The writing on the (cinderblock) halls

Low-income students see plenty of inspirational messages on the cinderblock walls, writes Education Trust playwright-researcher Brooke Haycock in The Writing on the Hall. They’re told to dream big. But students get a very different message in the classroom and the guidance office.

For all the talk of rigor and grit, many educators shield students from “the possibility of failure . . .  woefully underestimating their abilities to tolerate — and even thrive with — challenge,” writes Haycock.

I met Isaiah, a Latino 11th-grader, in the back of an English classroom at a suburban high school just outside of Washington, D.C. While the class down the hall read Macbeth, Isaiah and his classmates — at least those still awake — sat hunched over a Xeroxed reading passage about a squirrel. 

Deja, a high-achieving Michigan senior, told her counselor she was going to college.

Deja went on to tell me that she’d taken “all” the science classes, “through biology,” and that she took geometry her junior year.  “My counselor,” she assured me, “said I can get into A LOT of colleges.”

What no one bothered to tell Deja is that these aren’t even close to the full set of college prep courses required for entry into most four-year colleges — nor even, frankly, into credit-bearing two-year college coursework. 

While 76 percent of high school sophomores want to go to a four-year college, only 27 percent take the courses they need to succeed in colleges, writes Haycock. 

A year after her high school graduation, Deja was temping at a community college and saving money to enroll in the remedial classes she had tested into. “You do everything everyone tells you to do in school, and you work so hard,” she said. “And then you learn it’s not enough.”

The Writing on the Hall is the first of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series.

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  1. Belinda Gomez says:

    Not snarking, but how is Deja “high-achieving”? Within the context of her school, sure, but she’s not going to be able to compete with kids from better schools.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I e-mailed the author.


      What he meant was that she was getting good grades in her classes. So as far as she could tell, she was doing well (C is “average”, B is “above average”, A is “excellent” … how much better can you be than excellent?).


      And, yeah, the basic problem is that (a) she was achieving well in her local context, but (b) that wasn’t terribly good at the state level, and (c) no one bothered to tell her. Thus the wipe-out with no warning (though I do wonder … did she not take the SAT or ACT? If the plan was community college, I guess not …).

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    Sarah Hoyt’s write-up about a year ago about her sons’ education is great on this. Her sons got thrown into the slow track, and she suspects that it is because she is from Portugal and the school tagged them as Hispanic and couldn’t comprehend that they could actually be smart. It’s a horrific tale made bearable only because the parents were smart enough to keep their kids up to speed at home:

    Scroll down to “And this comes to the part I didn’t know, and the part that shocked me” and read from there.

    This is one of the best bits:

    >>I think the other day I said it was in third grade that the school gave us trouble over Robert. I was wrong, it was actually in first grade. I sent them a kid who could read, write and was working on fractions. Imagine our shock when in our first first grade conference, the teacher informed us that Robert was learning disabled and would probably never learn to read and write. This was particularly surprising since one of her pieces of evidence was a worksheet that consisted of 1+0, 2+0 etc. across the top of which Robert had written in properly spelled words “this is stupid and boring. A number plus zero always equals the number.”<<

  3. Deja was sorely mis-informed. In my day (1977-1981) Biology was a Freshman course and Geometry was a sophomore course, though if you were planning on a college track your math/science/english went something like this:

    Algebra I/Geometry/Algebra II and Trig
    Biology I, Chemistry I, Physics I
    English I/II, Literature (American or European)/Composition

    in addition to other required courses or electives.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Where are the kids’ guidance counselors? Overloaded, I know, but these kids are not getting the education they need…Sorry for stating the obvious. So frustrating…feel for the kids

    • They’re pushing the “college for all” plan. They’re not giving realistic feedback; for a variety of reasons. Sure, there’s a college for you; you may not graduate, you may not even earn any 100 level credit – but you can come and we’ll cash your student loan checks for you and any money your parents send our way.

      I’ve had students show me Accuplacer results indicating a full slate of remedial courses and EXCITED because they never thought they’d get in to college 🙁 Yeah, I feel for them; most of them will take a year or two before realizing how overmatched they are. Most won’t graduate.

      • Sean,

        Unfortunately, the students have been deluded into thinking that basic coursework is going to cut it in college. Studies have shown that students who need 2 or more remedial courses will never complete a degree or certificate, and most will drop out after the first year (never mind that the money they spent is wasted).


    • When a relative began teaching, in the DC area, she was warned by her colleagues NEVER to suggest that any student should consider anything other than college. That included kids who refused to do any homework, who couldn’t identify the subject of a sentence with only one noun/pronoun, who couldn’t write a coherent paragraph etc. Denial. Of course, there’s also the issue of guidance counselors’ interest in academics (all the ones I knew were strictly into the emotional side) and knowledge about alternatives to college (almost nonexistent).

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    Here’s a story from the summer about a kid heading off to college totally unprepared though he had been a star at his high school. The article seems very coy about the SAT/ACT question, which should have been a major tip-off that there was a mismatch between his school grades and reality.,0,4673807.htmlstory#axzz2sPiy3H00

    • PhillipMarlowe says:

      Great examination of the Kashawn situation from educationrealist:
      Predictably, many regard the Kashawn Campbell story as proof of low school standards. But I would argue that the underlying problem is grade fraud, which is a different issue.

      I’ve been writing about grade fraud for college admission for a while now. Wait, you say, that’s a link to a KIPP piece. Well, yeah. Charters are among the worst offenders in grade fraud, which is the tacit admissions directive enabled by Top Ten % or eligibility in the local context plans: the kids with the best grades in their schools are guaranteed entrance to the public universities.

      The policy rewards compliance more than ability, as I’ve also written; I routinely see bright kids with low GPAs in every type of school. If we are going to lower standards to bring in underrepresented minorities, far better to find the brightest ones—which aren’t necessary the ones with the best grades. And when I complain about this, some folks say some version of “Well, what’s wrong with rewarding hard work?”

      Well, what’s wrong with it, eventually, is Kashawn Campbell. The people who value grades like to believe that the difference between an A and a B is nothing more than effort, when in fact, teachers can give whatever grades they like, with only a few restrictions that limit how low we can drop a grade. None limit our ability to give an A.

      No, I’m wondering why the reporter, Kurt Streeter, who is African American, hinted at so much. Some details are so instructive that I can’t figure out why he didn’t go further or, more typically, leave them out.

      What details? Well, the big one I wonder about: is Kashawn brain damaged? (Or, as a National Review commenter said in summarizing this essay, perhaps he is not neurotypical?)

      “When I delivered him, I thought he was dead,” said his mother, Lillie, recalling the umbilical cord tight around his neck. “He was still as stone but eventually he came to. Proved he was a survivor. Ever since, I’ve called him my miracle child.”

      Umbilical cord around the neck is pretty common and doesn’t usually lead to brain damage. The “still as stone” bit makes me wonder, though, if he was oxygen starved during birth.

      He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

      “It was clear that Kashawn was someone who didn’t know about, or maybe care about, social norms,” said one of his friends. “A lot of people would laugh at first. They didn’t understand how someone could be that enthusiastic.”

  6. “..only 27% take the courses they need to suceed in college…” What I found in my rural district was exactly what Jay Matthews described in his book ‘Class Struggle’…not enough seats in honors, and a good ol boy selection process. Other nongood ol boy parents directed me to the regional talent search provider, as we are priced out of the area private school since we arent making executive or movie star income. The demand for more challenging coursework, beyond what can be offered in the fully included classroom is tremendous.

    • Yes, and REAL honors and AP classes are being dumbed down to allow anyone to take them, without prerequisites or necessary knowledge/skills – thus depriving those prepared kids from the work they deserve.

      • The ed world is bending itself over backwards to pretend that all kids have the same ability, preparation, motivation and interests – and therefore should have the same outcomes. The lunatics are truly running the asylums.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          The educational world isn’t nearly that stupid. Nobody in the ed world believes that all kids have the same ability. They do, however, believe that the spread in demonstrated ability is bigger than the spread in underlying ability. (Also, that ability is equally distributed among ethnic groups). Thus, one of the major jobs of the school is to decrease the inequality of demonstrated ability, i.e. to decrease the inequality of educational performance.

          To do so, it is assumed that pretty much all young people can become interested and motivated with the right teaching techniques and curriculum. It is the job of the teacher to bring out that interest and motivation. That assumption is, alas, wildly untrue, which is probably the major reason for disillusion and frustration among beginning teachers.

          It, of course, also falls to teachers to make up for unequal preparation. It is assumed that “differentiated instruction” can do so. That untruth is probably the second leading cause of disillusion and frustration.

          The ed world does not believe “that all kids have the same ability, preparation, motivation and interest.” The ed world believes that the schools can overcome those differences. So far, they have not come anywhere close to succeeding.

      • Ann in L.A. says:

        Which is resulting in more high school kids opting to take *real* college classes at their local community college or university instead. If the “AP” classes are supposed to be college equivalent, but aren’t; families will find another way to get the content.