Seeking Truth in a Dishonest Education System
April 16, 2016
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It seems the more emphasis that is placed on ensuring the American education system serves all types of students, the more every day folks have become psychometricians. The folks who felt comfortable picking schools or negotiating their way out of certain teachers’ classrooms, based on water cooler conversations, now appear to have acquired PhDs in measurement. They question whether school and teacher accountability systems are statistically “valid and reliable” and whether it is even possible to measure such things. They refused to opt out from nebulous, “holistic” college admissions processes and high-stakes SAT exams that ensured their students had access to higher education and exclusive networks of privilege. Now, they are fixated on whether state assessments are sufficiently aligned to curriculum, provide detailed diagnostic information, are too lengthy, and measure the diverse dimensions of student learning. This era of accountability has prompted a righteous pursuit of truth and fairness.

Or at least the veneer of truth and fairness. Because for all of the US education system’s shortcomings, it seems to have mastered the mirage and doubled-down on dishonesty. While 59 percent of African American and 50 percent of Hispanic Delaware graduates attending Delaware colleges needed remediation (and 42% of all students) a commenter on my blog post last week contended that:

“For what Delaware has, when all items get factored, we offer one of the finest educations a minority in America can receive.”

The data suggests otherwise and are evidence that certain students are being served an anemic curriculum on a daily basis. Yet, we pretend they are being positioned for success. We know the transformative impact of great teaching and that our highest-need schools generally have less access to the highest quality educators. Yet, we pretend all educators deliver the highest quality instruction and that every experience with less-than-stellar teaching does not set back a student’s academic progress substantially.

We refuse to address the various elements within the education system’s locus of control (curriculum, instruction, school leadership, extracurricular opportunities, etc.) and then claim gaps in low-income students’ learning are solely attributable to the social and economic conditions in which they live. Meanwhile, we ignore the lessons to be gleaned from schools succeeding with such students and actively seek to explain away any promising results.

Our education system –and far too many of the adults working in it– seem to have perfected the platitude and the punt. Students are coddled in classrooms only to be manhandled by life outside of the education system. Transcripts are padded with letter grades that often represent student diligence but adult dishonesty. Bold letter grades on report cards are disappointingly supported by thin content knowledge. So we punt our responsibility, preferring to have the labor market and higher education institutions deliver harsh truth to products of the K-12 system.

And these institutions are not as unwilling to be bearers of bad news. But that news comes with a hefty price tag. Almost 3 million students nationwide take at least one remedial course while in college and a new report found that such courses are costing American families an extra $1.5 billion in addition to tuition costs. In 2013, the college graduation rate for white students was 64 percent, compared with 50 percent for minority students. Research also shows that employers think students are unprepared for the workforce while students believe they are prepared.

Even though the truth can hurt and be uncomfortable, there is a desire in traditionally underserved communities for students to be challenged and educated with authenticity. And if you want an example of what that looks like, my wife Tatiana is the paragon of authenticity, tough love, and belief in students’ capacities.

About a year ago Tatiana told one of our TeenSHARP students he was average. We were at the University of Delaware for a college tour and this student — a high school junior and 2nd year TeenSHARPie– was not demonstrating the type of engagement and leadership expected of our students. So as our group followed a tour guide around the campus, Tatiana saw an opportunity to provide him with this feedback.

He responded defensively, struggling to understand why his performance warranted a reprimand. He was paying attention and was on his best behavior. He just did not extend himself to lead or to ask questions. Thinking he needed a dose of reality and a sense of urgency, Tatiana laid it on him thick: “right now, you are an average student.” She told him that he had a 4.0 at a weak school and had a pretty thin leadership track record. He bristled at the suggestion that he — a track star and 4.0 student– could be considered average.

The next week he opted out via email: “Hi, I won’t be continuing my participation in TeenSHARP.”

Fortunately, last fall this student and his mother reconnected with TeenSHARP for assistance with the college application process. While away from the program, he had taken much of the feedback he received to heart and worked on his areas in need of improvement. A few months later Tatiana received the following email:

Good Evening,

It is with great pleasure to share with you our exciting news. First of all thank you for all of the exposure to college preparation and your investment into (my son’s) future!

(He) has been accepted ED (early decision) to Carleton.  They have made an awesome award package for him that will not be turned down.

Thanks again.

Carleton College is consistently ranked as one of the top ten liberal arts colleges and has a 23% admissions rate.

As a product of an inequitable and dishonest public education system, he will undoubtedly experience challenges as he starts his undergraduate education at one of the nation’s best colleges. But with a clear sense of where he stands (gaps and assets), the right supports, and deep determination, I’m confident he will thrive.


Atnre Alleyne is founder of an educator and entrepreneur on a mission to increase access to great instruction, deep learning, and higher education. He blogs at “The Urgency of Now.”

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