Politics & Policy

Hard to Take

A misleading look into education in America's inner-cities.

Hard Times at Douglass High, a documentary that airs tonight on HBO, is subtitled “A No Child Left Behind Report Card.” The addition is misleading. The film examines only superficially and tersely the impact of No Child Left Behind. Hard Times at Douglass High is less an investigation of public policy than a basic and distressing picture of one school’s educational dysfunction.

The film is most painful not because so many of the students at Douglass High are poor, live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, and can barely speak English, let alone read or write it. Sadly, we already know these things about rough urban schools. Rather, Hard Times at Douglass High is poignant precisely because it shows a staff that while seemingly earnest, invested, and well-intentioned is nonetheless incapable of saving its struggling school.

Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore possesses a long and storied history, dating back to 1883. Among its graduates is Thurgood Marshall (Class of 1925), a statue of whom stands prominently in Douglass’s entryway, a looming reminder of the school’s unique past.

Fast forward 80-odd years. Today, Douglass is a gloomy failure. Its students’ test scores are dismal: In 2004, when the documentary was shot, only 10 percent of them passed Maryland state tests in English, and just one percent — one percent — passed state tests in math. The school’s dropout rate hovers somewhere around 60 percent, and discipline is rare at best and nonexistent at worst.

This dire scenario persists despite the efforts of Douglass’s teachers and administrators, who seem to care, some deeply, about their students. Principal Isabelle Grant, herself a Douglass graduate, scours the hallways, berating tardy pupils, shooing to class the loiterers, and dispensing encouragement to those who need it. At a meeting of the school’s department heads, Ms. Ray, who chairs the science branch, asks whether a specific class has yet obtained a long-term substitute. “I’m concerned about that — the classes where the students are just sitting there,” she says. “I’m bothered by that.” Heads nod vigorously in agreement.

Yet this film makes clear that kindness and devotion do not great teachers and administrators make, and despite their intentions, the staff members at Douglass aren’t cutting it.

Many are just plain bad at their jobs. Principal Grant, for example, is a kind, elderly woman who is clearly incapable of fulfilling the management role required of her. At a school such as Douglass, building a sturdy discipline structure is paramount; unfortunately, Grant instills discipline in no one. Her actions are scattershot — an ad hoc “hall sweep” here, a grating intercom announcement condemning tardiness there. No system exists. Students are more than willing to nod and smile when she corners them in the hallways, but they simply resume their hijinks once she leaves, confident in the emptiness of her threats and the limpness of her follow-through.

Lots of Douglass’s students have never had solidity in their lives. Their families are broken, their home addresses are ever-shifting, they see laws flouted daily. Thus, it’s seminal that their school, at least, offers concrete structure, concrete rules, concrete expectations, and that its classrooms are environments of knowledge and learning, oases from insecurity and depravity.

But some of Douglass’s staff members actually heighten the discord of their pupils’ already discordant lives. The film shows an English teacher who asks his class about people they know who have screwed up or failed. Thus, instead of having a valuable conversation about Nick Carraway’s flaws, say, or the mistakes of old men who fish for marlin, the students tell stories about relatives who are pregnant, in prison, or dead. Another example: Douglass offers a recording arts and media production class, which is supposed to teach students how to produce their own music and videos. How this course will ever benefit the vast majority of its participants, who spend their time rapping about the awful things they witness on their neighborhood streets, is anyone’s guess.

Then, there’s the prevalent culture of victimhood that replaces personal responsibility, on display not only in the low expectations of some teachers and administrators, but even at a basketball game. After a loss, the coach tells his team about the referees, “They f**ked us.” The students pick up on this hopelessness, to be sure. The basketball team’s senior captain is, like his coach, upset with the officiating: “That’s why all these black boys [are] selling drugs… They want every black boy to stay in the city selling drugs…so they can make some money off us.” The vague “they” — the undefined victimizer — is somehow understood and accepted by everyone in the locker room.

Hard Times at Douglass High shows that troubled urban schools can succeed only if they’re staffed by competent people. In urban education, good intentions alone will not yield good results.

— Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas Fordham Institute and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.


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