In many ways, Derek* is a typical rising ninth grader. He prioritizes his social status and enjoys poetry and novels. He is from a poor socioeconomic background, but has dreams to change that. He even participates in Breakthrough Collaborative, a summer program intended to prepare middle school students for high school and put them on a path toward college. Derek stated several times that he hopes to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, this dream seems unlikely.
Derek lacks even the most basic math skills. I was Derek’s math teacher this summer at Breakthrough, and it shocked me when he and several other students did not understand fractions or negative numbers. These students, including Derek, took Algebra I in middle school, yet many of them did not understand the concept of variables. Some students had already taken geometry, and they were asked to learn Algebra II.
Many of my students did not learn Algebra I in school – they learned “Algebra I.” Their transcripts say they took and passed Algebra I, but they did not actually acquire sufficient knowledge and skills. Their teachers either taught a watered down version of Algebra I, passed students who should have failed or a combination of both. Such students are passed off to other teachers in the next grade, and those teachers have no choice but to teach these unprepared students a watered down version of the class, pass students who should fail or actually fail many students. Most teachers, possibly believing they are doing the students a favor, will not fail many students. This cycle continues until unprepared students graduate from high school or, worse, fail to graduate from high school.
This phenomenon is not unique to the area where I was teaching this summer. In fact, my students were voluntarily taking classes during the summer, so the general population is likely less prepared than my students. In New York City, approximately 75 percent of community college students who graduated from public high schools are required to take remedial English or math before taking college courses in those departments. Nationally, roughly one-third of students beginning their higher education need remediation of some kind. Derek will undoubtedly test into a remedial math class if he manages to make it to college. Required remedial classes make college more expensive and time-consuming, making students less likely to graduate.
Why are such students failing to learn what they should in high school? Teachers everywhere respond to incentives. When a teacher passes a problem student, he is passing the problem along to another teacher. Failing a student causes trouble for everyone involved, and the teacher would likely face backlash from the student, the parents and even the administration of the school. If the teacher instead tries to fight to amend years of inadequate teaching, more work ensues for both the teacher and the students, who may rebel against this extra work, especially if the work is in one of their least favorite subjects. The teachers have the easy choice of watering down the material and passing students. In this situation, the incentives of the teachers are not in line with what is best for society as a whole.
Fixing this problem would be a huge undertaking. In effect, we would have to change the incentives of these teachers and the attitudes of students everywhere. Teachers could receive bonuses for improvement of their students’ test scores. Perhaps if teachers did not have such job security, they would all be more inclined to make sure their students obtain a sufficient education.
What can we do about this problem in the short-term? We can get involved and help in small ways! There are many programs, like the Swearer Classroom Program, in which Brown students can help local public students. It is never too early to help keep students on the right track. I highly encourage Brown students to look into teaching for the summer with Breakthrough Collaborative. This program allows college students to teach (often underserved) middle school students during the summer at 33 affiliate sites located throughout the country. This program has changed my life – I learned to appreciate my education while helping ninth grade students reach their potential.
We may not be able to help every student in Derek’s situation, but every little bit we do makes a difference. I encourage everyone reading this to be part of the solution.
Disclaimer: I do not believe every teacher fails to teach at an adequate level, and I do not believe every student is unprepared for college. I just mean that enough are to cause concern.
*Name has been changed