Ordinary failures

Compton middle school students went on a field trip to Bear Stearns to learn about careers in finance. But they didn’t know enough to understand what they saw at the investment firm, a foundation official told Sandy Banks, an LA Times columnist.

“We’re trying to teach them about portfolios and they can’t even spell the word, never heard of it!” Veronica Coffield told me in a voice shot through with urgency. “They’re still learning ‘less than’ and ‘greater than’ in eighth grade, and they’re supposed to make it through high school?”

Singer Chaka Khan’s foundation sponsors a “Going to College” program for students at low-income, all-minority Drew Middle School. Originally, it was all about field trips:  “The preteens learned about the justice system in the television courtroom of Judge Judy, about health and fitness in Tae-Bo classes with Billy Blanks, about culinary careers at restaurants in Malibu and Beverly Hills.”  But Coffield realized students lacked basic reading, writing and math skills.

“We’ve got eighth-graders with an A in algebra who can’t tell me what six-times-five is equal to!” Coffield said. “Seventh-graders who don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb!”

. . . (Students) described math classes crammed with unruly students, some of whom could barely add and subtract; an English class with no permanent teacher but a succession of unprepared subs; teachers who ridiculed wrong answers in class and swore at students in the halls.

But it wasn’t as simple as poor schools or bad teachers. Students cut class and ignored assignments. At the project’s orientation meeting, one mother strode in cursing loudly, high on drugs.

The foundation recruited volunteer tutors from USC. But five of the 36 eighth graders in the program failed too many classes to graduate. They didn’t attend the graduation ceremony, but they’ll all go on to high school in the fall.

“They can’t stay here because there’s nowhere to house them,” a Drew teacher explained.

Not “educate,” Banks points out.  “House” as in warehouse.

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  1. “Still learning less than and greater than in eighth grade”?

    I remember that as a concept from first grade, personally. (The teacher used the analogy of a pelican beak: it’s going to go for the “biggest” food, therefore the open end will point at the largest number).

    My brother complained bitterly about the 2 required-for-graduation (as opposed to college-track) high school courses he had to take: they were essentially ‘warehouses’ full of disruptive students.

  2. I’m still in favor of some sort of modified tracking; we already have some type of it – we pull out the “gifted and talented” and the honors students. The academic classes could be set up with students allowed in on a trial basis, if the parents think they should be there. If they slack off, cut class, or play around, disrupting others, they have to leave (assuming that the parents have had their chance to get the kid on the right track, after being contacted). If a kid is trying, but not getting it, they should have mandatory after-school/Saturday tutoring – if they are serious, they’ll be there. This way, the students – and their parents – will self-select.

  3. This is why we need rigorous KIPP-style schooling for disadvantaged kids right from the first day of kindergarten (or pre-k). By the time they’re in 8th grade, they’ve so far behind academically and many of them have made a habit of bad behavior.