My focus, however, rests not on these aspects of the so-called scandal but on the bigger picture: What factors are behind this absenteeism, and what will the investigations yield for D.C students?
In the myth of post-racial America, we think of education like a high jump with the bar at a height reasonable enough that any contestant, no matter his or her athletic prowess or body type, can clear it and land safely on the mat. Yet a glimpse behind the curtain reveals that contests are not always equal, especially when some players don't have shoes.
To the credit of the whistleblowers at Ballou, lowering the bar by granting excused absences sends the message that students are not capable; that just because they come from an impoverished, primarily African American area, they are less-than and therefore they can miss class while their work remains incomplete or sub-par.
I have experienced this in my own classroom. As a first-year teacher, I failed to hold my students intellectually and behaviorally accountable. I did not set the bar high enough. By the end of the year, toxic classroom habits, academic and behavioral, had solidified. I could not manage the students, and, therefore, they did not learn.
Yet something about this "high expectations no matter the circumstances" approach seems disproportionate. The former principal of Ballou, Yetunde Reeves, cited the circumstances her students face: caring for ailing parents or younger siblings; negotiating the complexities of unstable housing; inconsistent home lives. Some of these youths also deal with the hunger, crime and health problems associated with poverty.
I refuse to reduce my students, or any student, to statistics and to the consequences of their incidental circumstances. But what I fear will happen with these investigations is that we will set the bar at an unachievable height for many D.C students, without providing the funding and resources necessary to address these systemic problems. While the whistleblowers at Ballou are in the right, Reeves is not in the wrong: The challenges that face many students at Ballou are mostly nonexistent for their suburban counterparts. These are the determining factors for students in poverty: not crime but transportation; not drugs but caring for a sibling; not laziness but years of falling behind as teachers, parents and administrators come and go. I am not going to argue that a culture in Ballou that permitted or even encouraged absenteeism did not exist. Rather, I am worried about citizens and investigators patting themselves on the back for "speaking truth to power" while unrealistic standards are imposed on a community that needed a bit of a leg up in the first place.
There is nuance here, a complexity we need to consider. And the way we are discussing this scandal seems to echo the rhetoric that has bashed affirmative action and welfare in decades past: "My kids worked twice as hard to graduate and these kids just get a free pass?" Will we feel a sense of justice if we rescind diplomas? Will we have done our job if future Ballou students are denied college admission?
I am not trying to disparage the journalism of WAMU and NPR or The Post; in fact, I avidly consume work from the outlets. But precisely for this reason, I feel compelled to hold our community accountable and to encourage us to consider the issue more widely. The culture of grade inflation exists in many districts, perhaps by other names, but in the moment, the spotlight falls on Ballou.
The writer teaches seventh-grade English.
Read more about this issue: