Our juniors got their PSAT scores last week. They were atrocious – out of 800 on each section, our students had scores in the 300s. Alvin, our college counselor, a 32-year veteran of the Board of Ed, broke the news to his fourth period class. I lingered in the room we share, hand-drawing a gigantic display for a bulletin board.
At first, the task seemed to be communicating the gravity of the situation. Clearly, they did not all understand what the numbers meant. Ronald, a gregarious boy who covers for his insecurity with outrageous cockiness, raised his hand.
“So I got a, a 360 on the verbal, which is good, right?” All smiles.
“That ain’t high,” snapped Naima.
Alvin shook his head: Oh, boy. He began lecturing them, our first graduating class, this messy crew of high-maintenance, low-skilled charmers, the ones we’ve been banging our heads on a wall for these two years and four months.
“When you’re hanging outside in the hallway, and we’re yellin’ at you to get to class, you need to get it together. When you blow off your homework, ‘forget’ to write that essay, you need to get it together. When you waste class time, acting a fool, slowing down everybody with your nonsense, you need to get. It. Together.” Alvin coughed and stared at them.
This class, more than the sophomores or the freshmen, more, he confessed to me later, than any class he’d ever seen in all his years in the Board of Ed, seemed to lack a work ethic, to be woefully out of touch with the consequences of their decisions. They had a near-fatal case of the fuck-its. It was also possible that they were poorer than anyone he’d ever taught, but then again, he used to work in the South Bronx.
Naima raised her hand. She was a longtime hallway-straggler, a champion homework-avoider, an essay-refuser, a big-time shutter-down of classes. She had recently seemed to come around to the idea of doing well in school, of making something out of her God-given intelligence, but Alvin was lecturing to her as much as anyone.
“Yes, Naima,” Alvin said, weary but tender.
“What if…what if we all did bad?” she said carefully, knowing, indeed, that they had all done badly. “If we all did bad, then…wouldn’t that mean that there was something you wasn’t teaching us?”
Fuck. Leave it to Naima to pry open the issue where it lived. With a pair of pliers.
Alvin faltered. He talked around the question, re-emphasized their personal responsibility, something that, to this group, had always seemed like a foreign concept. Near the window, my mind was reeling.
“Alvin?” I tentatively raised my hand.
“Yes, Claire?” He is one of my favorite colleagues in this whole building.
“Um, can I address Naima’s question?”
“Absolutely,” he said, waving me over.
Overall, New York City performs poorly compared with the rest of the country; in August, for example, citywide averages were more than 55 points lower than the national average, at 435 out of 800 on the reading section, 459 on math and 432 on writing. I looked at a database of 2007 scores by county and school, and Brooklyn high schools fared miserably, reporting scores in the mid-300s to mid-400s.
There is ferocious debate about the validity of the SAT, its effectiveness in predicting academic success in college, its widely-alleged biases against students of color and students with low socioeconomic status. High scores on the SAT directly correlate with family income.
What did we expect? How could they possibly have done better? How much did it matter that they didn’t?
And yet. No matter how far behind our students are when they come to us as ninth graders, our job is the same as the teachers at Stuyvesant, at Scarsdale High, at Dalton: graduate them and get them into college.
“Naima, that’s an excellent question.” I leveled my gaze at her, trying not to squirm. I knew it wasn’t worth it, in the rough minute I had before everyone’s eyes glazed over, to go into some progressive education stump speech, to rail against the absurdity of the SAT, to argue that we were trying to teach more useful things, like how to think.
Plus, how much do critical-thinking skills matter when you lack the basic skills every high schooler is presumed to have? Who cares about the passion of your arguments when you don’t understand the reading-comprehension passages, when your writing looks like a fifth-grader’s, when you don’t know your times tables?
Also? Try teaching the basics to the five kids in the front row while the back row is studded with geniuses who, for whatever reason, came fully equipped with a scholarly middle-class discourse and are ready to sink their teeth into complex, abstract, college-level shit. And the rest of the kids are kind of hovering in the middle, impatient with the bonehead-simple stuff you’re trying to explain to the front row (I always seat my strugglers in the front; otherwise they run for cover) but totally not getting the deep stuff you’re tossing to the back row, squawking, “Why you always gotta ask me why all the time? That’s just what I think, I don’t know why!”
And: “That’s too much work!”
And: “We gotta read all that?”
And: “We gotta write two pages??”
And: “What do we have to do again?”
Oh, the irony. All I’m trying to do here is equip them with some intellectual infrastructure. All I’m trying to do is get them over this finish line, even if I have to light a match under someone’s foot to get them to run in the right goddamn direction. Day in, day out, this is my task. Naima, of all people, is asking me did I know there was a fucking race.
“I hear you,” I tell Naima.
I am sure she’s always wanted to be successful, but for a hundred reasons, it wasn’t her priority, and she probably didn’t know how to go after it. She still doesn’t.
“But there’s no simple answer,” I began. “Of course we want to prepare you for the SAT. But it requires basic skills that a lot of our students didn’t have when they got here. So the more advanced stuff, sometimes you can’t get to that until you cover the basics. It takes time. Add to that the time lost to people acting crazy and getting sent out of class,” I said, eyeing some of the usual suspects, “and time lost to kids being absent, or late, and falling behind, and…” I trailed off.
“Yeah, I understand,” Naima said in her new, serious tone.
“But how come y’all be teaching from the chalkboard?” Kevasia piped up in front. Her default mode is indignance.
“Huh?” I didn’t understand her question.
“In Kevin class, he teaches from a PowerPoint,” she said, referring to her science teacher. “He says that’s how they do it in college, so we gotta get used to it. Why y’all still be usin’ chalkboards, then.”
I have no idea what Kevin actually told her, but she had gotten it into her head that information conveyed through chalk was somehow irrelevant, while projecting it onto a screen made it suitable for college. Only someone with no experience of college, vicarious or otherwise, would argue that she wasn’t being prepared for college because her high school had chalkboards. (Which isn’t to say Kevasia hasn’t been going on college trips in the city since freshman year, when she announced she wanted to study fashion at the School of Visual Arts, like Max, her favorite art teacher.)
It just makes it depressingly obvious how far our students have to walk before they arrive at the same place a bunch of rich white kids took a cab to.