The Bigotry of “Achievement” (a graduation speech)

Yesterday I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a local high school graduation. The high school is an urban charter school serving primarily low income students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. After recieving positive feedback on the speech, I was asked to share my words. Here they are.


Twelve years ago I was 16 years old and graduating from high school. I was super excited because my brother had graduated the year before and I remembered how much fun the family had celebrating his high school graduation. Just like last year, my grandparents drove to Charlotte, North Carolina from Norfolk, Virginia to share in my accomplishment. Given that even then, my grandparents were super old and still willing to drive that far, I knew my graduation was a big deal.

I was number 563 to walk across the stage. Three years earlier, when I was a freshmen, there were over 900 students in my class. On graduation day, there were closer to 600. Somewhere along the way, we’d lost 300 students—300 would-be, might-have-been, probably were, friends. Interestingly, I didn’t notice that until graduation day when I saw the total number. I admittedly looked at the number to see how long I’d have to sit there before walking across the stage, but I inadvertently stumbled upon the realization that 1/3 of my class was missing. How, in the three intervening years, had I not noticed that?

For some reason, the missing students really bothered me. I remember asking my parents why there were so fewer students and they hypothesized that maybe a lot of them transferred schools. But given that every year new students transferred in, that should balance out. I asked my older brother and he brushed me off the way only older siblings can, with a slightly hostile “why do you care? YOU’RE graduating”. But I DID care.

Since we weren’t doing much of anything at school anymore I had plenty of time to ask my teachers about my missing classmates. I honestly don’t recall what most of them said, but I do remember one teacher’s response: she said ‘given the students that go to this school, I’m surprised 2/3 of you all made it this far.’

At the time, I didn’t realize what her comment really meant. I didn’t analyze or even attend to the bias underlying such an offensive statement. But now, 12 years later, I am infuriated at what she said.

“Given the students that go to this school….”—My high school had about 3000 kids in it. I would say 60% were White and the other 40% were ethnic minorities. Despite its racial diversity, the school was fairly homogenous when it came to income. Most of the students—myself included—came from lower income or working class backgrounds. At the time, I didn’t pay any attention to these type of demographic characteristics because frankly—I didn’t have to. I was part of a relatively large majority and had the privilege of not having to notice difference.

But once I left high school and attended college, I realized very quickly what that teacher’s comment really meant. She meant poor kids. Working class kids. Kids from single parent households. And kids whose parents may not speak English. She was surprised that kids ‘like that’ could graduate high school. The more I thought about that conversation from 4 months prior, the more determined I became to not be a ‘kid like that’.

If you fast forward 12 years to present day, I now teach here at [school]. I teach in the education department, mostly about public schools and how they treat ‘kids like that’. I teach about issues of opportunity and access, parent involvement, education policies, and education reform efforts. But really, no matter what the class is, I teach about students like you. I teach about your strengths, your attributes, and most of all, your potential.

To do so, I must first help my college students understand who you are, but more importantly, who and what you are not. You are not ‘disadvantaged’, you are not ‘at risk’, nor are you ‘exceptional’. You are not a deviant statistic who made it despite…being poor, or of color, or from a single parent household. You are not someone whose high school graduation is the end all be all. You are not someone who would allow others to set expectations for you. But that is exactly what is done in schools, and what has been done to you and to me.

From 6th through 12th grade I was in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. For those who are unfamiliar, IB is a college prep program with a heavy emphasis on analytical thinking, problem solving, and civic engagement. In 11th grade, we were required to talk to the director of our program about colleges to which we might apply. I was ready. I’d had my list complete since 8th grade. I knew I was going to apply to Brown, NYU, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and Columbia. When I gave him my list, he looked at me and said ‘kids like you don’t get into schools like these. You might want to lower your expectations a bit.’

I was 15 and had just been told that I wouldn’t be accepted into the schools I’d wanted to attend since I was 12. I was hurt and angry so I told my mother what he said. She was livid. To this day, she talks about how inappropriate that teacher was for telling me to not even apply to those schools. But I’m not angry about it because I get it. I get that because of my skin color and my family’s income bracket, I was presumed to be at a disadvantage when compared to my white or wealthy peers. He assumed that I didn’t have the intellectual ability or maybe the financial means to succeed at an Ivy League College. Or perhaps, as he accused my brother of being a year prior, he thought I was a criminal with behavior problems a top tier institution wouldn’t tolerate. He, like so many people in this country, viewed me as having a deficit.

Because of my ‘disadvantaged’ background, before I even entered Pre-K I was labeled ‘at risk’. This is a phrase I’m sure most of you are familiar with. At-risk. If there is any phrase I hate, it’s this one. At-risk is what I call a proxy term for ‘poor or working class or immigrant or of color’. I am annoyed when people lack the courage to say what they mean, but I am incensed when people label others based on demographic characteristics. What exactly was I at risk for? Teen pregnancy? Being in a gang? Getting straight As? Becoming a professor?

Rest assured no one who called me at risk ever thought I’d be a professor. On the contrary, to them, I was a statistic at risk for academic failure, unemployment, crime, and imprisonment. Because of that…because they expected so little of me, the bar was set low. In elementary school the goal was to be able to read at grade level. In middle school, attention turns to basic math skills. In high school, they just wanted me to graduate. That’s it. There was no mention of Honors or AP courses. No expectations of being student body president, homecoming queen or captain of the track team. Those expectations were reserved for other students. People were therefore shocked when I skipped first grade. No one expected me to be reading 3 grade levels ahead in 2nd grade. No one thought I’d get straight As in a rigorous college prep program. And no one—including the director of my high school IB program—thought I’d end up graduating with honors from an Ivy League College.

Because of those successes, I was given an alternative label—exceptional. I find this label as offensive as disadvantaged and at risk. Calling me exceptional is basically saying ‘you did well even though you weren’t supposed to.’ What’s more is that what counts as exceptional for me would never be exceptional for the people who insist on calling me such. Graduating high school is an expectation many people have of their children. But when poor students or students of color do just that, for some reason, it is an exceptional accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong. Today you are honored for a great achievement. Some of you may be the first in your family to graduate high school so this is an especially celebratory occasion. Many of you are now headed to college and others will brave entry into the workforce. Each of these paths is evidence of investment in yourself, your family and your community. But this is not all you have to offer, nor is this all you will accomplish. Because if this is it, you justify them calling me disadvantaged and at risk. You make it okay for your little brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends to be called the same.

I encourage you to raise the bar. By going to college you make college graduation the norm. By seeking job training you demonstrate how short term investments yield long term gains. That is where the bar should be for all students, not just those fortunate enough to be born into privileged circumstances.

So I do not call you exceptional because of your graduation today. I do not call you successful or accomplished or any of those things. Because to do so, undermines what you’ve yet to do. You will continue to achieve because frankly, there is no other option. You have to. I need you to. I need to know that one day, I will be able to throw out my lesson plans about unfair labels, inequitable opportunity in schools, and implicit teacher bias. I need you to prove that what I teach my students about urban schools and urban students is true. That you are not disadvantaged or at risk. That you not only have the right to educational opportunities, but will also take advantage of them in ways that engender long-term success. I need you each to be vigilant of others’ words, but more so of how your actions support or discredit their words.

Every single one of you got here today because you worked hard, you went to class, you paid attention, asked for help when you needed it and helped others when they needed it. You did this, not despite your demographic characteristics, but in addition to being given unfair labels and low expectations. High school graduation is a stepping stone across the river of life. I urge you not to let others assign labels to you and expectations of you that will leave you stranded in the middle of the water. Instead, view today as one of many stones upon which you will step as you decide who you will be and how to define ‘exceptional’ for yourself.

Congratulations class of 2014!



The Pitfalls and Privilege of Pass/Fail

I’ve never left a faculty meeting more incensed than I did today. For over 2 hours, the faculty body at my College nitpicked over the smallest things such as the presence or absence of 1 additional faculty member on the College writing committee/international programs committee/advancement committee/honor council. The primary reason for these amendments to a 1-year piloted proposal was that faculty should not risk losing their voice. What’s more is that we must ensure that every academic division has equal voice in these committees. God forbid the staff or even worse, the students, have more to say than us. For that reason, we must invoke 2 hours of conversation about 5 faculty slots on 4 College committees.

I stayed through those tedious conversations and did not actually get upset until the final bullet point on the agenda: should students be limited to 6 Pass/Fail courses?

pass fail

Now let’s take first things first. I have NO IDEA why students are allowed to take more than ONE course pass/fail. Who goes to college and doesn’t want to be assessed? But I will get to that in a second. Two primary arguments in support of UNLIMITED pass/fail were: a) what if the student is experiencing mental or physical health issues and can’t meet course requirements? b) it encourages students to explore different academic disciplines without the risk of a low grade affecting their GPA.

EXCUSE ME?????  As a psychologist, I am appalled we think we should encourage students with proven mental or physical illness to remain in college instead of taking a medical leave of absence and focusing on their health. This type of implicit expectation makes students who do choose to prioritize their health feel lesser than students who ‘tough it out’. As a result, we’ve seen the increase of college students with mental health diagnoses—especially anxiety disorders—rapidly increase over the last few years. We’ve consequently seen an increase in suicides and suicide attempts. We are so heavily invested in the culture of achievement that we are telling students to ignore their health needs and to help you do so, we will lower the standards for you just so you can ‘pass’ this course.

And yes. Taking a course pass/fail is indeed lowering the standards for that student. We are in essence saying that if you master 60% of the content (or 65%–whatever the cut off is for a D), that is good enough for you to receive college credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. In what vocation are you allowed to do just 60% of your job duties and still receive a pay check? What teacher begins a course hoping that students get 60% of the content? In what world is 60% proficiency acceptable?

I will tell you what world: the world of the privileged. The world where there is a perpetual and unyielding safety net. The world where there are no consequences associated with any decisions because someone else is there to either mitigate risk or assume it for them. Coming to college is in itself a risky decision. You are moving away from your family and your home and striking out on a new adventure full of social, emotional and academic challenges. Every course for which students sign up is a risk. No one but the professor knows the demands of that course and what it will take to be successful. It is not the faculty’s job to mitigate student risk. It is our job to ensure we provide them with the tools necessary to manage risk. If you enroll in Organic Chemistry because you were awesome in chemistry in high school, then you are knowingly making a decision to enroll in a course in which you may not earn an A. You are not entitled to an A. It is not my job to give you an A. You earn what you earn. And if you earn a D, deal with the consequences of it.

My next concern is with the cognitive concomitants of pass/fail. Any educational or social psychologist familiar with role theory understands the importance of expectations and accountability in the construction of a role. The message we are sending with unlimited pass/fails is that we don’t expect much of you in your role of student and we will in fact, give you the same reward for taking this course as someone who is being evaluated and held to higher standards. We are therefore failing to properly teach the rights, duties, obligations, and expectations of their social role in a college context. Empirical research suggests that being held accountable for one’s role behaviors is correlated with higher effort, higher intrinsic motivation to learn, an incremental view of intelligence, and more collaborative behaviors. To say it more simply, when students are not held accountable, they don’t invest in their learning. And for a school charging 55k a year, we are certainly encouraging a financial investment.

Lastly, the driving force behind my outrage is how this particular policy disadvantages marginalized groups lacking the social capital to effectively use it. Students who take a lot of courses pass/fail are those who don’t understand the long term consequences of a transcript with 4 courses without grades. Students from highly educated families have parents who tell them the pitfalls of not having a GPA or not being able to represent your competency through course grades. Students from families whose parents may not have attended college, who don’t know how higher education functions, or who’ve never had to produce an academic transcript for employment do not automatically know how to effectively use pass/fail options. When students come to me proposing to take a course pass/fail, I am sure to ask the following questions: How can a prospective employer evaluate your job readiness when all you have is a listing of courses with credit allocations beside it? How do they know your differential proficiencies in the discipline when your 200 level courses have the same outcome as your 400 level courses?  How will you be able to relay your achievement when a 90% is being interpreted as a 60%?

What’s more is the social perception of students who take classes pass/fail. I strongly believe that marginalized students enacting this option will be viewed differently than wealthy and/or white and/or legacy students doing the same. If I, as a 20 year old black girl, presented a transcript to prospective PhD programs with a lot of pass/fail courses, I would have been perceived as not having confidence in my abilities, not having a strong skill set, or afraid of failure. My white friends on the other hand would be perceived as academically venturesome, courageous, and smart in their decision to mitigate risk.

I was outraged that this dichotomy was not voiced at the faculty meeting. Where was the representation of marginalized students’ voices? Where were the faculty speaking on behalf of the students who are in my office in tears saying ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take courses pass/fail’? Faculty were instead concerned with ‘punishing’ students for taking a course outside of their comfort zone. They were also concerned with ‘students who are managing anxiety issues and wouldn’t be allowed to count a pass/fail course in their graduation credits’. Or my favorite, ‘the logistics of how much work it will take to track how many pass/fail courses a student has taken.’

At this point it is natural for you to wonder why I did not stand up and say these very things. I was close. So close, I did stand up. So close that a senior colleague sitting behind me asked what I was going to say and then suggested I ‘not say anything because this really only affects about 5% of the student body who actually take 8 or more courses pass/fail.’

Translation: those 5% are not worth this discussion.

That sentiment is what caused me to walk out. Her comment reinforced what I already knew to be true: anything I said would fall on deaf ears. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 3 years of these meetings is that voices are only heard when people consent to listen.