In one version of events, DC’s Ballou High School has been a morass of cheating and subterfuge, where the principal pressured teachers to ensure that many students who had missed weeks of school and were otherwise unqualified to graduate nevertheless received diplomas. Some 12th-graders, one teacher claimed, were unable to read and write.
In another version, that same principal instilled students with a sense of pride and provided a cocoon of safety and support within a harsh environment, encouraging teachers to work individually with students who had to miss class because of outside pressures over which they had no control. Students may have missed class, but–according to one teacher–they still “mastered the material.”
Which version to believe? It’s quite possible they’re both true.
I don’t know much about Ballou in particular, but I’ve spent time in other high-poverty DC high schools and spoken with a number of people who have taught in them. As a recent investigation concluded, the attendance issues highlighted at Ballou are rampant throughout the system. So are its other problems. And yet, I’m sure that at every DC high school, including Ballou, there are teachers and students who are dedicated and hard-working.
It’s understandable that some want to point fingers about what happened at Ballou–and, it’s now clear, at other schools as well. Three DCPS employees have lost their jobs, including Ballou’s principal. But this is a story in which there are no real villains. Instead, it’s a story about people who are often trying to do their best in a dysfunctional system. Getting rid of a few employees won’t change the system.
Students arrive at high school with gaps in knowledge
The basic problem is that DCPS elementary and middle schools–like elementary and middle schools across the country–are turning out students who are unprepared for high-school-level work. I’ve seen this for myself, as a volunteer tutor, but more reliable information comes from the DCPS high school teachers I’ve spoken with.
They have told me of huge and crippling gaps in some students’ background knowledge–students, for example, may not understand the difference between a city and a state or a country and a continent. They may not be able to find Washington, D.C., on a map of the United States. They often lack a grasp of historical chronology, perhaps assuming that Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass were contemporaries.
Teachers have stressed to me that even in high-poverty schools, they’ve encountered a range of students, including some who are quite knowledgeable about the larger world. But even if only a few students think, for example, that the country they live in is called “Washington, D.C.”–as one teacher said she had found–that can hamper instruction for the entire class.
And even the better students can have surprising gaps in their knowledge. One teacher told me about working on SAT prep with one of his school’s higher-achieving students–in the sense that, he said, this student, unlike many others, was able to find the United States on a map of the world. But looking at that same map, the student was shocked to discover there was a place called “South America.” How can it be called “America,” he wanted to know, when it’s not in America?
These gaps in knowledge aren’t the fault of the students, and they’re not the fault of teachers either. Instead, they’re the result of a system that places a premium on devoting the crucial elementary school years to “basic skills” in reading and math, to the exclusion of subjects like history, science, and the arts.
Schools and teachers, along with the general public, have absorbed the idea that reading and math–the subjects that are tested–are the ones that are most important. That idea goes deeper than the pressure from testing. If students can’t read, the argument goes, how are they going to be able to learn anything? Many assume that we need to teach kids to read first, so that later on they’ll be able to learn all about things like history and science through reading.
But that’s not the way reading works. The most important factor in whether you can understand what you’re reading is whether you have enough background knowledge and vocabulary that relate to the topic. And if you haven’t learned anything about history–or geography or science–you’re going to have a hard time understanding even 9th-grade-level text. If students don’t understand the concept of a country, how can they understand a text about, say, World War I? And if you can’t understand what you’re supposed to be learning, you may be disinclined to come to school.
To address high school problems, begin in elementary school
It’s not impossible to fill in these sometimes massive gaps in background knowledge at the high school level, but it can require a heroic effort. And it’s not fair to ask educators to take a cohort of 9th-graders, many reading at a 4th or 5th grade level, and magically render them all “college and career ready” within four years.
It’s especially unfair when teachers also need to help their students cope with the pressures and traumas that often go along with poverty–and when the system gives them no credit for providing that help.
I’m thinking of a teacher who told me he was approached by a student he barely knew who wanted help in “fixing” a program for a funeral. The student had been informed by his mother that the deceased was his father, but his name wasn’t listed among the survivors. The teacher and a colleague worked late into the night retyping and reprinting the program so that it looked like the original–except that it included the student’s name. No doubt their work meant a lot to the student, but there was no way to factor it into the teachers’ evaluations–which, on the other hand, often do factor in test scores.
To be clear: we need tests. When a Ballou teacher says his students have “mastered the material,” he may be right–but that material may be quite different from what students master at schools that serve a wealthier student body or are highly selective. To make comparisons between schools, we need to know that in 2017, only 9% of Ballou 10th-graders scored proficient or above on DC’s state English Language Arts test, compared with 85% at the district’s School Without Walls.
But tests can’t tell us what we need to teach. If we want to address the problems that have been brought to light within DCPS and other school systems at the high school level, we need to make sure students are doing a lot more than practicing their “reading skills” throughout their elementary years.