by Conor Friedersdorf

All the e-mail I get from Dish readers is a privilege. Below the fold is an especially tremendous letter about a Cal State professor's experience teaching students who often failed out. It's lengthy and fascinating.

I taught mathematics at California State University at Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) about ten years ago. The admissions policy at Cal State was to admit students who had a B average or who graduated in the top third of their graduating class. Unfortunately, this was no guarantee that a student was prepared for college-level academics. A few years prior, the Cal State system had instituted entry level exams for English and mathematics, with the intention that those who failed the exams would not be admitted to the school. In the first year of the exams, two-thirds of incoming freshmen failed one or both exams. It was decided that the school could not function with only a third of its incoming freshmen, so a remedial education was hastily created for those who did not pass both exams. While neither test was designed as a diagnostic, a system was created where a student would take between one and three remedial courses in each failed subject, based on the percentage of incorrect answers on the exam. These courses were not for credit, but were a prerequisite for the entry-level general education courses in those subjects required for graduation.

In the first two years of the new remedial education program, it was decided that far too many students were failing and retaking the courses over and over again, especially in mathematics. It was not unusual for a student to fail and retake the basic mathematics course (middle school mathematics) four to six times before passing or dropping out. A university runs on the course/credit/grade system, and an extensive remedial education system, without credit, is a huge drain on resources and time for the school. My first year of teaching, a new rule was instituted to require that a student pass any remedial course in at most two attempts, or be expelled. This was met with a wave of angry protests, and the claim of some of the protesters was that the rule was racist, since it would affect African-American and Latino students disproportionately (as they were significantly more likely statistically to fail one or both entry level exams, and statistically more likely to fail remedial courses).

There was a program at Cal State Hayward where inner city high school students were targeted during their junior year, and if they agreed to join the program, would receive after-school tutoring. During the summer after their junior year, they would take summer classes and receive extensive tutoring in all high school subjects. The after-school tutoring would continue their senior year, and after graduation, they would have another summer of classes and extensive tutoring. If they completed this program, they got a full scholarship to Cal State Hayward. Unfortunately, these students rarely lasted a year in college before dropping out.

One of my first classes was a math class designed for students who required three full remedial math courses (those who had between 0 and 30% correct answers on the entry level math exam), who were also in the scholarship program described above. It was a half course (it would have been 2 credits instead of 4 if the students had received credit for the course). I was told that I was not allowed to tutor them with their homework, because tutors got paid far less than teachers, and the school could not justify paying teachers wages for a tutoring session. I was told there would be not homework, and no exams. Instead, I was told to work on problems similar to the ones in their homework, and as I was also teaching some of these students in a regular remedial math course, I knew what kinds of problems to work on with them in this special class.

Because class participation was the only thing I could grade them on, I made class participation 100% of their grade. The class met once a week for ten weeks. At Hayward, any grade below 70% was a failing grade, so I told them that more than three absences was an automatic F. I had five students in the class, and only two of them passed the class. All they had to do was show up or have an excused absence seven times to pass. That proved too difficult for three of them.

In the Spring, we saw the first round of students who had failed the first remedial math course twice face expulsion. I was on the phone a lot with sobbing students begging me to change their grades so that they could stay in college. At night, I had colleagues call me at home to demand that I change their favorite students' grades so that they could remain at the school. I went through a lot of emotional pain making the decision to put each F on the report card of a student, knowing that he or she would be expelled as a result. Astonishingly, none of them were expelled. Each found an advocate in the administration to give them a waiver. That Spring, I ended up teaching some students the same remedial subject for the third time.

Hayward was a commuter school, and often we had older students. Some were in school because their company was paying for their education. Some were recent divorcees who decided to finish their educations. A typical student, in her 40s or 50s, would approach me after the first class, or in my office hours the first week, and tell me that they were terrible at math and scared to death of my course, and asked me to help them achieve a passing grade in the course. This student would always get an A ten weeks later. Every time.

That Spring, I had one student who had taken the course in the Fall and Winter, and failed it both times, had found an ally in the administration, and had received special permission to retake the class a third time. Seven weeks later, I looked at her grade in the class thus far, and realized that, even if she were to get 100% in the last three weeks (which was unlikely), it would not be sufficient to give her a passing grade for the course. I told her. She went back to her advocate, who told her that she might have a mathematics learning disability. She called me on the phone during my office hours to discuss that possibility.

"You very well might have a math learning disability. Such disabilities are prevalent and very real, but in your case, I think there might be stronger indicators at play here. Your attendance thus far is 50%, so you might have a showing up disability. You have turned in 30% of the homework thus far, so you might have a doing your homework disability. While I don't discourage you from getting tested for a math disability, I urge you not to discount those other two factors." Because of that comment, I never taught remedial math again.

A year later, I talked to a colleague who was teaching one of the students from the special remedial course I described above. She had failed the first remedial math course three times before getting a passing grade out of pity on the fourth try (her teacher had caved in to pressure after initially failing her), and had failed the second remedial course twice. Because she was the star of the basketball team, she was allowed to stay. I was her teacher for her first and third attempts to pass the first remedial course. I got to know her pretty well, and what I discovered was that she was holding a lot of guilt for going to college. The people in her neighborhood regarded her with hostility for seeking an education, and her friends not at the school had stopped talking to her, and had accused her of abandoning the neighborhood. Since she was a junior in high school, she had been involved in the scholarship program and a voice from a person outside her community was telling her to conform to an academic standard she never really understood, and meanwhile, her support at home and in her neighborhood was nonexistent. I think she was relieved to drop out and return to what she knew and understood.

Before I taught college, I taught at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA. I had one student who had a basketball scholarship to UC Berkeley, dependent upon getting a C average her senior year. She was failing my algebra course. We brought her parents in. Her dad told me to give her a C no matter how well she did in my course, because she was the first person in their family to get into college. I told her parents that grades did not work that way, and that she could get free tutoring before or after school, but that she had to pass my course on her own merits. She missed the midterm exam, and her mother called the next day to tell me that her daughter missed the midterm because the daughter was getting her hair braided that day. I told her that she should take the money budgeted to the hair braider and spend it on a private tutor. The parents filed a complaint against me and I was reprimanded for that suggestion as "culturally insensitive". She was a bright, likable girl, and very popular. She had played basketball overseas in youth tournaments, and was a great player. As it became clear she might not pass the class, I had students and other teachers pressuring me to pass her regardless of her grade. I graded her final exam five times, each time being more generous, trying to give her enough partial credit to pass. I was able to work her grade on the exam up to 58%.  I gave her an F and she lost her Berkeley scholarship. It still breaks my heart to hear her sobs when I told her. I still think I did the right thing.

The common denominator in all of these cases is an assumption the students had that education consists of indulgences bestowed upon the student by a more socially privileged teacher or administrator who pities them. These students were uniformly astonished when other considerations, such as merit, trumped pity. When we lower the bar of merit to admit the underprivileged, the message we send is that merit does not apply to them. Then we fail them by failing to disabuse them of this assumption.