National Public Education

Lessons From Kansas City

The Latin contest had come down to a final series of questions.  Our middle school in Kansas City was tied with the top private school in the region for first place, with the district-wide selective magnet school a distant third.  The best private school student, a very studious-looking young girl in glasses and bangs, was trying to think of the answer.  She probably knew it, since it was not all that difficult, but she was having a hard time coming up with it.  As the seconds ticked away, one of my students, a street kid from the low-income neighborhood around our school, called out in a loud stage whisper, “She doesn’t know it.”  The moderator admonished him that “one more outbreak . . . etc.” but she was already just about in tears.  You could see she wanted to tell him she did know it, but she just couldn’t get it out.  Time was called.  We didn’t know the answer either, but went on to win the contest by one point.

The article in the Kansas City Star the next day said that the principal of the private school had complained that the contest was not fair.  He said something like “they didn’t tell us the questions were going to be so difficult.”  That was golden.  Here we were, one of the lowest-ranked middle schools in the state, managing to answer these questions better than the top academic schools in the metropolitan area.  This got me wondering.  If we could do this, why weren’t the other public schools doing any better?  Was there some other problem?

I had come to Kansas City in the late 1980's to help run this "Latin Grammar School" in a poor section of the city.  Some of the kids actually showed up to school barefoot.  We had eight Latin teachers and I was the department chairman.  That first year did not go well.  None of the kids knew very much about the Romans or why anyone would want to learn this strange language.  The Latin teachers would crowd into my office at the end of each day with one horror story after another.  Progress was slow.  The youngest, the sixth graders, did best, since they would still listen now and then to their teachers, but the eighth graders, knowing well that they would never have to take another day of Latin once they got through this year, were almost impossible.

But we teachers were all young, idealistic, and fully convinced, I think, that anyone could learn Latin if they just kept trying.  After all, we had all had our own doubts about our own ability to learn this language, but had pulled through and finally done it.  No one was ready to give up.

In the end the results were pretty amazing.  The school had started out with a percentile rank on the state tests of general knowledge down in the single digits, but we managed to double these by the second year, and then double them again in the third, putting us within shouting distance of the middle range of schools in the state.  In three years we went from being the worst middle school in the city to the best.

No one claimed, though, that this was simply because we were teaching Latin.  We had, after all, one of the best principals in the city, Juanita Hempstead.  People often say that Latin helps one on standardized tests, but I have never really bought this argument.  When you actually look at the questions on the tests and try to find any that are related to what is in the Latin curriculum, you find a very small correlation, probably less than one percent.  There are simply too many difficult English words, and we learn too few Latin roots, for the two groups to match up.  Yes, we could find five kids who could do well in a Latin contest, but that was because we had so many kids to choose from.  We were a large school.

So it was not just that the kids were learning some Latin.  Rather, I think, it was the fact that we were trying to teach Latin that made the difference.  The fact that we were doing this showed the kids that we thought they could do it; that they could master this difficult and very academic subject if they worked at it.  This gave them a whole new level of confidence in their own ability and so made them much more likely to do well on those state tests.

As anyone knows who has ever sat next to a poorly educated child who is working on one of those standardized tests, they almost always know a lot more than what they are putting down on paper.  If you ask them about the questions they often know quite a bit about them, but have not put this down.  The trouble is that they are not “engaged,” as teachers say, in the process.  They could care less how they do on this waste of time.  They might know some answers, but hardly bother to read the questions.

But what we were telling them in our Latin classes, and showing them through our persistence, was that we thought they were, in fact, the kind of kids who ought to do well on those tests.  They could learn Latin, we were saying, and so probably could do well at any academic task.  That’s what we thought, anyway, and eventually they came to believe it, too.  They began to see the tests as a normal part of their academic lives, not as some outside source of annoyance, and so started to take them seriously.  Then they did better.

Ironically, what made the difference, then, was not that we succeeded in teaching them Latin, but that we were so often failing at this.  That’s what got those scores up.  It was not that they were learning Latin; that did come, but not until later.  At first what mattered was that they were not learning it and we still thought they could.  Then they had concrete proof that we believed in them, in their own natural ability.  That is what changed their view of themselves, and consequently their success on the tests.  All those complaining Latin teachers in my office were actually a sign that we were on the right track.  Who knew?  Just because you are not succeeding does not mean you are not doing the right thing (a thought I have often had occasion to recall as I try to find ways to improve public education in general).

What I had learned, though, was that there was nothing about those children from that poor neighborhood that made it impossible for them to be among the best.  They were not the problem.  They learned these things just as well as anybody, given the time to work through their problems.  And this applied to their general social conditions, as well.  The problem was not their poverty, unemployment, or lack of fathers.  Our kids had all those problems, yet still found ways to succeed.  What did matter were their parents, and their friends, and their previous education, but we knew how to deal with those issues.  That's what teachers do.  There was nothing mysterious about their success.

Why then, weren't the schools in general doing better?  It wasn't rocket science.  None of us had any background in educational theory.  We just set the goals high and kept at them.  One ought to be able to do that in all the schools.

That's when I first started to think that there may be something else going wrong in the way we are educating our children.  Some deeper, structural problem that was impeding the success that we ought to be having.  Something like the problems we have with our state-run decentralized school system.

Peter Dodington

April 8, 2017