Empty Promises to Urban Students

BookEducationby Dana R. Casey7/14/15
A young man whom I have taught in tenth grade and now twelfth was chatting with some friends before senior English class. I overheard him say, “I haven’t decided on Princeton or Harvard.”  I choked on my water.  This particular young man, though polite and personally engaging has never put any effort into his academic education.  He relies on his IEP and his gentle personality to make it to twelfth grade.  This combination is often enough to move from one grade level to the next in my school system, but it is not enough to get one to Harvard.

Today, I had a similar experience with another student named Dantrell.  He is also a rather personable and good-looking young man who has given academics only passing attention.  In any fully functioning school system neither of these students would be sitting so easily in twelfth grade given their past academic habits, but my system constantly lowers standards while touting increased expectations through Common Core. Mostly, they threaten teachers to pass students; play the game or else.

Dantrell came after school attempting to turn in an essay which was not only two weeks past due, but also a week after grades for the quarter had closed.  Such deadlines are often amorphous around these parts, but quarter grades had been closed on the computer system and it would take an administrator to change it.  He seemed devastated.

I began to wonder why this student, who previously seemed to give his grades only superficial attention, was suddenly so concerned about one essay.  Did he have a scholarship or a college admission riding on a borderline grade?  I asked him, but he said no. I investigated further:

“What college do you want to go to?”

“Marshall University to play football.”

“Oh, really!  Have you been scouted?”

“No.”

“Have you been accepted to the university?”

“No.”

“Well, then let me ask you.  Are you on our school football team?”

“No.”

At this point I was perplexed, so I challenged him saying, “How do you think that you are going to end up on their football team under those circumstances?”  He responded that he was going to just go to school there and try out for the team.  “So,” I said, “You are just going to go to Marshall with no acceptance, no scholarship…I am assuming you would need a scholarship…and no team experience and just ask them to let you on the team through open tryouts.  Don’t you know that schools scout for athletes and they expect their athletes to be scholars too?”  He looked at me as if he had no idea of what I was saying.

I tried another approach.  “Do you know what the average acceptance stats are for Marshall?”  Again, the answer was, “No.”  Thank God these answers are quickly found on the internet.  When I showed him that the average SAT score for the smallest chance of getting into Marshall is 1400+ (his scores are around 700) and the grade point average is 3.25 (his are below 2.0 from a below average school),  I could see the wound it caused his soul.  He had a dream, but the dream was built on air under which there was no foundation.

I did not leave him in this dejected state, but talked to him about community college and the opportunity to start there, to eventually move upward to maybe a state university.   In all honesty, a good post-secondary training program might be a better choice for this young man.  He has a good mind, but not an academically inclined mind, at least not yet. However, there are those in this city who would rather deny this young man every chance for a successful future than to offer him an auto mechanics course.

Why does this little narrative matter?  Because it illustrates the lies our society tells the most vulnerable children.  This young man, like so many of my students, has been told from the first day of school that he too can go to college.  That seems like a good thing to say except for two facts.

First, not everyone is made for college, which is not a bad thing.  The country needs store managers and chefs, plumbers and carpenters, cable installers and auto mechanics many of whom make more money than I ever will as a teacher.  These same people become small business owners, the life-blood of our nation.  There are countless types of intelligence aside from academic intelligence and a multitude of ways to create a successful fulfilling life of self-reliance, but all my students are told about is college.

Second, all students are told that if they can dream it, they can make it happen, but no one tells them the whole story.  No one includes the hard work that must provide the foundation of such dreams.   Students have told me of their dreams to become doctors, but then admit that they have no talent in science or math.  Students have bragged about their future law degrees, but then profess that reading and writing are a thing that they have no interest in…EVER! Since everyone tells them that they could go to college with little effort or capabilities, why not take it further? Many of my students claim their future life plan is in the NBA or NFL regardless of the fact that they are not yet on the high school team in senior year.

The system encourages failure as student after student is passed through the system without doing a thing.  In my school system there are indeed many students who want to work hard, who want to excel, but their success is hindered by the disorder and mediocrity that daily surrounds them, mediocrity that results from a form of misguided compassion for the “underprivileged”.

The root cause of these unrealistic expectations and accepted mediocrity is a foolish compassion offered by sympathetic do-gooders who may wish to help those that they consider less fortunate than themselves.  In fact, they often cause irreparable damage to people who have fewer resources to recover, poor students who end up with no degree and student loans that they have no ability to pay back.  Why would these do-gooders do this? Because they have been fed a fictitious vision of a utopian world.  It is built on the foundation of partial truths — all really good lies are.

I once had a conversation with a fellow teacher about our students. I said that we needed to bring manufacturing back to this country so that our students could get jobs that would provide them a living. She was horrified. Not only did she accuse me of wanting to destroy the earth by causing climate change as a result of the evil pollution such capitalistic factories would cause, she also accused me of wanting to keep our urban students out of the “power structure”. In her mind, only those with college degrees have any voice in this country. I said that having a paycheck and being able to feed your family was far more powerful. She started to turn red and sputter. I suggested that we end the conversation before we hurt our friendship.

In my school system, and in many school systems around this country, there are no more wood shops or auto mechanics studies or home economics or electrics studies. These were often the places were students who were not honors students felt successful, where they found their calling. But those well-meaning do-gooders like my fellow teacher are one of those reasons that the shops are locked and why my students don’t know the difference between a Phillips and a flat head screw driver.

Instead, my students feel like complete failures. They buy the lie that everyone should go to college. Some of them can, and those academically capable students should be encouraged and supported, but the remaining students know that they can’t. They are shown no alternative. Many of these students manage to get into college, but don’t survive the first semester or find themselves having to take so many remedial courses that their scholarships are not carried into the next semester. They leave school saddled with student loans and burdened with an overwhelming sense of failure. They see no path forward.

Last year the heating system in my school was having serious problems, the radiator in my room was loud and failing. A very nice young man in his early thirties came to fix the radiator during my planning period. He told me that he got a full scholarship to a six month HVAC repairs training program. He needed no student loans. With overtime, he earns around 150K a year, three times my salary in a lot less stressful job.

What is more powerful? Leaving generations of students in the dirt after lying to them about their chances at college or giving a student a skill that allows him to build a life where he can support his family well?

It is true that we should tell students in poor neighborhoods and other struggling people that in America they too could go to college with hard work, a commitment to study, and an academic aptitude.  I have helped students move from some of the meanest circumstances to Ivy League schools.  I myself am a high school dropout who never dreamed of a college education until my sister convinced me otherwise.  My obsession with reading made that transition possible. But to keep telling high school students who have barely skated by their whole school career or to tell juniors with 2nd grade reading levels (Yes, second grade!) that they too can go to a university without also telling them about the hard work and academic acumen that is required to be successful is an unforgivable sin.


Dana R. Casey is a veteran high school English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. • (1185 views)

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11 Responses to Empty Promises to Urban Students

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    A couple of decades ago, Walter Williams reported on a black Philadelphia high-schooler who planned to become a college track star. Unfortunately, despite good grades, his SATs were too low to qualify. Naturally, he wanted to sue the College Board for his poor results, but far better would have been to sue the high school for fraud — they led him to believe he was doing well when he really wasn’t.

    What you’re reporting here isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s very similar. Modern education defrauds its weaker students by promising more than it can deliver (at least without more effort than it tells them they need).

  2. Anniel says:

    Sigh. Formal Education is such a mess in this country. There are two sides here, the students who are encouraged who shouldn’t be, and the academically gifted who are not encouraged. One of our extremely high-performing high school sons, who was already taking most of his classes in college, was required to spend a day at high school testing for a career day. The first career suggested for him was being a Sewer Plant Operator. Nearly thirty years later, after an extremely successful international career in Applied Lingistics, we still remind him of what he should “really” be doing.

    And, as I remind myself, there are always the “late bloomers.” I love them.

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    Dana,

    The worst lie teachers and school administrators tell students is the one that starts, “you can do anything”. Any adult knows that it takes skill, talent, ability and hard work to achieve even the simplest dreams. Your students have been told since birth that they are special and to their parents they are special.

    To the rest of the real world, not so much. Yet, even in my state, Arkansas where there is less of this nonsense unqualified students take up the oxygen in freshman classrooms. Of 100 freshmen right out of high school only half will graduate with a BA or BS and except for the engineers they will have no job, few prospects for employment and about $100,000 in student loans that start to come due 6 months after they leave university.

    So, who do we blame? and how do we fix it?

    I suggest that it is the boomer generation that is most to blame. We profited on the expansion of colleges and universities over the last 50 years. Our parents told us the same fantasy lies that we could do anything, and we believed it. However, we also did it. The opportunities we had in the post war years really were endless. A degree was a symbol to employers that the holder actually could analyze a problem, and come up with a creative solution.

    Today, there are millions of “college students” who should not be there. They have been pushed into an academic system that feeds on a constant flow of new money. Many will fail because they are not ready for the work, can’t do the work, or won’t do the work. Yet the education system does not evaluate and correct its faults. Instead if revenues from tuition and fees fall short of expectation then raise fees and tuition.

    If anyone questions the graduation rate closely the automatic response from the various schools that comprise the university is to lower standards. Thus, the system is rigged for failure, poorly trained students pay the costs through student loans, they fail and leave and the system adjusts by lowering core standards so more students can access university and fail.

    Frankly, it is a miracle that anyone is educated at all.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The root cause of these unrealistic expectations and accepted mediocrity is a foolish compassion offered by sympathetic do-gooders who may wish to help those that they consider less fortunate than themselves.

    George W. Bush called this “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It certainly applies to kids of any color when “hurt feelings” or “self esteem” are considered of more importance than academic achievement — or teaching kids how to be Progressives (aka “good global citizens”) is also considered more important than academic achievement.

    They say that there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. I don’t trust various faddish beliefs (intellectual or otherwise) that tend to too easily float through the culture. But if this is so, we can attribute most of this to the condescending attitude of the “haves” toward the “have nots.” The “haves” (who envision themselves as the specially anointed and the specially compassionate), by definition, have their status, their paycheck, their way in life set out. They can afford to be condescending (and decidedly unhelpful) to the kids, especially with the backdrop whereby holding kids (especially non-white kids) to academic standards is considered racist (whether an extension of “white privilege” or the inflicting of “cultural hegemony”).

    Little of these unspoken truths float through the heads of those who have let kids off the hook academically. But they’ve surely imbibed these beliefs deep-down from our generally “Progressive” culture. And being “nice” by being “non-judgmental” (that is, not holding people to standards) has gained a critical mass of like-minded believers. To go against this flow is difficult, especially if it brands you as “insensitive,” at best, or a “racist,” at worst.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The notion that affluent liberals devastate everyone else by pushing policies that harm them (but from which the liberals are effectively immune for various reasons, such as gated communities shielding them from the crime they do so much to encourage) has been a major part of my politics since I read about the Yonkers scattered-site housing case in NR over 30 years ago.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It’s an astounding deal for any American to make. The implicit deal is that I will be your master. In return I will give you “free stuff” and, perhaps more importantly, I will tell you how all of your faults are actually the responsibility of other people.

        Few condense it down this concisely. But I believe that is the nature of it. And, of course, it’s an impolite way to say it because there’s no sugar-coating what is inherently a naked and unholy transaction.

        The American way is to spread hope and opportunity, not grievance and dependency. The American way is to take charge of your life, damn the obstacles, not blame “society” because life isn’t handed to you on a silver platter.

        No society can truly be compassionate unless it understands this difference. It’s very easy to get lazy and just go with coddling the victim, normalizing their ill behavior instead of correcting it.

        And that takes wise adults. Again, I think we are running out of those, but we have plenty of narcissists. And I’m sure nearly anyone could tell you were to get a good tattoo.

  5. Dana — excellent article. I saw so much of this abuse when I was teaching in the public schools and can wholeheartedly confirm what you say. Schools are only interested in the appearance of success, not the actuality of it. Our administration decided to “raise the bar” so they demanded that we force students into upper level classes for which they were ill-suited, and then demanded that teachers lower our standards to pass those kids, who were then even less able to pass the next level class so curriculum had to be continuously dumbed down. But it LOOKED like we’d upped the ante. Gees.

    Not only do we demolish the lives of students, but this has resulted in the demolition of our colleges as well, who have also had to adjust curriculum to accommodate less able students. Why are our college curricula filled with courses like Women’s Studies? Because students aren’t capable of true academics. It’s a vicious, downward spiral.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Why are our college curricula filled with courses like Women’s Studies?

      I always supposed the purpose of Women’s studies (or any other “studies” class) was, first of all, to indoctrinate Cultural Marxism (splitting us into grievance groups based upon race, class, and gender) and as a means to elbow out room for any standard, legitimate, and traditional courses on the various aspects of Western Civilization. Pop and soda companies, in particular, use this as a means to elbow out their competition by offering sometimes a half dozen or more variations on the same thing. Coke. Diet Coke. Coke “Zero.” Cherry Coke. Coke that has been bottled by virgins from South America. Etc.

      No doubt that the dumbing-down of the populace, in general, has lowered its ability to understand that these “studies” classes are part of a dumbed-down curriculum, let alone a politicized one. But wouldn’t the unquestioning acceptance of this dumbed-down and politicized curriculum be a sign that it’s working rather than simply these “studies” classes being common because they are easy to teach?

      Granted, I do think you have a point though. Thomas Sowell in “Inside American Education” has noted how the teaching profession has kind of become the “study hall” of academic professions…that is, those with the least talent tend to gravitate there now because the qualification for the profession has been dumbed down. Obviously this does not include you or Dana. But it’s a factor to consider. A dumbed-down curriculum may not look so dumb to those who perhaps can’t name the vice president and who thinks Shakespeare is a brand of fruit roll.

      • You are right about that, Brad. There’s a coarsening of curricula as well — partly for purposes of entertaining students, competing with the fare they get on MTV, but also, I think, to strip away all cultural norms and traditions. A good teacher can make anything interesting, but as you say, too many aren’t capable.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I was just talking to someone who was telling me about a friend of his whose 22-year-old son is living on the dole. Another “back problem” moocher. And this kid was sitting around the table and telling everyone that with his package of benefits, he was making a pretty good middle class living. He had the attitude that he deserved it.

    This was at an open-mike event where singers get together and do a couple songs in a somewhat informal setting. His father is a musician (and liberal), which is why he was there. So this kid gets up to the mike at some point in the evening. And instead of doing a song he regales people about the hard life he’s had. The mike was for performing. But he instead was talking about his hard life. Yes, as bizarre as that sounds, I’m not making this up.

    I know that upon hearing this story I should have balled up my fists in a sort of rage. But a peace came over me. I thought “Thank God. Whatever my faults, I’ll never be that pathetic.” And that boy (for he will never become a man) would never know anything resembling a normal life. The trials of life are what give life much of its spice. He will never be much more than a soft sponge.

    And, yeah, we should all resent these sponges for stealing from us. But also realize the blessings of not having been raised like that. Oh, good god, we are so in trouble. These types (and their parents) voted for Obama. And they have no more noble capacity inside them. They will continue to construct their own sort of cage. You and I cannot stop this. We can only count our blessings and make a conscious decision not to be at least a spiritual or psychological part of it. And I have done so. And I urge all you to do the same.

    You can call this runaway self-esteem, runaway entitlement mentality, or just runaway moocherism. But we are feeding such bizarre expectations of life into the heads of yute. And we, or our country, will eventually be devoured by them.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It’s bad enough that we have people like that, but even worse that they see no problem with being that way. For all practical purposes, they’re psychopaths — totally without conscience and empathy.

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