A Teacher's Perspective

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Darryl Robinson's thought-provoking op-ed that ran last month in The Washington Post is sadly not a one-of-a-kind story. Darryl and other stars of our nation's disadvantaged urban schools might make it to college, but are they making it in college? The statistics tell us not usually.

  • 57 percent of all students who enroll in four-year, nonprofit colleges earn diplomas within 6 years
  • 40 percent of African American students earn college degrees within 6 years
  • 9 percent of children from low-income backgrounds earn college degrees within 6 years

In an attempt to unpack what might have been done differently so that Darryl, and students like him, would have been prepared to face the challenges of elite college life, we reached out to one of Darryl's former high school English teachers from Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy. 

This particular teacher, who we'll call Mr. Smith, was a graduate of one of the country's most elite private liberal arts institutions and was in his seventh year of teaching when Darryl arrived in his 10th grade classroom.* Darryl was accompanied by 18 or so other students with a wide range of academic abilities, including students not yet fluent in English and those who read and wrote five or more grade levels behind Darryl.

In a comment posted by Mr. Smith to Darryl's op-ed on The Washington Post online, he wrote that "the wide range of abilities in the class meant that while Darryl did get written feedback appropriate to his strengths and challenges in his work, work that was not his absolute best could still earn an A, because I had to use a uniform grade scale and even work that was subpar for him was still above his grade level. Moreover, his classmates' needs meant that some lessons and activities were superfluous for Darryl, and he would have better spent this time developing his critical thinking faculties."

While the challenges here seem pretty clear, in that differentiating for all of these levels while still pushing Darryl ahead would require impossible hours of lesson planning and preparation, Mr. Smith suggested that Darryl likely would have benefited from smaller, seminar-style classes with students of similar abilities. Such courses weren't offered at the time but are now part of the school's course schedule. 

Not surprisingly, Darryl's former teacher also attested to a lack of resources being another obstacle to providing students with an education that would have prepared them for college. (He's not talking about resources in terms of the latest fad, such as having an ipad for each student.) To prepare students for college, Smith said that we "need a curriculum that is geared toward making [students] active and critical thinkers," and districts need to support the implementation of curricula that promote higher-level thinking.

The problems cited here are clearly not unique to a single school or a single teacher's classroom. As we collectively work on raising the rigor of public education through efforts such as the Common Core Standards, the common hope should be to do better by other Darryl's in the future.

*This teacher continues to teach, but no longer works at Chavez.

Sarah Brody