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Being forced to pass a failing student
August 22, 2011 4:28 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: My boss is pressuring me to adjust a failing student's grade upwards because the student is from overseas. I don't think it's fair to falsify grades. Please advise.

I teach in an academic ESL program for international students and immigrants at a medium-sized community college. Recently the college has hosted a group of young men all from the same (wealthy) country, and promised them admission into a BA program. International students are a major source of income for the college.

To reach the next level, they need to get 60% in all four components of a 15 week term. One of the students received a 56% in my class, a 58% and a 59% in two others, and passed the fourth. The other two teachers upped his marks to a pass, leaving my class the only one he failed.

My supervisor is now putting a lot of pressure on me to change his mark to 60%. I was told that it would be so much easier if I just passed him. She's receiving pressure from her managers too.

I told my supervisor that it was a question of conscience for me and that the situation compromised our program's integrity. I have been advised (apparently from the dean's office) that I will change the mark, or there will be repercussions.

I'm sessional faculty working contract to contract, and not yet eligible for union membership. I've been working at the college for seven years, and teaching ESL for twelve years.
posted by scruss to Education (50 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
"... I have been advised (apparently from the dean's office) that I will change the mark, or there will be repercussions. ..."

You've apparently been told, as plainly as you are likely to be, that you can have either your ethics, or your job. Time to choose; I doubt there will be any other real basis for negotiation.
posted by paulsc at 4:34 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


The "apparantly from the dean's office" throws me. Did it come down from the dean's office or not? Either way, that's where I'd head. Go to the dean of academics or what-have-you, especially if the edict came from them, and talk about it. "This is what's going on, this is the pressure I'm getting, oh, by the way, what repercussions are we talking about?" Get the entire lay of the land. It's worth talking to your mentors about what social pressures are there as well, and getting advice from them (hopefully you have a mentor).

Once you have full knowledge of your options, it's time to decide. Maybe it's not an ethics-or-job choice, but maybe it is. Don't assume that's the choice without beign told so. That said, once you know what the choice is between, make a decision based on your values.
posted by craven_morhead at 4:37 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a teacher and have been in a similar situation before and not only does it totally suck, but it's becoming more and more common. Here's my bottom line: Is it worth the effort to fight it? Will the student learn something because of the failure?

If the answers to either or both questions are yes, then fight it. If you're in the US, ed code protects teachers and their right to have their grades unaltered. That's high school, so in college YMMV.

But also consider this - your friend may fight this and still end up having to change the grade in the end. If a longer-term contract is an option, then for the sake of her career she should probably just change it.

But I'd also register a complaint with whomever will listen and frame it to be about a service to the school that she made in the best interest of the students.

I'm sorry that this is my advice.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:38 PM on August 22, 2011


Offer middle-ground solution - ask the student to pass an extra test/exam/project/etc, and use that result to adjust grade accordingly. Still dislike the pressure being put on you, but at least you should have some level of validation behind why you did change grade (if you choose to).
posted by noahv at 4:40 PM on August 22, 2011 [14 favorites]


If your friend doesn't want to make waves, she should offer the student work to make up his grades. Have her sit with the student and help him if necessary. Learning isn't always about getting everything right the first time.

I feel for your friend, and I am very sorry she has found herself in this position.
posted by 200burritos at 4:42 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


BTW, if you're friend does choose having ethics over having a job, your friend can pursue a case with the school's state board, or academic accreditation body. Because there don't seem to be tuition loans involved and the students are foreign nationals, the grounds for such a case might be more limited in some areas, and broader in others, than they might be for students with different funding or citizenship backgrounds. In any event, such suits are at long odds of ultimate success, and some personal expense is likely, so your friend will need professional legal advice early on, but this may be a better route than totally swallowing their pride as an educator.
posted by paulsc at 4:51 PM on August 22, 2011


Is this worth losing her job over? This is an ultimatum on her now about this question. Sorry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:52 PM on August 22, 2011


I feel for your friend. Yes, this totally sucks and it is sad to have to endure pressure and ultimatums about grading. This also could be a case of "pick your battles" and the better part of wisdom might well be to extend very great leniency to this student.

I might excuse myself for such a decision on the ground I am not as attuned to the difficulties these students face for cultural reasons, nor would I be able to swear I had taught this particular student with such impeccable excellence that I couldn't give four points when his life might be much worse because I wouldn't.

That my own life would be worse, beginning with the next contract decision, if I don't see another side to this, seems certain.
posted by Anitanola at 5:16 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sessional faculty working contract to contract

In other words, if you would like your contract renewed, you'll change the grade. I'm sorry and it sucks and it is unethical and that is the way it is. (I'd change the grade, FWIW, and I'd do it graciously. This is not the ethical cross I would choose to die on.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:16 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is a 56% really any different than a 61%?

Maybe the question should be less about the line-in-the-sand and more about whether the student has passable english skills. If the student has atrocious english skills and there's no way the student is going to have a chance in hell in courses taught in english, then that is how your friend might pitch a counter-argument.

It also sounds like this issue of a few percentage points may drastically alter the course of this young person's life.

Over 4% in a community college ESL class!!



I think there is a lot to be said for sound judgement and some flexibility outweighing some rubrick that should more or less be an aid to judgement, not sit in place of it.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 5:16 PM on August 22, 2011 [8 favorites]


Lots of things aren't fair, and many of them can make grades a poor measure of anything that isn't fairly well arbitrary -- especially in small increments like the difference between a 56 and a 60. Family problems. Health troubles. Language (and, ahem, *cultural*; see: foreigner) difficulties.

Why is this hill worth dying on?
posted by J. Wilson at 5:17 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would look at it like this: is the student a passing student? Or is the 56% an accurate representation of his grasp of the subject? If he is bright and will probably go on to success, then fudge the grade. If not, stand the ground. There has got to be a level of management in that school that will back you up. Plead your case up as high as you need to.

I also look at it like this: yes, it's just a couple of percent. But for god's sake, the threshold is 60%! With such a low threshold, the cultural differences and yadda yadda yadda are already baked in.
posted by gjc at 5:25 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sometimes this is how the sausage gets made. It sucks, but I've seen much worse asked of teachers in similar situations. At least your friend isn't being asked to raise the grade to a C-.
posted by mosk at 5:27 PM on August 22, 2011


It's very likely that the Cultural Bureau of the wealthy country you refer to is putting pressure on the management of your friend's school to deliver on their promise (promise? Really?) that students will be admitted to a BA program. I work in the same highly competitive field as your friend, and the fact is that schools make a lot of unwise promises in order to ensure that they continue to attract students. However, I'm lucky enough to work at a school that promises only that students will get the grades they deserve.

Having said that, it sounds like a pretty clear-cut case of "change the grade and keep your job, or don't, and look for a job at a school with more integrity". I'll second craven-morehead, though, and suggest that your friend talk to the Dean first, so that the instructions, and who they come from, are as clear as can be.
posted by smilingtiger at 5:52 PM on August 22, 2011


I am absolutely disgusted by the rationalizations presented in this thread for taking a clearly unethical action. It doesn't matter whether it's only a few percentage points, it is totally unethical to raise the student's grade based on administrative pressure. The more people don't fight what is unethical, the more the powers that be raise the ante and feel they can request anything while threatening the loss of a job.

Your friend isn't a member of the teacher's union, but what about the other teachers who have raised the grades after being threatened? Might still be worth it to report this to the union. I'd also try to get something in writing, even if an email. Email is often viewed as somewhat informal, and people will sometimes discuss things in email that they would never put in an official snail mail letter. If your friend can get an email from the supervisor requesting her to raise the grade or else lose her job, to me this looks like a slam dunk. Take 'em to court.

This IS a hill worth dying on. If your friend caves to this pressure, she will be taking an unethical action, that is unfair to other students, probably not in the best interest of the student in question, and most definitely not conducive to your friend's own self-respect.
posted by parrot_person at 6:03 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wow, I'm really surprised at how many people are saying just to let this slide. In all honesty I'm not sure what I would do in a situation like this, but if your friend is looking for voices of support if he/she does plan on taking a stand, count me in. Sure, grading is more arbitrary than we'd like and yes, the difference between a 56% and a 60% might be small depending on your grading rubrik (then again, it might not) but it isn't like this person is getting Bs and Cs in every course but your friend's - he has legitimately passed only one course. I'm with gjc in assuming that the threshold is so low that it should already be accommodating for cultural differences and what-not.

I do realize times are tough, the economy and yadda yadda. I (think) I understand where people are coming from in saying just to hold your nose and pass this student. It does sound like you won't get re-signed if you don't pass this kid (it may, however, be worth considering whether you'll be rehired even now ... obviously we can't tell just from this question, but if you feel it's possible you've annoyed enough people by pushing back already that you're unlikely to be rehired, you might want to factor that into your decision). However, if you do end up making a stand, I hope you know that there are those of us who would cheer you on, and who would like to think, at least, that in looking back on this years from now you'll be happy to have made that stand.

(fwiw, I like craven_morhead's idea of talking to the Dean directly, if you can get on his/her calendar. Make sure it's clear what, exactly, you are being asked to do and by whom. Document, document, document - maybe you won't need it but then again, maybe it will be useful to have.)
posted by DingoMutt at 6:07 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


This happened to me a few years ago, and I bowed to the pressure. Soon afterwards, even higher up people saw the grade change and called me in to explain myself. I told them I had been ordered to change the grade, with a threat to my job. Of course the head of dept who had told me to do it then lied and said he'd never said any such thing, and acted shocked that I would change the grade.

Basically I got thrown under a bus.

If you change this grade, get the request to change it IN WRITING.

I have two other points to make:
1. the others are not doing the student any favours. The minimum English requirements for a university course are the MINIMUM. Even a student who legitimately gets a 60 will probably struggle. For anyone below that, it will be hell. (I teach a lot of ESL students in an academic degree and wow, it is hard for many of them, and they supposedly got in legitimately.) You probably already know this, but it's a point worth making to your boss if you get the chance.

2. If your classes are all testing roughly the same skills, you could think of his grades as averaging out to just above 58, even if his pass in the fourth is only exactly 60. Maybe that will be easier to stomach - changing a 58 to a 60 than changing a 56. And since he did worse in your class than all the others, is it possible that for whatever reason his work in your class is not a true representation of his abilities? Maybe you grade harder, or he is nervous in your class, or something else happened? (I don't actually believe any of that, necessarily, but it might be what your boss and colleagues are thinking, rather than deliberately trying to falsify anything.)
posted by lollusc at 6:15 PM on August 22, 2011 [12 favorites]


Has the student come in himself to talk to your friend about this? Did he make an effort to attend classes and other extra help sessions that your friend may have held? If he did and still struggled, I'd say pass him because at least he showed the effort and the courtesy that he really wanted to do better. Most professors at my university will bump you to a passing grade if he or the TA saw you working hard, going to every single problem session, office hour, etc.

If he didn't do any of that, then hell no! The mindset the student went into, given the promise of acceptance into a BA program, was to blow off the class in the first place and hope for something like this to happen. That is incredibly rude to your friend who is trying to teach the class. What makes him so special (besides the money factor) that he is entitled to this BA program anyway?
posted by astapasta24 at 6:23 PM on August 22, 2011


I am absolutely disgusted by the rationalizations presented in this thread for taking a clearly unethical action.

I think it's clearly unethical to prevent this student from having access to acquire a potentially valuable skillset over something so minor.

From my perspective, refusing to alter the grade would be subjugating major principles (will his performance in future classes suffer as a result of tremendously poor english skills) to minor ones (grades).

My read of this is that some due perspective is being forced into a situation where an instructor is making a poor decision.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 6:36 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am absolutely disgusted by the rationalizations presented in this thread for taking a clearly unethical action.

This is pretty harsh. Her livelihood is being threatened--the unethical action is being performed by the people pressuring her. There is nothing wrong with protecting your income (and your family if you have one.) I have personally been put in the position of doing things I wouldn't ordinarily do because of someone else's agenda and guess what? That is part of life.

That said, if your friend can't do this in good conscience and prioritizes that over job security I think that is a valid choice as well. It's really what is more important to her (there's no good right answer)--standing her ground or serving the needs of her superiors and maintaining good standing in her job.
posted by Kimberly at 6:54 PM on August 22, 2011


What a horrid situation! People need to look out for themselves first: if this job is keeping your friend afloat, she should do what she has to do to hold on to it.

But teachers at all levels deserve professional respect: when the person in the best position to judge says a student has not mastered the material, that determination must stand. Failing to reach even the very low standard of 60% is exactly that: failing. No fudging of grades is called for.

What I would do, as a concerned citizen, is make some calls to local newspapers and perhaps politicians, and tell them what's going on. The public needs to know that pressure is being put on instructors to falsify grades. People ought to be outraged by this, especially at a CC, because their taxes support it.
posted by philokalia at 6:56 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is not uncommon, unfortunately. The international student market is a huge business and many institutions rely on retaining that market for survival. The market is also incredibly competitive and there is pressure all up and down the org chart to do what it takes to attract students.

I've been in various awkward positions around this issue myself - as a marketing manager for an international college, I was under immense pressure to enrol students, as a part-time teacher, I have been 'encouraged' to change marks and, now, as a regulator, I hear all the stories about how important the industry is to the economy and how regulations are killing the industry by being too inflexible. I have some sympathy with all sides in this battle, but the decision in this case is, in the end, up to your friend's own conscience.

If I was in this situation, I would consider whether the student would be able to cope with the BA with ESL grades a few percent below the minimum. Don't think about a generic student - think about that particular student and make a judgement about whether you are confident the student can manage. Think seriously about how much that few percent is really going to change anything - would the student be significantly better equipped if he had attained that extra few percent? It's easy to quote ethics and say you'd never compromise when it isn't you facing unemployment as a result, but this can become a slippery slope, too.

I very much doubt that anything will be provided in writing telling you to change the grade. There is also a risk that this could come back to bite your friend if the student fails in the BA because he can't understand the material - blame will be apportioned and it could well land on your friend for passing the student and/or changing the grade. The best that your friend could do in this area would be to e-mail the supervisor who made the request, confirming that the instruction to change the grade would be carried out. This provides at least some proof that the change was requested should it come up later. The supervisor would have no option but to either reply that the grade is not to be changed or not reply and give implied consent. The supervisor may also see through this strategy and refuse to renew your friend's contract.

Would it be possible to offer to re-test the student to allow your friend to satisfy himself that the student has at least a reasonable chance of success in the BA? This may be preferable to simply changing the grade without justification and would definitely provide protection for your friend from later claims that the student failed in the BA because of your friend changing the grade where, if he had not done so, the student would never have been accepted.

I don't envy your friend in this, but it's a decision he will have to make again in the future, no doubt. There's no right or wrong in this - it's entirely a matter of what your friend can live with. If it was me, I'd probably change the grade, given the small change. Next time, when it's 10 or 20% below a passing grade, I'd have to re-think that. Decisions such as this need to be made on a case-by-case basis and are not as clear-cut as some would have you believe.
posted by dg at 6:59 PM on August 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


What do you consider your job as an educator?

Is 59% so different than 60%? Have you considered this ethical question from the point of view other than "60% is a passing grade because that is school policy, dammit!" or is there some other reason to think that on one side of a single point of difference is literally what separates mastery from lack of mastery?

Honestly, your job is to assess mastery. Numbers are just a tool to help you do that, but there's nothing sacred and inviolate about them that the should really be seen as some sort of moral certainty.

Is the guy working hard but ultimately struggling due to (a) anxiety, (b) learning disability, (c) any one of a host of factors? Has he demonstrated he grasps the concept but can't master the assessment? Is he just coasting through with a fuck off attitude because he knows the university is going to bat for him? Like, what's the specifics of the actual human being you're supposed to be educating? Because that should really be one of the considerations that ought to be coming up when you're approaching this situation.

Ultimately, however, if you're really being told - implicitly or explicitly - that it's play or walk, then you really only have once choice: Unless you think taking a moral stand is worth depriving hundreds of other student from the value I assume you bring to your classes.
posted by absalom at 7:01 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


i won't speak to the ethics, as that is a choice your friend has to make for themselves. i will, however, second the notion that your friend should speak with the highest person possible and get the request in writing before proceeding either way, and that it will be helpful to have a solid track record from the administration in writing (reviews etc) to back themselves up if there are "repercussions".

having said that: along with covering his/her backside, your friend should also remember that he/she is a teacher, and their purpose is to teach, not punish. extra credit, tutoring sessions, and/or an evaluation of progress should take place here, to help your friend determine if they know enough to move on or not. we have to draw lines in the sand (59% vs 60% for instance), but they are in sand because they are not intended to be absolute.
posted by davejay at 7:19 PM on August 22, 2011


If your friend had to choose between giving the student a 52% or a 60%, which would she pick as being most fair?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:27 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


[comment removed - please make your point without nazi analogies, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:40 PM on August 22, 2011


Clarifications/responses from my friend:
The student earned a lower mark in my course because he found writing the most difficult. Here are a few unedited lines of his work (the topic was to describe what is important to you, and he was discussing his family): "My mother and my sisters they are call me everyday for ask how are you? and when you are come back? I said, I will come in the Friday, they are very happy."

The student rarely did his homework, although he did attend some extra tutorials I organized. Part of the justification my boss gave me for having me change his mark is that he's going to be in a special class this fall and receive extra help to get him up to speed. Based on the sample above, I have my doubts but wish him well.

I do have the directive to change the mark in writing (e-mail) and voice-mail, as well as my three (polite) refusals. When I asked if I could have the student write an extra piece of work, my boss' response was "the student will not be asked to write another piece of writing."

As for the value I bring my students, I have received very favorable student evaluations. This semester one student said, "We were blessed to have you as our teacher."
posted by scruss at 7:42 PM on August 22, 2011


From my perspective, refusing to alter the grade would be subjugating major principles (will his performance in future classes suffer as a result of tremendously poor english skills) to minor ones (grades).

My read of this is that some due perspective is being forced into a situation where an instructor is making a poor decision.


We don't know the reason for the grade. Why are you assuming that it's because the student's English skills are lacking alone? Clearly the other students with the same non-English speaking background were able to pass the class without issue or negotiation. If you knew that it was because a student failed to hand in a non-trivial number of assignments, would you still feel the same way?

I've been in situations like these before. I chose my ethics. I'm a person of principle and would not be able to live with myself otherwise, employed or not. That might sound ridiculous and snooty, but it's what you do in situations like these that really determine who you are as a person.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:49 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think there's some good advice here already so I won't belabor the obvious. If I was in the situation, I would collect every piece of documentation I had regarding the students grade: my observations of the student, class attendance, performance, etc. Make sure you can solidly argue for the grade given. I would combine that with the contact you have requesting grade changes. I would take this file both to my Dean and the union representative (even though you aren't in the union yet). I would probably prefer to start with the union and then the Dean, but I would say both are pretty urgent. I'm not sure who exactly your boss is in this situation (a chair of a department, perhaps someone administrative?) but I would certainly be requesting a formal meeting with multiple chains of command present. As an educator, I would not change the grade, but your ethics may vary.
posted by quodlibet at 7:51 PM on August 22, 2011


she should offer the student work to make up his grades.

This doesn't make any sense. If the person is going to give this student special treatment to save their job, than just give them that damn grade. If it's unethical to change the grade; this is equally unethical unless this same opportunity would be given to any student.

If they don't want to risk their job, I totally get that and won't fault them for fixing the grade. But don't think these muddled middle path options solve the dilemma.
posted by spaltavian at 7:56 PM on August 22, 2011


Ah, I missed the update. They have documentation. Go as high up as you can with that. Destroy the supervisor.
posted by spaltavian at 7:58 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bitter ex-HS teacher here, and I would change the grade without a second thought. It isn't the first time and it won't be the last.

Here are ways of easing one's conscience:
--Look back at the student's subjectively-graded assignments (including things like in-class participation). Are there any places you could give him a couple of extra points without hating yourself -- places it was a borderline 4/5 and you went with the 4, e.g.? Regrade some old stuff and see what happens.
--As others have said, grades are imperfect measures of student understanding. If I have objective assignments and strict rubrics that I'm willing to live and die by, then yeah, no rounding; I'm confident that my grades are accurate to within a percentage point. But if my rubrics are less refined and my grading is less precise, then there's a margin of error built into the grade -- as in, I know the student gets between 52% and 60% of the material, so he gets the benefit of the doubt.

I think I've become a stricter grader over time, just so I'd feel less bad about rounding up at the end. Maybe I shouldn't be giving anyone advice.

Next semester, be super-proactive with kids from this program. At midterms and again just before finals, email the dean a list of which students are failing, why they're failing, and what specific things they need to do in order to pass. CC these students on the email and get their signatures on a paper copy. Later on, check in with these students to see their progress on this list and document that you had this conversation with them. If the student still fails, then maybe you have enough firepower to stand by your grades.
posted by sleepingcbw at 8:09 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The student earned a lower mark in my course because he found writing the most difficult. Here are a few unedited lines of his work (the topic was to describe what is important to you, and he was discussing his family): "My mother and my sisters they are call me everyday for ask how are you? and when you are come back? I said, I will come in the Friday, they are very happy."

I have taught English 101 courses, and I have had students turn in writing that reads exactly like that. Every time it happens I boggle at the chain of events that has landed this student in my classroom, so this question does shed some light on the matter. As the ENG 101 instructor it's very frustrating - I feel genuinely bad for these kids, but do not have the time or training necessary to bring their language skills up to the baseline level expected of a freshman English composition course. Every time this happens, I wonder why there weren't classes like yours to help bring them up to speed.

As the person who will get him next semester I would very much like to shake your hand if you do end up sticking with your initial grade. I'm not sure what kind of "special class" this student would be placed in next semester, but if he didn't get there with the four courses he's already taken it seems rather optimistic to assume this one extra class will do the trick. Moreover, I think you'll be doing this kid a favor: I have had to fail every one of the kids I've gotten who have turned in work of the quality you've shown here. Assuming your college requires him to pass one or more composition courses in order to receive his degree, passing him now only sets him up for failure (and yet more wasted time and money, if he or his family are paying for this schooling) in the very near future. I'm not intimately familiar with ESL standards or practices, but if it helps at all, I can assure you that the level of writing you have posted here - ESPECIALLY coming from a student who didn't even turn in all of his homework - would absolutely not be passable in English Composition 101 courses.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:11 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Why are you assuming that it's because the student's English skills are lacking alone?

Because it's an english-as-second-language class.

It appears, based on the update from the OP, that the student didn't do the homework. Which is new information, and it certainly moderates what I've said. Even so, it still feels to me like it's molehill-into-a-mountain territory.

My overall point is to suggest (note: suggest, not assert) that this could be more about perspective and less about ethics. Maybe it's not, maybe I'm wrong, maybe it's exactly the right hill to die on.

But I thought I would offer a perspective that I hadn't seen expressed up to that point.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 8:12 PM on August 22, 2011


Alright - with the update I'd say the same as spaltavian - the supervisor should go down for this...but if it came down to it, I would still be wary of losing my job over it, given the current job market.

The student sample isn't as bad as it probably seems - the verb tense errors are consistent (both involve gerunds, which are more difficult) and the prepositions are notoriously hard to master for ELL's (I know a lot of natve speakers who couldn't articulate the difference between "in the Friday" vs. "on Friday").
posted by guster4lovers at 8:12 PM on August 22, 2011


To me, the concern about having something in writing was mainly about being able to document why the grade was changed. If there is clear evidence that your friend was faced with a choice of changing the grade or losing his job, the decision is clear - change the grade or lose the job. If he tries to punish the supervisor, he can't win if that person has a say in renewal of contracts.

There may be some middle ground here, though. Change the grade, but forward the e-mails demanding the change further up the line, with a protest that your friend feels the institution has acted inappropriately and seeking guidance about whether this sort of thing is official policy. There is still some risk, but it might clarify future decisions (including whether your friend wants to continue to teach at an institution where commercial interests always trump educational standards).
posted by dg at 8:29 PM on August 22, 2011


I don't have a strong opinion on either side of the change-the-grade (or not) question, but there is a ton of bad advice and irrelevant moralizing in this thread — so I am just posting to insist that the teacher should rely on their own knowledge of both the institutional environment and the pedagogical merit of the case, rather than listening to any abstract discussion, especially from people who don't seem to know much about the rules, ethics, or politics of academic work.

A case like this needs to be decided with sensitivity to the actual likely consequences of either outcome, which we don't know nearly as well as the teacher does. For instance, to reiterate what DingoMutt and lollusc have already said: if the ESL course is serving as a real gatekeeper requirement and the student, if passed, is likely to be dumped into college-level courses without the ability to write passable English sentences, it's just setting the student up for failure a semester later, so this is a strong pedagogical reason for sticking with the failing grade — this student really does need to repeat the ESL before starting a college curriculum in English. But if other students of roughly similar competence, in the teacher's experience, have gone on to do okay, there's a lot less possible harm to tilt you toward making an issue of this. This is also true of the institutional context: does the teacher know if other teachers have been pressured in similar ways before? Does this supervisor, or this dean, have a reputation as an autocrat, or are they a reasonable person who'd be open to a serious face-to-face discussion? Does the teacher have a desire or a financial need to stay in this job long-term? Would the union be interested in hearing about this as a serious workplace problem despite the teacher's not being a current member?

Answers from Internet strangers are just not going to do a huge amount of good here, I don't think; even those of us who, unlike some above, know something about academic workplace politics don't know enough about the specifics of this case. This is both an ethical and pedagogical question and a pragmatic political one, and we don't know enough about either the magnitude of the pedagogical problem or the minefield of the institutional politics to be clear about the consequences of deciding either way. Apart from that, the best advice is definitely to document absolutely everything. Keep personal copies of all the emails you send and receive about this, and make a brief dated record of everything that gets said to you about it.
posted by RogerB at 9:07 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't change it. It's a 56, and judging from the sample of prose that you offered, it's a legitimate 56. There is a legitimate difference between eking out an extra point and this, which is pretty significantly a fail.

For all those who are waving their hands and crying "Why are you ruining this student's life over something as trival as ENGLISH!!?" might I point out that the student will be doing a BA with English as the language of instruction, and any student who writes "My mother and my sisters they are call me everyday for ask how are you?" does not have an adequate literacy level to understand, say, something important like an engineering text.

Comprehension of the language used in the classroom is not an optional extra.
posted by jrochest at 10:57 PM on August 22, 2011


Your friend is contingent labor in one of the environments most systematically abusive of contingent labor. I've taught in academic ESL programs, in more or less precisely the same context as is described. With the usurious tuition for these programs and the increasingly corporate mindset of higher ed, your friend is simply an obstructionist liability to the college/program. This sort of pressure will not change (and I predict it will get worse).

This is one of the big reasons I left academia.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:32 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is both an ethical and pedagogical question and a pragmatic political one, and we don't know enough about either the magnitude of the pedagogical problem or the minefield of the institutional politics to be clear about the consequences of deciding either way.
This is good advice*. Everything anyone has said here needs to be read through a filter of the specifics of the case that none of us know about.

* except I'll be a pedant and suggest that androgogy rather than pedagogy is the framework in question. Sorry.
posted by dg at 12:47 AM on August 23, 2011


even those of us who, unlike some above, know something about academic workplace politics don't know enough about the specifics of this case.

For the record, although I have no personal experience as a teacher, my mother taught Anatomy and Physiology at a community college for many years, and I had a front-row seat as she struggled with administrative policies and decisions, some of which were in this vein.

As for the "irrelevant moralizing", the question does not only ask for practical advice. The teacher is quoted as saying that it isn't "fair" to increase the grade, and is clearly concerned with the ethics of the situation.
posted by parrot_person at 1:07 AM on August 23, 2011


Your friend is contingent labor in one of the environments most systematically abusive of contingent labor. I've taught in academic ESL programs, in more or less precisely the same context as is described. With the usurious tuition for these programs and the increasingly corporate mindset of higher ed, your friend is simply an obstructionist liability to the college/program. This sort of pressure will not change (and I predict it will get worse).

This sort of pressure will not change if people don't stand up to it. And yes, it will get worse if administration finds that it can get away with anything it pleases with little resistance. If all four of this student's teachers presented a unified front against management (presuming that all four do indeed believe that this student should not be passed), maybe even with union backing, administration would have to sit up and take notice rather than continue steamrolling over teacher authority and student welfare.
posted by parrot_person at 1:14 AM on August 23, 2011


I hate myself for this, but I would groan inwardly when 'getting stuck' with an international student for group work. Makes me feel like a horrible racist person, but really, the problem is that the lack of English comprehension makes it hard for them to *comprehend* course work. I would find myself either correcting their part of the project so we didn't get a bad grade.

I also felt really sorry for the international students who were failing units regularly because of things like not understanding the question and answering it wrong, doing the wrong assignment, etc. Even in not-English classes, such as Spanish.

But hey, in the university's perspective the more times you retake a unit more $$ for them, right?

(I also see a trend (and have done this myself) where: if you don't understand, you don't show up, you don't do the homework- it's too hard.)

It is a worrying trend though if the grade bumping continues in the BA. There seems to be an expectation that you will get the degree you've paid lots of $$ for.

Rant: There seems to be a lot of unfair exploitation of international students: really high fees, no support, no concessions, and it seems like just throwing them in there without requiring the English they'll need to come out the other end.

So, if the world was perfect, the other three teachers wouldn't be bumping his grade either.
posted by titanium_geek at 1:39 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there any way your friend can make the case that the decision to make an exception for this kid should happen at a higher level, and thereby preserve the integrity of the grading system? Let him fail the course, and then let the dean of students or someone "waive a requirement" or "make an exception" and promote him into whatever program they "promised."

Probably not, I guess. It's the argument I use when coaches ask me to fake up grades for their athletes, and it tends to work, because they wouldn't ask a dean to do this. Good luck to your friend.
posted by egret at 1:53 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do it (but get it in writing). As a temporary employee you have no authority to make decisions on behalf of your college; this is entirely the dean's decision to make. I'm sure he's thinking that letting one student slip by won't tarnish the institution that much, and will lead to more international students, who will give you more money and ensure you don't all lose your jobs. But it doesn't matter what he's thinking. He represents the college, you do not.

A lot of engineering students speak next to zero English in their first year or two. I had four or five Chinese students last semester in intro CS who were at your students' level. They just bought copies of the textbook in Chinese, got lots of help from Chinese friends who knew English, messed up on the occasional question due to the language gap, and eventually earned A's in the class. I don't think that's terribly unusual.
posted by miyabo at 6:10 AM on August 23, 2011


I am not a lawyer.

First - Thank you for your question.
Second - Have you considered documenting the situation? Should you loose your job - perhaps you could go to the media? If you have anything in writing I would make copies.

Best of luck to you.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 6:37 AM on August 23, 2011


As a temporary employee you have no authority to make decisions on behalf of your college; this is entirely the dean's decision to make.

This is almost certainly untrue, and, were it the case, the Dean wouldn't even need the professor's permission to change the grade. A course instructor has every right to decide to fail a student, temporary employee or not.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:18 AM on August 23, 2011


I am not a lawyer, and am not an educator - however, as a university student who is (unfortunately) extremely privy to academic politics...

So she has already engaged in push-back, which means that she isn't giving up without some sort of resistance. This has ALSO flagged her as a "problem professor" - meaning should the administration engage in some not-so-morally-upstanding behaviour and expect faculty to participate, they can expect her to make noise about it. Either they'll try to get rid of her through a war of attrition, or they'll outright fire her (if they assess that doing so is worth the risk of drama exploding into the media). I guarantee you that her higher-ups will react this way eventually, because she's placed a HUGE target on her back. She needs to be prepared for this, and start creating a paper trail like it's her job. Also, be prepared for a potential blackball later on (I've also seen THAT happen after a professor was ousted pre-tenure).

Your friend has a few options. She can continue to stand her ground no matter what, thus preserving her sense of moral integrity. She can also retract her opposition to changing the student's grade, smooth it over with her superiors and act like resistance never happened, or she can quit. If this job is her primary source of income and she doesn't have a nest egg (especially one that will survive a blackball), I would choose the middle option.

But I am significantly more comfortable living in a state of moral grey than most, so take my advice as you may.
posted by Ashen at 12:33 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let him fail the course, and then let the dean of students or someone "waive a requirement" or "make an exception" and promote him into whatever program they "promised."

This is the correct way for this to happen. It is neither unethical nor uncommon for course or program prerequisites to be waived. It is both unethical and uncommon for a grade to be changed so that the prerequisites can be met. You are not standing in the way between this student and admission to the course. It is not your call.
posted by grouse at 12:55 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


'I'm not changing the grade. If there are any 'repercussions', then you'll be reading about them in the local paper.'
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:15 AM on August 24, 2011


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