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Daily Howler: A reader poses some excellent questions. We postpone our series to answer
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FAREWELL, GABRIELA! A reader poses some excellent questions. We postpone our series to answer: // link // print // previous // next //

THE DEAN’S TALE: To revisit a Tale Which Refuses To Die, check David Broder’s silly, sad column in Sunday’s Washington Post. Why do we have so many drop-outs? (Broder: “They number in the millions—3.5 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 25 who have dropped out of high school and were not enrolled in school in 2003, the most recent year for which an estimate is available.”) Of course! Millions of kids drop out of school because high school work isn’t hard enough for them! Broder discusses a forthcoming study of high school drop-outs—a study which may have some real merit. And he visits a small program for drop-outs at a community college—a program which may be terrific. But when he spent his ten minutes observing this program, Broder saw “14 teenage dropouts discussing the writings of Plato,” and he ends up repeating The Tale That Won’t Die—a stupid, cruel tale about low-income education which has been widely and stupidly pimped since at least the mid-1960s:
BRODER (2/26/06): A year ago, I visited—and wrote about—the Gateway to College program run by Portland (Ore.) Community College (and also funded by the Gates Foundation). There, I saw 14 teenage dropouts discussing the writings of Plato and Malcolm X—college-level work.

I quoted the leaders of the voluntary program, in which students accepted strict discipline barring absences or blown assignments, as believing it demonstrates that "even for the hardest cases—teenagers with few credits, low grade-point averages and a host of personal problems—the challenge of a tough curriculum, backed by skillful teaching in small classes and plenty of personal counseling, can be a path to success."

That is also the essence of what the dropouts in this report suggest would rescue and reward them—and their millions of counterparts.

Classic! Broder sees 14 kids discuss Malcolm X—and concludes that “millions of [their] counterparts” dropped out of school because the work wasn’t tough enough. (Note to the Dean from the planet called Earth: When 14 kids take part in a voluntary program, they aren’t a representative sample.) If only we’d have given them college-level work, those kids would have prospered!

This is a spectacularly stupid tale, one going back to the 60s. At that time, we were told (by books like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children) that if we would just show up in inner-city schools and show the kids that they were valued, then those kids would soon be writing novels and amazing us with their vast brilliance. Forty years of academic disaster later, Broder is still out there pushing this piffle—and proving he’s never set his fine foot inside real urban classrooms. Are kids dropping out because they’re too smart—because they can’t find challenging work at their high schools? At the Los Angeles Times, Duke Helfand actually went and spoke to Los Angeles teachers—and actually learned about actual kids who end up as actual drop-outs:

HELFAND (1/30/06): High school math instructors, meanwhile, face crowded classes of 40 or more students—some of whom do not know their multiplication tables or how to add fractions or convert percentages into decimals.

Birmingham [High School] teacher Steve Kofahl said many students don't understand that X can be an abstract variable in an equation and not just a letter of the alphabet.

Birmingham math coach Kathy De Soto said she was surprised to find something else: students who still count on their fingers.

That’s what Helfand reported—after speaking to teachers and observing real students. But Broder, reporting from his aerie on Neptune, thinks that millions of kids have dropped out of school because the work wasn’t challenging enough.

We’ll talk more about this Tale Which Won’t Die in the weeks and months ahead. But what makes Broder’s tale so ugly? In an unrelated column today, Paul Krugman discusses about another silly, false tale: “[T]he fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion...not because it's true, but because it's comforting.” Not because it’s true—but because it’s comforting! Yes, this is the force driving Broder’s tale—a tale which polite elites have peddled for years as a way of avoiding the unpleasant truth about those millions of drop-outs. The Dean’s Tale lets elites feel good—and lets them drop out from this topic.

Those kids were counting on their fingers because they weren’t allowed to take Plato! This is one of the stupidest columns we’ve ever seen—but it’s part of a decades-long narrative.

WHERE THEY START OUT: Throughout human history, elites have told themselves scripted tales “not because they’re true, but because they’re comforting.” Just as a reminder, here’s the passage from that latest new study which describes how high school drop-outs get started:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
By the fourth grade, they’re three years behind! But a few years later, they drop out of school because the work isn’t tough enough! Broder’s tale comes straight from Neptune—and yet it’s a staple of elite “thought.” We invite you to fight the part of your mind which finds this silly tale so beguiling.

Special report—Farewell, Gabriela!

INTERLUDE—SOME EXCELLENT QUESTIONS: We received the following e-mail about our current series which poses a set of excellent questions. Because these questions have most likely occurred to many readers, we’ll postpone our series for one day and offer our reactions. We edit (at one place) for brevity:

E-MAIL: I've been reading your site on and off for a while, and usually find it originally put, well-reasoned, and thoughtfully questioning. I was therefore surprised to read your recent series "Farewell, Gabriella.” I was most put off by your quote:

"And no, this isn't the way it always has been done; traditionally, American students haven't been required to pass Algebra 1 to get their high school diploma. Traditionally, kids like Gabriela Ocampo—kids who ‘worked hard and played by the rules’—were granted the dignity of their high school diploma without the requirement of passing this course."

This may or may not be true—I haven't done a survey of high schools across America. I can tell you that I know many high schools that require Algebra I and beyond for graduation, and I find this requirement reasonable and desirable. I took the course in 7th grade, coming out of a middling New Hampshire elementary math program. Of course I had certain advantages, as did the 7th grader that I later met in my Algebra II class (four years ahead of the pace that you and the author you cite find excessively challenging). Nonetheless, I think it's unfair to any student to say they have adequately understood high school material without passing Algebra I. I don't know if you've been in an Algebra I classroom recently, but this is not impossible material: solving basic equations, graphing, and yes, even a fair bit of the decimal and fraction review you apparently think some American students need eight years to understand. Anyone who is not profoundly learning disabled or lazy can get this stuff—maybe not at a young age, maybe not the first time, but someone who works hard and follows the rules will eventually pass this kind of course. It is not calculus; it is not something esoteric that only the college-bound need. It is a cornerstone of American high school education that I would wager every high school in the country offers and requires students to at least take; requiring them to pass it as well is an obvious step if we want a high school diploma to signify accomplishment and ability to perform.

If you won't require passing Algebra, the easiest high school level math class, then I can't see how you can favor requiring students to pass anything, since math is one of the most important bases for understanding other subjects, most events in the world, and most jobs. If students don't have to meet any standard...then what does a high school diploma mean? It seems to me that in your ideal system the diploma means a student showed up most of the time for four years. What kind of employer is going to hire a new high school grad when they know the diploma doesn't guarantee basic math skills, or any sort of ability to get the job done with a modicum of success? I know McDonald's is always hiring, but their cashiers usually get the change right and those burger-flippers turn out a lot of accurate burgers in a short time. Is a student who can't pass math in six attempts going to be employable as a secretary/factory worker/insert whatever job above the poverty line here? Would the military even want such a student? Maybe in this era they would, but you get the idea. There are college grads and grad students all around American working entry level jobs—I've worked in a convenience store with doctoral candidates and people with advanced degrees. What chance does someone who can't pass Algebra I have to get a job above this level, whether their high school gives them a piece of paper or not? What dignity is there in a degree that one would receive regardless of performance, that leads on to nothing in particular?

The mailer can’t imagine why a high school student can’t (eventually) pass Algebra 1. And he wonders what a diploma would mean for a student who hadn’t passed such a course. Finally, he wonders what kind of job a student will have if she can’t pass algebra. In short, the reader thinks it’s sensible to require this course in high school—and he thinks a diploma is basically meaningless if a student hasn’t passed such a course.

We think these reactions should be addressed because they’ll occur to many readers. Here are some basic responses:

A note on traditions: For the record, it has not been traditional to require this course for high school graduation. As Helfand notes in his superb report, this requirement is new to Los Angeles schools; meanwhile, when the state of Maryland recently made algebra a requirement for high school graduation, similar problems arose (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/06).

Like our e-mailer, we took Algebra 1 in junior high—in our case, in the eighth grade at Borel Junior High in San Mateo, California, in 1960-61. We then moved on to a public high school at which we were pushed extremely hard by a range of superlative teachers. But even there, at suburban Aragon High, you didn’t have to pass algebra to get your diploma, and many students didn’t take it. Here’s Helfand’s account of the history:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.

Until recently, high schools offered a range of programs. Students seen as academically able were placed in college-prep classes. Others were funneled into vocational courses in which they learned such skills as auto mechanics and office technology.

It was an imperfect system in which some bright students, particularly minorities, could find themselves trapped in classes that steered them away from higher education.

Then, about a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing as the state decided to raise academic standards for high school graduation.

“Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea,” Helfand writes. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea, of course. But we think it’s worth noting that the idea is new—and that there is no track record supporting the writer’s sense that almost anyone can pass this course. This notion strikes him as fairly obvious. But no track record shows he is right, and the requirement is fairly recent.

Can pretty much anyone pass this course: This strikes the reader as fairly obvious. “Anyone who is not profoundly learning disabled or lazy can get this stuff,” he writes—“maybe not at a young age, maybe not the first time, but someone who works hard and follows the rules will eventually pass this kind of course.” For ourselves, we never taught high school algebra, so we have no first-hand experience to bring to this question. But we have taught in low-income, urban schools, and we understand something the reader may not—that many, many kids in such schools are deeply confused, in all realms of academics, by the time they get to high school. From Day 1, they are asked to read books they can’t possibly read and to follow academic programs they can’t really keep up with. The readers hasn’t seen them suffer and fail—and finds it hard to picture their plight. As a former teacher, we prefer to see kids challenged in classrooms—but kids can’t be “challenged” in a class for which they lack the basic prerequisites. We’ll repeat what we said last week: We’ll guess that, by traditional standards, Gabriela Ocampo had no business taking algebra in the ninth grade. Here, again, is Helfand’s take on the new, high-minded strategy which had her taking that course:

HELFAND: The strategy has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math.

Teachers complain that they have no time for remediation, that the rapid pace mandated by the district leaves behind students like Tina Norwood, 15, who is failing beginning algebra for the third time.

As we said last week, perhaps Gabriela could have mastered algebra after a few years of skilled reclamation. But we’ll guess that she had no business taking this course in the ninth grade. This is hard for many people to picture. They have never been inside urban schools, and they’ve never seen the intellectual chaos there. It’s easy, then, to end up blaming the students as flunkies and shirkers.

What will a high school diploma mean: It’s easy to disparage the meaning of a diploma for a low-income kid who didn’t take algebra. “If students don't have to meet any standard...then what does a high school diploma mean?” the reader asks. “It seems to me that in your ideal system the diploma means a student showed up most of the time for four years.” It’s easy to be dismissive and cutting about millions of kids whom you’ve never set eyes on. But what will that diploma mean? It will mean something very important. It will mean that the student in question “showed up most of the time for four years” and did the things she was reasonably asked to do—with emphasis on the word “reasonably.” It will mean she isn’t a thug, and she isn’t a hoodlum—and it will mean that she isn’t a quitter. It will mean that she’s a kid born into a disastrous situation who persisted, year after year. Kids like Gabriela do deserve the dignity of that diploma, even if others can’t understand why it could possibly matter. (And no: Employers have never known that diplomas mean algebra. By the way: It’s possible to issue different grades of diploma to reflect different levels of achievement. But that, of course, removes the joy of punishing low-income kids.)

What would we want for Gabriela in the ninth grade? We’d want to see her in a school where the staff demanded—and got—good order. We’d want to see her get the academic review work she needed. We’d want to see her confronted by competent teachers—teachers who were prepared to demand good work, but who knew how to figure out what kinds of demands were reasonable for kids who were floundering badly. Who knows? Perhaps if she’d gotten that skillful review, she might have ended up passing algebra. But yes: We want to see Gabriela pushed hard—but only in the pursuit of objectives which are actually reasonable.

What is reasonable? Let’s imagine the tables turned just a bit. No one asked our reader to take Calculus in the seventh grade class he describes. But if they had, he would have failed it—just like Gabriela—and he would have failed again and again if he’d been told to re-take it. If he had gone to a school which made such demands, he’d have ended up as a dropout too—and he might not have persisted as long as Gabriela. But no one would ever make such demands on kids at middle-class schools like Borel, and it’s a sign of our vacuous, “faddish” times that they make such demands of Gabriela.

Here is what it all comes down to: Quite understandably, it’s hard for people like the reader to grasp how bad it actually is. (See Broder’s column, for example.) It’s very hard—perhaps impossible—to understand what this passage describes:

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
For ourselves, we spent more than a decade with such kids, and we pretty much know what that passage means. We understand the chaos of their so-called education, and we understand how confused they are—how badly they lack basic skills. (We also know how hard they try to ignore the intellectual chaos around them—chaos they didn’t create.) But no—they don’t belong in ninth-grade algebra, in service to “a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.” We want to see those kids pushed hard; we want to seem them required to perform. But demands on students must be reasonable. In a world where ninth-graders “still count on their fingers,” we’ll assert that this new demand isn’t.

It’s very hard for middle-class people to understand what goes on in those schools. It’s hard to grasp what that passage means—to understand how bad things are for the kids whom that passage describes. It’s very hard to picture that world. We’ll assert that—understandably—many readers can’t do it. And in the absence of such understanding, simple “solutions” will come to mind. For the latest beguiling but tragic example, see David Broder’s new column.