Failure to educate

In her final year as a Boston public high school teacher, Junia Yearwood attended her first  graduation ceremony.  It was a charade, she writes in the Boston Globe.

I knew that most of my students who walked across the stage, amidst the cheers, whistles, camera flashes, and shout-outs from parents, family, and friends, were not functionally literate. They were unable to perform the minimum skills necessary to negotiate society: reading the local newspapers, filling out a job application, or following basic written instructions; even fewer had achieved empowering literacy enabling them to closely read, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate text.

However, they were all college bound — the ultimate goal of our school’s vision statement — clutching knapsacks stuffed with our symbols of academic success: multiple college acceptances, a high school diploma; an official transcript indicating they had passed the MCAS test and had met all graduation requirements; several glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors; and one compelling personal statement, their college essay.

Yearwood started as a 12th-grade English teacher in 1977 in Roxbury. Over the years, she saw the advent on tests, such as the MCAS.

Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.

Students were given A’s and B’s “for passing in assignments (quality not a factor), for behaving well in class, for regular attendance, for completing homework assignments that were given a check mark but never read,” Yearwood writes.

Teachers were pressured to pass undeserving students so they could walk across the state at graduation. If necessary to produce a graduate, administrators found MCAS waivers, transferred students to a “special needs” category or put students in online “credit recovery.”

Last June, she attended graduation for the first time ” at the urgings of my students — the ones whose desire to learn, to become better readers and writers, and whose unrelenting hard work earned them a spot on the graduation list — and the admonition of a close friend who warned that my refusal to attend was an act of selfishness, of not thinking about my students who deserved the honor and respect signified by my presence.”

Yearwood appears in a 2008 Globe story about attempts to turn around English High in Jamaica Plain, where she taught for most of her career.  She gives a D- to a student who makes up missing work on the last day in hopes of walking across the stage to pick up a diploma.

About Joanne


  1. > In her final year as a Boston public high school teacher

    It’s too bad she had to wait 32 years to let the cat out of the bag. We need more courageous teachers to speak up about this abuse BEFORE retiring. This woman is admitting that she was “a victim of the subtle and overt pressure” to ruin thousands of lives. One student getting a diploma but unable to operate in society is a tragedy, thousands of them is a sort of academic genocide.

  2. Every year I see about 20% of my seventh graders on track to graduate HS having learned virtually nothing in their twelve years in the system. Most of these kids COULD learn if they chose to pay attention and make an effort, but it’s more pleasant to sit and play with toys or non-verbally communicate with friends across the classroom. To me, it’s child neglect to pass them on. I’ve started agitating about this on our staff, saying it’s our moral obligation to retain failing kids –to send a loud and clear wake-up call to the kid and his parents. Accepted dogma in my district is “Retention doesn’t work.” But I’m sure it DOES work in this respect: a credible threat of retention will scare a lot of zero-effort kids into making some effort. Then they’ll start to learn something. And for the kid who gets retained, even if we don’t have the means to fix him, at least we’ve imparted a shred of honesty and integrity into the system by declaring, “This child is NOT learning anything and probably will not learn anything in the grades ahead unless he and his parents start putting a lot more effort into his education.”

    Some, not all, colleagues agree with me. But we’re all pessimistic that we can get our “child-centric” principal, superintendent and school board on board with such stern measures.

  3. At the root of the anti-retention crowd’s thinking is a fundamental misconception about how the intellect grows. They think that a year or two with a motivating teacher and remedial coursework will fill in the learning gap. But deficits are cumulative; true education is slow and takes a long time. You cannot make up for twelve lost years in a few years. These kids are permanently deficient. Read City on a Hill by James Traub or Making of Americans by E.D. Hirsch to understand this. But most educators do NOT understand this and so do not see the tragedy of passing kids on.

  4. If a student learns that they are going to be passed along without putting forth any effort of their own, there is little else a future teacher will be able to teach them.

  5. If we’re going to insist on teaching them things they don’t have the cognitive ability to learn, then of course they are going to be illiterate. Although if they pass the MCAS, they are at least functionally literate.

    But yeah, of course teachers pass students year after year that can’t do the work. Why blame the students for the policies that force them to take classes they can’t handle?

  6. Whatever happened to putting the “fear of God” in K-12, and especially Grades 9-12, students? “If you don’t get a good education, you’ll be cleaning toilets and digging ditches for the rest of your life. You really want to do that?” my father used to tell me. The thought of a comfy office job – where I used my brain and could work in the air conditioning – verses cleaning toilets and digging ditches got me hitting the books as a kid with him having to remind me of little else. Where is that motivation for kids these days??

  7. When all the toilet-cleaning and ditch-digging jobs are sewed up by illegal aliens (US citizens need not apply)?  And lots of the jobs higher up are being taken by other aliens on H1B visas?

    If we want to motivate American kids, the least we can do is to give them a crack at any domestic job they’re qualified for.

  8. The “fear of God” needs to start in kindergarten; many kids are hopelessly lost by the time they hit middle school. Kids, especially the at-risk ones that are wholly dependent on the schools, need explicit instruction in the behaviors, habits and level of effort that enable academic success. It’s a constant process; they need explicit instruction and solid curriculum choices and they need to be told exactly WHY these things are important. The impact of their behavior today on their future options needs to be constantly reinforced. Middle-class families do these things, but too many kids come from highly dysfunctional families where bad choices are the norm and have been for generations.

  9. I should have added that knowing that the government will insulate them from their bad choices (welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, child care etc, ad nauseum) is pernicious; the stigma of bearing/siring illegitimate kids and being parasites on productive members of society needs to be reintroduced. The current economic situation might be a good time to start. I was raised with the ideas that personal responsibility is expected and any honest work is worthy of respect ; let’s return to those ideas.

  10. tim-10-ber says:

    If we would only end the welfare state….

  11. Actually, there are two crimes which have been committed here. The crime of fraud upon the taxpayers who fund the public school system, and the fraud which comes from giving a student a diploma (which is about as useful as toilet paper today, btw) that they did not earn.

    Academic Genocide indeed…

  12. Why, why don’t we offer kids who are not academically inclined a useful alternative education? The public schools waste so much time pushing these kids through classes (algebra, biology) that they are so poorly prepared for and which they have zero interest in.

    We need education that focuses on basic literacy and numeracy and then training for real world work so when they graduate they actual have a employable skill. Lord knows, we have a shortage of skilled plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters on the East Coast. I know that there are trade and vocational schools, but these seem primarily targeted to the really troubled kids and we don’t seem to have enough of them.

  13. Stacy,

    I agree with your statement, but there is one flaw in the plan. In order to successfully work in the trades above, one must have an excellent grounding in the three ‘R’s (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic). Sadly, many of the students who leave elementary school today cannot add, subtract, multiply, divide, deal with fractions or percentages.

    When you are working on a job and your trying to build something, you cannot afford to waste time or material (esp. if the job is bid at a fixed rate). A person who cannot properly perform math, or be able to read a set of plans or diagrams is the last person in the world I want working in those trades, because if they do, the work done will probably be of low quality, and will have to be redone within 5 years or less (in the case of electrical systems, this could also lead to a fire).

    I watched one time as two workers put in a shower floor (tile), they didn’t use a level or a marble to check the slope in the shower. A few days later after it had set, the owners ran water in the shower, and there was pooled water everywhere. The company that hired these geniuses had to come over, rip out the entire floor, and do it over again (correctly this time).

  14. Thanks, Bill. People need to stop thinking that low skills are good enough for the building trades. However, it is true that plenty of kids would be happy to work hard to get math and reading skills, but are distinctly not happy to spend all day in a classroom up to age 18, studying 19th century literature and Roman history.
    And that would include plenty of kids who end up as enthusiastic readers as adults.

  15. Bill and Limetree, I think we agree in essence. My point was why attempt to push these kids through 4 years of high school when their basic skills were subpar. Instead, how about basic literacy (the ability to read and understand a newspaper and write a letter), basic math (arithmetic and limited and practical algebra/geo), then civics and internships? Chemistry? Physics? Algegra II? They’re not really learning this stuff anyways. I bet many of these kids would rejoice at the prospect of more practical learning with the prospect of a real wage.