FAREWELL, GABRIELA! A reader poses some excellent questions. We postpone our series to answer: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2006
THE DEANS TALE: To revisit a Tale Which Refuses To Die, check David Broders silly, sad column in Sundays 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 isnt 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 Wont 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.Classic! Broder sees 14 kids discuss Malcolm X—and concludes that millions of [their] counterparts dropped out of school because the work wasnt tough enough. (Note to the Dean from the planet called Earth: When 14 kids take part in a voluntary program, they arent a representative sample.) If only wed 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 Kohls 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 hes never set his fine foot inside real urban classrooms. Are kids dropping out because theyre too smart—because they cant 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.Thats 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 wasnt challenging enough.
Well talk more about this Tale Which Wont Die in the weeks and months ahead. But what makes Broders 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 its true—but because its comforting! Yes, this is the force driving Broders 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 Deans Tale lets elites feel good—and lets them drop out from this topic.
Those kids were counting on their fingers because they werent allowed to take Plato! This is one of the stupidest columns weve ever seen—but its part of a decades-long narrative.
WHERE THEY START OUT: Throughout human history, elites have told themselves scripted tales not because theyre true, but because theyre comforting. Just as a reminder, heres 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, theyre three years behind! But a few years later, they drop out of school because the work isnt tough enough! Broders tale comes straight from Neptune—and yet its 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, well 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:The mailer cant imagine why a high school student cant (eventually) pass Algebra 1. And he wonders what a diploma would mean for a student who hadnt passed such a course. Finally, he wonders what kind of job a student will have if she cant pass algebra. In short, the reader thinks its sensible to require this course in high school—and he thinks a diploma is basically meaningless if a student hasnt passed such a course.
We think these reactions should be addressed because theyll 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 didnt have to pass algebra to get your diploma, and many students didnt take it. Heres Helfands account of the history:
HELFAND (1/30/06): Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea, Helfand writes. That doesnt necessarily mean its a bad idea, of course. But we think its worth noting that the idea is new—and that there is no track record supporting the writers 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 cant possibly read and to follow academic programs they cant really keep up with. The readers hasnt 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 cant be challenged in a class for which they lack the basic prerequisites. Well repeat what we said last week: Well guess that, by traditional standards, Gabriela Ocampo had no business taking algebra in the ninth grade. Here, again, is Helfands 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.As we said last week, perhaps Gabriela could have mastered algebra after a few years of skilled reclamation. But well 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 theyve never seen the intellectual chaos there. Its easy, then, to end up blaming the students as flunkies and shirkers.
What will a high school diploma mean: Its easy to disparage the meaning of a diploma for a low-income kid who didnt 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. Its easy to be dismissive and cutting about millions of kids whom youve 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 isnt a thug, and she isnt a hoodlum—and it will mean that she isnt a quitter. It will mean that shes 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 cant understand why it could possibly matter. (And no: Employers have never known that diplomas mean algebra. By the way: Its 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? Wed want to see her in a school where the staff demanded—and got—good order. Wed want to see her get the academic review work she needed. Wed 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 shed 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? Lets 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 hed been told to re-take it. If he had gone to a school which made such demands, hed 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 its a sign of our vacuous, faddish times that they make such demands of Gabriela.
Here is what it all comes down to: Quite understandably, its hard for people like the reader to grasp how bad it actually is. (See Broders column, for example.) Its 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 didnt create.) But no—they dont 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, well assert that this new demand isnt.
Its very hard for middle-class people to understand what goes on in those schools. Its hard to grasp what that passage means—to understand how bad things are for the kids whom that passage describes. Its very hard to picture that world. Well assert that—understandably—many readers cant do it. And in the absence of such understanding, simple solutions will come to mind. For the latest beguiling but tragic example, see David Broders new column.