Reading the recent column by fellow Blue State Conservative contributor John Eidson got me to thinking about educational experiences of my own. It’s always a good column when it makes one think.
Reading it, there was a vivid memory of when I was working at a regional campus of The Ohio State University as an academic advisor.
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I met with a just-admitted young black woman from Cleveland, OH. I was looking forward to meeting her after having reviewed her high school transcript. It was all A’s and B’s with other indicators of academic excellence. At least, that was what the transcript showed.
A regional campus at Ohio State, unlike the main campus in Columbus, was an open-admissions campus for any Ohio high school graduate.
Because it is open admissions, certain placement tests were used so incoming students would be in a course that would maximize their chances of successfully completing that course. You don’t want to sign a student up for chemistry, for example, if they don’t know algebra.
So, this young woman comes into my office and tells me she is pre-Med. That generally requires a first year of Biology, Chemistry, and perhaps Calculus if one can carry that load. I told her what courses would be required, then made a later appointment for the setting of her schedule.
In the intervening time, the results from her placement tests came in. Having not yet taken the ACT exam, she did take it as part of her admissions process and received a score of 4. Signing your name and randomly guessing all the answers can get you a score of 4.
On the Nelson-Denny Reading Test she scored out at an elementary school level. Her math test showed she needed remedial work in basic arithmetic. She had a similar result in her writing placement test.
Clearly, she was not ready for the typical first-semester line of courses required of a pre-Med student. She would have to do significant remedial work in math, reading and writing.
The first part of my meeting with her was spent explaining just where she was academically, and what would be required of her to pursue her dream. The second half of our meeting was mostly a cheerleading exercise on my part as I told her that, despite the challenge in front of her, this is precisely what we do at OSU.
I told her that the university had the resources to help her achieve her goal. Absolutely we did. If she would but put in the time and effort, we can partner with her and get her where she needs to be. And that’s where we left it, with a schedule that would begin the process of educating a young black woman. She left my office with a smile on her face.
At the end of the first day of classes she showed up at my office door asking to speak with me. She thereupon stood there and told me she went to all her classes, and that she didn’t understand a word that was said in any of them. She then turned and walked out of my office before I could say anything.
That was the last I saw of her. She withdrew from classes the next day.
After getting word she had withdrawn, I pulled her file again just to look at her transcript. According to the Cleveland Public Schools, she was earmarked for success.
It was all a lie.
How could this happen? The scenario that built itself up as I pondered her situation is that she was a willing and cooperative student in high school. She did her work as best she could and caused no trouble for teachers or staff. And she was rewarded for that.
But the rewards she was given, it is obvious, were rewards of self-esteem and not of accomplishment. She was given every reason in the world to think that she would one day be a doctor. And her high school teachers cheered her on. “You go, girl.”
But once she left the safe confines of her inner-city Cleveland high school with its low expectations, reality squashed her like a frog.
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. What were those teachers doing? Are standards so low in Cleveland they actually thought she was doing great? She could neither read, write, nor do arithmetic at better than an elementary school level, but hey, she’s doing great.
In my anger I pounded on my desk. Another advisor came in wondering what all the fuss was about. All I could do was shout some inarticulate yawp. Were I to have formulated my thoughts it would have been something like: “They intellectually raped this young girl, and then sent her out damaged, to be brutalized by the outside world.”
God was I angry. And, as I recall this whole affair now, I am still angry.
To paraphrase from Barry Goldwater’s speech at the Republican Convention in 1964, “Low expectations in the pursuit of racial justice is no virtue.” Good intentions be damned. That young woman was abused because she wasn’t held to the highest of standards while in public school.
Which brings me to teachers. Many of them, God bless ‘em. For many others though, what the hell are they doing in a classroom?
As a retired university professor, I know how Education schools are viewed by most academics. It’s why we roll our eyes and chuckle when Dr. Jill insists on being called “Doctor” with her Education degree.
It’s also why Education types come up with all these grandiose and cockamamie theories, all very high-minded and abstract to demonstrate their intellectual acumen.
Take Whole Word vs. Phonics. All indicators are that phonics gives the best results when teaching kids how to read. Yet still education theorists insist on afflicting Whole Word approaches on students, often with dire consequences.
Another example is Common Core Math vs. the Old-Fashioned Way. For a humorous take on the difference, see this video.
In short, education theories appear to be exercises among educators to somehow justify their existence as intellectuals on college campuses. Hate to break it to them, but they aren’t.
True story. When I was working on my doctorate, I held a graduate assistantship as an academic advisor for undergraduate majors before they were admitted by the department of their major, usually the beginning of their third year. One student came in and said he wanted to be a Biology major with an ultimate goal of teaching it at the secondary level. Based on his high school record and tests, I signed him up for the needed courses, including first-year Biology and Chemistry.
Later in the semester, meeting with him, it was clear he was unable to meet the rigorous requirements of a Biology major. So, he announced to me he wanted to change his major to Education with a Science emphasis, which essentially is the materials and methods of teaching science. This would allow him to still teach Biology at the secondary level without having to take the science classes required of a Biology major.
I helped him change his schedule the following semester because that was my job. But I never felt good about it. That’s not who I would want for a high school Biology teacher for my children. I want the one who successfully completes the rigors of a Biology major and then takes a fifth year to get a Master’s in Education with certification.
It’s the willingness to accept mediocrity that is killing education. And our kids are the ones who suffer.
Another story has to do with Thomas Sowell and his extensive writing on education, particularly on the education of black children. He highlights the story of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.
Dunbar was the first public high school for blacks in the nation. It also has one of the most distinguished records of educational achievement on record.
From 1870 to 1955 most of its graduates, upwards of 80 per cent, went to college, which was rare for graduates, white or black, at the time. From 1918 to 1923 Dunbar graduates earned 15 degrees from Ivy League schools, as well as having other graduates from top-notch schools like Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan.
During World War II, Dunbar provided “nearly a score of Majors, nine Colonels and Lieutenant colonels, and a Brigadier General.” Edward Brooke, a Republican senator from Massachusetts, was the first popularly elected African-American Senator. He was also a graduate of Dunbar.
The quality of the faculty was outstanding, with most having graduate degrees and many with Ph.Ds.. The academic standards were extraordinarily high. Latin and Greek were required during most of its history. And clearly the students met those standards. No dumbing down for them.
But that all changed in 1954 after the Brown v Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court. To implement the decision, Dunbar was transformed from an elite school creating amazing opportunities for young black men and women to a neighborhood school. And Dunbar is not in the best of neighborhoods.
In the words of Sowell from a later article: “Dunbar, which had been accepting outstanding black students from anywhere in the city, could now accept only students from the rough ghetto neighborhood in which it was located. Virtually overnight, Dunbar became a typical ghetto school. As unmotivated, unruly, and disruptive students flooded in, Dunbar teachers began moving out and many retired.
More than 80 years of academic excellence simply vanished into thin air.”
One more vignette. Many years ago, I applied for and was accepted to interview for a position as an academic advisor at a regional campus of Indiana University. I was between academic gigs after a move to Indiana, so my wife, a physician, could look after her elderly and ailing parents. I was simply looking for a job.
At a certain point, being interviewed by the search committee, I was asked what I would do with a black student who was struggling in their classes.
My response was I would treat a black student exactly as I would any other student who was struggling, that I would make sure they were afforded the needed resources to address remedially their shortcomings and get them on their way toward completing a degree.
I then used a line made popular by George Bush and echoed in Goldwater’s convention speech. I said that we do no good for a black student when we allow the soft bigotry of low expectations to dictate how we teach.
A couple members of the committee looked at each other and rolled their eyes. I knew then that I was not going to get the job.
I also know that I was right.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Photo by Maccablo Inc at Flickr