Easy A’s, and an Oakland student’s call to action

Wesley Sims, 18, says his high school is too easy and that he’s breezed through his courses with miminal effort. And then he took the SATs.

Mike Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford, says watered-down coursework and grade inflation is “more common than uncommon” at high schools, and that it’s not unique to Oakland.

After all, Kirst points out, about 60 percent of freshmen entering the CSU system need remediation in English, math or both — and those are students with at least a B average who have completed all of the college prep, or `a to g’, classes.

How do you change this? You often hear about the importance of staff having “high expectations” of students, but that’s clearly not enough. Most of us know how much skill is required to do the job well, and how important good leadership and school culture is.

What can principals, experienced teachers, central office staff and families do to make sure teachers have the support they need and that students are being challenged, academically — in all of their classes? Where is this happening now?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Mr. G

    I think Mr. Sims makes a great point, and there are many problems that need to be resolved to ensure that future students do not experience the same let-down that he has. The District has a lot of work to do, that’s for sure.

    At the same time, Mr. Sims made clear at the most recent board meeting that he will be out of school on March 4 to participate in protests, despite Dr. Smith’s calls to have all students and teachers in school (and to have protests occur before and/or after the regular school day).

    Perhaps Mr. Sims can explain how attending protests instead of classes will help him to improve his SAT scores.

    I’m not making a judgment on the value of these protests – that is not of my concern in this post. And there are many factors outside of students’ control that the adults need to fix to improve the educational opportunities for kids in Oakland. But we all, as individuals, make choices. If I were a student, and I wanted to attend college, I would be working extremely hard to improve my math and English skills so that I could do better on those entrance exams.

    Perhaps some will think it noble that Mr. Sims is willing to march to fix the broken system that failed him. I’d point out that throughout his life Mr. Sims has relied on others for his education, and those individuals have failed him. Thus, he must become self-reliant and the master of his own destiny to whatever extent possible. Instead of being a martyr, why not beat the odds, work hard to get through college, and fix the system as an educated and driven adult?

  • Katy Murphy

    The grading issues raised in these stories are being discussed on KGO right now. They interviewed Frank Worrell from UC Berkeley, whom I quoted in the story.

    A man from San Jose just called in and said his daughter turns in subpar work on uncomplicated assignments, but that she’s getting good grades. This dad says he has to go out and find supplemental materials just so she won’t end up in remedial English and math classes in college, but that she might end up needing extra help anyway.

    “These kids are getting a false sense of security that they’re doing well, and they’re not,” he said.

    A 25-year-old woman from South San Francisco said her remedial math course at a community college has 50 students and that they’ve been on addition and subtraction for two weeks…

  • http://ariellesimmons.blogspot.com/2009/10/computers-k-12-education-and-gis.html Arielle Simmons

    @ Mr.G

    I’ve worked and volunteered in Oakland classrooms for the past five years. I don’t blame this student for his frustration at all– or his “martyr” attitude towards attending the protests. I do think you are being wildly unrealistic and drawing unbalanced conclusions in your following statements that:

    1) Your statement that Mr. Sims missing one-day’s worth of classes to attend the March 4th protests will some how improve 12-year’s of deficient education and raise his SAT scores is completely ridiculous. Beyond being a false analogy…that’s just an absurd expectation. I don’t propose to say it’s a good precedent for students to miss class (in general), but to imply that missing one specific day will lower Mr. Sims’ SAT scores is very off-key statement.

    2) In your last paragraph, you state that Mr. Sims should become “self-reliant” and “beat the odds, work hard to get through college, and fix the system as an educated and driven adult”.

    Well, with all due respect, you have no idea what you are talking about.

    I myself attended a low-quality “vocational” high school in rural California. Though funding has improved significantly in that particular district (by prime agriculture land quickly being sectioned off for the rich suburbanites, which by extension, increased property taxes)…I know all to well what public school conditions Mr. Sims is referring to. Endless months of substitute babysitting (or as some call it “teaching”), lack of learning materials, access to little or no outside information (which was confounded by the slow technology upgrades in my era)….I attended K-12 in those conditions. I also, like I suspect Mr. Sims has, grew up in family with low-finances and few college degree holders.

    From these conditions I eventually became what you suggest Mr. Sims becomes: college-educated (I have a Master’s in fact), and working to “[fix] the system as an educated and driven adult”.

    Though I won’t deny that it takes a measure of self-reliance for me to pull myself out of the “broken system” I was born and educated in…It is entirely naive to suggest that I accomplished this by myself. I did not. If it hadn’t been for a multitude of factors, I could’ve easily become what my younger (by 1 year) brother is: an unemployed 26 yr old high-school dropout with a record full of misdemeanors.

    My “self-reliance” was great, but unfortunately “self-reliance” isn’t as useful as a college fund or good career counselor when it comes to applying and surviving college. It literally took a village to propel me out of my past. Bay-area friend’s who convinced their parents to give me money when my student room was robbed of a month’s worth of food, books, and my laptop (an event that almost forced me to drop out). Admissions officers who granted me penalty free extension after extension when I scrambled desperately for the scholarship and grant money to keep me in school. Grandparents who jeopardized their own retirement so that I could survive on part-time minimum wage and make it through community college with permanent honors roll status so that I would have a fighting chance to gain admission and funds to attend a public university.

    I tell you–as both a person who lived in Mr. Sims situation and now works in it–it takes far more then individual “self-reliance” to defy the odds and make it out of a poor and undereducated past.

    If you truly care about Mr. Sims overcoming his educational disabilities, I suggest that you do (what many have done for me) and become an active contributor to his (or some other students) future. Suggesting that someone can “overcome” a broken system alone, is a completely untrue and misleading statement.

    Thank you.

  • Union Supporter-But

    My own sons are bringing home nearly all As and an occasional B. However, they have not learned to write an in depth five paragraph essay although they are in one of the best middle schools and one of the best high schools in Oakland. Although both sons had Algebra in the 7th grade with an A and an A- (so far) both have trouble cutting a recipe in half and still refer to the charts to half a teaspoon of salt.

    Neither son can accurately point out where our troops are fighting and stationed overseas without the names of the country on the map.

  • Rose

    I agree with Union Supporter-But: This is a problem that isn’t unique to high school. My son is now a freshman at Tech and finally has mostly excellent teachers and classes. Prior to this he never had a teacher who, for example, gave specific feedback on all aspects of a draft essay and made him rewrite it. That is the only way to learn to write well. In elementary school they let the children spell “creatively” so as to not turn them off to writing. Math has been better, but with no real science education in Oakland until high school, they never use math in a practical way. Since kindergarten he has had some limited geography only twice. “A”s in Spanish come from being nice to the teacher. I don’t think my son will need remediating but that is only because we supplement in areas he has missed. It is easy to see how any kid without a college educated parent/guardian with time to spare could end up in Wesley Sim’s shoes.

  • Donna

    If one were to poll students, especially the ones determined to attend college such as Wesley Sims, I wonder what they would say?

    Last year, my daughter’s math teacher graded on a curve. A large percentage of kids consistently did poorly on the tests, including both the OUSD ones and the ones that came with the text. [I happen to think it was a matter of poor teaching and not lazy kids, but that’s another matter.] My daughter didn’t do particularly well, but since she did better than most, her grade was decent. Does this bode well for the SAT? No.

    This year’s math teacher grades by the percentage correct. A troubling percentage of kids do poorly on the tests, including my daughter, but this means that their math grades are pretty bad.

    Which teacher’s grading does my daughter prefer? She told me this year’s teacher, because it was a wake-up call. At this point, we can’t afford a tutor, but she is exploring online lessons such as at Khan’s Academy and making that class a higher priority.

    The challenging teachers get more respect than the easy ones who are easy graders. She did find it traumatizing when a number of kids got kicked out of an honors class at the semester because they were not performing up to snuff, apparently not doing the reading and the homework. She claims they were not given warning and did not see the writing on the wall. I take that with a grain of salt, but you can bet that word got around cuts can happen, even mid-season.

    Oakland Tech’s Paideia program grads report back that they were well-prepared for college, maybe better prepared than some of their college classmates. However, the Paideia kids are in the pipeline to take four Advanced Placement exams. And AP classes, according to the article that appeared in the Trib, are less subject to being watered down.

    As to the non-Paideia counterpart classes? I am concerned that those students will encounter the same shock as Wesley Sims. I have rarely seen it emphasized to students the importance of taking the most challenging courses available in which they are likely to succeed. I know I didn’t *get* that piece of the a-g picture and make a couple of less than stellar choices out of ignorance — and my parents were college educated English speakers. Countless students are (minimally) fulfilling Cal’s a-g requirements without recognizing that there is a whole other set of a-gs (the GPA boost from the AP classes) which is what it will take to get into Cal and UCLA.

  • http://angryvillagers.net Dave Johnston

    There are schools that are preparing students for college-level work. They’re the same schools that are dramatically improving achievement of all of their students. For example, the CBEE Honor Roll schools are a good start. In Oakland Unified, this is schools like ACORN Woodland Elementary,
    American Indian Public Charter, Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy, Aspire Lionel Wilson College Preparatory Academy, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, La Escuelita Elementary, Oakland Charter Academy, Peralta Elementary, Sequoia Elementary and Think College Now. Those schools are challenging students like Wesley and preparing them for college and the world of work.


  • Nextset

    The problem is that you cannot mix academic students and vocational-level students. When you are talking about black schools, there are not enough academic students to go around. So the courses are watered down. A’s are handed out. Those A’s are in no way comperable to those from a white school. And I use “white” for illustration. I mean Jewish/Indian/Asian/White.

    I have a relative who in the early 1970s went to a black school in the bay area and got a GPA good enough for college application. The SAT score was infantile. The student’s parents and the extended family were shocked (“Shocked!!”) at the test scores. They actually thought the grades meant something. I sort of chided them for being so negligent as to have this person in that school and for not opening their eyes to see the student couldn’t read and write as a high school senior. It’s not as if there were any books in the bedroom or the student ever looked at a newspaper.

    The primary purpose of black high schools is pacification not education. The “school” pretends to teach and the student pretends to learn. When these students on occasion fall into a real school or go up against real competition they fall apart and get serious emotional problems. If the black schools were run as real schools the students would wear better in this Brave New World. Not be reduced to living off Affirmative Action scraps (which are on the way out).

    Dave: Find me the High Schools that are preparing Black students to hold their own in places like UC and Standford. The primary schools are important but it’s the High Schools that really make or break the student.

  • AC Mom

    As was pointed out in the article that referred to research by Prof. Mike Kirst, grade inflation is not unique to Oakland. I would go even further to say that it is not unique to CA. The SAT is not a reflection of the academic rigor of most of this nation’s high schools. Success on the SAT demonstrates the student’s ability to prepare for and to excel on a lengthy, high pressure test. The open secret is that many middle, upper class or otherwise motivated families provide activities and resources to supplement their child’s education in anticipation of the college admissions process. This starts in infancy (yes, infancy!) and proceeds through high school where tutoring or test preparation are common.

    In respone to your question about effective models to ensure that kids are challenged academically, three such schools immediately come to mind– Styvessant and Bronx Science (NYC) and Lowell (SF). Those schools are highly selective high schools which require a combination of grades, test scores, etc. for admission. As an alterantive to creating a separate campus for higher performing students, some schools offer IB programs, or a full array of AP courses. In the absence of such schools or programs, parents and students must expend more time and money supplementing their children’s or their own education. Of course, my response only addresses the needs of students that would like to gain a college degree. We need to have a similar discussion about preparing students that are not college bound.

  • Katy Murphy

    AC Mom raises some good points. I’d like to add that while the SAT is one example of a college prep measure — and the reality check that Wesley felt — another major indicator is the CSU remediation rate.

  • http://www.skylinehs.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=77763&type=u&rn=6808095 David Orphal

    I cannot agree more with the need for comprehensive school reform.

    I think schools are struggling with two hurdles that get in the way of reform.

    The first is urgency. There is an overwhelming feeling that our education system is on fire and has to be completely overhauled today. This is a huge and daunting task that often kills emerging reforms. School personnel, parents, elected officials, researchers are looking for a silver-bullet fix that we can implement tomorrow and see results in a weeks time.

    The second is forward/tactical planning. Often school reform comes in this form. First we look at what is wrong or broken. Then we think of a reform to fix the break. After a semester or a year of the reform not working as well as we had hoped, or in the face of the new problems our well-intended fix has caused, we cast about for the next fix, the next best practice, the next silver bullet.

    Individual school, school districts, state departments of education, even the national department of education should rethink this process.

    I propose school reformers beginning thinking strategically. What will our school look like in 2030? What will our District look like in 2030? What does education in our state or nation look like in 2030? What does a well-educated high school graduate look like? What can she do? What does he know? What will a well-educated graduate look like in 2030?

    High school professionals should be sitting in a room with college and university professionals. Our products (well-educated high school graduates) are their raw materials. High school professionals should be in a room talking with middle school professionals. Our raw materials (well-educated 9th graders) are their products.

    Once we have the answers to and consensus on these questions, then we can begin the work of creating a road map that leads our school from where we are now to where we want to be.

    Finally, we will be ready for the really hard work: making our political / economic / technological / human resource priorities reflect our goals and aspirations.

  • Miss P.

    I agree with some of the points that “nextset” mentioned.

    Pacification is a huge issue in OUSD from pre-k through high school. In my opinion this school district is a shining example of “Grant Fraud”!

    Very few here are actually concerned with actually educating these students. There is an overwhelming “lost cause” attitude among the teachers and staff at too many of these schools. Most of the administration is more concerned with protecting their paychecks than actually doing the job of creating competent students with the potential for future success. The only time you will see any action is when some grant in in jeopardy of being taken away. Grades are adjusted to keep funding, not to make sure students are actually learning.

    My 4th grade son was praised for receiving 85% on a test where the school-wide highest expectation was 75%. I mean, they actually sent home a notice with this expectation on it, and only 35% of the students could even meet that. I review his homework and see that his teachers are accepting and congratulating him for turning in messy nearly 2nd grade writing. He is nearly in 5th grade and has not even been made to turn in a single book report or any writing sample showing logical reasoning skills or the ability to comprehend what he is reading. At this school he will graduate top of the class, and he is not even required to turn in a science project! So, these children are taught at a very early age to have low expectations. All this 9 year old little boy talks about is when he goes to college, and as a parent I had to tell him that his performance was not good enough to get him there.

    And parents are not the big problem here. I have tried to volunteer time in the schools only to be block by bureaucratic red tape. I joined the School Site Counsel and reviewed the school budget. When a parent asked what the funding set aside for “parent education” was being used for, we were told that it was used to cater the monthly meetings… which were basically educational. I mean, we didn’t even have a say in where the food actually came from!

    Everything in this district is designed to keep these kids exactly where they are perceived to be: at the bottom of society and the future residents of the very popular, ever expanding and heartily funded California Prison System. I am sickened every time I hear a teacher or principle talk about how many of their students “qualify for free lunch”. What happened to: how many students graduated with honors; how many students received this or that award; how many students made it to or placed in a spelling bee; how many students they took on this trip… etc. My son was tested and qualified for the GATE program… and there is absolutely nothing for him. I guess we should simply be happy with the “free lunch”?

    And I am not blaming the teachers either. I realized they are just trying to keep their jobs. I mean, if I was a first year teacher fresh out of college serving an urban community that I didn’t even come from or live in… that I have also been conditioned to fear… while fearing that funding for my job was on the line and I may not even have it next year… I wouldn’t waste my time investing too much of myself either. I would be thankful for the staff retreats and sit back and enjoy the ride. How many of you remember attending high school where over half of the teachers are still in their 20’s?

    Why should Mr. Sims or any other OUSD student or parent have to fight against a system that we are paying for that is supposed to be educating all of our children equally? If we should all simply take a “self responsibility” approach to education, why are we forced to pay into this system that is clearly benefiting only a select group of society.

    A black person in Oakland can barely get a job within this school district. Non-certificated positions for blacks are still limited to custodial and special education aids. College educated Blacks that return to teach the youth here have to “fight” for the opportunity to do so, and are still grossly underpaid.

    There is an unspoken agenda to keep these children at an under-performing equilibrium: good enough to keep the feds from pulling the funding, and not good enough the keep the funding pouring in. And that is the Truth.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I am happy for the agreement and thoughtful posts on this topic. I too attended schools with grade inflation that underprepared students. Luckily, I had a couple things in my favor that might help Mr. Sims and others.

    1. I had people in my life who pulled me aside and told me the TRUTH (Hence my handle). They let me know not to be complacent with the A’s my teachers gave me because they would mean NOTHING in 2 years. They told me what it took to not just graduate, but excel in college and AFTER. Don’t let the smooth taste (of high school) fool you.

    2. I assumed personal responsibility for my education and stopped expecting “the system” to “make me” a high-functioning student or adult for that matter. I read books that weren’t “assigned” to me. Imagine that? What a concept. I did extra math problems given to me by college friends. I visited people in college and professions that I was interested in to learn “what’s really goin’ on.” I studied the SAT and took it multiple times with the help of sponsors (it ain’t free ya know).

    3. Although I had a single parent and we were poor, she did not take no for an answer and suffered no excuses. The mission was clear and the lack of quality teaching, grading and resources were a mere inconvenience. Whether it was the library, the museum, a friends living room or public television, I was learning something and proving I had learned it. I still don’t know where she found the energy.

    Do I expect this prescription to work for all students? Nope. Is it a shame that students can’t expect better from “the system” and the adults in their lives? Yes. Should we be finding a better balance between self-esteem and actual preparation? Abso-frickin-lutely!

    Should Mr. Sims be in school on March 4th? That’s his call (along with his parents’). But, his mission should make the decision. He will have to determine what best meets his mission and then not deviate.

    I wasn’t an activist. I was about making sure I got out, got through, excelled and took a few folks with me. That was my mission, he will have to choose his own.

  • Gordon Danning

    The latest trend that I have seen is that even some of the ostensibly “AP” courses are watered down, such that some kids get higher grades in certain AP courses than they do in my regular Economics or Government classes.

  • Katy Murphy

    Good point. Mike Kirst did have a caveat for the rigor of AP courses as well. Something about the AP test scores of the students in the class.

  • Katy Murphy

    Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m looking for teachers who are considered to be (or who have at one point tried to be) hard graders. Gordon, do you fall into that classification? Anyone else?

    If so, I’d love to talk with you about your experiences. Actually, I’d be happy to talk to anyone who has something to say about grading practices. You can e-mail me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Alice Spearman

    It is not Black Schools, It is all schools around California. The problem here in Oakland is the lack of academic rigor, across the board. There are 1 or 2 programs in our schools that have the academic rigor. I have asked for this the last 4 years on the board. As stated in some comments, many parents feel that the grades they see means a lot, they are not educated to what academic rigor is. I set next to Mr. Sims at board meetings and it is sometimes painful to know that he and Mr. Adams will be going into the world half prepared. But rest assured that both these young men have the fortitude to hang in there, get whatever it takes to be successful, and I know they will be. They both will be a force to reckon with in a few years. By the way, what is wrong with protesting for what you believe is right, one day will not hurt Mr. Sims at this point in his education.

  • Hills Mama

    Ms. Spearman: you say you have asked for academic rigor for the last four years. Who did you ask this of? What was their response? Do they have any accountability to you? And if they don’t, why don’t they? I am very curious about this.

  • On The Fence

    It is a sham and a scam to inflate grades, and GPAs, but I agree with the posters who assert that this problem is widespread. I would agree. It seems nearly ubiquitous, but more of a cultural phenomenon, rather than simply an Oakland one. I actually think that this is just a shift to higher grades for the same type of teaching that has gone on in schools for generations. To me this is somewhat analogous to the college degree that has been watered down by dubious online colleges, because everyone expects a degree now.

    We expect a lot from our children now, in the name of ‘being able to compete’. 4.0 GPAs were the ‘gold standard’ when I graduated (AP courses existed but not to the extent they do now). Today kids are expected to pull in 4.4s and list their AP or college courses. We want them on track for accelerated math, and taught by college texts. How can we really expect them to really meet these standards? And how do we expect our schools to be able to achieve this?

    For many kids this is not possible. For some it is developmental and for others there are social/cultural factors that may play a role. For example, lot of kids aren’t ready to read until way later than the schools want them to, and lots of kids won’t be able to grasp algebra until later, so how can they possibly be live up to these dubiously high standards? Calculus for high schoolers? For a few it is possible and kudos to them, but not for the majority.

    I think the way we’ve met the new competitive standard is just to lower it to fit the norm. Just like 40’s are the new 30’s, so are 4.6 GPAs the new 4.0!

    I went to Oakland Public Schools for most of my education and then a more suburban public school for HS. I used lots of my energy in being a teen miscreant/misfit and didn’t get my act together until end of HS. I come from a good hearty stock of late bloomers. I don’t agree with those who feel that kids who don’t meet these ridiculous standards will perish or should be relegated to purely vocational pursuits. I went to a UC and did about 4 make up math courses (…. Trig, Pre-Calc), and the English make up. So what? They helped. I did really well in college and went on to Ivy Leagues, etc. I’m not sure the schools are teaching any differently than in the ‘good old days’. I have two kids in OUSD in solid but not creme de la creme schools. I’m fairly satisfied. I try to foster education, read a few classics, limit TV and supplement with sports, but my kids may not be quite brilliant by the end of HS.

    My point is that I really don’t think the quality of the educational system has changed that much, we’ve just tried to push kids more, and shifted the grading scale to suggest that kids are somehow more competitive. Oakland schools are still the same relative to the Piedmont schools as they were 30 years ago, and we all end up falling where we do on the SATs.

  • TheTruthHurts

    @On the fence,
    The quality of “OUR” educational system may be stagnant, but that’s not true in the rest of the world and in pockets in this country.

    Of course, I don’t believe “all is lost” if you don’t have a year of college done before high school. I just want a balance between telling our kids the truth and having them scared out of their childhood.

    The ability of UC’s to provide “remedial” courses will be SEVERELY tested in coming years, so I wouldn’t count on that for anybody. You don’t need a degree anyway, but without algebra and good reading/writing skills, it gonna be rough for kids who are starting with economic or racial bias against them.

  • Miss P.

    It seems to me higher education is the next big CASH FRAUD of the state of California.

    Why educate the children for free when they can be charged top dollar for what we were supposed to give them?

    High schools are pushing kids into college TOTALLY UNPREPARED for the realities they will be facing. It is not about creating a future for the student, but more about creating higher percentages of graduates and college enrolled student for statistics sake. In other words, as long as it looks good on paper that is all that really matters. Keep those grants pouring in!

    Meanwhile the federal government can foot the bill… and UC’s can recuperate some of their lost funds, and California can keep funneling funds into other areas besides education.

    In my day, if you didn’t make the grades for UC, you went to Community College. It seems that would be more fair to the students, and give them a chance to prepare for University level. But from what I have seen, most of the Oakland high schools are totally overlooking that option. My guess is because it doesn’t look as good on paper, and it is not as profitable as sending kids straight to the UC.

    I want to see a study on how many of the kids that are going to UC actually graduate… or even make it longer than two years. My guess is most drop out after the first year. I wish someone would please prove me wrong.

  • Nextset

    Of course I agree with the posters above about the watered down coursework and inflated grades but something else is being served up at OUSD and Urban Public Schools. While the opposite is being done at Piedmont and the other Public Ivies.

    Urban Public Schools kids are being trained how not to survive as an adult. They are being taught perverse Civics. They are being prepared to be be noncompetitive in the job market. It starts with not teaching standard english, moves through teaching informality as the primary way to interact with the outside world – informal dress/speech/dialect – and ends up with teaching the kiddies to be self centered to the point that they become upset at the drop of a Republician (or Conservative). You get people who think they are ready for adult life who quickly get into trouble they should be avoiding without a thought.

    The primary reason for being of the public schools is to train and qualify the students for military, industry or higher education. How does the readership think it is going at OUSD? Does anyone have any stats on what is happening to the OUSD students regardless of graduation who leave school at age 18? What percent go to Jail/Army/Work/Trade School/College? Is there a stat on the mortality rate, % dead by age 30 ? (I understand Calif Youth Authority specfically did a study on the dead by 30 rate.) I would be curious to know if these numbers are changing over time and in which direction.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    Here’s the second sentence in Katy’s original Trib article about Wesley: “Seven other teenagers who have made it to physiology class on time after lunch do the same.”

    As the year progresses in this manner, such irregular attendance makes it impossible for teachers to get good traction, to get into more meaty material, and to properly advance the class. The disruption and constant required backtracking and repetition as students flit in and out is certain to affect the flow and morale of both teachers and compliant students. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard for OUSD to afford a teacher when so few students bother to show up for class. Such is truancy’s deeply erosive effect on all.

    A few years ago, my younger daughter’s geometry teacher reported that about 95% of the students in her 8th grade geometry class would return their homework assignment on a regular basis. In her lower level 8th grad math class, she’d be lucky if five kids returned their homework. It’s not hard to guess which class would be the most difficult for her to make progress with.

    One of the things schools are required to submit to WASC for an upcoming accreditation visit is a report card analysis on the percentage of D’s and F’s for the last three semesters, as broken down by race and ethnicity. But who’s not coming to class, and who’s not turning in homework? Most reasons for truancy aren’t something the school can control. They can restrict the amount of homework expected, but that doesn’t help with forward progress.

    School leaders and even formal policies give their teachers mixed messages about the acceptability of giving out lots of D’s and F’s. On one hand they are told to be more rigorous (the word “rigor” is all the rage). On the other hand, they are scrutinized if they give too many failing grades.

    Sometimes I think that the only solution is to permit OUSD’s more ambitious students like Wesley with a greater degree of ability grouping. This is what AIPHS by scrutinizing incoming test scores, yet no one seems to shut down them because of their tracking. The conundrum is that tracking is resented and frowned upon for historically good reasons, but because the proportion of low performing kids in OUSD is so high, when all students are mixed together, the low performers set the class’s potential trajectory and dominate.

    There are very few teachers, if any, who can successfully pull off differential teaching which serves kids from such wide ability groups. That makes me think that, in many OUSD settings, that method doesn’t really work.

  • Nextset

    There are news reports out today about a plan in Utah to eliminate the higher grades in high school and terminate forced schooling after age 16. The feeling is that most students at that age need to be at work not in class and those that do wish higher education are few enough in number to be handled with a different model than in use today. Basically they’d have to compete for what public schooling was funded for them after age 16 and those who didn’t make the cut would be free to find their own education.

    You can imagine what it would be like to teach those 17 and 18 year olds who were able to win a seat in the reduced funding classes under this plan. I think they’d probably be better students than the average we have now at that age.

    The Utah discussion is just the beginning. Public College education is being defunded and very soon now we will see the defunding of Public High School education as we know it. If the budget cuts proceed as they seem to be going there won’t be any debate – it will just happen.

    And for most of the students, nobody will notice the difference anyway. Maybe they should be out working.

    And don’t tell me there are no jobs, that is their problem not the problem of those of us who still have jobs. They can shovel shit, can’t they?

    As I’m sitting here looking at these words, they all sound so severe… Yet it seems to me that this is exactly where CA and this society is heading. I would have preferred segregating public education at or shortly after puberty into academic and industrial tracks based on performance, aptitude and self selection. It seems we aren’t even going to get something that pleasant.

    It’s going to be a very interesting 12 to 36 months. If any of this starts happening our petty debates about school policy will become rather beside the point. Want to guess which ethnics nationally will be out of the classrooms and which ethnics will dominate the limited post 10th grade seats? Is there really anything that can be done to change this? If these predictions come true we will be turning into a caste society – like India – where alphas are born as alphas and the betas can forget upward mobility.

    Brave New World.

  • Miss P.

    I agree about the problem of the grouping of the students. I would like to know more about what the GATE program at OUSD is actually doing. My son tested and qualified for the program, and I have seen and heard nothing from their offices.

    All of these beautiful things exist on paper, but in reality there is little to nothing. There are many names on the staff list for this program, and I can’t get ahold of any one of them.

    The only reason I have not pressed the issue is because my son is currently in 4th grade, learning a second language at a dual immersion school, and participating in a good a good after-school program with band, choir, art and sports. Great for elementary level. By middle school, I will expect… and demand much more.

    As far as student behavior goes, I think what teachers and admin at these schools need is higher standard for the behavior of their students. When I was in school if you showed up to class late, you either where sent to the office or detention… or you prayed you had a nice teacher that would let you slip in quietly and just get on with your learning. Too many of these students show up late, loud, and wrong. I have seen students sit in class and have totally inappropriate conversations, including foul and vulgar language. It is definitely a distraction for the teacher and the other students in the class that are actually trying to learn something. These students can only go as far as you allow them to go. I mean, who is in control here, really? Who is the adult?

    Part of the problem is that so many of the teachers here are recent grads and first year teachers… that come into this community and district with a “poor little impoverished student” attitude. They treat the students as though their behavior is acceptable because of all of the other social and personal problems that exist in their lives. I can see that their heart is in the right place… but their tactics for handling the situation are all wrong.

    Too many of the teachers are not of the same ethnicity as the students they serve, so there is a barrier there and they either don’t know how, or are simply afraid to approach these children. Most of the teachers are not even parents themselves, operating off of text book theory that every parent knows DOES NOT WORK. The students seems to respect those teachers and staff that will get on their case, and get in their face when necessary… with love and compassion. You don’t let some disgruntled child in need of attention and a hug act a fool and disrupt the whole class! Come on guys and gals. Own your classroom. It’s a big ship, I know. Be the captain… and don’t let it sink.

  • Cranky Teacher

    My experience, your results may vary…

    Without MAJOR and CONSTANT and INDIVIDUALIZED intervention, most “average” students in OUSD standards- and textbook- based classes will:

    — do homework 10-25% of the time (or, more accurately, 10-25% of them will do homework most of the time, and the rest almost never).
    — 10-15% will actually “study” for a test.
    — the vast majority will fail any “grade-level” test.

    The first test I ever gave in Oakland I asked for short, simple answers on a chapter we had reviewed for two weeks. I almost cried when I got them back. Half the class returned the test with only their name written on it. Most said they could only do multiple choice tests, but I later found out they didn’t do much better on those. Five percent of the class “passed.” There were only three different grades: A, B and F.

    After several months of this, and the kids complaining I was too hard a grader, we had a pow-wow to discuss what their expectations were around grades. This is what they said, roughly:

    — A “C” means you come to class more often than not and don’t cause too many problems for the teacher, like fighting. You do only token work and certainly don’t pass tests.

    — A “B” means you try to do most of the class work, at least in a half-hearted way, and make some stabs at homework.

    — An “A” means you do a lot of the worksheets and even know some of the answers on tests. You also have close to perfect attendance and never sass the teacher.

    (These observations do NOT apply for those middle-class students whose parents have college educations.)

    There are teachers in my school who fail most students and teachers who give most students A’s. These are the same students.

    One former student struggling to survive her first year at a State college told me she almost never went to her math class as a senior at her OUSD high school and still got an A. She says feels cheated, like Mr. Sims, even though she liked that math teacher and felt she was a good person.

    One question that used to be on the table but almost never is anymore: Does school often HINDER learning? Does it kill the joy of learning which is innate in the human condition? I believe the way we do it, it often does.

    I’ve met hippie children who have never been to school for a day, not even “home schooling,” who can read and write as well as any Piedmont High student. Can they do algebra? Probably not, but they could probably teach themselves in a month if they had to; they like to learn and do it without being forced to. I’m sure they have some social hangover from spending do much time with their nomadic parents — and don’t get me started on their wardrobe — but they sure don’t seem “uneducated.”

    Nobody ever talks any more about the “joy of learning.” Too sissy. But the fact is, most of these kids in Oakland either never learned it or lost it along the way, often by age 3-7, because it was not nurtured by their parents and their first childcare situations. Without it, every little fact must be pushed into an unreceptive brain membrane like fitting watermelon seeds through a cheesecloth.

    Many others simply are depressed or in a near-constant state of barely repressed rage, neither of which is conducive to learning. Both in class and out, they medicate in a variety of ways, with electronics, TV, sex, drugs, bullying, thrill-seeking, cutting (skin), tattoos, and so on.

    As a kid who kept his act together, Wesley Sims probably was lauded yet mostly ignored by his teachers who are slammed everyday by the children outwardly manifesting crisis.

    Tracking and AP and magnet schools and remedial classes and increased testing … the system just keeps coming up with new sorting tools, rather than trying to get at the root of the problem.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: How can a teacher maintain any kind of reasonable grading policy under the conditions you describe – where the class is dominated by people who don’t function? You would have to give 80% Fs if you were grading realistically. Or you would have to go along with the program where you pretend to teach and they pretend to learn.

    Wouldn’t it be better if OUSD split it’s student body into “real schools” and “ghetto schools” and allowed the students to pick where they wanted to be and then held the students to the different standards of the different schools? Easy and worthless grades at the ghetto school and recognized and transferable grades at the real school?

    At least that system would be more honest than what we have here.

    These students actually believe they have been attending real schools until they get to real colleges and find out they can’t (actually) read and write. And they realize they must leave (real) college or fail. Or major in basketweaving.

    And yes I believe the black students are the ones principally lied to about how things are until their chances in life have run out. The truth, even an unpleasant truth – told early and often – allows people to find a way for themselves that is real. And ambition and nerve along with pragmatism properly honed can still take someone in this country from the gutter to the high life. Too bad more black folks aren’t getting much of those qualities in their career training. That used to happen in public schools.

    Your 3rd to last paragraph expresses what I’ve been alluding to. When the students suddenly run into the brick wall of real educational standards all at once, never having been prepared for it as children, they internalize the feelings of failure. And they become destructive of self and of everything close to them. What the bad schools are doing is corrosive.

    Maybe we should terminate public schooling at 15 and have everybody start work careers absent a specific program they can get accepted to and work for. At least on the job there would be no fantasy world that they get to dress, speak and do whatever they feel like.

  • Another observer

    Note that teachers in schools described by Cranky Teacher can be pressured by administrators to “lighten up” and not give a lot of bad grades.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset, there is a third way, which is a lifetime challenge for teachers in our position: Working to hold students accountable; to ignite or at least not douse their joy of learning, and to diligently discover the bottlenecks blocking students from moving forward and trying to open those up.

    We see enough success to stay, enough failures to create moments (or more) of despair. We are hard on our kids, hard on ourselves — we know nobody can ever do enough to make up for lost time.

    This is triage, front-line stuff down here at the bottom. We don’t all agree on solutions, of course, and often fight about them, but it is hard not to get annoyed with all the outsiders — from the president on down — who have glib, simple solutions to complex problems.

  • On The Fence


    I am surprised (and not surprised) to hear that you estimate 75 to 90% of OUSD students almost never do homework and to learn how many kids were unable to pass basic tests! My interest was also piqued when you stated that your observations did not refer to middle class children with college educated parents. Can you elaborate on how middle class chilren with college educated parents performed in your classes or how they differed? Was your experience that Black and Hispanic children with college educated parents performed as well as the cohort of White kids with college educated parents?

    I have no doubt that children perform differently in school based on their family background (parents’ schooling, economic and emotional stability, etc.). My own kids go to somewhat higher performing public schools in Oakland with peers from a diversity of socio economic background, including a good number of upper income kids with college educated/professional parents. My feeling has been that statistically the children from more advantaged backgrounds in OUSD will (on average) do about as well as their SES matched peers in most private schools (and grading will be similar). What do you think?

  • Miss P.

    I find it interesting that teachers are holding discussion with students, allowing them to set the expectations about what the grades mean. Wow! I think if that were an option when I was in school, I would have come up with some pretty easy and creative standards as well.

    I’m sorry, but in my opinion this just proves my point that schools here give the children too much power… and no power at all.

    What I mean: the power to decided what they want to do right now as children, which is basically hang out, have fun, and work as little as possible; which creates a completely dis-empowered, confused and lost member of society.

    This should be illegal.

  • Nextset

    On the Fence: We know that average black and hispanic students from college educated parents preform worse than average white/jewish/asian students with similar (income/education) parents – in fact, I believe the reports were that black students from high income families score worse on the average than white students from lesser income families. The same holds true when you compare across the other ranking groups with poor asians on the average outscoring average wealthy whites in academic measures.

    It is that pesky Bell Curve thing. There interesting discussion in John McWhorter’s “Losing The Race” about dealing with black students at UC (I believe that was this book) – and his experience with black students of middle class + parents and how bad that was. I think Dinesh D’Souza had similar writings.

    The point is you cannot pour “education” on a group as if they are a sponge and can soak it up and become something they were not in the first place. You cannot spend your way out of the “Gap”. You cannot teach your way out of it. Those that lie and say you can are lying to get their budgets increased.

    Regardless of color or Ethnicity the students bring their intellectual potential to adulthood and that potential is fixed and measurable. You can’t increase it as far as we know, all you can do is make the best of what is there. It would help if our teachers were allowed to order testing and get scores on their actual/potential students as is normal in other countries. School ordered IQ testing has been banned for black students even though it’s perfectly legal for whites. I do see it commonly posted on all the races’ criminal records, prison files, juvenile probation reports, etc. So everybody else can use it in the prison-industrial complex but the schools who might have been able to help the kids early can’t. Smart (higher IQ) minority kids need to be identified and pushed harder. We can’t do that under these conditions (no testing/use of IQ). Their potential goes unused. They go to bad schools instead of being brought forward into more challenging schools.

    Despite any IQ issues I believe these bad schools lie to the students and their families by pretending to teach them and pretending they are making normal progress for an educated person when in truth they are often infantile. We should stop the lying and grade in such a way that there are no illusions as to how a given student is doing compared with a statewide standard. Basically we need to stop giving “black” grades or “black” A’s, B’s and C’s for performance that would be D & F period in a real school.

    And if the kiddies can’t reasonably perform in a school they need to be expelled/withdraw from the academic programs and sent to work. The closer to puberty the better. If you are going to make a living with your hands (or back) you need to start early.

    These kids would make a better living and be happier without all this lying and lost opportunities. Things are tough enough without trying to make use of ages 12-18 for productive personal growth. Keeping them in classes they hate for fake grades is not the way.

    We need (in Urban Public Schooling) more basic education, less college prep, more vocational and life skills programs, and more work permits, more internships, and a lot more field trips. If we don’t provide this the kids are going to walk out in greater numbers than before. They will need to go and go to work for the same reason the teens of the depression era walked out in massive numbers and migrated across the US. Unemployed Parents are very unpleasant to live with – violent also..

  • Cranky Teacher

    “I find it interesting that teachers are holding discussion with students, allowing them to set the expectations about what the grades mean.”

    Miss P.:

    If I had your (poor) reading comprehension skills, I might be worried about the education I got rather than the one being discussed for current students.

    I discussed what their expectations were as students, trying to see where they were coming from based on years of experience in this system.

    At no point in reality or in my note did I imply to anybody that my own grading would be shaped by this!

    You distorted what I said to make a strawman argument.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset, your stats are phony.

    The “achievement gap” does indeed find that minority students are statistically under-performing expectations based on class and parent’s education, but nothing close to the way you depict it.

    Also faulty is your assumption this is due to “IQ” — itself a phony measurement — rather than cultural issues, including institutional racism, fear of “acting white,” and the fact that people with the same education credentials do not necessarily have the same “academic culture” embedded in the home and larger community.

  • On The Fence


    Thank you for your response. I am always interested in learning perspectives about the GAP. I agree with you that randomly throwing money at the GAP will not help, but this is because I do not feel that we have as good a handle on the GAP as we should, and therefore cannot target money in a way that yields any real benefit. Perhaps some people have the answer, but most of us have either erroneous ideas or only small chips of the collective answer.

    I was shocked the first time I learned that similarly educated and economically similar families would produce children with different test scores/achievement depending on their race/ethnicity, as you have mentioned in your post. Again, I agree we cannot spend our way out presently. I also do not agree with the knee jerk response to blame the teachers and schools that some people have. Where I differ with you, however, is in feeling that this is a simple issue of IQ and that “potential is fixed and measurable”. Sure, there may be genetic and biological differences (or there may not be), but I don’t believe that these differences are fixed determinants. For example, often it is taught that black infants will be able to sit up before the average white baby due to biological differences in the speed of mylination of nerves or something like that. However, these differences are not used to determine the eventual development and physical prowess of either baby. Why do you see peoples’potential as fixed?

    I did just read a blurb or preface from a book by Richard Rothstein that I linked from the Perimeter Primate blog that did give a few interesting ideas behind how social class influences the GAP via differences in child rearing, discipline, relationship with reading, etc. Here is a quote; “For it is true that low income and skin color themselves don’t influence academic achievement, but the collection of characteristics that define social class differences inevitably influences that achievement”. I found his take on the achievement gap interesting and thought provoking (disclaimer: I just read the preface). Thought others might want to check it out.

  • Nextset

    On The Fence: I accept Charles Murray’s position as expressed in “The Bell Curve” and the many writings that followed publication of that well established and rather old news book. IQ is a physical construct that is largely fixed in an individual although affected by prenatal and postnatal nutrition. The various groups have different average IQ meaning that some groups have more brights and fewer retardeds while other groups have fewer brights and far more retardeds. When we are working with group averages and large numbers of given groups very definite predictions can be made about scoring and performance.

    As far as what IQ means and doesn’t mean and what the pros and cons are of being at certain IQ levels I leave for later discussion. Most people like being what they are and high levels are associated with various maladies just as low levels are associated with death by trauma, lack of care, etc. It is what it is. In addition to the IQ differences the groups have many notorious differences in talents and physical capabilities as well as susceptibility to disease and disorders, no different that groups of any other animals. So we have all kinds of Gaps.

    Social class and income levels are no cause of “The Gap”. They are a reflection of an IQ Gap present throughout life and generally handed down through family lines.

    Within a family grouping the (for example) 4 children at each generation will have a range of IQ from the family dummy to the smart one. The group averages are the important thing to watch. You have that regression to the norm problem, which is why the children of two black physicians typically will not have the IQ of the parents although if they have enough children there will be the bright one. It works the same way with children of two unusually tall parents.

    All this is interesting but the point is throwing money at students and screaming at them to do better will not change a thing. Any school system that does not screen incoming students for IQ and deliberately mixes double digit students with triple digit students and throws college prep at all of them is doing nothing but serious harm to the double digits. It doesn’t matter what the races are. Harm is done when you missmatch the student with the educational program.

    Since the foundation of these rotten public schools (as opposed to good schools) is that all people are created equal and they’d better score equally on all those tests, you are going to have a whole lot of messed up people so angry and frustrated they will disidentify not only with school but with society also. I give you OUSD.

    School programs must fairly evaluate the incoming students and give them a program that produces the maximum earning power and social fit within society. Students that fail in a typical college prep setting are capable of making it with other emphasis. Especially if the behavior and attitude is controlled and they are put to work where they can (be reasonably expected to) shine.

    Too bad our urban schools can no longer do what was so easy in the 1950s.

    Brave New World.

  • Harold

    the ‘Bell Curve’ is pseudo-science.


  • Cranky Researcher

    Nextset Says: “I accept Charles Murray’s position as expressed in “The Bell Curve” and the many writings that followed publication of that well established and rather old news book.” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In fact, the Bell Curve has been heavily critiqued by many experts on intelligence and sociology and . There is very strong evidence that IQ is not “physical” or genetic. The average IQ has risen 30 points in the last century! (This is known as the Flynn Effect.) Individuals can raise their own IQ’s by similar amounts through training or education. Brains are now known to be much more mutable (‘neuro-plasticity’) than thought by scientists even a few decades ago. There are also many demonstrated environmental effects (family, cultural) on IQ and similar intelligence measures beyond just the ‘hard’ fetal and nutrition influences. No concerned citizen on this blog or anywhere should take seriously a person who presents controversial research like The Bell Curve as fact (see the Wikipedia article on the book, esp the “Responses” section) in order to justify blatantly racist education policies. Put the black students in ghetto schools with no academic expectations?! Uh, it seems pretty likely that’s how the current inequality got started, genius.

  • Miss P.

    @ cranky teacher:

    ‘The Truth needs no proof. Either it is… or it isn’t.’
    I comprehend VERY well, on levels you may not even be aware of. However, my comprehension of your statements change nothing that is happening in your classroom, or any of the other classrooms in OUSD, and other urban school districts nationwide. Individual and collective right actions will do that.

    I have encountered many a cranky teacher in OUSD and Peralta College system. My heart goes out to those students that allow these psychological roadblocks to deter them from imminent future success. A sad state of affairs indeed.

    So I will continue doing what I do (inspiring and empowering the minds of the students) with a light heart and a strong mind… and I offer that if you are perhaps able to experience a shift in your attitude, perhaps you will see a shift in the results of your students as well.

  • Nextset

    Cranky Researcher: Your points have been refuted in the research. They are wishful thinking not borne out with stats. The Flynn Effect does not help us explain away or reduce The Gap. And there are many “Gaps” to deal with.

    As far as wanting to consign the Black Students to bad schools – Funny you should claim that one. We/You are now consigning the black students to bad schools across the board and as a society refuse to allow black students with high scores to be identified at any point and placed in appropriate programs for their scoring range. And that is exactly what the Liberals want. While the NFL, The Prisons, and the Military all test for IQ as soon as they start talking to people, our once excellent public school systems are barred by law from doing so on the black students. Because we are all equal, you see.

    So a high scoring black student in the public school system is going to be surrounded by students performing at the black average not the national average and certainly not at the White or Jewish average. Try catching up after 12 years of that. Liberals especially White Liberals want this craziness to go on while they carefully put their own children black or white in private schools where the parents and the schools promote and push where they can to get their Doctor, Lawyer, or Indian Chief.

    Your reading my positions as anti black, racist, etc belies your own animositiy to blacks and your willingness to feed the whole group to the prison-industrial complex. You only want to continue the status quo knowing it’s systematic destruction of black society. Racist yourself.

    How old are you anyway? Do you remember a time when poor black people were married with kids and all worked? Do you remember when prisons and jails were majority white? Do you remember what public schools were like in those days? Do you feel this system is better? My mother was a social worker in Oakland in the late 1940s. She took streetcars and walked through Oakland including the black neighborhoods claiming she never had any fear of crime in those days. Remember, the worst year of Great Depression I was 1933.

    One of the reasons black family formation is so skewed, black early mortality rates are so stark, black unemployment so bad and the crime and incarceration rates (blacks commit crimes at extremely high rates compared to all other groups) are at historical highs is (largely) the failure of the public schools (to train and socialize). These failures accelerated after the democratic victory and legislation of 1960. And it’s been a one direction thing.

    This comment started with the IQ issue. Remember, before 1960 tracking based on aptitude was the norm for all races in the schools. We need to start paying attention to aptitude in school placement again. Like the NFL, military and everybody else. Regardless of which averages are where, do you concede you can’t mix brights and dulls in the same academic programs without harm to the dulls?

    For the moment Men like you control out educational systems and the damage continues unabated. The projections are that blacks will be completely supplanted with Mexicans in California (and other important states) in every meaningful way within another generation. “Blacks” as we know them aren’t going to be significant much longer. They are going to be swept from political power in local offices and then national – that process is already well underway. That’s how it goes I suppose. Evolution in action. Too bad about the schools. It will be interesting if the Hispanics which have some similar issues will permit their group to be trashed in the public schools the same way. They have a higher group average but still have a group aversion to education preferring immediate return on proposed effort. All in all not a perceived competitive threat to the higher groups.

    Brave New World.

  • Harold

    i must admit – i really don’t like referring to people as “blacks, mexicans, white and asians). Its condescending in my opinion. And i know … there are all kinds of “black” people. We are not robots, but in my 40 years on planet earth – i have never heard a black person, refer to (black people) as “blacks”.


  • Nextset

    Harold: We were once, Colored… Then Negroes. The terms changes in a generation. I for one am not interested in “African American” having African Immigrant relatives. The African Imports are way too distinct and different than the American Negroes (or whatever).

    When you are working with large groups you have to have labels.