Tuesday, September 3, 2013

It's definitely the high schools' fault in this case

... though the kid's mother could have been a bit more like his roommate's mum, who made sure he had books available and lots of opportunity to stretch his mind.

A straight-A student from a high school that apparently didn't have standards to speak of, is struggling at Cal Berkeley. Who among us is surprised?
I removed a quoted comment from the article by CompassionNow, whom I entirely misread; s/he's a troll. Mea maxima culpa. I left the post up for two reasons: the complaint about Jefferson High still stands, and a couple of good comments.

20 comments:

  1. CompassionNow appears to be a right-wing troll. The tip-off is in the phrase "chain down black support".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Looks like a parody of liberal views to me, too, and not even a very good one; the author's actual views keep popping up in paragraph 3.

      Delete
    2. Mea culpa. Perhaps I should remove this post.

      Delete
    3. Nice edit; I'm glad you left it up.

      Delete
  2. Leaving aside the idiotic troll comment, this story struck a chord for me. I have not a few Kashawns, and the description of his writing rings true. I have had several such students just in the past year, of a variety of races and backgrounds, and I've had to sit them down and read their paper aloud, stopping at each inappropriately used fancy word and giving its actual definition, before they finally get it. Sometimes it helps to have them restate the paper aloud and copy down, verbatim, what they say, showing them that it's often clearer and better writing than their labored faux fanciness. What Kashawn is facing is the need to assimilate to the college culture, a need reflected by the fellow student's assessment that he doesn't care about social norms. It's not social norms, but the lack of cultural capital that is making his life misery, and while the high school is at fault in a large part, part of it is that he's moving from one very different culture to a new one. My guess is, though, that he's a bright kid who will figure it out. Hope so, anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I, too, found the article hopeful. Yes, high school didn't prepare him well (nor, perhaps, did some combination of his own temperament and an overly-simplistic perspective on what qualifies as success learned at home, school, and/or church). On the other hand, he's been held to standards but also given opportunities to try again by his teachers, and has received support from friends and university staff (and -- a key factor, and a strong point in his personality - he has sought out that help when he needs it). He may not be having the kind of success he's used to, but he's succeeding, and I suspect will continue to succeed.

      I didn't read through all the comments, but I hope someone points him toward Justice Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography. She, too, struggled (especially with writing) in a demanding undergrad environment, but eventually did very well.

      Delete
    2. We have several KaShawns who are coming back for Year 2. I think they needed time to acculturate to a SLAC in a rural area more than anything, but mostly, they were writing at a 4-5th grade level.

      Delete
  3. It's a fantastic article about an interesting kid. The comments are always a trial, regardless of the forum or publication.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The troll's comment is a distraction from an important issue. We created a system in which students are let into schools that they are not qualified to attend. I am sympathetic to the argument that we all benefit from a racially, ethnically, socially diverse campus. However, the specific students we admit in order to make that happen should not suffer as a result of the campus's good intentions. They can suffer if they are held to standards which they cannot achieve. The student could have done better at a less prestigious campus. There's no shame in that.

    Alternatively, grade the introductory classes using the same holistic approach that the admissions office uses. Sure, exam scores are important but so is the student's background and life experiences. The top 10% from each dorm floor get a passing grade. We need the same diversity among sophomores as we do the freshman class. Anybody up for that?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm torn on this one. I taught as an adjunct at a medium-selective historically-very-white state liberal arts college in the mid-'90s, and got quite tired of the fact that I could invariably pick out the least-prepared students in the class by (darker) skin color. That was not a pattern that served anybody well, at least in terms of crosscultural experience, since it tended to confirm rather than dispel stereotypes. It was one of the very few times I found some common ground with Dinesh D'Souza.

      However, since I was teaching almost entirely first-years, I'm not sure how the minority students fared in the long run; if they graduated on time and with a real education, then there was an argument in favor of giving them the choice of entering an extra-challenging environment, and making what they could of it. There's a fine line between offering a challenging opportunity and setting someone up to fail in the name of diversity, and I'm inclined to err on the side of opportunity (accompanied, if necessary, by a supportive exit-and-possible-reentry program, perhaps via a community college).

      I'm definitely against any sort of adjustable grading scale (which I suspect you were proposing mostly as a thought experiment). If anything, it's precisely for students like this that we need to bring back a real, substantive C (and D) that can be assigned to work that is well below satisfactory (yes, I know that's still grade inflation, at least for the C) but is actually done, with real effort (work that demonstrates no effort to meet the requirements should get an F, even if /though it exists). Also, there needs to be real communication among instructors, deans, financial aid folks, and other support personnel, so that a student who really is working to bring his work up to standard doesn't face an arbitrary cutoff. And such students need additional support from day 1 (or, preferably, the summer before freshman year, which would be a great time for them to take at least one class which placement tests suggest they're going to find difficult, probably either writing or a math class). Identifying potentially-vulnerable students requires a bit of finesse (one of my undergrad friends was offered help immediately on entry to our Ivy League school because he had a Hispanic last name; somebody missed the part of his application that indicated that both of his parents had language/literature grad degrees -- one M.A., one Ph.D. -- from American universities, and one was a professor*), but it's not that difficult; as the facts in the article suggest, parents' level of education is a pretty powerful predictor, especially when combined with a high school that does not send the majority of its students on to college (those are also, handily, race/ethnicity-blind indicators that still reflect the continuing effects of historical and current racism). Athletes in high-profile sports, sadly, show what happens when we lower standards (and/or provide the wrong kind of "help" -- the kind that leaves the athletes plenty of time for practice, games, etc., because somebody is either doing the work for them, or creating classes that ask for very little effort). We don't need that.

      But yes, to me, success at the institutional level would look like a sophomore, and a senior, class that was as diverse as the entering one.

      *This, at least in my experience in the '80s and '90s, is what affirmative action in the Ivy League looked like: students (and professors) with darker skin than those who had historically attended the school, but, for the most part, family/educational/financial backgrounds that were much more similar to those of their white classmates than to those of most Americans of their race/ethnicity. There were certainly exceptions (and there were certainly white students from underprivileged backgrounds), but a lot of the "diversity" was skin deep.

      Delete
    2. My, somewhat limited, experience is that some fields are much more forgiving of poor preparation than others. Ben and I are in a field that is quite, quite unforgiving; but I've seen poorly prepared (or low-aptitude) advisees flunk out of chemistry, then go on to succeed in other majors that don't, apparently, have so steep a learning curve.

      On the other hand, I've also seen the result of social promotion of students admitted with little or no regard to preparation or native ability. It ain't pretty.

      Delete
  5. The expectation that some students have about college needs to be addressed. They think that if they get "in," that that's the end of the journey. Now it's all just waiting for the grades and the praise.

    It's the beginning.

    I like the kid in the LA Times story. I like his background and his work ethic. And I like that he seems willing to work. But, to be honest, is Berkeley where he should be? Might he have adjusted and thrived earlier somewhere else? Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly seems he doesn't have the writing skills or background for even their intro courses, so maybe he would have been served better someplace else.

    I've taught a variety of places and I've often had kids who would never succeed in that particular culture. The "best" fit is hard for anyone. I know I fucked up by going to a party school back in the 70s. It was the last culture I needed. I didn't thrive until grad school, and would have had a much better experience getting my undergrad work done someplace a bit more sedate, a bit smaller. (Oh, Arizona State, by the way. It was a lot like "Caligula" with a MassComm department and 20 cafeterias.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Like Compound Cal, I have a soft spot for the guy in the story, and his dismay at his difficulties is truly heartbreaking. I would give anything to have a class full of students who work as hard as Kashawn. I also wonder, though, whether Berkeley is where he should be.

    Another issue struck me as well.

    While this article demonstrates the problems some students face in moving from school to college, it also points up the fact that, even within institutions of higher education, standards can vary considerably. I'm interested to know how a student who can't get through the university's basic writing class could have received a A- (including an A for an essay) in his African American Studies class.

    If he really has the sort of trouble with writing that his performance in College Writing 1A suggests, I very much doubt that he could get an A- in one of my history classes, and I'm almost certain that he couldn't achieve an A on an essay assignment.

    In fact, I often get dismayed looks from students who have achieved an A or A- in my college's basic intro writing course, and whose essays I return filled with corrections and comments on their poor spelling, grammar, and sentence construction.

    Here's the grade distribution for College Writing 1A at Berkeley, and here's the distribution for African American Studies 5A. Quite a difference.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not all classes weight various parts of writing the same. A lot of people, even academics, outside of composition courses think that basic composition is just grammar. But trust me, it's really a lot more about "how to have an idea and write about it clearly" than it is "this is Mr. Semicolon, and he is dangerous." Also, student problems may show up in one kind or mode of writing and not in another. I have had students who could write a brilliant, clear, concise, human, and even grammatically correct personal reflection; but give them anything with the word "research" on the rubric, and suddenly it turned into a bulgarious messalange of misuppropriated wordiage and b'roke weirdoddities.

      Delete
    2. I understand that composition courses treat writing somewhat differently than many other courses. I understand that they are not just about grammar.

      But my history class writing priorities are not "just grammar" either. Plenty of us in other disciplines also ask that our students "have an idea and write about it clearly." This is, in fact, the central aim of writing, for me and many other academics that I know.

      I also understand that different courses weigh writing assignments in different ways. But I'm still pretty surprised that a student who can't even get through the basic writing course is getting A's for his essays in other subjects.

      Delete
    3. I suppose I was misled by your emphasis of grammar in the original comment. Nevertheless, the point remains that a student may be quite abysmal in one rhetorical mode but very comfortable in another. Composition professors do not teach the conventions of every single discipline (for example, in literature we speak of characters' actions in the present tense; in history, I understand, the past tense is preferred). Small conventions like that can trip up shaky writers, who focus so much on one rather minor thing that the other, more important, things like thesis and organization begin to slide. Obviously we all want them to communicate ideas clearly; that is why we focus on that in composition. But students have a hard time conceptualizing it that way. Instead, they see it as an undifferentiated mass of conventions and requirements, which are often -- in their heads -- "what this professor wants." It's hard for students to see the big picture, and it's hard for us to show it to them.

      Often, when people say "I don't know how this student got an A in composition! They can't write at all!" I am tempted to say "Oh, that's easy. Composition professors don't do their job and should all be fired. Or is that not what you were implying?" Because, of course, it is. Whether they realize it or not. Were I an evil deity, I would condemn them to a hell of teaching three composition courses for just one semester. How did they get an A in my class? They fulfilled the goddamned course requirements, that's how.

      Delete
    4. Yes, the grade distributions are clearly different and I would suspect the difference is statistically significant. While the average in both is a B, a student who does well is likely to get an A in the African American Studies course while that same student could get an A or B in the Writing class with almost no chance of getting an A+. Averages are everything. If I only cared about making an A, I know which one I'd choose.

      OTOH, if I only cared about passing, I might choose the other class. Students in the African American Studies class are more likely to get a C, D or F. That makes me wonder why that class attracts students of more widely different academic abilities than a basic writing class.

      Now that I look at more courses at Berkeley, I call bullshit on their whole grading system. Only 5% of students get a D or F in general chemistry. I know these kids are smart but are they really THAT smart?

      Delete
  7. This statement in the article bothered me too. "Because of a statewide program to attract top students from every public California high school, a spot at a UC system campus waited for him."

    Bullshit. Nobody in Berkeley's admissions office ever thought, "We need more top students. Let's check out the crappy high schools to see if any are hiding there." I understand that the admissions office cannot officially say that they want to get more blacks and hispanics in their school but the LAT should be able to admit it. The politicians who support that program do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The UC system has a criterion called Eligible in the Local Context. It is complicated, but it does mean that students in the top 9% of their class get special consideration, regardless of what it actually takes to be in the top 9%.

      Delete