Judging an Iceberg by the Tip Only: The Cumulative Effects of Opportunities for Students

“[M]ost of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs” (p. 26).

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, Paul Gorski

Throughout the first several years as a high school English teacher in rural Upstate South Carolina (in my hometown high school, in fact), I believe I learned far more lessons than I taught.

In those first couple years, I had different ability levels of classes (yes, we tracked every grade with low, average, honors, and Advanced Placement) and multiple grade levels as well—resulting in my juggling as a beginning teacher 13 textbooks among my five courses. Several of the so-called “general” classes were at maximum capacity, 35 students, as well.

One of the most vivid and troubling lessons recurred year after year in my general senior English course: Students, in a burst of maturity accompanied by the realization that adulthood loomed, approached me about taking the SAT and applying to college.

General track students, typically, had been in courses for years specifically designed for students not applying for college; therefore, these students were destined to do poorly on the SAT (because of a combination of their inadequate coursework for many years and their socioeconomic status, mostly working-poor and working-class households) and have their belated motivation squashed.

Although not a popular response, I often replied with: “Well, first go back in time. And then, read, read, read.”

If possible, of course, that solution was and remains quite accurate, but my larger point was addressing the cumulative impact of life and educational experiences that students either have or miss—and that the quality and amount of those experiences are more strongly correlated with the coincidences of those students’ births than with the content of their character.

These students came rushing back to me this spring during my May Experience course on educational documentaries.

My university is a small selective liberal arts environment, and we have a relatively privileged and white student body—despite efforts shared by many universities to increase diversity. One of the unintended consequences of our May X program has been that athletes typically take these courses, and since our student-athletes are more racially diverse than our larger student body, my May X classes have usually been more racially and gender diverse than courses during the main semesters.

This May, my class was about 1/3 students of color and included more males than usual as well.

One day we were discussing Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in high schools, and when I asked students to raise their hands if they had taken A.P. or I.B., I immediately noticed on the one side of the room where several black student-athletes sat, the students had not raised their hands.

Possibly as a result of this discussion, one black male student-athlete wrote his public piece (they were asked to write a public piece addressing misconceptions about education) on his own background in high school, his recognition that students given access to A.P. had a significant advantage over students not allowed in or offered A.P. courses.

This young man noted that his college experience has highlighted for him his own disadvantage among students who had different backgrounds that he was afforded.

So when I saw Darryl Robinson’s I went to some of D.C.’s best schools. I was still unprepared for college, I immediately saw the faces of my high school students from decades ago blend with the students this May.

Despite his “work[ing] extremely hard to get [to college],” Robinson makes a powerful admission:

But after arriving on campus before the school year, with a full scholarship, I quickly felt unprepared and outmatched — and it’s taken an entire year of playing catch-up in the classroom to feel like I belong. I know that ultimately I’m responsible for my education, but I can’t help blaming the schools and teachers I had in my early years for my struggles today.

Robinson’s story is disturbing and important—and one that must be read carefully so that we turn our eyes away from Robinson himself and to the larger context he is ultimately condemning.

First, Robinson is the embodiment of the racial and class inequities suffered by students, but as he details very well, Robinson also is caught in the “good student trap”—as highlighted by his recognition of how his writing instruction failed him:

I first noticed the gap between me and my classmates after my first writing assignment at Georgetown. In an English class to help prepare incoming freshmen, we were asked to analyze the main character’s development in “Persepolis,” a graphic memoir about growing up in Tehran during the Iranian revolution. I thought it was an easy assignment. Everyone’s papers were distributed to the class, and it was immediately obvious how mine fell short: I merely summarized the plot of the book without making any real argument. I got a D-minus.

I did what I’d been taught growing up in school: memorize and regurgitate information. Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts within a breath, to focus less on remembering every piece of information, word for word, and more on forming independent ideas. I was not. I could memorize and recite facts and figures, but I didn’t know how to think for myself. Now, in an attempt to think deeper, I sometimes overthink myself into silence.

Without this first-person account from Robinson, many who claim that success in school and life in the U.S. is mostly a consequence of effort and resilience may continue to point the accusatory finger at the tip of the iceberg and draw their distorted conclusions about outcomes—without regard to the tremendous weight of the opportunities (and lack thereof) below the surface. As Robinson notes about his first experiences with A.P. classes:

It dawned on me that this was what college would be like. But with less than two years left in high school, would I be ready? Before that class, all the papers I had written were hardly analytical, simply retelling the plot of a book. I felt cheated.

Robinson’s story is possibly dangerous since he has somehow found himself at Georgetown University despite great odds against him and despite his realization that he remains behind his classmates for reasons not of his doing.

Robinson is an outlier in many respects, and it is alluring in the U.S. to read him as a model of the power of resilience without asking why some children are condemned to a real-life Hunger Games while some children are praised as smart and “gritty” without recognizing their privilege.

And then, stories, ironically, of the typical child of color growing up in poverty remains ignored—like the great majority of the iceberg below the surface.

Who is telling this story?:

As it turns out, the conditions that attend poverty—what a National Scientific Council report summarized as “overcrowding, noise, substandard housing, separation from parent(s), exposure to violence, family turmoil,” and other forms of extreme stress—can be toxic to the developing brain, just like drug or alcohol abuse. These conditions provoke the body to release hormones such as cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex. Brief bursts of cortisol can help a person manage difficult situations, but high stress over the long term can be disastrous. In a pregnant woman, the hormone can “get through the placenta into the fetus,” Levitt told me, potentially influencing her baby’s brain and tampering with its circuitry. Later, as the same child grows up, cortisol from his own body may continue to sabotage the development of his brain.

Basing our demands of schools, teachers, and students on accountability for outcomes is judging an iceberg by the tip only.

That narrow and misguided view of teaching, learning, and humans is misreading success and failure (attributing them disproportionately to effort and resilience) while also ignoring the cumulative impact of access to rich and sustained opportunities (privilege) versus being denied those rich opportunities while also suffering inordinate and sustained stress (poverty and racism).

And the greatest failure of all in this call for accountability and education reform is that instead of trying to create for children in poverty the sorts of life and school experiences afforded the wealthy, children of color and impoverished children are being diagnosed as deficient (the word gap, lack “grit”) and then being subjected to the worst possible educational experiences: increased stressful environments (academic and disciplinary), reduced academic experiences (test-prep), narrowed curriculum (so-called core disciplines with no P.E. or fine arts), and an anemic teacher workforce (inexperienced, scripted, un-/under-qualified).

We do not need to raise our students test scores. We do not need to gather data on the “grit” of our students so we can teach them “grit.” We do not need slogans about “no excuses” that trivialize the realities of children’s lives as if they should walk through the doors of schools and magically ignore the weight of their lives—lives they did not create.

We do need to admit that outcomes and behaviors reflect an entire life, and that many we label “successful” have had the opportunities that those we label “failing” or “at risk” have been denied.

As a society, we are starving some children, weighing them, labeling them underweight, and then accusing them of not working as hard as their well-nourished peers.

So let me return to my current students at a selective university.

These students are in fact very bright and capable. I love them dearly. But they are not successful primarily because they have some qualities other students do not have.

My students represent the consequences of rich and diverse experiences over many years of mostly privileged lives.

This is how nearly all children could be if we genuinely had the resilience ourselves to make that happen.

One comment

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I was one of those children who was born into poverty with parents that were both high school drop outs, and I was tracked through classes in high school that were not designed to lead to college. I took general math for four years and never set foot in even an algebra class. In fact, I had no desire to go to college. I just wanted out of school.

    Then a war changed my mind. To escape the world I grew up in, I joined the Marines right out of HS and ended up in Vietnam and it was an incident with a sniper who came a skin’s thickness from blowing off the left side of my face that caused me to change my mind and decide maybe college wasn’t such a bad idea.

    But wait, I never had any of those college prep classes and I had never taken the life changing SAT and/or ACT. In addition, I’d barely graduated from HS with a 0.95 GPA.

    How was this kid with a severe case of dyslexia born into a family living in poverty with a father who was a heavy smoker and an alcoholic and a high school drop out going to make it through college?

    The answer is simple. His mother literally beat literacy into him when he was age seven and then he fell in love with books and became an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction and by the time he almost didn’t graduate from high school, he’d read thousands of paperback books. In HS, he even worked one period a day in the library and read, read, read—but he didn’t read those textbooks in the classes that were not preparing him for college. Those textbooks served one good purpose—they let him hide his paperbacks as he read that pulp fiction sitting at his desk in the back row instead of paying attention or doing the classwork or homework.

    What happened to this former Marine and Vietnam Vet in 1968 when he left the Marines at age 23 and started college on the GI Bill?

    The community college gave him a reading test that said that his literacy rate was college ready and he went straight in to college level lasses. No bone headed English classes for him. His class loads were heavy because he was required to make up all those classes he would have had in HS to be college ready, so he took algebra for the first time, then geometry, trigonometry and calculus all in the first two years carrying an average of 20+ united a semester to earn an AS degree on time and then transfer to the four year college system where he would graduate with a BA in journalism on the deans honor list (or whatever you call it) with almsot a 4.0 GPA in his major. And he did all this as a heavy drinker suffering from a really bad case of PTSD and flash backs that came back with him from Vietnam. What got that kid who was born into poverty through college? The discipline the Marine Corps literally beat in to him in boot camp back in 1965.

    Kids don’t need the Common Core Crap, PARCC tests ( or any kind of standardized tests) or college prep classes to get them ready for college. What they should have is a high level of literacy and an avid love of reading books and magazines—forget most newspaper because they are full of mostly crap and I think I know what I’m talking about because my BA was in journalism. There is a huge divide between what communications majors are taught in college, and the real for-profit media world. The 1st Amendment guarantees a free press without government censorship, but it doesn’t guarantee error free, unbiased, honesty and balanced reporting.

    I don’t advocate the beatings or corporal punishment dished out by my mother or the Marines, but I do advocate a national early childhood education program—kept out of the hands of greedy jerks like Eva Moskowitz or Michelle Rhee, for instance—designed to foster a love of reading in children starting as early as age 2.

    It worked for me and I think it would work for all those other kids were were also born into poverty.

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