Every year in my sheltered, intervention English class, we read Left Behind (Also known as Two Old Women evidently), a short novel by Velma Wallis about a Native American tribe in Alaska. In the story, which has been passed down by Athabascans for centuries, a tribe decides it can no longer support two old women during an especially cold winter, and the chief decides to leave them behind. The two women are then left to fend for themselves, and their lives are clearly on the line.
The metaphor with our public school students is just too obvious.
When it comes to moving on and going to college, our low-income public school students are constantly left behind. This is nothing new. These kids don’t make it to college in droves, and are then left to fend for themselves in a Corporatocracy that loves to pay workers wages on which they cannot live. Those of us who try and get these kids an education every day know how dire their job situation will be, but often we are feeding into a society that wants to simply throw them aside and leave them to rot.
Let me elaborate. We know that over 50% of college students today cannot even place in the basic English and Math courses. They need to be remediated, and take extension courses their first semester of college that don’t even count towards their degree. They are getting into college, but have not learned enough in high school. That begs the question, how did they get into college? The answer is simple.
You have to remember, the kids who get into college are, for the most part, not our low-income public school students. You can’t blame this poor proficiency on our low-income public schools because our kids don’t go to college. You need to blame it on the middle income, private, and charter schools who send kids to college in high percentages. Why doesn’t anyone acknowledge this? I feel like public school teachers take the brunt of the blame for everything. But the fact that kids who make it to college aren’t ready for college is not our fault.
These schools aren’t preparing half their students for college, but are still sending them with sparkling transcripts. If a college asked me to send them a bunch of students who aren’t ready for college, I could do it very easily. The students at my school are just as unprepared for college as those who get in. Trust me. The problem I have is that my students don’t have the grade inflation that makes them competitive.
My wife went to an all girls Catholic School on the San Francisco Peninsula. I went to the same low-income public school at which I now teach. When we talk about our high school educations, there really don’t seem to be very many differences. They had to wear uniforms, and had a bit higher percentage of good teachers, but only a bit. She still had crazies, lunatics, and child molesters at her high school, they just didn’t have the gang problems. When we both arrived at UC Davis, we were similarly prepared. The only difference was her high school sent over 90% of their students to college. Mine was probably in the twenties.
And my wife always reminds me of the same thing. Her all-girls Catholic school was in the business of passing kids on, because they needed to have a high percentage of their students getting into college in order to attract more upper-income parents who would pay to send their kids there. So even though the girls at her school were doing cocaine and acid and smoking real weed in much higher numbers than the kids at my school (because they could afford the good drugs), their teachers had to find ways to give them all As and Bs, because if they didn’t, administration would find someone who would. Because the only way those girls were going to get into college was with very high GPAs.
Again, this idea of grade inflation isn’t anything new. Everyone who has been to one of these high schools knows what I’m talking about. Sure, there are some really good prep schools that truly give a great education. But when I went to college, for the most part I was surrounded by the same kinds of ignorant teens with which I went to high school. They weren’t academic, they weren’t these sweater-vest wearing intellectuals, they were 18 year olds who had made it to college because everyone at their school did. They hadn’t learned any more than me, and many quite a bit less. There were dozens of students at my high school who could have succeeded at UC Davis had they been given a spot.
Our biggest problem is we don’t give kids at my school spots. Not only do we not have grade inflation, we require students to excel to get into college. They have to overcome and outperform to move on from my high school. At my wife’s school, you woke up Senior year and had a half-dozen acceptance letters.
Maybe I’m being classist. Maybe I’m bitter. But what I see every day now as a teacher at my old high school is the opposite of grade inflation—and this is because nobody has a problem flunking poor, ghetto kids. We can blame them very easily, and plug in Ds and Fs in the hundreds because it is easy to and no one will question you much for doing it. But the difference between a C and a B is just as important when it comes to getting into Cal or Stanford. This is another way in which the HAVEs in our country benefit simply from being born into a better situation. It is also another example of how business interests affect the egalitarian aims of education. If the reputation of your business depends on giving high grades and sending kids to college, you will be in the business of giving high grades. But is anyone questioning these practices even though the evidence is overwhelming? No, but they sure are scrutinizing bubble forms from public school assessments in Atlanta on tests that have nothing to do with getting into college.
Our poor kids have nothing going for them and everything going against them. They are alone in the middle of an Alaskan winter. And even as they navigate the gauntlet that is our public schools, they aren’t getting any help from us. To many of us, they are just another failure, and we don’t have any problem giving a C+, even though that is a grade private and charter schools really have to think about–because if their college-going rates drop, it just wouldn’t be good for business.