Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chapter 10: Successful Failure

    Chapter Ten: Successful Failure

I was teaching a 10th grade class and having trouble getting anyone to care about the literature or about the prospect of taking the Regents or about the exciting class discussions we weren’t having because no one seemed to care.  There were three girls who always sat in front and did care.  It often seemed as though I were tutoring these three students while the other 25 were at a social club.  Even for the school that I was in, 3 out of 28 was a very low participation rate.
But this wasn’t an unruly class.  They were well-behaved as long as “good” behavior wasn’t defined by class work.  Mostly they sat in pairs or small groups in spite of my attempts to organize them differently and talked quietly about whatever they talked about in spite of my attempts to get them to focus on the material at hand.  Attendance was good.  It was as though they were punching a clock.  They knew that they had to be there so they showed up.  It seemed to me that in their minds showing up was all that their academic responsibilities demanded of them.
I often resorted to a standard lecture that went something like this:
“Listen, class.  Don’t you understand that you need this credit to graduate?  Don’t you realize that I can’t give you a passing grade if you don’t do any work?  Don’t you realize that you aren’t going to learn anything if you don’t do any work?  Don’t you realize that you’re wasting all your time and that you won’t ever again have this kind of time to waste on learning?  Er, I mean …..”
I went through the usual litany of rational arguments but to no avail.  Finally I topped off all of this irrefutable evidence with what should have been the clincher.  “Hey, I don’t need this class.  I passed 10th grade English a long time ago.  You’re the ones who need to pass it now.  This isn’t for me.  This is for you.”
I must have given this lecture half a dozen times before it finally drew a response but it wasn’t the response that I was hoping to get.
“Mr. Haverstock,” a young man finally said to me, “this isn’t our class.  This is your class.”
This struck me as just as nonsensical as what I’d been preaching all semester must have seemed to them.  It was incomprehensible to me.  The possibility had never occurred to me before.  I’d been saying just the opposite as though it were as self-evident as blue sky and green grass.
I continued tutoring the 3 girls in the front for the rest of the period but after class I talked to the student who had made the comment.  I wanted to find out what he could possibly have meant.  The conversation went something like this:
“Why did you say that the class is mine?”
“Because it is.”
“How is that?”
“We’re only there because you have a job as a teacher and need students.”
“But the class is for you to learn.  I already know this stuff.”
“How is any of that ever going to help us?”
“You need to read and write for everything you do.”
This didn’t make sense to him because he already knew how to read and write.  At least, he could read and write well enough to do the things that up to that point he had needed to do, which meant getting a passing grade of 65 in most of his classes.  I judged his reading level to be slightly below grade level and his writing level to be 3 or 4 grade levels low.  I also knew that with a little practice both could be brought up quickly and easily.  This student was more than capable but had spent most of his academic career with this concept of the purpose and nature of “school”.  It wasn’t for him.  It was for someone else that he would never be.
A couple of things began to crystallize.  First, these students saw absolutely no link between school and real life.  The only way that school might have been relevant to him would have been if somehow he were going to be making money there.  Since in his mind at that time he was never going to be a teacher, school was not relevant to him, not for him.  He was going to end up the way the vast majority of those around him ended up – working menial jobs and getting by on welfare and / or unemployment.  There were plenty of examples around that confirmed that one could live more or less comfortably with an apartment, possibly overcrowded, enough to eat and enough of the amenities of modern life – video games, sneakers, t.v. – without doing more than that.
In a sense it was a cost / benefit assessment that they were doing.  They could work hard for 4 years in high school, graduate, work harder for another 4 years at college, and then there was a chance – after 8 years of sacrifice - that they could get a job that was going to be worthwhile in terms of income and job satisfaction.  There was only a chance that after 8 years they might come out with something better than what they could get without doing anything at all.  When you added in the pervasive belief that white people owned and controlled everything, many had already decided by the age of 16 that the potential benefits weren’t worth the risk.  The fact that I was a white teacher standing in front of them only confirmed these beliefs and decisions.
Second, school seemed to them to be nothing more than another business in the neighborhood where people worked, had customers and made money.  Teachers and administrators were like the owners of small businesses and students were the customers.  The good part of that is that they didn’t have to do anything to fulfill that role.  Just by showing up, the school / business was getting customers every day because the law mandated that the customers go to school and therefore it was making money – you could see the money all around in books, building renovations, employees working and that was the most important element of the school/business - the employees were employed.  By showing up they were playing their part in this business set-up – a scam to be sure but scams are something they’re comfortable with.  Those are all around, too.
They were never going to own a school or a business.  You needed a great investment to get to either position – capital to put into your education or capital to put into your business.  They didn’t have that kind of capital.  They best they could hope for from a school was to get a job as an aide, security guard or, if they were lucky and knew someone, which they didn’t, custodian.  These jobs were like being employed by neighborhood clothing stores and fast food restaurants.  They put some money in your pocket but you weren’t going anywhere.
After that conversation with that student I still didn’t really see his point of view or necessarily believe that what he said was true but I never forgot it.  It was such a radical departure from my way of thinking about schools and education.  It seemed to me as though they were seeing the world through a warped mirror.  My responsibility didn’t change, however.  I still had to try to get them to take academic work seriously and believe that it was important.
As curious to me as this strange, looking glass view of the purpose of school was the lack of ambition on the part of so many able students to even shoot for anything higher than the bare minimum.  One of the most frustrating things for a teacher is to see a capable student underperforming.  The conversation with that 10th grade student gave me a glimmer of what was behind this, although it took some time to start to figure it out.  If that were really all there was to it, if the school was for us and not for them, then why were they coming to school at all and why were they bothering to care about their grade at all?  Of course, there were a lot of students who, in fact, weren’t coming to school at all.  Maybe that was a reason.
A majority of the students, however, cared about one thing and one thing only – passing and they didn’t care whether they passed with a 65 or anything else.  There was no difference in their minds between 65, 75, 85 or anything else that wasn’t 55.
“Am I passing, Mr. Haverstock?”
End of conversation.  It was rare that a student asked what they might do to raise their grade above the bare minimum.  The 3 girls who sat in the front of that class all did that but they had to accept that they would be looked upon with a certain amount of contempt and scorn for doing so.
Many teachers, including myself, have made the mistake of telling a student that he/she was passing.  This is especially a problem if you admit it during the final six weeks of the semester.  That could be the last time you see that student.  If you say, “No, you’re not passing,” you might see that student and hear that question until it becomes “yes”.  Then you see the student only enough to maintain that level of achievement – “yes” in response to the only question on their minds.  Again logic and reasoning seem to have no bearing on this.
“But you could do so much better than 65.  I’m expecting at least 85 from you.”
“Okay, Mr. H.”
Meanwhile it is as though they have a built-in calculator that flashes “65” in their brain.  I imagine that it’s something like a guitar tuner.  When the needle drops below 65, suddenly a piece of homework or class work gets done.  When the needle dances above 65, that homework or class work suddenly disappears.  They keep their brains finely tuned to a perfectly pitched 65.
A grade of 65 seems to be a compromise between success and failure.  When I tell them that they could get 85, I’m only telling them something that they already know.  In fact, they’ve likely been told the same thing by every teacher they ever had and earned a 65 from.  They know they can do it.  There is no doubt.  They’ve probably even earned a 75 or an 85 in some class to prove the point.  The problem, especially in high school, of course, is that while they are certainly capable of getting 85, they can’t do it without working at least some and the longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes to do that.  The further they fall behind, particularly in writing and math, the harder it gets to catch up.  But it is still relatively easy to get a 65 so they do that and continue to believe that they could do better if they wanted to.  They’re like the aging basketball player who continues to believe he can still deliver on the court because he used to be able to do it.  Then one day after doing nothing for a few years, he hits the court ….
65 also represents a level of rebellion.  Teachers want us to get 80 or 90.  My parents want me to do really well in school.  They’re always screaming at me about that and threatening to take away my computer.  Parents are called in.  The student sits there while the parent says the same things to the teachers.  Promises are made. –deals, handshakes and then it’s back to 65 as usual.  This is fairly normal adolescent behavior except that by doing poorly in school as a way of rebelling, students who need education as a means of advancement are hurting themselves greatly.  But they don’t discover that until graduation time and they see the scholarship money going to others.
Parents have historically wanted better for their children than they had for themselves and the way has often been through education – become a doctor, a lawyer, etc.  That worked for many generations.  Children found ways to rebel without hurting themselves.  Curiously, however, I have seen the opposite now at work.  Parents still want better for the kids but the kids now seem to look at their parents and say, “Well, it was good enough for you; why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?”  It is, of course, frustrating for parents to watch their own children make the same mistakes that they made and that is part of the difference.  Many parents today are hoping that their children do what they say rather than what they themselves did.  Unfortunately many kids are finding out just as their parents found out – when it’s too late.
Then there is the peer pressure involved in walking this fine line between passing and not passing.  If 40% of the class is failing, there is a great deal of pressure on those students who are deciding which way to go – pressure to go the wrong way.  If 40% are failing, how big a deal can it be?  Anyway the kids who are passing are nerds.  The failing rebels are much cooler and funnier – that’s where you find most of the class clowns, after all.
I’ve been talking about how the best students have been sacrificed to the worst over the past decade in NYC public schools but here is another aspect of this.  By my estimation, the “best” are those 20 or 25% of kids who are immune to this sort of peer pressure and to all of these ideas and beliefs that lead to a failure to care about academics.  But there is another 30% or so who are not immune to it.  These are not the “best” but only because they are susceptible to this sort of peer pressure.  They are not mature enough or they don’t have the self-discipline or their parents aren’t involved enough – there are many reasons why they are more susceptible but susceptible they are and therefore they, too, need to be freed from an environment that so negatively impacts them.  In that 10th grade class that I described in detail in chapter 8, there were 4 such students who failed because they allowed themselves to be influenced in this way; there were 3 others who passed but whose grades were lower than they otherwise would have been if not for being thrust into that environment.
So by getting 65 in a class, these students have actually accomplished a few things.  They have shown their ability to pass and have earned the ongoing assumption that they could pass with a higher grade if they wanted.  They have demonstrated to their peers that they are fully capable of failing if they want to and that next semester they just might do that.  They have shown their parents that they can’t tell them what to do or that their parents don’t know any better than they do.  They’ve shown their teachers that the school is for teachers rather than for students.
I’ve come to describe this situation as “successful failure”.  Unfortunately, a 55 works as well as a 65 to successfully fail or maybe better.  Even more than a 65 a 55 proves all of these same points and proves them with real authority.  After all a 65 might not mean much to a college admissions person but it will earn the credit toward graduation.  So a 65 isn’t as successful a failure as a 55 is and these are the only two options.  The lowest grade given in NYC public schools is 55.
The 55 grade encourages successful failure.  The student may earn a 20 for the class but the grade on the report card says “55”.   It’s really the same as an “F”, which means everything below 60 in conventional grading.  By using the number “55” rather than the letter grade, however, the student seems to be only 10 points away from passing.  They seem to have come “this” close to passing, proving only that they could have passed simply by doing a few more assignments or showing up a few more times – a most successful failure because of course they could have done those few more assignments – piece of cake.  The best failure is the one that comes closest to passing while not quite passing.
Another aspect of successful failure and equally as curious is the failure to graduate.  The closer you come to graduating without actually graduating, the more successful the failure.  I’ve seen many students who missed graduation by the slimmest of margins.  One of the best students I ever taught, one who passed all of her Regents with very high marks didn’t graduate for lack of a single gym class.  She missed it by less than a full credit – the most successful failure I’ve ever seen and the greatest waste of a high school career I’ve seen because she could have been swimming in scholarship money.
There are myriad ways to successfully fail to graduate.  I knew another student who didn’t graduate not because he didn’t have the credits and not because he couldn’t pass the Regents but because he refused to sit for the Regents.  This was a very deliberate act of failure, which made it one of the most successful on record.  What could be more direct and dramatic than the simple refusal to graduate?
Of course, most students who don’t graduate fail to do so as a result of successfully failing in their classes for years – that or not showing up enough, which is another failing form of success.  Unfortunately the successful part of this equation tends to evaporate over time, leaving only the failure in the long run.
Now we have an entire school system bent on successful failure.  Between 2006 and 2010, after the mayor and his chancellor might have had that imaginary conversation that took place in chapter 9, things were looking up for the NYC schools.  The math and reading scores in the elementary and middle schools were creeping upward and the mayor / chancellor weren’t loath to take credit for these advances.  These reform schools were created by them.  The number of state tests increased during this time as well so progress could be well monitored.
The first glimmering of problems came when a federal study indicated that the increases in test scores that the city was reporting did not, in fact, reflect higher levels of performance in math and reading according to national standards.  That came during the spring of 2010.  Then during the summer of 2010 the reform school house of cards fell apart altogether when it was revealed that the tests had been “dumbed” down and that the feds were right.  The scores may have gone up but proficiency levels had stagnated.  All the advances claimed by Bloomberg/Klein evaporated like steam from their morning 10-dollar café lattes.  Perhaps the mayor was thinking that the 3rd term wasn’t such a good idea after all.  “You gotta know when to fold ‘em ….”  He could have gotten out and let his successor take the blame as W. did, ducking out and leaving his economic fiasco for Obama to deal with.  It must have been about this time that Klein decided that he’d had enough – he was gone at the end of 2010 – or perhaps the mayor had a new scapegoat in mind.
That was successful failure on a grand scale.  Students were still performing below grade level at an unacceptable rate but you couldn’t tell that from the statistics – objective statistics, that is.  Who can argue with statistics?  Test scores were looking very successfully rosy.  They had succeeded in turning failure into success.  Of course, it was going to come out eventually but then they’d have the high schools to blame.
“Hey, high schools!  We gave you kids who were performing at and above grade level at rates never before seen in the city.  What did you do to them?  Actually de-educate them?  How do you actually remove knowledge from a student?  Deteach?  Why aren’t they graduating at the same rates predicted by their middle school scores?  Those numbers are objective and irrefutable ….”
But did they learn their lesson from this?  Did they learn anything at all from the collapse of their successful failure?  Now during the summer of 2011 there are similar revelations coming out every week, it seems, this time concerning the literacy and math proficiency of graduates.  The graduation rate hit an all time high of 62% for the NYC class of 2010.  Of course, great pressures had been put on high schools to increase their graduation rates or else.  Funding was drying up; worse, by this time they were successfully closing schools – yet another form of successful failure.  The very reform schools they’d opened up as a way of reforming the schools were now being shut down, shuttered, like condemned tenements or padlocked like a small business that failed to pay its taxes.  But that was only to be expected – don’t 80% of small businesses fail in the first 3 years?  Why should the new little school-businesses be any different?
As the numbers of graduates has gone up, the numbers of graduates who are prepared for college has hit an all-time low.  The numbers of students who require remedial English and math courses has skyrocketed.  As many as 75% of high school graduates are not prepared for college.  Schools are reporting graduation rates of 90% and higher but of that 90%, 5% or 10% are ready for college based on the criteria of a 75 on the English Regents and an 80 in math.
Of course, that’s good for the college and university game, which is booming.  For them it’s like getting a CEO’s yearly bonus – students paying them money before they can even enter their regular classes.  Like the good profit-driven capitalists that they are, colleges and universities must at this moment be devising ways to improve upon this catastrophically successful failure.  I mean, it’s only in their best interest to keep graduating kids that need a few extra classes, which they’re only too happy to offer.  It is their mandate, isn’t it?
This is truly successful failure on an even grander scale.  The graduation numbers are truly something that the reform schoolers can be proud of.  They may not have learned anything but at least they’re persistent – that’s supposed to be a good thing, the thing, in fact, that gets the successful person over the top.  Isn’t it?  Maybe it even works for the successfully failing overachiever.
This combination of high graduation / low literacy and math proficiency numbers is like a 55 / 65 earned in a class.  I’d say it comes out to a 60, a grade that teachers cannot give out but which would make for the perfect successful failure – neither passing nor failing.  That’s exactly where the successfully failing student wants to be and that is exactly where the entire NYC school system is in 2011 – neither passing nor failing or better yet, passing and failing at the same time, depending on how you look at those objective statistics.
I’d like to bring in their parents for a conference – I mean the parents of the entire school system (whoever that might be).
“Listen, Mr. and Ms. School District, your child is underperforming.”
“I know.  We’ve talked to it.”
“You did.”
“Yes, we told it that if its grades didn’t improve, we’d reduce the budget and get rid of teachers.”
“And did the grades improve?”
“Yes, its grades got better – which is why we’re wondering why you called us in for this conference.”
“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but it cheated.”
“Yes, see the answers on these standardized tests?”
“Well, now look at this.  Here is the answer sheet.  Someone got their hands on the answers before the test.”
“You mean before they took the tests they knew what the outcome had to be?”
“I can’t believe it.  No school district of mine would ever do something like that!”
“Well, it did.”
“Then we’ll have to punish it.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“We’ll threaten to lay off 6,000 teachers.”
“And you think that will work?  Your school district has been underperforming for decades.  Do you think that will change it?”
“Maybe we’ll have to take away seniority, too.”
“Thanks for coming.  Take a cookie.”
“Thank you.”
On their way out, Mr. and Ms. School System are talking under their breath: We’ll show them.  They could have improved student proficiency … if they’d really wanted to but it’s an urban school system, after all – a lot of peer pressure not to do so well.  We certainly don’t want to act like those nerdy suburban districts.  Those numbers weren’t that exaggerated ….
Meanwhile little school system is out in the schoolyard bragging – I could get that higher proficiency rate … if I wanted.
Successful failure on a system wide scale - which all brings me back to the student who told me that the class was for me, not for them.  I didn’t understand what he meant at the time.

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