Everyone has his pet explanation for grade inflation and declining school standards, but a recent incident at Sunrise Mountain High School in Arizona suggests one that you might not have considered before: lawyers.
The story goes like this: in May, a senior at the school failed her English final and learned she wouldn’t graduate as a result. Her parents hired a lawyer, well . . . to have a word with the girl’s English teacher. Though the teacher, Elizabeth Joice, had the guts to stick to her guns after getting a threatening letter from the lawyer, the same, sadly, isn’t true of the superintendent of the Peoria Unified Southern School District. “I was told that the student was going to walk [in the graduation ceremony],” Joice told the Arizona Republic, “and that I needed to figure out a way to get her to that point.” On graduation day, Joice dutifully gave the girl the same 50-question multiple-choice exam she’d failed three weeks earlier. This time, she passed, and five hours later her proud parents watched her walk across the stage to get her diploma.
By itself, the lawyer’s letter, which reads like Tony Soprano commissioned it, should go down in the extensive annals of Modern Education Outrage. Stan Massad, the member of the Arizona bar who penned it, warned Joice that if she did not take “whatever action is necessary to correct this situation . . . you will force us to institute litigation.” Just in case Joice didn’t get it, Massad added the following reminder: “Of course, all information regarding your background, your employment records, your class records, past and present dealings with this and other students become [sic] relevant should litigation become necessary.”
But the real story isn’t the threatening content of the letter, but that it worked! Terrified of a court case, Joice’s superiors refused to back the 17-year veteran, even though they pronounced her an “excellent teacher.” And they failed to back her even though Joice had records showing that before flunking the final exam, the student had plagiarized a paper and neglected to attend a makeup session for yet another botched assignment, and that her parents had not responded to repeated warnings that their daughter risked failing. In short, administrators ordered a teacher to pass a student they knew deserved to fail.
At least there’s this good news: plenty of folks are hopping mad over the incident. The Arizona Bar Association is investigating Massad. And the Republic hasn’t stopped beating up on the Peoria Unified Southern School District. But the bad news is that lawsuit-driven grade extortion will surely not end in Peoria, Arizona. Just this past winter in Piper, Kansas, administrators forced a science teacher to pass 28 students who’d copied their botany term papers off the Internet after their parents complained—and hinted they’d sue. As of 1999, one in four principals has been party to a lawsuit, up from one in ten a decade earlier, and some of these suits concern grades. Get ready: such cases will be coming your way soon.