(Expletive) no, Doc -- Ain’t Nobody Learnin’ Nothin’ Today – So What Should We Do with High-Poverty High Schools?

By Caleb S. Rossiter

Only twice in the two years I spent recently teaching math at one of Washington, DC's many all-black, high-poverty high schools, did I suspend my disciplinary rules about swearing -- because I was laughing too hard.  You have to understand, our children curse like they breathe.  Cursing is deep in the grammar of Black dialect (as it surely is in other ethnic dialects in America), and dialect pops up among high-poverty black teenagers in school, like Spanish does among Hispanic students, or English among students in a school that is trying to inculcate Hebrew.  Actually, while all my students could follow standard English, only about half of them could speak it, despite their years of being instructed in it.  Of course, nearly all the non-teaching staff spoke dialect with the students, so there was a constant flow between the two languages during the school day.

For swearing, as with other disruptive behavior, I would start by accepting an apology.  Hilariously, our kids think that saying “My bad” resets a relationship, whatever the crime they just committed.  And you know, it usually does.  (Of course, the police don’t operate that way, which explains why we have so many of our boys in the legal system.)  For a second offence I would require an after-school phone conference with a guardian, which for our school meant a grandmother, aunt, or older sister as often as it meant a mother.  (There was almost never a father figure in our students’ homes.)  And if that didn’t do the trick, I would refuse to let the student into class until a guardian came in for a meeting with us. 

My administrators didn’t like that step, the kids standing outside my door during class, any more than those of East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante (of the film “Stand and Deliver”) did when he barred the door to students who hadn’t done their homework.  I should have followed Escalante’s lead on homework, too, turning my classes into tiny meetings of the committed students, but I didn’t have the strength of character he showed when his administrators repeatedly tried to fire him for that.  

In the two cases where I couldn’t help laughing, I just told the students, “that’s going to be the title of my book,” and moved on without even noting down the name of the offender.  But I remember them vividly.  One case was the weary response of a boy I’ll call Malei’kar, one of my sharpest and best-behaved students, to my instruction to get out our textbooks the afternoon after the students had spent the morning suffering through the standardized, grade-level test they took every six weeks as practice for the big end-of-year test: “(Expletive) no, Doc – Ain’t nobody learnin’ nothin’ today.” 
Malei’kar was many years behind in his skills, because students are often promoted and passed (through tricks like bogus “credit recovery” classes) despite weak attendance and performance, but he worked hard when he was in class, and was making progress.  I sympathized too much to discipline him, but we got our books out anyway.

Actually, the final test is big only for administrators and teachers, because whether or not the percentage of students who achieve a very low “proficient” score is higher than that of the previous year’s cohort factors heavily into whether we get a raise or even have a job the next year.  Yes, you read that right: the vaunted accountability system violates the basic rule of statistical research: compare apples and apples.  We are not evaluated on whether our students improve their scores from the previous year, but on how they stack up on average with a totally different set of students from the year before. 

The test is not big for the students because they know that its results have no effect on their grade.  With our typical student entering high school six years behind grade level, most just fill in the bubbles on this incomprehensible grade-level test and go to sleep for the next two hours.  The entire academic program was distorted, from the curriculum to class sizes, to prepare the kids “on the bubble” whom the pre-tests showed were close to proficiency.  Teachers were encouraged to offer financial and edible incentives for success, which made a mockery of the standardization that is required for valid comparisons across test environments.  Still, our school always had only about ten to 20 percent of the students scoring proficient.  The testing was a form of child abuse that it pained us to administer.    

The other forgiven incident of cursing came when a girl I’ll call LacQuan, who was border-line mentally-challenged and prone to class-ending emotional melt-downs of screaming and fighting, stopped brushing her eyelashes long enough to look up at the board as I rearranged x + 3 = 2x into 3 = 2x – x = x.  “Doctor Rossiter,” she said politely but pointedly, as if we both knew she had caught me doing something illegal, “what the (expletive) you do with that X?”  The class stopped its buzzing, as surprised as me that Lacquan had actually been looking at the board and had actually said anything about schoolwork.  We all cracked up, and I said, “that, my dear, is Al-gebra, ‘the reunion’ of the variables on the balance beam, what we’ve been studying these past six months, and that is one of the best questions I have ever heard.”

What can we do for students like these, who are way behind like Malei’kar because of the chaos of high-poverty life and schools that automatically promote, or like Lacquan because of developmental disabilities?  These are typical students in our high-poverty segregated schools, where half of the students drop out and the other half are helpless academically when they are handed their diplomas.  The current system is broken beyond repair.  We need a dramatically new approach.  When nobody is learnin’ nothin’, what have you got to lose?

My first step would be to make every high school a choice, as with the charter schools like, DC, Thurgood Marshall (college prep) or the “application” public schools like Duke Ellington (arts) or Benjamin Banneker (college prep).  It is true that a neighborhood school is an important anchor for a stressed community, but schools must be designed around the needs of the students, not the community, and certainly not the educational establishment and politicians, as they are now with the test-oriented curriculum.  In a small city with great public transportation, geography is not a barrier to attendance for the motivated.  Just ask the students who travel over an hour and a half to get to the Duke every day. 

In a system based on choices, guardians and students would have to review the different schools and their programs, take the time and effort to visit the ones they like, and then apply.  Once admitted, students would have to abide by their school’s rules on attendance, homework, and behavior or be asked to leave, just as they do in charters or application schools.  In the first few years of this transition, thousands of students would be asked to leave their school of choice, just as they are at the charters and applications, so those who want to learn can do so. 

That is why my second step would be to expand vocational programs and permit graduation with a curriculum that is not college preparatory, so that all students can successfully prepare for adult life.  Students who are years behind when they reach high school are not going to college any time soon.  LacQuan doesn’t need X’s and Y’s, Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, if she chooses to be a cosmetologist, bricklayer, mechanic, plumber, web designer, or bus driver.  Given the crisis in black youth unemployment, being prepared to hold any of those jobs right out of high school would be a life-saving break for her.  She needs reading, writing, and math for them, of course, but not of the type taught in the college prep track, where she is bound to fail and be frustrated.  Malei’kar, on the other hand, just might make it to college if he were to be surrounded by others attending at least four days a week and doing their homework, which at best only a quarter of his peers do now.  You could certainly have a number of different programs in the same school, but the evaluations of teachers and administrators would have to be based on student tests appropriate to each program, and not to a nationally-based college prep curriculum, as they are now. 

Neither of these steps will save all of our students.  In fact, most of our children will continue to be left behind, because there is no purely educational solution for the dismal educational level of the black lower economic class.  At its core, this is a problem of poverty, segregation, discrimination, and ethnic alienation from the mainstream, a legacy of the violent American past of 250 years of slavery and 100 years of race rule after slavery ended.   Addressing that legacy is where the real solution lies, but while we address that over many years we must offer a bright path to a successful life right now for those who will work for it.  Despite the best of intentions of all of us involved in education, we simply are not going in the right direction.  I hope that these suggestions help us rethink our approach.