Graduate of DC schools says he wasn't prepared for college
Yesterday, a former student of mine took to the pages of the Washington Post to indict DC's traditional and charter public school system, which he says failed to prepare him effectively for college.
Darryl Robinson is now a freshman on full scholarship at Georgetown University. He graduated from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, Parkside campus in Northeast Washington. He says this and his other schools never pushed or challenged him to be intellectually curious or to think critically.
From my experience in the classroom, Darryl's right. DC schools, and urban schools in general, are currently failing at effectively teaching their students. In a society in which there is increasingly little space in the economy for drop-outs or for graduates unprepared to enter a trade or pursue a college degree, this continued failure puts the city's future at risk. How does this happen?
This issue is not confined to DC or to urban areas. There's a growing consensus that college freshmen from all walks or life and backgrounds spend the year in remedial courses learning what they should have been taught in high school.
But from my experiences, that psychological gulf is deeper and wider for city kids. In conversations with current college students and neighborhood elders, I keep hearing the same thing: folks are going off to college and they're coming right back to the city within a year or so with few credits, mounting debt, and a lack of opportunity.
Our schools perennially dumb down their curricula, continually lower expectations, de-emphasize classroom management, promote students regardless how ready they are. Many rush to label students "special needs" in order to receive more dollars per pupil, while "mainstreaming" students of all levels into one class. They baby students rather than pushing them.
Same soup, just reheated
The problems that Darryl Robinson raised are not new to the pages of the city's paper of record. While he was a student of mine, the Post ran a similar story about the post-graduation struggles of the 2005 class of Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington.
The story opens,
Danielle Chappell had no reason to doubt she was a solid student. She earned decent grades, even scoring some A's in English and math, while balancing schoolwork with basketball, track and a spot on the dance team.Beneath the surface of the District's ongoing demographic, cultural, social, and economic shifts is a public school system struggling to succeed. If DC's leaders fail to recognize and tackle these challenges, the District and its students are at grave risk.
Then she graduated from Cardozo High School and arrived at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where she bombed the placement tests so badly that she had to take remedial English and math. She failed the makeup math course twice before passing it. Low grades overall put her on academic probation. Finally, mid-sophomore year, she was forced to withdraw.
Chappell sometimes thinks back to the Cardozo math teacher who, instead of assigning algebra homework, would have students clip photos of motorcycles from magazines and do other projects unrelated to math. "I thought it was strange and weird," Chappell said, but she did not complain because the class was "an easy A."
She wishes now that she had demanded more from Cardozo, and that Cardozo had demanded more from her.
Why and how does this occur? Although it's been nearly 5 years since I was last in the classroom, there are many factors I saw as a teacher and continue to hear about today.
Mainstreaming & modification
Back in the 90's when I was a public elementary school student, there was a "Gifted and Talented" program that placed students in classes with similar peers. In this environment students are taught not just comprehension but critical thinking skills through interaction, conversation, and debate.
That's not what happens in most city schools. According to some education theories, gifted and talented programs are biased and detrimental because they discriminate against certain groups of students in favor of others. So what you get (or what I got) was a 9th grade English class that included both a 17-year-old barely reading at a 3rd grade level and a 13-year-old reading at a 12th grade level.
This is a challenge for even seasoned teachers. Teaching to the middle ground of these two students causes both students to tune out: the 17-year-old is lost, and the 13-year-old knows it all already.
The theory that on-grade level and below-grade level students benefit from having above-grade level students in their class is flawed. Teaching to the middle is not the middle; it's accommodating the lowest level student and hurting everyone else.
For example, when deciding on the year's first book, my 9th Grade English Department peers advocated Tears of Tiger, a junior high school book that many students had previously read. The argument against reading Why We Can't Wait, Fire Next Time, or Manchild in the Promised Land was that it would go over the heads of many of the middle to lower level students, instead of pushing those students. We eventually choose one of Walter Dean Myers' books, Monster, that was a success.
In this case we avoided the temptation to select a rudimentary book. But selecting the rudimentary book over the more challenging one is a practice that dominates the majority of the District's schools, according to teachers and students I know.
To solve students' unpreparedness to enter college, some of DC's elected officials have recently advocated legislation that would mandate that students take a college entrance exam as a prerequisite to graduate. But rather than solving the problem, this requirement would merely "mainstream" all students into the same intellectual exercise.
This would do nothing to better prepare students to pursue a trade or enter college. And it would do nothing to help students develop the intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills that Darryl lacked upon arriving at Georgetown University.
In coming posts I'll share some of my other experiences and opinions on why and how the city's school system and politicians continue to perpetuate failure.
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