Remaking the Grade: Teachers Allege Grade-Fixing at MPS

Rebecca Kellogg always wanted to be a teacher.

“It was my dream,” she said.  “My whole life, that’s what I wanted to be.  I was the oldest of four children, so I’ve always been in the teaching role, and I really like making a difference in children’s lives.”

She started her career as a handicapped children’s assistant, but after ten years, decided to go back to school and make her dream of becoming a teacher a reality.  In 2007, she began her teaching career at Manitoba School in Milwaukee before transferring to the Jeremiah Curtin Leadership Academy six years ago.

“I loved teaching at MPS. I loved the children, I loved Manitoba and I loved Jeremiah Curtin. All of the students there responded well to me and they were very respectful to me, so it was just a very good teaching experience.”

Until one day near the end of last school year, when Rebecca says something MPS pressured her to do so disgusted and disillusioned her that she quit her dream job as an 8th grade teacher and is now telling her story in the hope that no other teacher will face the same pressure that she did.

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“At the beginning of the year, the students signed a contract,” she explained.  “The contract is basically holding them to high expectations (as our school is a leadership academy and we hold all of our students to very high expectations.)  The contract states that if the students aren’t meeting those high expectations, they won’t be allowed to take part in the graduation ceremony. Now, they’re still allowed to graduate because all of our students graduate—I don’t think I’ve ever had a student not graduate—but they’re just not allowed to participate in the ceremony.  The ceremony is just basically walking across the stage, those sorts of things.”

Teachers and administrators agreed upon the graduation contract before the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year following chronic truancy problems among eighth grade students the year before.  The thinking, Rebecca explained, was that requiring attendance and basic completion of school work in order to participate in the ceremony would motivate students to come to class and turn in their homework.

For the most part, she said, it worked...save for one special education student, who is not being named to protect her identity.

“This student in particular kind of goofed all year, didn’t do her homework, lied to both her mother and myself that she was doing homework on her phone, but when we checked her phone we discovered that she was just text messaging her friends.

“The mother and I had been in contact all year, the mother understood that the child was not living up to those expectations, and at the end of the year when the final letters were going home [informing the mother that her daughter would not be participating in the graduation ceremony], the mother complained and said that she wanted her child to participate and said that her child was suicidal.”

Rebecca then said she asked the student if she really was suicidal and the student said she wasn’t and that she believed her mother was simply making that up so that she could take part in the graduation ceremony.

In spite of this, the mother persisted, contacting the school’s principal, Dr. Patricia Cifax, who then met with Rebecca.

“I stood my ground and I said that I didn’t want this child participating because it’s sending the wrong message to the other students,” Rebecca recalled.  “We had students who worked their butts off to make sure that they were a part of this ceremony because for them it was meaningful.

“The principal contacted the regional superintendent [Dr. Rosanna Mateo, Milwaukee Public Schools’ Southwest Region Superintendent], and the regional superintendent said that we would have to let the child walk across the stage because the mother said the child was suicidal and it would look bad for MPS if we had a suicidal student not participate and then commit suicide.

“MPS is very protective of their public persona.”

So protective, Rebecca alleged, that Dr. Mateo pressured her to change the student’s grades.

“At this same conversation with the principal and Dr. Mateo, it came up that they wanted to see her grades and see why she didn’t qualify for the contract.  So upon review of her grades, Dr. Mateo said ‘This is going to look bad for your school.’ When she said ‘this is going to look bad,’ she was referring to the special education student’s grades being at ‘minimal.’”

Under standards-based grading, which MPS employs, students are graded not on an A-through-F scale, but on whether they are able to demonstrate the knowledge and/or skills necessary to advance through a particular class or grade level.

They receive one of the following marks in each class: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or Minimal. These, in theory, reflect the student’s level of mastery of each subject or skill within each subject and serve as a better measure of student progress and achievement than traditional letter grades.

Still, these grades are used in state report cards and funding levels for individual schools and districts, so it is important that students maintain proficient or basic levels of performance. 

When Rebecca’s student didn’t, she claimed, it set off alarm bells for Dr. Mateo.

“And our principal backed that up and said ‘Our school is going to get dinged.’  ‘Dinged’ I’m assuming refers to the report card that Wisconsin has set up for each school; that special education students’ grades are reflected in this report card and it would look bad if our special education students are performing at a minimal level.

“I was requested to change grades, from Minimals to Basics.”

“Students,” she was told, “should not have Minimals in special education. The reasoning was not made clear other than it would look bad for our school.”

Rebecca was stunned.  An MPS regional superintendent was essentially ordering her to commit academic fraud.

“Our special education teacher was extremely upset because the principal and Dr. Mateo made it appear as if her job was at stake.  And because she was an excellent friend of mine, I did change the grades.  I was not happy changing the grades because it goes against everything, everything that I tried to instill in these children, but I did it.  I did change the grades.  I caved.”

Did she ever feel as though her job was at stake if she didn’t?

“I did not care at that point,” she said, starting to choke up.  “And that ultimately led to my resignation because once a teacher doesn’t care, there’s no point in being a teacher anymore.

“I can’t be part of a system that is broken.  Our mission for MPS is to start in MPS, stay in MPS, and succeed in MPS, but I don’t count success as a teacher changing a grade for you to be successful.”

More troublingly, Rebecca accused Dr. Mateo of pressuring her to change other students’ grades as well.

“Because the student was special ed and they looked at her grades, they also looked at all of the other special ed students in eighth grade.  I don’t know about seventh or sixth grade but eighth grade is the big year in our school because that’s when they go to high school.  So I ended a couple of students from Minimals to Basics—including a student who plagiarized every single thing she wrote.”

Rebecca said she was told in no uncertain terms that she needed to change the grades.

“They named the students and they named the standards in which they received the Minimals and they said ‘This is going to look bad for our school.’  Now they did not come out and tell me per se ‘You need to change these grades.’  They just kept reiterating ‘This is going to look bad for our school; we’re going to get dinged.’”

Once again, Rebecca knew what they meant, and knew what they wanted her to do.  And once again, she did it.  And she felt so terrible it, that in August she resigned.

“Three weeks later, stating that because I signed a contract, I was informed that I would be charged $2,000 because I wasn’t coming back this school year.”

In a final irony, Rebecca was being charged for breaking a contract because MPS didn’t hold her students to the contract that they had signed.

Neither her former principal, Dr. Cifax, nor the regional superintendent, Dr. Mateo responded to requests for comment, and Milwaukee Public Schools appeared to dismiss her claims in the statement it released:

We are not able to directly respond to a situation involving our staff without any evidence. However, MPS Administrative Policy clearly states, “No grade may be changed by anyone other than the teacher who issued the grade, except under extraordinary circumstances.”  

However, Rebecca does have evidence that the grades were changed, as she still has a spreadsheet she made of the grades she originally wanted to give her students—grades that obviously don’t match the grades the students ultimately received.

Any pressure to change them would indeed be a severe violation of the Administrative Policies of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The District referenced Administrative Policy 7.33(2)(a) in its statement, while Administrative Policy 6.07(2)(b) expressly prohibits the “falsification, unauthorized modification, or alteration of any District documents or records, including applications for employment, whether by omission or commission.”

 This policy is further codified in Part II, Section C of the Milwaukee Public Schools Employee Handbook, which outlines “Employee Rules of Conduct,” which includes identical language prohibiting the “falsification, unauthorized modification, or alteration of any District documents or records.”     

This policy is further codified in Part II, Section C of the Milwaukee Public Schools Employee Handbook, which outlines “Employee Rules of Conduct,” which includes identical language prohibiting the “falsification, unauthorized modification, or alteration of any District documents or records.”     

Yet a second MPS teacher, who has worked for years in both middle and high schools across the District, alleged that school administrators changed grades he submitted without ever consulting him.  The teacher, who still works in MPS, has requested that News/Talk 1130 WISN digitally alter his voice and give him the pseudonym “John” to protect him from retaliation for speaking out.

Last year, he taught a World History, a freshman-level social studies class.  In order to move on to the sophomore-level class, American History, students needed to pass John’s class.  If they didn’t, they needed to repeat World History the following year.

“Some of these freshman repeaters [in my class] barely showed up to class, barely did anything, but yet they still passed,” John explained.  “60% [in a class] is passing.  I had students that were at 57, 58% and I failed them but lo and behold the next year they were in the next class.  They had been passed through. [Their grades] had been bumped [so that they could move on].”

But if John didn’t pass the students, who did?  He said school administrators were the only other officials who would have had access to grades and the ability to change them without his knowledge or consent.

“I have no doubt in my mind, no doubt in my mind that school administration went in and for whatever reason, whether it was to show that people are passing or to get the kids moving,” he said.  “I know from working at MPS that all administration in the District are worried about data and passing rates and graduation rates and showing DPI [the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction] that they’re doing well on their report cards so that state funding can keep coming in.

“I know for a fact that this has happened throughout the District.  I’ve heard stories from friends who have said ‘It doesn’t really matter what you put in the grade book, Administration will go behind your back and change the grade.”

Despite these warnings, John was stunned when it happened to him.

“They didn’t pass the minimum requirement in the standards that I had put forth and that the state had put forth,” he said.  The state gives me the standards and I have to teach to those standards.  If they don’t show proficiency in those standards, they’re not meeting the qualifications.

“If they don’t meet the qualifications, they don’t meet the qualifications obviously and I can’t in my right mind pass them and knowing that they didn’t do this...and a lot of them didn’t do it because they didn’t show up or they didn’t turn in work.

“I remember a student who came for maybe a month out of the semester and barely did any work and yet the next year was in the next class.  I had failed him. Why is that? How did he get to advance his grade level?”

John believes it was because of grade-fixing--in this case outright fraud by administrators that left him both disillusioned and dispirited.

“It gives us a sense that we can’t do our jobs,” John explained.  “We’re there to educate the students and provide them with a quality education and they come in like they don’t even need to come in [to pass].  We feel powerless, we really do.  We don’t feel empowered at al.  We feel like we don’t have any say in what goes on.  If we give a student a grade and we think it’s going to stick, well, it may not. 

“And for those students, they’re not dumb; they’re smart.  They get that they understand that ‘Hey, you know what? I may not have to show up a whole lot but I can still pass.’”

“I went into teaching with the goal of instilling responsibility in students, of making students want to love education,” Rebecca added.  “And I thought MPS was the perfect platform for that because I could take students who before didn’t like school and make them love school.

“I’ve had students and their parents come to me and say that ‘My child used to hate school until they got into your class and now they love it.’  It made me feel like not powerful but that I’m making a difference in the world.  And now, to have somebody ask me to just disregard everything I’m trying to teach these children and just go change their grade, it’s just disheartening and just makes me not want to teach anymore because out of every success story that I have, I’m always going to remember that one child whose grade I changed—or had to change—and it just puts a tarnish on it.”         

Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media often overlooks. Read more

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