Byron Leftwich left H.D. Woodson High School in 1997, but people there still talk about his nine seasons as a quarterback in the National Football League and the riches and fame that came with them. Like many other U.S. high schools, Woodson’s best athletes still dream of where their talents could take them.
They have little chance of becoming a pro if they don’t go to college, so their grades and test scores must reach a certain level. Schools try to give them extra academic help, such as Woodson having math teacher Caleb Stewart Rossiter tutor top athletes in the fall of 2012 for the SAT.
On the surface, it seemed like a sensible effort to give disadvantaged students who might win athletic scholarships the kind of test-prep they couldn’t afford. But in Rossiter’s new book about the mistreatment of our most-disruptive and least-productive students, “Ain’t Nobody Be Learnin’ Nothin’: The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools,” he portrays after-school tutoring sessions as a well-intended gesture to help kids that instead leads them astray.
Rossiter describes a session with a former college hurdler whom he invited to explain how the athletes could improve their odds for an athletic scholarship. “All the 40 students in the room and the 40 more who had skipped the session had devoted untold hours to their sport with the vague sense” — fueled by the legend of Byron Leftwich — “of using it to build their adult lives,” Rossiter writes. “Only about 10 of these 80 would be offered an initial full ride to college.
“The irony is that many of these lottery winners would have had a great chance of a full scholarship, and a four-year one at that, if they had gone the purely academic route and taken one of the scholarships that have proliferated for the young, black, and not even gifted but at least perseverant. Many of the lottery losers would have been academic winners as well, if they had put their untold hours into that arena instead of sports.”
Rossiter taught at Woodson from 2010 to 2012. He says he tried his best with the athletes but that most of them did not take his tutoring anymore seriously than they did his math classes. Some coaches enabled the worst teenage habits of sloth and procrastination by trying to wheedle last-minute reprieves from teachers when terrible grades threatened students’ sports eligibility.
“As every grading period winds down, the coaches appear at the classroom doors, with their players in tow, and ask teachers to ‘work with’ the students and accept ‘extra credit’ work to boost their grades,” Rossiter writes. “If teachers don’t cooperate, some coaches encourage guardians to explore special education designation.”
D.C. Public Schools officials did not respond to requests for comment on Rossiter’s observations.
It was interesting to me, and one of the rare bright spots in Rossiter’s book, that coach Henry Anglin made sure his champion girls’ basketball team members came to every one of the SAT tutoring sessions that fall. He apparently figured his teams would play better and be more likely to remain eligible for sports if they applied basketball-court discipline to their studies.
Even the athletes who received college scholarships often lost them, Rossiter reports, as they discovered that they still had to meet academic standards in college that were beyond their level.
There are arguments in Rossiter’s book that I don’t accept, but many of his observations from inside D.C. schools are painfully vivid and match what I already know. Despite the efforts of energetic teachers and administrators, standards in urban districts, such as in Washington, remain low. Many students have little incentive to work hard because it is still relatively easy to slide through.
My column last week on what Rossiter found about grade inflation inspired a flood of comments and e-mails saying such malpractice was happening nearly everywhere in the country. But what do we do about it? Next week, I will discuss Rossiter’s solution. It doesn’t seem practical to me, but it represents the toughness I sense many Americans think is overdue.