It’s not an accident that six years’ worth of report cards from Hyde were nearly identical. In the seventh grade, Travis earned a 66 in English, a 68 in history, a 70 in math, a 72 in gym, a 73 in reading, a 75 in science, and a 79 in art. In the eighth grade: a 54 in math, a 71 in history, a 71 in reading comprehension, a 72 in English, a 73 in science, a 76 in health, an 80 in gym. Once Travis reached high school, his grades (with two exceptions) also landed within a few points of the 70 percent threshold required to pass. “You’re going to give me a whole rack of stuff,” he explained, channeling the typical post-midterm discussion he would have with teachers at Hyde, “and that whole rack of stuff is going to get me a passing grade. And then I’m going to be straight, and I’m going to turn around and do the same thing the next quarter … and no one’s picked up on it yet.”
DaVonte Little, a student who attended McKinley Technology High School in D.C., called the strategy “running in neutral.” An academic standout at Emery, DaVonte was focused, quick, and well above national averages on standardized tests. He originally hoped to secure a management position in the entertainment industry after college, but when I asked him about using high-school classes as a building block for future success, he chuckled. “I don’t like doing work. Plain and simple,” he told me. “I know my grades have got to come out in the end,” he told me. “So I say, ‘What do I need to do?’ … ‘How many [assignments] do I need to get a C?’... I missed 15 assignments, and I can do at least 10 in the next four weeks and [his teacher] can promise me a D.”
Herbert Kohl, an educator in New York, penned a collection of essays in the mid-1990s on the topic of “creative maladjustment,” a term he borrowed from Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have encountered willed not-learning throughout my 30 years of teaching,” he wrote, “and believe that such not-learning is often and disastrously mistaken for failure to learn or inability to learn.” The distinction is important. Were students like Travis and DaVonte unable to learn? Or simply unwilling? From the fourth grade, when Travis was a student in my classroom at Emery, to the seventh grade, two years into his schooling at Hyde, his test scores plummeted from the middle-range of national averages (the 53rd and 41st percentiles in reading and math) to the bottom end of the scale (27th and 10th percentiles, respectively). Travis wasn’t getting “dumber” as a matter of cognitive aptitude. He was mastering progressively fewer concepts in school than his potential would have predicted. Not surprisingly, by the 11th grade, his scores on the SAT fell in the bottom fifth percentile nationally.
For years, Hyde boasted of high college-acceptance rates as evidence that students were obtaining a quality education. This statistic included 100 percent of Hyde’s graduating seniors—a fact both impressive and misleading. These seniors were the survivors. Not included were the students who dropped out, or were “counseled” out of Hyde, before reaching their senior year. According to an assistant dean at Hyde who spoke to me, the school-wide tendency to celebrate high college-going rates also masked a sharp downward turn in student enrollment over time. Reviewing enrollment numbers provided by Hyde officials, the rosters showed 114 freshmen, 62 sophomores, 56 juniors, and 45 seniors, a drop off of 61 percent over four years. When teachers and administrators define success in terms of high-school graduation and college-enrollment rates and embrace subjective policies that optimize for credit accumulation, learning gets dismantled, as was the case with Travis. It’s not until later, once those students transition to other schools or enter higher education, that the consequences become bracingly real.