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Daily Howler: What 'should' Gabriela have studied? Our answer invokes a sad song
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FAREWELL, GABRIELA! What should Gabriela have studied? Our answer invokes a sad song: // link // print // previous // next //

WHEN WE SAY JUMP, HE SAYS HOW HIGH: In this morning’s Post, E. J. Dionne discusses Rob Reiner’s pre-school proposal. Meanwhile, the Post’s Jay Mathews (with whom we share the old school system tie) has reviewed the scores from that Alexandria grade school. You know what to do—just click here. We’ll return to that topic on Monday.

Tomorrow, we’ll glumly tackle a press corps issue. Headline: “Omigod—now they’ve even got Krugman!” (Warning—tomorrow’s program may not be suitable for the easily outraged.) And in honor of Oscar, we plan to offer a list of our current all-time favorite films. Last night, we watched our most recent addition—one more time!—on the Family Channel. Question: Did Jim Sheridan honor a scene from this wonderfully good children’s film when he made In America four years later?

Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For links to all parts of this series, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/2/06. Today, we answer a reader’s question: What should Gabriela have studied?

WHAT SHOULD GABRIELA HAVE STUDIED: In today’s Post, Nick Anderson makes it official; John Deasy has been formally hired to head the Prince George’s County Schools. “The Prince George's County Board of Education voted unanimously last night to hire a new chief executive, aiming to stabilize a school system known for leadership churn and academic inconsistency,” Anderson writes. He outlines the challenges facing Deasy, then closes with a few quotes:

ANDERSON (2/3/06): Deasy, in a telephone interview, said he was thinking beyond high school diplomas toward a "college-going culture." He said he wanted to promote an "absolute, unified expectation that all kids can learn at high levels," so that "every kid gets the fundamental civil right to be ready to go to college.”
That, of course, would be the dream—that an under-achieving, low-income district could develop a “college-going culture.” At one point, Anderson correctly notes that Deasy can’t do this himself:
ANDERSON: [E]ducation experts say school system leadership is just one factor in academic performance.

The efforts of parents, teachers and principals are of paramount importance. In Prince George's, parental support of schools is uneven. Teachers and principals come and go in some schools that need the most help.

As someone said, it takes a village. Indeed, let’s go beyond the groups named here. We’d love to see civic orgs in Prince George’s—including traditional civil rights groups—look for ways to create that new culture. No, college isn’t exactly a “civil right.” But it wouldn’t hurt to pretend.

But while we’re creating this new county culture, we do need to deal with reality. Deasy said he wants to promote an “absolute, unified expectation that all kids can learn at high levels,” and that is surely a fine expectation—in the abstract. But Prince George’s County, like L.A. and D.C., has many students who are struggling badly, and they can’t be wished away or discounted. “According to teachers at the school, the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level,” Jonathan Kozol wrote of Fremont High in Los Angeles (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/06). “Nearly a third read at third grade level or below.” It’s important to seek a “college-going culture,” and it’s OK to tell the world that every child can be a top learner. But meanwhile, other students exist—the Gabrielas, the poorly-prepared, the kids who can’t pass algebra. So while we wait for that new culture—while we wait for the day when every child will achieve—what should these deserving kids be studying during their high school years?

As you may recall, this question was recently posed by a long-time reader. He responded to an earlier claim that algebra should be a graduation requirement—that high school attendance might be pointless if kids can’t pass so basic a course (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06). We posted his e-mail the very next day (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06). We thought he asked excellent questions:

E-MAIL: I think the reader is trying to get your idea of what the curriculum would look like for, say, a challenged 7th or 9th grader. What kind of reading, English, History, Science, etc. If Algebra 1 is too tough, what kind of math?

Persisting for 4 years to show up in high school is all well and good, but if you've written off a number of subjects, what is the kid showing up to do exactly? With, of course, the corollary: Is it worth showing up for this diminished curriculum in order to display perseverance?

What should Gabriela be taking? Is it worth showing up at all? We never taught in high school ourselves (except as a sub), but we can make a few general comments.

What should Gabriela be taking? In his superb Los Angeles Times report, Duke Helfand speaks briefly to that issue, as we’ve noted. The new Los Angeles graduation requirement “has also failed to provide students with what they need most: a review of basic math,” he writes. “Teachers complain that they have no time for remediation, that the rapid pace mandated by the district leaves behind students like Tina Norwood, 15, who is failing beginning algebra for the third time.” Do lower-achieving kids really gain from that sort of “remediation?” Obviously, that would depend on the quality of the teaching. At one point, Helfand presents some (weak) anecdotal information which suggests an intriguing possibility—Gabriela might have ended up passing algebra if she’d gotten the review she really needed:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Cleveland High, four miles from [Gabriela’s] Birmingham [High], places ninth- and 10th-graders who get a D or F in algebra into semester-long classes that focus on sixth- and seventh-grade material and pre-algebra. Students then return to standard algebra classes.

Eighteen percent of Cleveland's 10th-graders were proficient in algebra on state tests last spring, compared with 8 percent at Birmingham and 3 percent districtwide.

Those meager data are basically meaningless. But it’s utterly pointless to place a kid in a class for which she is manifestly unprepared. It’s bizarre to place her there six times—and it keeps her from the kind of instruction from which she might actually gain! Is it worth going to high school to learn basic math? Of course it is, if you don’t have those skills—and if those skills can be conveyed. It would, of course, be a better world if kids showed up in ninth grade with stronger skills. But Gabriela showed up with the skills she had—and no, she doesn’t have the option of throwing her vibrant young life away. In another passage, Helfand describes the way low-achieving kids were taught in high school before we decided to say that “all kids can learn at high levels”—even these kids right here before us, these ninth-graders working on third-grade level. We’ll reprint that brief passage below.

But the e-mailer asked a broader question. What should a public school curriculum “look like for, say, a challenged 7th or 9th grader? What kind of reading, English, History, Science, etc. If Algebra 1 is too tough, what kind of math?” Such questions must be answered broadly. But certain parts of the answer are clear.

What kind of reading should a challenged seventh grader be assigned? Reading he can actually learn from! If a seventh grader is reading on third grade level, he can’t be handed standard seventh grade texts—unless we want him to flounder and fail, as Gabriela did in that algebra class. Ideally, he should be studying the same history and science as everyone else, and he should be given endless reading assignments, making him part of the reading culture into which middle-class kids are born. But we don’t ask average seventh-graders to read college textbooks; we know that they would flounder and fail. That challenged seventh-grader is no different. To the extent possible, he should be reading textbooks and supplementary materials which discuss the curriculum appropriate to his age in a way he can actually understand. This principle is obvious, and quite simple-minded. But in our experience, it’s routinely observed in the breach. In the future, we’ll be discussing these matters in more detail. But here, again, is a passage from an article we wrote for the Baltimore Evening Sun in the winter of ’82:

SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore curriculum] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way...

The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.

We’ll assume that few districts currently make such absurd reading assignments. But we’ll guess that the following situation still obtains: When teachers can’t find appropriate textbooks for their challenged students, these students get no reading assignments or experiences at all! Of course, it would be possible to fill the classrooms of low-income schools with books which are challenging in content and appropriately readable. Often, though, such books don’t exist. Why not? Let’s go there later. (An e-mail was insightful. See below.)

What kind of reading should a challenged seventh grader be assigned? That kind of reading, and lots of it! Those challenged kids should be asked to work hard. But you can’t ask kids to “work hard” if the task you hand them is simply impossible. That’s why we don’t ask average seventh graders to read MIT textbooks. Wouldn’t that represent “higher standards,” too? No—it would represent lunacy, and no one ever does it.

Regarding math, the question is somewhat different. What kind of math should a challenged seventh or ninth grader be taking? “If Algebra 1 is too tough, what kind of math?” At any grade level, the answer is simple: Students should be taught the math they don’t know—as long as it builds on the skills they possess. You can’t ask kids to magically leap-frog years of skills in the name of the great modern god, “higher standards.” If kid are weak at basic math, you can’t command them to pass grade-level math. Unless, of course, you want them to flounder, fail, become defeated, and end up as high school drop-outs. These are very simple ideas—unless we prefer to think magically.

These are basic, elementary principles. But uh-oh—these matters are basically never discussed! Instead, our society’s discussion of low-income education is relentlessly driven by Weird Scripts From Neptune. (We say, “All kids can learn at high levels"—and let the discussion stop there.) What should a challenged ninth-grader be studying? David Broder limned it this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06): High school kids are dropping out because their classes don’t do enough Plato! Truly, this column was typed up on Mars—but it represents a familiar script, a script we’ve seen retyped for decades. And of course, when Broder’s column appeared, absolutely no one said boo. Reason? We hold low-income kids in contempt. Manifestly: No one cares what happens to them! They’re throw-aways, worthless, your basic disposables. As we comfort ourselves with columns like Broder’s, we tell them how much we disregard them. Meanwhile, can you hear the song we’re singing? We hear it: “Farewell, Gabriela!”

YOU ARE THERE: Here is Helfand’s brief description of high school education before we began to think magically:

HELFAND: Compulsory algebra is a relatively new idea in the faddish realm of education reform.

Until recently, high schools offered a range of programs. Students seen as academically able were placed in college-prep classes. Others were funneled into vocational courses in which they learned such skills as auto mechanics and office technology.

It was an imperfect system in which some bright students, particularly minorities, could find themselves trapped in classes that steered them away from higher education.
Then, about a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing as the state decided to raise academic standards for high school graduation.

Why should Los Angeles have an im-perfect system? Why not one which makes no sense at all?

A TANGY E-MAIL: Why don’t struggling kids get the textbooks they need? Why aren’t classrooms spilling with such materials? We can’t exactly mind-read that. But one reader’s thinking was tangy:

E-MAIL: When liberals learned that many poor kids are three or more years behind in reading, were we not afraid to label the children “unreachable,” or worse, the unsaid “dumb” by nature? Do any politicians or educators ever dare recommend that certain sixth graders be given third grade readers?
We think both questions are very pertinent. The second is especially tangy. For the past forty years, low-income systems have busted their butts in endless ways, pretending their students are doing better than they actually are. This produces pleasing press accounts—and new generations of failure. And many elites take part in this farce. Did you hear the one about the millions of kids who dropped out of school because they didn’t get enough Plato?