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John Santos: “Rigor” shouldn’t mean “some kids fail”

Biology Teacher John Santos breaks down what’s wrong with how we grade (and a simple way to do it better)

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JOHN SANTOS: A buddy of mine, Jorge Cabrera, he taught at High Tech High. And he and I met up one time for dinner. And when we were talking, he was telling me about this experience he had where he was asked to teach summer school. And on the first day of summer school, he walked into the class and just noticed immediately that it looked really different than what he was used to seeing within the typical academic year. They were almost entirely students of color and predominantly male Latinos in that class.

And so when he told me that story, I was just starting into grad school and trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on for my research. And at the time, I had these ideas of using my capstone research and focusing on how we might change meetings in collaboration time for teachers. Because that, for me, seemed like a needed an immediate fix that needed to happen at our school. And then, when I had this conversation with Jorge, it’s like one of those things you can’t unhear. You hear this, and you go, oh, wait, what?


ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. And that’s John Santos, 11th grade biology teacher at High Tech High. And I’m going to be totally honest. This was never supposed to become a podcast episode. John Santos is a friend, and he asked me to record him talking about his research at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education.

It sounded like he was trying to a podcast to get out of needing to write, but I helped him out. Then he made me a set of mahogany wall hooks. And in exchange, I said I’d help him edit the audio. At this point, he’d done a second interview, this one with my colleague Brent Spirnak.

So I was listening to the audio, trying to get it all done as quickly as possible so I could get back to my real job. And I realized that what he was saying felt really important. If anything, it felt even more relevant right now than it did at the time we recorded.

So while I came to this project hoping to do the absolute minimum amount of work on it, I’m in too deep now. And actually, I’m really excited to share it with you. So back to John. And to understand why he couldn’t unhear what Jorge Cabrera told him about summer school, you need to know a little bit more about the place we both work, High Tech High.

JOHN SANTOS: Because where we work and how we work, it’s a little bit more than just delivering content. You start to care about these outcomes. And you care about the people. And you care about things like equity. And you’re like, no, all these well-intending things that we’re doing, they’re still resulting in disproportionate numbers of student color ending up in summer school. That started this snowball effect of well, I want to hear more about this. I want to learn more about this. I want to see what’s going on.

ALEC PATTON: Yeah, because our schools’ desegregation is at the heart of our schools. We have a zip code lottery so that we don’t segregate the students who come in based on where they live. And then, we don’t track students based on perceived academic abilities. So we’re designed to have classrooms that are diverse. If you have all that set up, and then the one space that isn’t diverse is the summer school for kids who failed their classes, there’s a problem.

JOHN SANTOS: That is perfectly put, exactly.

ALEC PATTON: How much were you like, wait, what? And how much were you like, oh, yeah, I’ve always known that was true, but I wasn’t looking directly at it?

JOHN SANTOS: Well, and that’s the thing is I think so many of us that are in classrooms and close to the learning, what we really recognize is that not all students, and their learning experiences, and their backgrounds are the same. These students are coming from really different backgrounds. And they all come into the same exact classroom. But their learning is going to look really different, based on all sorts of different factors and barriers that those students experience.

I started looking through data for our schools. And what I noticed was that consistently every single summer, we end up with disproportionate numbers of Latinx students, so male and female, in summer school. And so when you look at the United States, you’ll find that disproportionate numbers of students of color are failing classes. And they’re also dropping out at higher rates.

You start to then see all these other societal impacts that happen to people that don’t have that same level of access to education and educational attainment, right? And so that was the beginning of my research. So it’s like, you see what’s happening. And then, within grad school, then you have to say, OK, well, what am I going to do about this?

ALEC PATTON: You’re just about to hear a new voice. This is the voice of Brent Spirnak, High Tech High’s Multimedia Ethnographer.

BRENT SPIRNAK: Did you also, in your own class, see those disproportionalities? Maybe looking a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, did you do any a personal look at that?

JOHN SANTOS: Yeah, I did. And actually, that’s what was so helpful is yeah, you look at your own class. And you say, OK, well, I’m teaching these same students that are failing other classes, but they’re not failing my class. And then, that kind of begs the question, OK, well, what’s going on? Why is it that some teachers are failing some students and the same students are successful in other classes?

That’s what I started looking at. Is that some of us are harder on students? Is it that some of our classes are harder and the content is more difficult to understand for the students? And academic success comes harder within that discipline? Because it would suggest that it’s not the student, right? If a student can pass one class and not pass another class, then it’s not the kid. It might be the class.

And I think a lot of times, when we look at these kinds of issues, we focus on the kid. We go, OK, the kid’s not passing the class. What do we need to do to the kid? What do we need to change in the kid? What kind of factors in the kid do we need to change so that they’ll be successful? And for me, I started looking at the teachers and thinking, well, if a kid fails a class– and this sounds very simple. And maybe I’m oversimplifying it. But the teacher has to fail them. They assign that grade, right?

And so yeah, I did look at my classes. And mine was one example of a class where I feel like most students pass my class. It’s actually really rare. Within my career, two students have failed my class and ended up in summer school. And I teach a rigorous course. And I teach a rigorous subject. I teach biology, where there’s a lot of really challenging content to get through.

BRENT SPIRNAK: With that super incredibly high success rate, can you point to, maybe, attributes from your class that you can identify?

JOHN SANTOS: It felt anomalous at first. And I had to interrogate my own thinking, my own practice. And so part of it is that I have a comfort around this idea of that all students can be academically successful in my class. I believe that. And so if you were to flip that, I think a lot of teachers experience discomfort in passing all of their students.

And so what I would ask you to do is imagine if I projected a teacher’s grades up in front of a bunch of other educators. And all of those people in the room saw that that teacher had passed 100% of their students. And so a lot of people– you ask a lot of educators that, and they mostly would say, what I would take from that is that teacher is too nice or that their class is too easy. That’s the typical inference is that if all kids pass your class, the class wasn’t hard, or you’re too nice.

And so I don’t necessarily believe that. And I have this comfort. I’m not ashamed to share that most students pass my class. And then, beyond that, though, I guess I would feel a little bit more nervous about sharing that kind of data if I couldn’t back it up with things that I do in my class to ensure that students don’t fail my class. I work my ass off.

And I’m set up for it, too. I have smaller classroom sizes. I only teach two classes per day, two block classes. And so it’s not like I’m seeing 150 kids in a day. I see 48 kids in a day. And so that allows me to get to know them well enough to be able to really develop intimate connections with them, and recognize where they need that help, and where they need those interventions, and where they need that support. And so to me, I just see that it’s a possibility.

When I started to look into it, the first thing I really wanted to look at was teacher mindsets and teacher perspectives. And so the first thing I did is I just surveyed a group of teachers and asked them what they thought about students failing classes and what factors impact students failing classes.

And when I asked teachers about factors that they thought contribute to a student failing a class, 80% of the teachers that I asked used “they” statements, meaning that they basically said, well, all the factors that kind of contribute to a student failing a class is the students’ factors that they bring with them into this class.

And what was really interesting is then I asked students about factors that contribute to students failing. And when I asked students, 80% of students felt like it was also the students’ fault for them failing the class, which is interesting. I think it’s this narrative that we develop in students to where the ownership of failing a class, whether you’re asking a teacher or a student, typically lands on the student.

Everybody thinks a kid failed the class because the kid failed the class. Nobody ever mentions that as a shared statement of a kid failed a class because this teacher and this student couldn’t figure out how to find a rhythm, couldn’t figure out how to develop strategies for them to be successful. They rarely talk about it in shared statements.

BRENT SPIRNAK: How do you feel the experience is differentiated, positive or negatively, for Latino male students?

JOHN SANTOS: Broadly speaking, for students of color across our country, there exist more barriers. Those are societal barriers that happen outside of the school, whether that’s socioeconomic or a parent’s education levels.

And then, there’s a lot of factors that happen inside of our schools as well. So you look at lack of culturally responsive pedagogy happening in schools. So a lot of the learning experiences don’t really resonate with students of color in schools like ours and outside of schools like ours.

And then, the other is representation. So when students come to school, they’re predominantly taught by white people. And so I would say that the positive differentiation would be being thoughtful in our hiring practices and creating teaching staff that mirrors the student population, right? And then, the other would be designing learning experiences that are culturally responsive that recognize the community of students that they’re teaching.

BRENT SPIRNAK: What do you say to people who respond to that second point with saying I can’t design this, whatever, culturally responsive curriculum because I’m on this train that’s like once we start it in August, it doesn’t stop till June. How do I get off that? Or how do I develop something that is worthy for those students and make it more worthwhile?

JOHN SANTOS: You’re touching on something that is very, very challenging, and it takes a ton of development and thinking. I think, superficially, a lot of people identify with culturally responsive pedagogy as making your learning about that person, and their culture, and their past, and making a project that’s representative of their community.

And I think a little bit more is it’s more about being just an awareness of the culture in the community in your classroom and being able to recognize what that means to them. I would say at the very basic level, it’s just personalization, knowing your students well enough to know them and what resonates with them.

BRENT SPIRNAK: So just to jump off of that with an example of those two, a superficial idea would be like, oh, we’re going to do a project where we look at this like scientists, who’s a person of color or something. Whereas, a more in-depth is you ask students to take scientific data in their neighborhood, and then, in doing that, they share about where they’re from, and put that out there, like, where you’re from and who you are is significant. And you’re part of this school community as you bring in your outside community.

JOHN SANTOS: Those are perfect examples, right? Where you can see that, instead of maintaining barriers and instead of separating experiences for them, you’re actually breaking down barriers. And you’re pulling their community and their experiences into their own learning. And you’re placing value on that, and where they come from, and relevance as well.

BRENT SPIRNAK: Aside from the teacher mindsets, what other types of things were surveyed in your research?

JOHN SANTOS: I wanted to keep it basic and simple. And so I point-blank asked teachers what they thought about this idea of rigor and student success. And initially, when I asked teachers, what would they think– I think I framed it in this way of, if a class is rigorous, would you expect to see some students failing that class?

And 70% of teachers that were surveyed said that if a class is rigorous, you should expect to see some students failing that class. And 60% of teachers believed that if all students did pass a class, that the class was too easy. And so it gets back to this point, this idea of if it’s rigorous, kids fail. If all kids pass, it’s not rigorous.

What to me that highlights is this idea that if a class is rigorous– and rigor in itself is a really challenging thing to define, right? But if a class is rigorous, those challenges are going to land hardest on students that are most academically vulnerable. And students that are going to be most academically vulnerable are going to be the kids with the greatest amount of barriers in their way.

And so when there are no interventions, that is just then a trajectory. And those students that are academically vulnerable are going to remain academically vulnerable. And they’re going to be subject to then this rigorous and challenging experience, and they’re going to fail the class.

And so you’re finding out that teachers feel this way about rigor and that even in a well-intending school, the teachers think, well, yeah, classes should be hard, and then, if they’re hard, that means some kids fail. But I didn’t know what to do with it. And so we started trying some stuff out. I reached out to all of our staff because I felt like I had access. We’re a pretty small staff. We’re about between 30 and 40 teachers in our building.

And I just said, hey, I was interested to see if there were any teachers who would be willing to work over an entire semester’s time to look at how we support student learning, how we support students in our classes, and how we support our students towards success. Some teachers bit. Others didn’t.

And something interesting happened early on where this one teacher said, hey, I read your email. I heard you talk at the meeting the other day. I’m interested in the work that you’re doing. But I don’t think that I’d be a good candidate because I didn’t fail any students last semester. I think maybe I’m being too easy.

And for me, that was my big aha moment where I thought, wow, this is interesting, where we’ve got this teacher who didn’t fail any students last semester. And instead of seeing that as this evidence of being an incredibly supportive teacher and having developed really, really successful strategies to support students in their learning, he really saw it as like, ooh, this is something that I don’t want to be too vocal about the fact that every kid passed my class last semester.

What I ultimately had a group of teachers try was I had them go the first three weeks of the semester without entering any grades. All of the work, and all the rigor, and all the challenges were all still there, but the students weren’t having grades entered into their grade book. So I wanted this period where the teacher could learn about the student. And the student could learn about the class. And the teacher could figure out how to best support that kid in finding success in their class.

And then, I asked those same teachers that went three weeks without grading to ask the student about, what they were experiencing, and what was challenging for them, and what types of supports did they need. Those three weeks of no grading, and then those check-ins, had a pretty significant impact both on the mindset of the teacher, but then also on the trajectory for the students.

And so what we find is that, when you start grading immediately, some kids are going to get great grades, and they’re probably going to keep getting great grades. Some kids are going to get really bad grades, and that kind of indication in the very beginning of their learning experience can really impact then what happens for the rest of the semester where they’re just thinking, I’m not good at this. And so it then impacts their ability to even see themselves as possibly being successful in the class.

And so I asked teachers, well, if that is going to tank a student’s perspective of themselves as a learner, why don’t we just take the first three weeks of grading out? That was pretty impactful both on the mindsets and the thinking of teachers, but then also then on the performance of students.

After this work then, coming out of it, I started asking the teachers, OK, well, where is your mindset now that you’ve actually tried a couple of things and had your hand in on trying to manipulate outcomes in terms of students being academically successful or failing?

90% of teachers that we worked with felt that you can have a rigorous learning experience, and it does not need to result in any students failing. And then, more specifically, 85% of them felt that they could teach a rigorous learning experience and support all students towards academic success. And for me, I guess what I wanted to do is I want to change the teachers so that the learning experience for students is more equitable.

We left on weird terms. We left our semester midway through because of this pandemic that’s going on in the world, but things were heading in this really great direction. And from the conversations that I was able to have with teachers, there was a huge shift in their thinking. And there was a huge shift then in their practice.

And what was probably most, I guess, exciting for me is that it’s scalable, right? I mentioned this earlier of it’s not rocket science. It was just having teachers go without grading for three weeks during this period, a diagnostic period, so they could know their kids. And it’s just checking in. People can do that. Art teachers can do that. Math teachers could do that. Biology teachers can do that. Seventh grade teachers can do that. 11th grade teachers can do that.


ALEC PATTON: High Tech High Unboxed is written and edited by me, Alec Patton, with additional interviewing in this episode by Brent Spirnak. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel. We’ve got a link to John Santos’ research in the show notes. Check it out. Thanks for listening.

You can learn more about John Santos’s research on his digital portfolio

Just to be clear, the mahogany wall hooks John made for me are made of salvaged wood – we’re not buying new mahogany, and neither should you

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