Do over?

By Jane Weinkrantz


    When I was in elementary school and even junior high school, sometimes when kids played games, they would yell, “Do over!” and be granted a second chance at whatever it was they were attempting. However, do-overs were not considered the mark of a mature competitor. As we grew, the do-over was abandoned and we learned to live with the results of whatever our imperfect efforts had wrought. Children of a certain age who called, “Do over!” were subject to the derision of their peers and to being called babies. Some years later, I found out there were do-overs for grown-ups when President Clinton was criticized for taking too many mulligans at golf, presumably a sign of weak character and immaturity.

   Therefore, I was surprised to read that the Dallas school district is offering a sort of mulligan of the mind, an academic do-over wherein students who do poorly on tests can simply take them over again.  Specifically, a student who fails a test may take the same test over again within five days. If the second score is higher, it is the only one that counts. Another do-over is the missed homework policy: kids who don’t complete assignments on time must be given at least one chance to make up the work without penalty. Remember counting to ten and then yelling, “Ready or not, here I come?” In Dallas high schools, students can count no higher than ten when it comes to homework, whether they are ready or not. The district has mandated a maximum of ten hours of homework per week for high school kids.

     All of these new policies are intended to combat Dallas’ dropout rate which, at nearly 26%, is the state’s second highest. However, while retaining students and increasing graduation rates is a noble purpose, the question here is: what sort of school is left for the kids who choose to stay? If the objective is to reduce high school to an exercise in paperwork and increase the percentage of kids receiving meaningless diplomas, this should do the trick. If it is to prepare students to go on to higher education or to meet expectations and deadlines in the world of employment, it will fail miserably for having taught students that there is no value in mastering today what you can catch up on tomorrow, that the world will be happy to wait for your revisions and re-submittals, and that there is no pride to be gained from working a little harder than you thought you could. This is not to mention that if you are always doing each thing twice, it should follow that you will be able to learn fewer things in total.

   “Chief among the reasons children drop out of school is because they are failing their course work,” Denise Collier, the Dallas district’s chief academic officer told Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal. “We don’t want to give them a pass, but at the same time we don’t want to pass them over.” Yet, there is data to suggest that passing them over is exactly what schools have been doing for some time and it is not clear that collapsing the standards will correct this.  

In fact, ironically, Dallas may have watered down the standards for nothing, not even an inflated statistic.  According to, researchers at Rice University and University of Texas-Austin released a study earlier this year which found that the drop-out rate was not linked to classwork, but to a number of factors related to NCLB.  The study, “Avoidable Losses: High Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis”, authored by Linda McSpadden McNeil, Eileen Coppola, Judy Radigan and Julian Vasquez Heilig, was published in February 2008 by Education Policy Analysis Archives.  The research, which studied the data of 271,000 students from one of Texas’ largest urban school districts over a seven year period linked drop-out rates to conditions created by NCLB which behooved administrators to rid their schools of certain students or groups of students. Specifically:

Administrators, it seems, are the team captains, choosing up sides and selecting the strongest, fastest kids first. When the selection dwindles to the fat, the small, and the unathletic, their disinterest becomes evident as they roll their eyes, choose the fat kid over the slow kid and say wearily, “We’ll take him.” After this scenario plays itself out a few times, a fat/slow/small kid knows when he’s not wanted and stops showing up to play, probably much the same way the low-achieving/held-back/minority/court-involved students know their high schools don’t really wanting them screwing up their standardized test scores. So they stop showing up. Who can blame them? Now, without enough players to field a team, the Dallas captains are telling these kids, “It’s OK. Now, you only have to walk from first to second base to score a run.” But, if you only have to walk from first to second to score, are you still playing the same game?

    Thus, the Dallas district is left with a high drop-out rate and a series of policies certain to gut any curriculum that may have once existed. The do-over American kids are entitled to has nothing to do with a failed test or a late paper. Instead, it has to do with the ill-advised, underfunded, education reform known as No Child Left Behind. Will the next president be brave enough to ask for a policy do over or will we just slowly develop an entirely new game?

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