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Preparing students for success now and later

Randall F. Clemens

“What does this have to do with anything?” is the question I have heard, in some form or another, from high school students over the last seven years. The question is a valid one. What does Macbeth have to do with a teenager from South LA? Why does he need to know the definition of an isosceles triangle? The answer has to be more than “because it’s important.” The reality is I have forgotten about as much geometry as I have learned and I still manage to function throughout the day. 

There are answers, even good ones. Many of the themes in Macbeth parallel contemporary issues. Triangles form the basis of construction and architecture. To learn about them is to see the world a little differently. The challenge is for teachers to draw connections between abstract concepts and real life, to show how critical thinking and learning translates to success now and the future.

Extending the above argument to schools and neighborhoods, something more complex is happening. The rise in school choice has coincided with a select few “no excuses” college prep schools. From kindergarten on, these brand name schools excel in creating college-going cultures. The expectations are clear: College or bust. The stories are well known as journalists report how, against all odds, students make it from Harlem to Harvard. The problem, however, is not the students who succeed. It is the students who do not. And, there are a lot of them.

College-going prep schools have extended the curriculum from basic skills to everything individuals need to know to succeed in mainstream society, which includes how to speak and act. Questions of relevancy have been answered. Learning becomes future oriented, for a time when students leave their low-income neighborhood to attend college. The unintended consequence is that the future orientation often devalues students’ present contexts and cultural knowledge. 

Often, ideas sound so good and gain so much popularity that they go unquestioned. After all, if a group promises and delivers a high performing school to a neighborhood where the schools have historically underperformed, why would anyone complain? My argument has focused on the worst-case scenario, when education becomes acculturation. Of course, there are culturally responsive college prep schools. We cannot, however, assume that speaking about college access is the same as working towards socially just educational outcomes. 

Sometimes, even the best intentions go awry.