School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

From Floundering to Finally Making it at Georgetown

While it’s typical for some college freshmen to feel overwhelmed by their first encounter with the rigors of university-level academic work, one student’s take on this experience has caused quite a stir in the world of education policy. In I Went To Some of D.C.’s Better Public Schools. I Was Still Unprepared For College, Georgetown University freshman Darryl Robinson reveals his near-constant academic struggles and the extraordinary frustration he experienced playing catch-up with his better-educated peers.

In his writing, Robinson comes across as refreshingly honest and very likable. It’s hard not to respect his work ethic (he earned a full scholarship to Georgetown and was raised by his grandmother). As such, it’s equally hard to dismiss his observations as simply the typical angst of a first-year college student.

Robinson describes how he first noticed his academic shortcomings during an initial writing assignment, where students were tasked with analyzing the main character in a memoir. Robinson focused on the Xs and Os of the book – summarizing the plot and repeating facts. But his classmates seemed to know instinctively how to take their writing to the next level, offering original insight into the character’s thinking through their own independent analysis. Robinson’s D-minus grade brought home a painful reality. “Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts,” writes Robinson. “I could memorize and recite facts and figures, but I didn’t know how to think for myself.”

Robinson’s struggles weren’t limited to writing. He also couldn’t hold his own in chemistry lecture or lab, and describes being “lost from the first lecture on.” He ended up dropping the course (he hopes to take it again next year) despite receiving tutoring help three times per week.

While he understands that ultimately the success or failure of his academic life rests primarily on his shoulders, Robinson nonetheless places the blame for his education shortcomings squarely on his public school education. He states his teachers “[s]imply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.” Even worse, when Robinson did excel in school, including overcoming a speech delay, his teachers “didn’t trust that I’d done the hard work. They assumed I was cheating.” Why?

I suspect they thought my background – a black boy raised by his grandmother . . . because my parents couldn’t take care of me – wouldn’t result in success. Failure was more believable than achievement.

Robinson responded as any person would – he developed coping mechanisms for working the system to his favor, even though those mechanisms mostly were disconnected from meaningful academic engagement. “Once I got to high school, I maintained good grades simply by listening to my teachers and giving them what they wanted to hear: themselves.”

In Robinson’s view, because so many students arrive at D.C. public high schools lacking requisite academic skills, high school teachers spend significant time helping those students catch up. Thus, students like Robinson don’t have access to the rigorous college-prep coursework needed to make it at a place like Georgetown. “Any high school administrator in Washington [D.C.] faces a problem similar to my professors . . . [t]hey’re stuck correcting the damage done before we got there.”

The ending to Robinson’s story is mostly a happy one, and certainly a testament to his character. After attending tutoring twice a week, regularly seeing his professors during office hours and spending practically all of his time outside of class studying, he is now making As and Bs. In his words, he has gone from “floundering to finally making it at Georgetown.”

My Take: This compelling narrative serves as a Rorschach test for those seeking to identify and remedy what ails public education. For some, Robinson’s experience is the predictable and unfortunate consequence of a public school system focused entirely on high-stakes testing. For others, this episode is illustrative of a culture of low expectations that permeates our K-12 system, particularly for minority or low-income students. We expect less, so we lower standards, leaving students like Robinson unprepared for college work. Some view it as an indictment of public charter schools (Robinson’s school was a charter school) although he doesn’t; he states his school was considered the top choice for his neighborhood. Finally, some view Robinson’s experience as typical of the difficulties in making the leap from high school to college. College is the formative academic experience where students ostensibly are taught to think, work and learn on their own. That’s a big leap for anyone and many struggle with it.

While no single explanation captures every issue Robinson encountered, in my view the critical lesson here is how our K-12 system is outdated and not designed to meet the needs of today’s students. As explored in previous posts, writer Seth Godin develops this framework persuasively in Stop Stealing Dreams. According to Godin, “large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Unless we radically overhaul how we think about education, with particular focus on its purpose, our schools will continue to produce students like Robinson who are frustrated because they aren’t prepared for life and work in the twenty-first century. It’s up to us as parents to start asking these questions, instead of just assuming that we should keep doing what we’re already doing.  So, why are we learning what we’re learning? What should we be learning? Will our students be prepared? What is the purpose of school? These are tough questions, but we have to ask them if we want to improve the college experience of Robinson and students like him moving forward.

Beth T. Sigall

April 16, 2012

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