Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cross-Post: Dropout Factories

I ran across this today at Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish, posted by Conor Friedersdorf. It's a letter to the editor from a California college professor, a lengthy piece and worth reading in its entirety, but I'm going to quote the last two paragraphs.

Before I taught college, I taught at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA. I had one student who had a basketball scholarship to UC Berkeley, dependent upon getting a C average her senior year. She was failing my algebra course. We brought her parents in. Her dad told me to give her a C no matter how well she did in my course, because she was the first person in their family to get into college. I told her parents that grades did not work that way, and that she could get free tutoring before or after school, but that she had to pass my course on her own merits. She missed the midterm exam, and her mother called the next day to tell me that her daughter missed the midterm because the daughter was getting her hair braided that day. I told her that she should take the money budgeted to the hair braider and spend it on a private tutor. The parents filed a complaint against me and I was reprimanded for that suggestion as "culturally insensitive". She was a bright, likable girl, and very popular. She had played basketball overseas in youth tournaments, and was a great player. As it became clear she might not pass the class, I had students and other teachers pressuring me to pass her regardless of her grade. I graded her final exam five times, each time being more generous, trying to give her enough partial credit to pass. I was able to work her grade on the exam up to 58%.  I gave her an F and she lost her Berkeley scholarship. It still breaks my heart to hear her sobs when I told her. I still think I did the right thing.

The common denominator in all of these cases is an assumption the students had that education consists of indulgences bestowed upon the student by a more socially privileged teacher or administrator who pities them. These students were uniformly astonished when other considerations, such as merit, trumped pity. When we lower the bar of merit to admit the underprivileged, the message we send is that merit does not apply to them. Then we fail them by failing to disabuse them of this assumption.

As any of the three people who have read this blog knows, I've told many stories like this, and argued over and over again what this professor says in his last paragraph. He is absolutely correct that students, and parents, expect their experience in school to consist entirely of being showered with praise and adulation,  being treated with deference, indulgence and, yes, pity by teachers and administrators. They expect teachers to feel sorry for them because of their life circumstances, an expectation often shared by administrators (see "Dumb Down or Else" from December 2007 for a more detailed discussion and example).

The professor is also correct that students are "uniformly astonished" when they discover that teacher has expectations of them, in place of pity or sympathy for them; that they have responsibilities in school, that they have to do something in order to learn, let alone earn a passing grade. Being told "no" when seeking permission for something, or having an excuse not be accepted as such by a teacher, is unimaginable to most kids, an entirely foreign concept. And we absolutely do fail them by failing to disabuse them of these assumptions, such as by having them start the school year with a 100 average.

It's always refreshing to find another educator who "gets it." And for the record, I think he did the right thing too.

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