In 2015 I published Ain't Nobody be Learnin' Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools, about my frustrating years teaching math — babysitting really — at high-poverty public and charter high schools. These schools, like their neighborhoods, are segregated by race. They are modern, well-funded, and staffed with dedicated staff, but they produce meager results. Few students gain the academic skills and work ethic needed for a job or middle-class future, let alone for college.
These schools have operated for 30 years under "school reforms" imposed on previously-independent school boards. Hillary Clinton led the way. As "the education first lady" she led the Arkansas school reform effort. From 2001 to 2015 school reform was enforced by No Child Left Behind, which punished teachers and administrators for failing to raise poor children's average test scores to middle-class levels. Contrary to the claims of the school reformers, ZIP code does indeed matter in child development and academic success.
Three hundred and fifty years of violent race rule and concentrated poverty after the flight of the black middle class often make a college-prep curriculum inappropriate. Younger pregnancies, lower birth weights, absent fathers, poor nutrition, low verbal stimulation of infants, little reading with preschoolers, crime, alienation, and many other implications of ZIP code mean that poor children's outcomes are no better today than they were before No Child, or even before psychologist Kenneth Clark identified poverty's "tangle of pathology" in the 1960s.
This reality has been hidden by cherry-picked fluctuations in tests, phony passing grades, and manipulated graduation rates. Half of the students at high-poverty schools drop out, and most of the rest skip school, make little effort in class or with homework, and graduate helpless before a community college curriculum or the demands of a job-training program.
I wrote in my book that replacing the test-centered approach with a student-centered one "cannot be successful, in fact not even legally undertaken" until high-poverty schools were freed from No Child. And then, President Obama signed its repeal in December.
The most important part of the fix has nothing to do with schools. America can afford a hundred billion dollars a year for living-wage jobs for parents, as well as parent training and support in high-risk neighborhoods for six months before and after birth. Actually, America can't afford not to offer these programs. However, we must also build a bridge to the middle class for the generation that is already in school.
So, what is the school part of the fix? I asked four high school administrators, two in "east of the river" D.C. who must remain anonymous because of likely reprisals, Henry Gradillas, the principal who protected East Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame, and Jerry Boarman, head of the Bullis School in Potomac, Md., and formerly of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. Their consensus can be summed up as: honesty, support, accountability, and appropriate curriculum.
Honesty means ending phony grades and diplomas, and manipulated test results. Support means assessing students holistically and placing them in remediation or counseling for self-discipline. Accountability means removing students from courses for poor effort and attendance or disruption, and placing them in counseling before restarting the course with a new cohort. Appropriate curriculum means that families have an early and repeated choice between two challenging tracks: preparation for college or technology training.
Honesty is such a challenge to the current hiding of low effort and achievement that the administrators say the first thing they would need is a five-year contract. That would make it harder to fire them when honest grading sends Fs soaring and graduations plummeting, and forces students to repeat courses with a lot more effort.
Current practice on grades is typified by this 2015 email from a principal with Friendship Public Charter Schools: "Remember, our conversation about 0s and 50s. We are not in the business of failing kids." According to a teacher, this references a policy of "changing grades to reduce failure rates. Even when students do not complete the work they receive no less than 50 percent." In a D.C. school, the fraud is automatic: The computer-based grade book refuses to accept anything below 50, even if nothing is handed in.
Dishonesty reigns in claims of dramatic progress on standardized tests, with districts choosing from a bevy of results. At the school level the No Child rules spurred cheating and a search for "bubble kids" whose scores on pre-tests showed they were close to being "proficient." Gradillas says, "positive statistics are the Holy Grail…the best instruction is geared to the bubble kids…and (others) sometimes get shortchanged." Of course, scores can gradually rise when student effort rises with a solid school culture. "The scores will come after a couple of years," Boarman says, "and are really not that difficult to raise" if the principal is given the power to build a culture of discipline and community, fun that honestly rewards success and recognizes failure.
As honesty becomes the norm, many students will be accurately recorded as failing courses. The two D.C. administrators say that these students must start at their current achievement level rather than at their assigned grade level. Gradillas says of the typical student entering a high-poverty high school, "educators ... have a huge problem. The level of student preparation is far below that which the mandated curriculum demands. Students with such poor academic skills make it impossible for teachers to adequately educate a student in algebra/geometry ... let alone Advanced Placement. The challenge ... was simple: Educate the students in those basic skills that they should have mastered long before reaching high school."
The key to providing appropriate support, according to Boarman, is for the staff to work together to create "a clear profile, a composite for each student: find out where they come from, really know them: What are their grade levels? What are their and their parents' interests for a career? Then their academic program can be appropriate rather than pre-packaged." Boarman says that "holistic" testing and interviews are crucial, so that those well below grade level can be placed in remedial courses that he calls "backward mapping" and that Gradillas calls "developmental." Teachers would have to certify that students had picked up skills, both in academics and school behavior, before they could advance into challenging courses.
Gradillas explains that ending the "you're a sophomore — you need to take these courses" approach is initially controversial: "The incentive for students was to pass the remedial classes as soon as possible, so they could return to a more normal academic program. The heat was on. There were a lot of rumblings from District administrators and community organizations about our new policies. However, we were in the right." Boarman argues for this child-centered approach because "high school is about covering the necessary material, not the required time. It may take some people three years, it may take others five years. Membership in a class is not the issue."
Gradillas and Boarman believe that students take ownership of school culture when they take part in activities outside the classroom, such as clubs, plays, volunteering, music, and sports. They — and the D.C. administrators when their central office backs them up — also insist on academic and behavioral accountability. Weaker students who know they will be given passing grades and diplomas lose motivation to follow rules, and stronger students do less homework and give less effort in class. As one D.C. administrator says, "We are all teaching middle-class social skills, whatever our field." The best way to teach such skills as effort, politeness, initiative, and reliability is both to model and demand them.
When Boarman took over Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1980's he found that it was in chaos, "with gangs and fights." He broke the 3,300 kids into eight "neighborhoods," with a vice principal for each who was to be there, visible, all the time, responding to any hint of trouble. "Any cursing immediately went to the administration, any physical threat to a teacher was automatic expulsion." As a judge told Boarman when he insisted on prosecuting a student for assault, "the only thing worse than hitting a teacher in school is assaulting a nun in church." His summary of his experience at Roosevelt is: "Respect was demanded. Respect comes from both sides: Schools are set up for kids, but kids have to work. Kids say later: 'Thank you for drawing the line. It helped me see how I had to live.'"
As Gradillas notes, resistance to accountability can be ferocious at first: "Objections to what we were doing hit the school from every direction. Students and parents were angry because it was hard work to follow the new rules." The alternative, though, is continued disruption of the 50 percent of students who can handle the challenge by the 50 percent who won't. This ratio can't improve until accountability is the norm. Students who fail due to lack of effort and attendance, and those who disrupt, will have to be removed from the cohort of those who make an honest effort, and then have to show progress in remedial courses or behavioral counseling before restarting the failed course.
Given the trauma and chaos of poverty, some of the removed students, and in fact many at first, will drop out rather than try again. The school must offer them counseling and support, but it cannot lower its expectations. Failure must be an option if the remaining students are to take their education seriously. It is worth noting that most of the students who would fall into the "removal" category today are likely to drop out anyway.
Politicians tell us that everyone must go to college to have a good income and life, but it just isn't true. While Boarman is a proponent of college being a goal for all students, and of "signature programs" that sustain students' interest in college prep, he also says that, "educators must accept the fact that a majority of American students, and far more from poor schools, will not graduate from four-year colleges." Few students in high-poverty schools today need, are intrigued by, or prepared for a college-prep curriculum. All four administrators call for public schools to offer a challenging advanced technology track, although they caution against dead-end vocational education.
Gradillas cancelled courses that did not lead to higher-paying skills, and Boarman says: "'Advanced technology' is the modern replacement for 'vocational tech' — not traditional fields like cosmetology and auto mechanics, but modern fields like computer-aided auto diagnostics, computer consulting, and, like the German technology schools, engineering skills appropriate for good-paying technical jobs in local industries." The two D.C. administrators caution that the technology track must have the same standards as college prep, or it will be seen as a weak program rather than a sought-after placement for students who don't see college as their path to the middle class.
NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois defused a debate about the role of college prep and vocational education in black emancipation with the observation that, "the object of all true education is not to make men carpenters; it is to make carpenters men." Both he and Booker T. Washington, seen as proponents of the two different paths, actually endorsed them both. Reading, writing, social analysis, everyday and theoretical mathematics, poetry, history, and fiction are as important to the citizen who is a welder as to the citizen who is a scientist. With the end of No Child, there should be space for principals in high-poverty schools to fashion a curriculum that is appropriate for their particular student body.
Caleb S. Rossiter's introduction to the challenges of educating poor children came in the 1970s, when he was a Head Start teacher with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the youngest elected school board member in New York State. After earning a Ph.D. in policy analysis from Cornell University he became a congressional aide and foreign policy advocate in the 1980's and 1990's, opposing U.S. support for repressive regimes in formerly-colonized countries. From 2003 to 2010 he was a professor of African affairs and statistics for international affairs at American University. Since then he has been a high school math teacher, first with all-black Washington, DC, public and charter high-poverty schools and currently at the Bullis School of Potomac, Maryland. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.