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Thursday, March 6, 2014

No Lost Causes

It's been forever and a half since I've posted here, but I wanted to share this with you all.   The National Consumer Law Center recently published a report called "No Lost Causes," in which a piece I wrote was included.  Now that the report has been released, I can share my part with you.

The whole report is very much worth your time to read and share, so please make sure to follow the link.

If You Want To Be Somebody

“If you want to be somebody, child” (we tell our children), “just get a college degree.”

We’ve come to believe that if a kid’s going to get a leg up and leverage a foothold on the ladder to success into vertical motion, she had better go to college. College is the new American bootstrap, the Carnegie library of the 21st Century.

“A postsecondary education is the ticket to economic success in America.”
—Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

Want to be a success? Just get your degree. But it’s not that simple.

Of course, I’m biased. I currently teach high school in Watts. It’s not the only place I’ve worked — I’ve taught in a college preparatory alternative school and two art and busi- ness focused high schools before landing at my current post. I have watched well over a thousand former students graduate — a few of them were economically secure, but the vast majority have been poor. Almost all of them are African American or Latino.

If you want to be somebody, you need a college degree.

They believed us when we said that. Almost all of them talked about college. They wanted to be the first in their family to get a degree. A number of them were accepted at 4-year schools and the balance made plans at the community colleges.

They were going to get that leg up.

The standardization movement, NCLB, and Race to the Top are premised on the idea that every child should be prepared for college, and they’re right—every child should have that option. But now our schools solely teach and test for the skills and knowledge necessary to make somebody college-ready. Our counselors no longer suggest the voca- tional track to struggling students because there is no vocational track in most schools anymore.

Nowadays, every student is a potential college student, whether they want to be or not.

Even the elementary school classrooms are festooned with college banners to get kids excited about the prospect of attending. “We’ve got to make college the expectation for these kids, just like it is for the kids of college graduates,” we say. We mean it, too. The teachers mean it. The counselors mean it. The administrators mean it.

Even the politicians mean it.

But, though we’re serious and we mean it, it’s a complete and total disconnect from the reality of what awaits our kids when they finish high school. There simply is no way for
us to send every kid to college. There isn’t room and even for those who find room, there isn’t much money.

This year in California we’re going to graduate approximately 350,000 kids. 21,000 California graduates will go to UC schools. 56,000 California graduates will go to CSU Schools.

Another smattering will go to private or out of state 4-year schools.

The other 270,000 who are less lucky or less well-prepared or less well-motivated or less well-situated are going to have to find a job, do nothing, join the military, start at the commu- nity colleges, or take out massive loans to attend a for-profit training college.

There aren’t many jobs for a simple high school graduate and the military is downsizing. There are only 100 community col- leges in California and they already have 1,700,000 students trying to get enrolled in English 1A, which means that most of our kids are going to end up doing nothing or paying through the nose for a for-profit training program.

Even those that go to college aren’t safe. Most go, but they won’t graduate. Only about 15% will get their degree. The
other 85% won’t keep their leg onto the ladder. They’ll be kicked off, pulled down, or give up. They’ll end up doing nothing or drowning in debt like the rest for a useless cer- tificate from for-profit schools.

In our race to the top trying not to leave any child behind, we have instead narrowed the channel for success to the point where even our successes aren’t necessarily successful.

Some cases in point:


Frank was accepted to a public university in a far-flung corner of the state. We were thrilled. Ecstatic. He was going to college. He was getting out of the neighborhood. He was going to be something, be somebody, go somewhere.

He did enough. We did enough. We pushed him through. We pulled him through. We pulled him through over his brother who went down for armed robbery. We pulled him through over his father who died of a heart attack. We pulled him through over home- lessness and his mother who worked too hard to know how Frank spent his days out- side of school.

We sent him off to college. Put on the Greyhound that took him up North. But college pays off later and Frank needed money now. He dropped out.


Lilly was a dream student. Talented, curious, creative, and armed with the wry humor of an embittered Englishman. Her dad used to get drunk and point guns at her and her mother. We involved CPS. She and her sister lived around for a while, but unlike her sister, Lily kept her grades up—she was going to change the world through investiga- tive journalism. The kid lived with a camera strapped around her neck and she got into a competitive UC campus up North.

She went. Then her boyfriend missed her. Then her sister ran into trouble. Then her mother died. Then her dad needed her.

She lasted a little over a year. She was going to transfer somewhere closer to home. She never did.


One of the lawyers on my mock trial team, James was a strong student from day one. His parents were supportive, his friends were all college bound. He made it to college and then his parents lost their jobs. They went bankrupt and they couldn’t help him pay for college anymore.

He’s in the Air Force now.


Erica was a student in one of my first classes as a teacher. She was talented and, rela- tive to her peers, she was highly skilled. She was the apple of our small school and we pinned her with our legacy. She was our showcase student. She couldn’t write well but she was still better than a lot of our students so I gave it a pass. I told her she was good enough.

She lasted one semester in college. When she dropped out she came back to visit. “You
**!!ed me up,” she told me. “You told me I was good enough.”

I’ll never forgive myself for Erica.

There are other stories, too. The ones who got pregnant or got somebody else pregnant. The ones whose parents told them they had to get a job instead. The ones whose job schedules conflicted with school. The ones who couldn’t pass the English Placement or Math Placement Tests even though they’d finished high school with good grades. The ones who got distracted, who told themselves they were just going to work for a little while and earn some money.

My kids aren’t alone. Almost ½ of CSU students don’t graduate. More than ½ of the community college students won’t earn a degree.

What makes it truly depressing is that by contemporary standards, these children are our successes. They’ll be able to put “some college” on their job applications. These kids are the end result of the most massive push towards college attendance in our history that has also seen the near total destruction of high school vocational training.