WHEN school begins this fall, math teacher Adele Jones will not be returning to her classroom. She has been fired for failing too many of her students.
School officials "don't like kids to fail. They like kids to feel good about themselves," says Ms. Jones, who taught at Sussex Central High School in Georgetown, Del. She acknowledges that it took work to pass her classes. "You had to study. You had to do your homework. You had to pay attention in class," Jones says. "I think the kids knew that I was tough but fair." During the 1991-92 academic year, 27 percent of her students failed. And 42 percent failed the year before.
No one questions that Jones was a hard-working teacher who arrived early and stayed late to give her students extra help. And math proficiency test scores went up after Jones began teaching at Sussex Central three years ago.
"Everybody was shocked [by the firing]," says Robert Kichline, a teacher at Sussex Central. "We think Adele is one of the better teachers in the school. She's not afraid to make the students work for their grades."
When the district's intention to fire Jones came out in April, about 350 students staged a walk-out. Some carried signs proclaiming: "I Failed Ms. Jones' Class, and It Was My Fault" or "Just Because a Student Is Failing Doesn't Mean the Teacher Is." But administrators in Delaware's Indian River School District say student outcome is a measure of teacher success, and only an incompetent teacher could fail so many students.
Charles Hudson, superintendent of the district, says Jones's failure rate had "nothing whatsoever" to do with her dismissal. Adele Jones "was fired because she was incompetent," he says. "We're talking about effective instruction and student learning."
BUT during a hearing on the case, the district argued that Jones gave too many "negative grades," defined as D's and F's. After the three-day hearing, the school board voted 6 to 4 to make Jones's termination final. All but five of the school's tenured teachers signed a letter calling the firing "an injustice and travesty."
Mr. Kichline says there is real pressure on teachers in the school district to curve grades. "Teachers get pressure from the administration and parents to make sure that their kids pass," he says. "There's pressure for going to college. There's pressure for playing sports."
Both Jones and Kichline say that school administrators regularly circulated comparisons of teacher failure rates. "At the end of every marking period, we would get a summary of what grades you had given, and what grades the overall school had given," Jones says. "Your failure rate was circled."
School board members and administrators both told Jones she should adjust her instruction to the level of her students in order to bring her failure rate in line with the school average. Jones taught Algebra II, which is required for college-bound students. She was told to evaluate her students' level and teach "Algebra I-1/2," if that was necessary for students to pass.
"That statement really bothers me," Kichline says. "When colleges look at a kid's transcript and it says Algebra II on it, they are expecting that student to be able to do certain things."
But the broader message is even more dangerous, Kichline says. "I'm afraid about what we're teaching the students: Just sit back and things will come your way. You don't have to work for things anymore."
Jones has appealed her case to the Delaware state superior court. But it could take a year for a decision, her lawyer says. Meanwhile, Jones is looking for a job.