

“They’re not prepared to succeed,” says Morgan Williams, who taught health and physical education at Ballou last year. Williams says the lack of expectations set up students for future failure: “If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?”

Williams taught physical education and health at Ballou for two years. She says her students were often chronically absent, but the gym was always full. Students skipping other classes would congregate there, she says, and her requests for help from administrators and behavioral staff to manage these students were often ignored.

Williams, and other teachers we spoke to for this story, say they often had students on their rosters whom they barely knew because they almost never attended class.

The NPR report provides shocking numbers: One-fifth of seniors missed more than 90 days of classes, and one-half missed 60 days.  District policy calls for automatically failing any student who misses more than 30 days of classes.

Near the end of a term, Williams says, students would appear, asking for makeup work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse: There are policies, and if students did not meet the attendance policy, there was nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would also ask how she could help students pass.

At one point, while she was out on maternity leave, she says, she received a call from a school official asking her to change a grade for a student she had previously failed. “[They said] ‘Just give him a D,’ because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn’t do the makeup packet.”

Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. And the school required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.

Many teachers we spoke to say they were encouraged to also follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn’t complete, instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than a 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.

It’s at this point that the highly suspect–and widely popular–scheme known as “Credit Recovery” raised its ugly head at Ballou.  Typically, “Credit Recovery” entails spending about a week in front of a computer, responding to prompts.  The usual outcome for this effort is a full semester’s credit!

During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren’t on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held after school for a few weeks. School district policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, though, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice. Sometimes, with two different teachers. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids.

Whistle-blowing was apparently not an option.  If teachers pushed back against these practices, they told NPR, the administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations.

“Going along” was the best way to get ahead in a system that hires, fires and promotes teachers based largely on student performance. Playing the game has financial benefits. If an evaluation score reaches the “highly effective” mark, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses.  While the NPR report did not include information about bonuses at Ballou, the local NBC station did, in its follow-up story: “Last school year, 15 teachers at Ballou received bonuses of $20,000 to $25,000, a school district spokeswoman said. Additionally, six administrators received bonuses of as much as $2,000, sources said.”  NPR did report that three teachers it interviewed lost their jobs at Ballou, perhaps because they protested against changing grades.

In their detailed report, NPR also explored the lessons that students may have learned from this broken approach.

Many students have figured out they don’t have to show up every day.  “These students are smart enough to see enough of what goes on,” (music teacher Monica)  Brokenborough says. “They go, ‘Oh, I ain’t gotta do no work in your class; I can just go over here, do a little PowerPoint, pass and graduate.’ Again, this isn’t about the teachers. What is that doing to that child? That’s setting that kid up for failure just so you can showboat you got this graduation rate.”


Could that be true?  NPR spoke to several graduates, one of whom related this tale.

“I came to school when I wanted to,” she says. “I didn’t have to be there; I didn’t want to be there.”  …   While she says she got calls and letters from the school about her absences, she wouldn’t show up until they threatened to send her to court for truancy. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, let me go to school.'”

Further evidence that the 100% college acceptance story is bogus comes from academic results.  Only 9% of seniors were able to pass the city’s English test, and not a single student passed the math test.  The average SAT score for Ballou test-takers was 782 out of a possible 1600.

This disgraceful approach to schooling does widespread damage beyond what is obviously done to kids who receive phony diplomas but no real education, and to teachers who are pressured to pass students who haven’t done the work.  One teacher told NPR,  “This is [the] biggest way to keep a community down. To graduate students who aren’t qualified, send them off to college unprepared, so they return to the community to continue the cycle.”

What happened to the 26 students who had been accepted into college but didn’t have enough credits to graduate from Ballou, as the original story reported?  Did they graduate?  NPR doesn’t tell us, but apparently they did not make it.  According to the school district’s website, Ballou’s graduation rate in 2017 was 64%, an increase of just 7% from 2016.   Here something is definitely fishy, because NPR’s follow-up report maintains that 164 Ballou seniors received diplomas in June, while 26 did not.  That’s 190 students.  Mathematically, however, a graduation rate of 64% entails a senior class of 256 students, far more than reported.

Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves refused to speak to the reporter, but she did interview new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and Jane Spence, chief of D.C. secondary schools.  When the reporter asked how so many students could miss all these days of school and still graduate, “Wilson and Spence abruptly ended our interview.”  Later the administrators told NPR that “they stand behind the school’s decision to graduate these students despite missing so much school.”

The NPR report prompted DC’s Mayor to call for an investigation. A few days later, on December 4th, the school system removed Ballou’s principal and reassigned her to “another function in the District.”  The District City Council has scheduled a hearing for December 15th.

I am not writing this to criticize NPR for missing the story** the first time around. I did that myself more than once in my 41-year career, and I was late in recognizing the flaws in Michelle Rhee’s ‘test scores are everything’ approach in Washington.  Her wrong-headed strategy is, arguably, responsible for the mind-set that exists at Ballou today.

Here’s what really matters: the Ballou fiasco is the bitter fruit of the ‘School Reform’ movement that continues to dominate educational practice in most school districts today.  These (faux) reformers continue to support policies and practices that basically reduce children to a single number, their scores on standardized, machine-scored tests.  This approach has led to a diminished curriculum, drill-and-kill schooling, buckets of money leaving the schools and going instead to testing companies and outside consultants, the growth of charter schools (many run by profiteers), and a drumbeat of criticism from ideologues who seem determined to break apart and ruin public education, rather than attempt to reinvent it.

(This approach also once again proves the truth of Campbell’s Law, the more importance  given to a single measure, the greater the probability that it will be corrupted.  When test scores rule education, some people cheat.  And when high school graduation rates rule, people also find ways to cheat.

The dominance of these (faux) reformers throughout both the Bush and Obama Administrations is the reason I wrote “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (reviewed here).  It needs rescuing from these folks, and soon……


** Readers of the original post will notice that I have expanded the piece internally and made a correction in the opening graf. All 190 seniors had not actually graduated, as I stated, but all have been accepted into college.  I apologize for the error.  The blatant discrepancy–some haven’t graduated but have been accepted into college–should have been the hook for the piece, as I see it.  That screams for an explanation, and I am baffled that the reporters and editors involved did not go down that road.

I should add that I get no pleasure out of criticizing NPR, which is a national treasure and also where I began my own reporting career. I was there from 1974-1982, the very early days when we often had to explain to people that we were “just like public television, PBS, but without pictures.” In those days, car radios did not receive FM stations, where most NPR stations could be found, and it was a huge victory when President Frank Mankiewicz and his team persuaded Congress that FM ought to be in car radios. I was also there when NPR’s subsequent hubris led to a revolt by local stations led by Minnesota Public Radio that culminated in the creation of a rival, American Public Radio.  Many of my fondest memories are of those days, and some former colleagues are still at it, bless them.  Today we wake up to “Morning Edition,” never miss “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and catch “Radio Lab,” “This American Life,” and “All Things Considered” as often as time allows.

12 thoughts on ““Too Good To Be True” Proves to be False

  1. Sadly, this kind of thing is not new. When I was a young teacher, I taught on a Native American reservation. I was often pressured to change grades for students who had turned in no work at all, or who had rarely attended class. I discovered to my dismay that sometimes the administration changed students’ grades without my permission or knowledge. Back then I was told that we had to do this because otherwise the students’ self-esteem would be damaged. I said then, and I say to the pre-service teacher I teach now, this was one of the most ugly forms of racism I’ve encountered as it, in essence, says, “Oh, those poor Native Americans. They really can’t do it so we need to make them feel good in spite of this deficiency.” People cringe when it is put that way, as well they should! Now I am a college professor and I still have students (pre-service teachers) tell me how, in their high schools (from diverse settings), at least some students were moved along in this fashion. No matter when or why it happens, it is not a favor to the students. On the other hand, I understand the pressures put on principals to make their schools look good — I was a principal for more than a decade. However, this is the advice I gave the faculty of those schools, and the advice I pass along now: if we make schools inviting places where we genuinely believe and work to help students succeed, test scores and public perception fall into place. Cheating by changing grades or doing things to just look good makes everyone losers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this illuminating anecdote that illustrates how long this has been going on, and how pervasive. I agree that the practice is, to its core, deeply racist. We reported on this back in the mid-80’s in a piece for PBS called “Failing Forward.” We showed how one HS in Oakland pushed 100’s of kids to their diplomas by changing grades, giving kids academic credit for distributing memos and running errands, and lowering the bar so that the only kids who flunked were those who NEVER came to class. Come to class and do nothing–that’s a D. Come to class and maybe say a word or two even though you haven’t read the assignments–that’s a C-. And so forth.
      But I believe the solution requires a paradigm shift: Students as workers with knowledge as the product instead of today’s model of teachers as workers and kids as the product. It’s time to look at every child and ask ‘How is she intelligent?’ instead of ‘How intelligent is she?’ I hope you will take a look at my book.


      • I have read your books and followed your reporting for years. I generally find you spot on and eagerly await your next post or story or book.

        The paradigm shift from “how intelligent is she” to “how is she intelligent” is another way of saying what I try to get pre-service teachers to understand: teachers must believe, to their core, that all students can succeed.
        Of course, I do not know of any teacher alive who would say they disagree with that statement, however actions speak louder than words. I have observed many, many teachers who demonstrate they do not actually believe that. They describe students as “from that family”, or “she’s my LD student”, or a myriad other statements that add up to “This kid won’t make it.”

        It has got to change!


  2. While this probably is more frequently found in low-income, predominantly minority student schools, it happens in other ways in other places, too. As an adjunct professor in a local university’s School of Education, I reported a grade of “D” to a student in a class that was a prerequisite to student teaching. She fought me on it, and she, the university, and I came up with a compromise that if she did the work the following term I would give her that grade – which might allow her to continue the path. During the second go-around, she actually plagiarized the work! That should have automatically meant a failing grade. The student’s father threatened suing the university. To avoid legal costs, the university ‘suggested’ I change the grade – actually left me no choice but to change it. I bet this happens frequently around the country. Schools (and other places) give in to avoid legal costs.


  3. Mary (not her real name), a student with special needs, graduated from my middle school, went to high school for three years and dropped out per her older sister who raised her. Many of my former middle school students were graduating that year so I attended the ceremony to show them support. To my surprise, low and behold there goes Mary, walking across the stage receiving a full diploma. That was not only unethical as it was designed to make the school look good, it was illegal under special education laws. But it was daily practice. Of course, graduation rates go up if you can pull off this scam.


  4. Thanks for writing this up, John. However, I fear that you are too kind to the folks at NPR who perpetuated the miracle at Ballou storyline and too harsh on the folks in DCPS and education reform who seek to improve on a public education system that had not done well by many kids for many decades before reform ever came along.

    Here’s my take on the Ballou coverage from last week’s newsletter, in case any of your readers might be interested: http://www.kappanonline.org/icymi-newcomers-supersizing-education-coverage-really-happened-ballou-high-school-best-week/

    — Alexander Russo


    • I received a phone call last night from one of the two reporters responsible for the Ballou reporting. She told me that I had made a factual error in my opening sentence and that she–and NPR–stand by the original piece, which, she said, contains no errors. She was partially correct. I did assert that 100% of seniors had graduated, which is wrong. I was thrown off by the story’s phrase, “And out of the nearly 200 graduates…”, and overlooked the contradiction that followed about 26 not yet having earned their diplomas.
      But it’s that blatant statement that should have alerted the reporters that something was amiss, and, frankly, that makes the original journalism even worse than I originally thought. NPR should not be defensive about this. Instead, I think it should admit that the original piece did not meet its own internal standards.

      And while the reporter may be literally correct in saying that the piece does not contain any factual errors, it leaves out the real story. It would be like reporting that President and Mrs. Lincoln thoroughly enjoyed the first act of “The American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865….and then saying nothing more about the evening.

      However, I disagree that I was too tough on DC schools. Those faux reform efforts have hurt many more children than they have helped, and that so many people in power insist on celebrating DC’s results is a disgrace, in my opinion. Administrators who are comfortable pushing failing students through and filling in college applications for students who have no interest in going are only doing what the system rewards them for doing. That’s what people need to understand….and change.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. All education “miracle” reports should be assumed to be BS unless extremely aggressive triple-checking on every detail — by journalists who thoroughly understand every detail and every confounding factor, not generalists parachuting in without a clue — confirms them. I say this as a longtime skeptical follower of education “reform” “miracles” and a seasoned newsroom journalist. I agree with Alexander that the NPR journalists deserve a forceful smacking around for being so gullible. So do all journalists who fall for this kind of crap and hype.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Aren’t most people accepted to college before they graduate high school? I for instance was accepted early admission in December 1987, but I didn’t graduate high school until June 1988. Granted, there was little doubt that I would fulfill the graduation requirements.

    Anyway, the original NPR piece was such an utterly shameful piece of “journalism” they should be out of business. Not understanding why people are so enthusiastic about the latter piece, considering it doesn’t even admit to the previous piece and the errors therein.


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