• by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1996 • Dr. Abelardo Villarreal

Johnny comes in and talks about how hard Mr. Sabelotodo is in class. He tells his friends that Mr. Sabelotodo is proud of the fact that he doesn’t allow any “bum” to graduate from that high school. All students have to take Mr. Sabelotodo’s class, and he will never allow irresponsible students to “tarnish” the good name and reputation of this high school. Mr. Sabelotodo is convinced that the nationwide low performance of schools is the result of teachers who make it easy for students. He comes from the school of “hard knocks” and believes that students must work hard for their grades. Many students just like Johnny are the victims of well­intentioned teachers who feel their responsibility is to “save the world.”

My experience in working with high schools all over the state tells me that in every high school there are some teachers who think this way to the detriment of many students. This is not meant to be an indictment of all teachers who flunk some students. Many times we do get students who, even after genuine attempts by the teacher to help them, they still fail to “come through.”

The over­representation of minority students in the percentage of students who fail is unsettling and requires close scrutiny. In its report, The State Report on Grade Level Retention of Students as of October 1992, the Texas Education Agency claims that even though ethnic minority students comprise approximately 50 percent of the ninth grade student population in Texas, 75 percent of students repeating the ninth grade were minority (1993). The probability is high that similar situations exist when in individual classrooms with high failure rates.

Are high schools who fail a large percentage of students quality schools? If we measure “quality” by the level of difficulty and insensitivity that students experience in the classrooms, then a high failure rate will definitely be a sign of a quality teacher or school. When asked for reasons to explain the large failure rates, many teachers cite reasons that revolve around the students’ inability to cope with the demands of the courses they are teaching. Blaming the victim – they never do their homework, they play in class, they couldn’t care less – has become the modus operandi.

In a survey, “Schools and Staffing Survey, 1990­91” conducted by the National Center for Education Studies, teachers were asked about teaching and school conditions. They were asked to agree or disagree with a list of statements including three student­focused statements. The survey results revealed that 64.3 percent of secondary teachers felt that “attitudes and habits my students bring to my class greatly reduce their chances of academic success;” 25.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “many of the students I teach are not capable of learning the material I am supposed to teach them;” and 36.2 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “level of student misbehavior in this school interferes with my teaching” (U.S. Department of Education, 1995)

IDRA’s founder and director emeritus, Dr. José A. Cárdenas, cites the Massachusetts Board of Education study published in 1990 that identifies assumptions that schools make in supporting a retention policy. One of the assumptions was, “Schools that retain high numbers of students are effective schools because they have high standards for academic achievement, thus ensuring the value of the district’s high school diploma” (1995). Cárdenas also summarizes research that suggests the opposite:

  • No evidence suggests that students in high­retaining schools fare better academically than students in lower­retaining schools. The average standardized achievement test scores in schools with little or no retention are equal to those of high­retaining schools.
  • Students who are retained in grade have an increased chance of dropping out of school; thus high­retaining schools probably have higher dropout rates than do low­retaining schools.
  • Promotional “gate” tests (or basing promotion on passing a standardized test) may merely result in the inappropriate retention of students, rather than raising overall academic achievement.
  • Grade retention may in fact be a practice that discriminates according to socio­economic background, race and language.
  • Grade retention is costly and ineffective practice of addressing the problem of low­achieving students.

I have also witnessed quality teaching in teachers who do not fail any students, but challenge them to “rise to the occasion.” Quality is defined in the literature as schools that do the following (Robledo Montecel, et al., 1989).

  • Have a vision and promote academic success for all students;
  • Encourage participation of students, staff and parents in curriculum decision making;
  • Create systems for peer encouragement in the classroom and support mutual validation by students;
  • Measure improvement using both achievement and learning;
  • Use multiple criteria for assessing achievement and learning;
  • Vary instruction, limit the use of rote learning and expand multisensory activities;
  • Employ teachers who consider themselves responsible for student learning;
  • Create an accountability system with input from parents, students and teachers that delineates responsibility for student learning; and
  • Implement evaluation strategies that monitor learning processes and outcomes.

When I read the definition of quality, I feel reassured that we are moving in the right direction. Our schools must remain the hope of a better future for all citizens of this great democracy. The role of the school is to make successful learners of all students regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or ability.

Therefore, teachers with high percentages of student failures become a challenge to school administrators. R.G. Stabile cautions us that in trying to address this challenge, e must be ready to face the fact that “teachers and administrators who fail lots of kids are more likely to respond to your questions with righteous indignation than sober reflection” (1989). His list of defensive strategies that may be used include:

Your probing will be labeled an insult to hard working teachers everywhere. You’ll be accused of not caring about standards, of caving in to student and parent pressure for political reasons. You’ll be charged with not understanding the burdens teachers bear of wanting to pass kids along and give them worthless diplomas (Stabile, 1989).

Recognizing that this problem, if not addressed in a cautious manner, can have serious repercussions in terms of overall student achievement and faculty­administrator relationships. A useful process for school administrators to use in solving a problem that manifests itself in high student failure rates is depicted in the box above.

Before initiating a process to address this issue, I have witnessed the usefulness of campus administrators selecting a task force to look at the issue of high failure rates in the campus. This task force must include parents, administrators and teachers representing the wide spectrum of disciplines in the campus.

Step 1: When should we get concerned?

When 10 or more percent of students fail the class or when the ratio of minority students failing the class exceeds the ratio of minority to non­-minority in the class are such instances. Participants in the task force should respond to two major questions:

  • How does the campus define “failure” as it relates to school performance?
  • What number or percentages constitute a high enough failure rate for teachers that we must get concerned?

My experience with a group of administrators who participated in this process shows that even a 10 percent failure rate in a classroom should be sufficient reason to question. However, after extensive discussions, they reached a decision to establish 20 percent as the point when school administrators must seriously assess the situation and intervene. In addition, further disaggregation of the data must be made to find out the number of minority students who failed. Is the ratio of minority to non­minority equal to the ratio in the class? Any discrepancy shall be sufficient reason to consider this factor in the decision.

Step 2: What is the classroom performance assessment of the teachers in question?

These teachers usually are evaluated periodically and maintain a file with all assessments. Administrators must study these assessments to establish teachers’ performance on the following indicators:

  • Establish and communicate high expectations to all students.
  • Maximize use of academic learning time.
  • Provide regular feedback and reinforcement.
  • Use appropriate instructional materials, methods and approaches.
  • Closely monitor student progress.
  • Recognize and reward academic excellence.

Once administrators are convinced that the teacher meets classroom performance expectations, they must visit with the teacher to explore reasons for the high student failure rate. Make a “force­field” analysis to determine forces that hinder and foster student achievement in that class. Encourage teachers to promote the fostering forces and neutralize the hindering forces, monitor student achievement and discuss progress at the end of the ensuing three weeks.

Step 3: What is the root of the problem?

After administrators have established how classroom performance of these teachers ranges from satisfactory to unsatisfactory, the next task is to take a more serious look at the root of the problem. Why are these teachers consistently failing students? Two questions emerge: What is the root of the problem as these teachers perceive it? What factors should be considered in defining the root of the problem? Some of the independent factors that contribute to the problem may be:

  • Inconsistent grading procedures at the department level creating an unfair grading system for students;
  • Low teacher expectations on students’ ability to succeed academically; and
  • Lack of an accountability system that makes teachers, students and parents accountable for the teaching and learning that occurs in school and at home.

The task force should elaborate on how these and other factors contribute to a high failure rate and propose short­ and long­term measures to address this issue.

Step 4: What measures should we plan for teachers whose classroom performance assessment is not satisfactory or who consistently have a high failure rate?

The task force considers long­term measures that address the three major factors listed above. The campus implements professional development activities that address students’ high expectations and teachers’ low expectations of students and provides activities that address the diverse learning needs of students.

In defining failure, another issue emerges: how consistent are grading procedures among teachers in the campus and particularly among teachers in the same discipline. This “spin­off” issue can prompt the creation of task forces within disciplines to begin the grading alignment movement. The box below shows an example of a structure that can be employed to address this issue.

I wish to extend special thanks to Mr. Richard Marquez, Dr. Velma Villegas and all secondary school principals from the Harlandale Independent School District who provided “food for thought” in the development of this process. Their knowledge, sensitivity and experience were invaluable.

The issue of high student failure rates is critical. It must be addressed immediately, and must be addressed consistently across the school district. The challenge is tough, but the rewards can have a re­energizing effect on parents, students and teachers as a whole.

[See also A Structure to Assist Teachers with High Failure Rates ]


Cárdenas, José A. “Massachusetts Focuses on Grade Retention,” Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy. (Needham Heights, Mass: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995) pp. 345­352.

Robledo Montecel, María, and Aurelio Montemayor and Armando Trujillo. Successful Schooling for Economically Disadvantaged At­Risk Youth. (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency, 1989).

Stabile, R.G. “Whose Fault is Student Failure?” The American School Board Journal. (January 1989) pp. 28­29.

Texas Education Agency. The State Report on Grade Level Retention of Students as of October 1992. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, May 1993) pg. 20.

US Department of Education. Digest of Education Statistics, 1995. (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, October 1995) pg. 32.

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. He has just returned to IDRA after a one­year sabbatical during which he served as the director of secondary curriculum for the Harlandale Independent School District in San Antonio. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]