A glance at my picture reveals I am an older, white male, the trifecta of privilege. Still, I have confidence readers will see the common sense of my remarks in response to these articles.
Cardoza tells a compelling story of the difficulties faced by first-generation and minority college students. In a companion article, Smith outlines the support systems available to Tacoma-area first-generation college students striving to achieve a higher education.
Both articles are typical of this genre: students faced with horrific home circumstances, confronted with barriers institutional, racial and economic which they can overcome only with increasing support systems of all kinds, and calls for colleges to adjust their practices to accommodate students who arrive on their campuses with special challenges.
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There is some truth in these prescriptions, but there is also a risk that an overemphasis on the parade of terribles will distract from other explanations for the dropout rates of these students.
Cardoza hints at one of them when she describes the surprise of a student who was not allowed to make up his college exams even though he was allowed to do so in high school. Smith, in his article, echoes the common belief that graduating from college is a prerequisite for low-income students to achieve career and life success.
However, paradoxically, while we push more and more young people to college, high schools and community advocates are adopting practices that make it more difficult for them to succeed, especially first-generation and minority students.
A catalogue of these counterproductive practices includes:
▪ The increasing adoption of grading practices that inflate student performance, like eliminating the 0 and recording a minimum of 50 percent for poor quality work or work not completed at all.
▪ Allowing multiple retakes of exams and accepting late work with few or no consequences.
▪ Automatically enrolling students in advanced classes, which may compromise the rigor of these classes.
▪ Constantly attributing students’ problems to the existence of white privilege, institutional racism or other artificial barriers inhibiting student success. I wonder if these constant refrains predispose students to look away from their own choices and decisions that may play a role in their college outcomes.
I do not question the sincerity of those in our schools and community who are working to increase opportunities for all students to attend college or move on to some other post-high school enterprise. But good intentions are not enough.
High schools and community organizations must be grounded in reality. We must help our young people come to the realization, regardless of life circumstances, that self-discipline, hard work and persistence can bring them through. We must teach them that Martin Luther King Jr. had it right: It is the content of one’s character that tells all.
Michael Jankanish of Tacoma is the chair of the history department at Wilson High School, where he teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history and American government.