Telling kids they can go to college, even if they earn mediocre or poor grades, undercuts the work ethic they’ll need to succeed, writes Nick Ehrmann in The Atlantic. He describes bright underachievers who slide through high school with C’s and D’s, go to college and fail.
Travis Hill at age 11 (left) and 17 (right). Photo: Nick Ehrmann
“Bright and conscientious,” Travis Hill joined Ehrmann’s fourth-grade classroom in a Washington, D.C. school in 2000. “He participated consistently in class, rarely missed a day of school, and tried to mask the emotional vacuum created by his father’s murder on the streets of D.C.,” writes Ehrmann. They stayed in touch.
In the fifth grade, Travis and his classmates were told the “I Have A Dream” Foundation would give them college scholarships. In 2009, Travis was graduated from Hyde Leadership Public Charter School and admitted to Lincoln University, a historically black university in Pennsylvania. It was “a significant accomplishment in a city where at the time, just 43 of every 100 students graduated with a high-school diploma in four years and only 29 enrolled in postsecondary education within 18 months of graduating from high school,” writes Ehrmann.
Travis lasted one semester.
Travis skipped homework assignments in high school. He knew the teacher would give him make-up work at the end of the term, so he could earn a C, or at least a D. He thought his grades didn’t matter.
During his freshman and sophomore years of high school, on overnight campus trips sponsored by Hyde’s college-placement office, Travis learned firsthand that “a couple hundred” colleges and universities across the United States likely would offer him admission. “. . . That message was seeping into my brain. If I got straight Cs, admission should be a breeze.”
There was no point in working harder to earn B’s or A’s, he told his former teacher. He could reach his goals with C’s.
Hyde teachers are “trying to help” students by letting them make up work, a geometry teacher said.
“In rich counties,” she told me, “like in Fairfax [Virginia] and all that … they’re very strict. But here, no, you give them as many opportunities, especially because you have a lot of, you know, predominantly African American children, that are supposedly having, you know, low economic issues, and so you give them opportunities.”
In elementary school, Travis had scored in the 53rd percentile in reading, the 41st in math, writes Ehrmann. By the seventh grade, he was scoring at the 27th and 10th percentiles. By the end of 11th grade, “his scores on the SAT fell in the bottom fifth percentile nationally.”
In college, Travis was placed in remedial reading. He began skipping classes, ending the semester with two Cs, two Ds, and an F.
He dropped out. He now works at Costco packaging food for deli customers.
A Minneapolis teacher couldn’t motivate a ninth-grade boy, but a 12th-grade girl nagged him into doing his work and raising his grades. He reminded her of her brother “who is no longer with us.”