Who Gets to Be Educated?

A recent long article in The New York Times focuses on a serious problem in American education: the student who goes to college and then founders. I read the article with interest, as did a good friend and former colleague who is now at a public university. We agree that (as my former colleague says) “the NYT focuses on a solution to the crisis without looking at the source of the crisis.”

That solution, implemented at the University of Texas, is fascinating to read about, but in some ways also frustrating. Its hero, Professor David Laude, is clearly a capable, compassionate and admirable teacher. He also avoids the easy way out: he insists that his shaky students study the same material as his more capable ones instead of shunting them into “remedial” classes that by teaching backward material remedy nothing. He makes such instruction possible in part by shoring up needy students’ fragile self-image with encouragements offered (as if) by a community of older and more experienced students who “have been there” and “know how it felt.”

What is frustrating is that the student-protagonist Vanessa and others like her have had to wait until their university education to receive this kind of teaching and community support. Vanessa reports that in high school she aced her math tests without having to study for them. She had a 3.5 GPA, placing her in the top 7% of her class. But the trout in the milk, as Thoreau would say, is that her ACT score was 22. Readers of these postings will know my reservations about scores on multiple-choice standardized tests, but they can be suggestive, as indeed is Vanessa’s. Not to put too fine a point on it, her score suggests that she was the victim of a branding hoax—a hoax not detected by the Times reporter. If the University of Texas takes the top 7% of students from a high school, and Vanessa is in the top 7% (as she was), then in ordinary life, if not in the world of branding and baloney, she should be ready for university. In fact, her ACT score was the equivalent of an SAT score of 1530, and my former colleague notes that she does not quite meet the “SAT Benchmark” of college and career readiness (which is 1550/2400). Students who exceed this benchmark are far more likely to graduate than those who do not meet it. Even considering the SAT margin of error (±30 points) most generously, one could only conclude that she has not been very well prepared—this though she was in the top 7%. That conclusion is borne out by the trouble she had at UT until Professor Laude took a hand in her education.

Why did a college-bound student not have to study math in order to ace her math tests? Another former colleague of mine actually taught a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge. That boy didn’t have to study in order to ace his math tests either, but surely he is an exception that should prove a rule?

Maybe not. One of the eeriest objections one hears to the Common Core is that it will make students work too hard, the poor things[1]. Professor Laude proves by actual teaching that working hard is precisely one of the remedies for poor preparation (and, by implication, that it is needed for good preparation; evidently this proof is also needed). Such thinking has been infecting education longer than just recently. Some years ago I was the colleague of a 6th-grade teacher who “helped” her students “succeed” in reading by forbidding them to check out books of more than 2nd-grade difficulty. There was quite a row when the librarian, not one to mince words, told her plainly what she thought of such malpractice. When I was in 6th grade I read the Arabian Nights—some of them!—and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Sister St. Catherine didn’t tell me to put them back and read Binky Brown Cuts the Grass. Neither did my parents.

At the same school with Ms. Malpractice, a rather small one, I was the high-school English teacher. The new headmaster, who came there when I did (but stayed only three years), told me to teach a demanding course that would challenge the students but not overwhelm them. I put together four years of work that included reading, speaking, weekly writing, grammar, and discussion using shared inquiry. Authors read included James Baldwin, Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Conrad, Lawrence Durrell, Flannery O’Connor, Selma Lagerlöf, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Thoreau, Tocqueville, Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, the poets of The Rattle Bag, and writers from the Norton Reader. 90% of my students were non-North American “English language learners,” and some of them had very low Iowa test scores. In two years the high school’s average SAT verbal score increased by 125 points out of 800, and our Iowa tests showed very pleasing year-to-year improvements. (I mention the tests only because these results are crudely suggestive of real improvement).

The results were pleasing to me, and to most students[2] and parents, but not all. A few of them, from the U.S., thought I was “too hard.” One came to me and, lips white with anger, leveled her charge: “You think everyone here is going to Harvard!” Actually I thought no such thing, but not long afterwards the new, new headmaster called me in to say that I needed to be less demanding and assign less work. I obliged, and the Iowa tests of my last year there told a new and different tale.

There is more than simple teaching in Professor Laude’s approach. What needs to be said, however, is that much of the extra work he does to give students confidence and endurance is what any strong functional community does as a matter of course, not as a part of a job but as a part of communitarian values and fellow-feeling. In my posting on Potemkin Schools and elsewhere I made the point that sociology and good sense have shown the best schools are functional communities. In such communities those who have been through a difficult experience help others to know that they will get through it too. W. B. Yeats said, “There’s no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.” By contrast, the sort of magical thinking that says “Little Ben may be unable to tie his shoes, but that shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown” will guarantee a hard fall and maybe failure for students who fly in to Brown, or UT, on their fake wings.

A last point: the Times article is headlined “Who Gets to Graduate?” Shouldn’t the question suggested by Vanessa’s experience be “Who Gets to Be Educated”?

[1] Concerns about privacy and testing by private corporations are another matter, for another posting.

[2] The students thought enough of me that in two successive years they asked me to be their graduation speaker.

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