Article — From the September 2008 issue
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Article — From the September 2008 issue
A bell sounds, and students tumble out of rooms and into the gray corridors of George Washington High School. Eight a.m. lethargy has given way to the Brownian motion of the day’s first passing period. A tall boy beside me wraps his arms around a small, pretty girl, backpack and all, picking her up from behind and twirling her roughly. The girl tucks in her feet, tilts back her head, and shrieks giddily, “Yo, who the fuck is this? Who the fuck is grabbin’ me?” A male teacher with a buzz cut and the build of a wrestler claps sharply. “Enough. Second period. Move.” The boy drops the girl, and the two bounce away, laughing down the hall.
I am here because the High School for Health Careers and Sciences, one of several small schools in what was once a single large high school in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, has purchased Kaplan’s SAT Advantage program, an abbreviated version of the SAT prep course offered by the testing company at any of its 150 centers nationwide. (“Higher test scores guaranteed or your money back.”) As one of Kaplan’s roving “coaches,” I will spend the day helping math and English teachers kick off the test-taking course by modeling the “Kaplan method” for their classes. Depending on the number of students it serves, a Kaplan program like this can cost a school well into the tens of thousands of dollars. For my efforts each day, which cannot exceed six hours of instruction, I will receive a fee of $295. At this rate, a full school year’s pay would exceed a starting teacher’s salary by more than $10,000.
I glance down at the schedule that Kaplan’s “implementation” team emailed me a few days before. “8:55, Semidey. Room 320.” Disorientation is an unavoidable part of the job. In general, I don’t know the physical layout of the schools I parachute into. I don’t know whether Semidey is a Mr. or a Ms. I don’t know this teacher’s students or whether he or she already uses some kind of test-prep curriculum in the classroom. I don’t even know how “Semidey” is pronounced. Although Kaplan’s assignment sheets include school contact numbers, coaches are instructed not to call ahead; if we cannot resist this urge, we have been told not to expect busy teachers to talk to us. Rather, Kaplan coaches are taught to handle the strangeness of each new workplace by falling back on their highly scripted lessons and by quickly identifying school faculty as one of several possible archetypes; e.g., whether they are “trailblazers” within their schools or dreaded “saboteurs.”
 Kaplan’s handbook for coaches suggests that saboteurs be dealt with in a counterintuitive, Sun Tzu-esque way: by keeping them “on the inside where they can be watched rather than on the outside where they can cause trouble without it being detected until their effects are felt.”
Inside room 320 a young woman with long dark hair and olive skin is studying papers spread across a long science-demonstration table. Definitely Ms. Semidey. The room looks just big enough to seat fifteen comfortably but includes chairs for twenty-five or thirty, with desks facing one another in configurations of four or five, filling up almost all the floor space. I still have a few moments before the bell, so I walk down the hall to fill my water bottle at the drinking fountain. No water comes out.
I pause in the hallway at a bulletin board fringed with red-white-and-blue bunting and featuring a picture of an exploding ship. The vessel is the U.S.S. Maine, and tiny crewmembers are being thrown hither and yon by the blast. Of the several essays stapled around this image, the top grade has been awarded to a paper inscribed in blunt pencil by a student named Zeeshan Pervaiz. In what is otherwise a sober reflection on the Spanish-American War, one of Zeeshan’s paragraphs, focusing on the media, strikes a more strident tone. “The practice was called ‘yellow journalism.’ It was called yellow journalism because the materials used to make the newspaper were basically garbage and the odds of it being true were the odds of the Knicks going to the playoffs: bullshit.” His history teacher has written along the margin in red ink: “Avoid expletives. Also, the stories had an element of truth.”
I return to Ms. Semidey’s class, my water bottle empty. Most of the students have filed in but few have found their seats. The student population of Health Careers is 90 percent Hispanic and 8 percent black, and the twenty-five students milling about fairly accurately reflect these proportions. “Ms. Seh-MY-dee?” I say softly, trying to get her attention, sure that I’ve butchered the name. She looks up from her papers, startled. She smiles. She is very pretty, in her mid- twenties, with large brown eyes and full lips colored in bright red.
“Yes. It’s Seh-meh-DAY.” Introducing myself, I say that I’m from Kaplan and here to “demo” the first lesson from the SAT materials. “No,” she says emphatically. The smile has faded. She explains that she is supposed to be observed by the assistant principal this period, that the observation is part of her ongoing certification. I look down stupidly at my schedule.
I understand her anxiety. Just a few years earlier, I was a rookie teacher in a New York City public school, struggling to manage my classes while working toward a teaching license. I also know that many teachers equate the presence of test-prep coaches like me with the more insidious aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act. Because Health Careers has been able to meet certain testing benchmarks, it hasn’t been required under the law to purchase test-tutoring services from outside providers like Kaplan. But nearly 90 percent of its student body falls below the federal poverty level, and the school’s principal likely decided to use a chunk of Health Careers’ NCLB low-income-schools funding to pay for our test-prep materials. (Kaplan’s SAT program is one of an array of test-prep courses that the company is contracted to “deliver” in schools nationwide. In New York City, Kaplan provides NCLB- mandated tutoring for the high school Regents exams and the subject exams administered to students in the third through eighth grades.) Many educators argue that the gains from prep courses are negligible and the programs themselves ultimately harmful, since they drain precious funds and class time. A recent Chicago Public Schools study examining student performance on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills found “little difference between tutored students and those who were eligible but did not receive tutoring.” The price tag for supplemental tutoring in Chicago, which 60,000 students received in the 2004–2005 school year: $50 million. Teachers also are aware that Kaplan’s presence will continue to be felt long after its coaches have moved on: completion of the thirty-six-lesson SAT Advantage program, which includes three abbreviated tests and one full-length practice exam, requires a full forty hours of instruction time.
 And to say there is room for academic improvement at the school is a vast understatement. Only 58 percent of its students graduate in four years. Of all graduates, 41 percent leave with a full “Regents diploma,” which is conferred if a student scores 65 percent or higher on five subject-proficiency exams. A mere 3 percent of Health Careers’ students graduate with an “advanced” diploma, which can be earned if they take three additional Regents exams and an increased credit load. The state average is 36 percent.
 When I emailed my Kaplan supervisor, Katy Shannon, to find out if the company had any stats showing the effectiveness of its test-prep work in schools, she said that they did have someone working to collect that data but couldn’t show me anything at that time. “It is difficult to do,” she wrote, “because we sell the program to a school and it is up to them to maintain fidelity, which doesn’t always happen, therefore that data tends to be unreliable.”
I tell Ms. Semidey I can teach the class tomorrow, since I’m scheduled to be in the school for two days. A little smile returns to her lips. “I’ve worked my ass off on this lesson,” she says. As I turn to leave, I am met by a small, perky woman. “Are you Jeremy?” she asks. It is the assistant principal, Ms. Campeas. She listens as I explain the conflict and the proposed resolution. “No,” she says. “This is Kaplan day. We will do the observation another day.” She calls Ms. Semidey over and firmly tells her the same.
By the time Ms. Campeas has issued her decree, class has been in session for five minutes. I quickly distribute Kaplan workbooks to the students. I toss one Frisbee-style to a student whose corner desk is so thoroughly barricaded I cannot reach him. With a little sideways lurch, I wriggle between the groups of desks into the small hollow that seems to be the room’s dramatic center point. Students observe me quizzically (though some must look over their shoulders or turn around completely to do so). One rangy boy slumped heavily in his chair notices the Kaplan logo on the book, covers his face with long-fingered hands, and announces, “Not this again. Not Kaplan. I hate this shit.” Ms. Semidey stands between the science table and the chalkboard at the front of the room, a pair of scissors gripped tightly in her hand. Her Kaplan teacher’s manual lies unopened on the table before her.
Over the past nine years, I have worked on and off for Kaplan in numerous capacities. My first job with the company came soon after college, when I traveled to the manors of Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, offering their university-bound residents tips on ways to boost Board scores. In 2004, after two years of teaching biology at an alternative public high school in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, I joined Kaplan again. I was dispatched to several of New York’s worst- performing and most dysfunctional high schools—William Howard Taft, Jane Addams, Evander Childs. My job, ostensibly, was to help students pass the New York State Regents exams. A few days a week, three or four of the strongest students in each school would leave their classes, where they were stabilizing forces, and attend my mini-workshops of packaged prep lessons. Although they seemed to enjoy the exercises, these kids were already more than capable of passing their exams with high scores. At Taft, I was placed in a room with juvenile offenders and nineteen-year-old sophomores. “Just keep them in the classroom,” a science teacher instructed me. “That is your job.” A police officer was stationed outside the door, in case things got rough. Things never did. But Kaplan’s test-prep manual offered little that these wayward youths could use.
I began my current stint last September. I was eager to return to the classroom, where I felt I might be able to do something meaningful. But my wife had been negotiating a job transfer to another state for the better part of the previous year, and I didn’t want to commit to a school I quickly would have to leave. So I settled for the stopgap work as an ancillary. With Kaplan, I knew at least that there would be none of the duties outside the classroom that comes with being a full-time teacher: no grading papers, calling parents, ordering supplies, or attending meetings. I also was curious to find out how the company had changed in recent years. No Child Left Behind had opened up new vistas of opportunity for testing companies, and I had heard that Kaplan had charged forward by radically expanding its services within schools.
Although hailed by its advocates as a step toward institutional accountability and full student proficiency, No Child Left Behind is, at its core, a highly punitive act. Ratified in 2002, the legislation mandates that states create a system of tests and other academic indicators that measure whether students meet “the minimum level of proficiency.” Schools that repeatedly fail to meet these benchmarks can be closed, taken over by private corporations, or restructured. Schools with high-poverty populations that receive federal aid (known as Title I funds) and fail for three straight years to demonstrate “progress” toward full proficiency are required to spend up to 20 percent of this federal money on tutoring or transportation costs for students who choose to transfer out of their current school. In New York City, the transfer option is derided by critics as a hollow provision, since other city schools generally are no better and successful ones are already oversubscribed. Thus, failing students become trapped in a foundering system, and the schools where students land en masse are left to carry out the test-heavy requirements of NCLB. For the New York schools “in need of improvement,” this means preparing students—many of whom are utterly lacking in basic academic skills and subject knowledge—to pass a battery of standardized exams. Toward this end, it also means paying money to outside entities (often private companies such as Kaplan, the Princeton Review, and Newton Learning) up to $2,000 per student for courses focused not on improving content knowledge or on intensive educational counseling but on strategies for a “particular testing task.” (The total annual government expenditure per student in New York City is $15,000.)
 New York City’s handful of high-performing high schools, like Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, and Stuyvesant, require that students pass rigorous entrance exams and navigate a complicated enrollment process. Several of the city’s middle schools with gifted and talented programs also require testing. Not surprisingly, Kaplan and other testing companies offer prep courses for all these entrance exams.
The failure of schools serving low-income students has been a windfall for the testing industry. Title I funds earmarked for test tutoring increased by 45 percent during the first four years of NCLB, from $1.75 billion in 2001 to $2.55 billion in 2005. With the ever growing stream of funding flowing through the nation’s schools, the number of supplemental-service providers nationwide has exploded. In New York City, the number of providers approved by the state’s department of education jumped from forty-seven in 2002–2003, the first full school year of NCLB, to 202 today. To capitalize on these new revenue opportunities, Kaplan has acquired Achieva, a provider of online course materials to schools, and SpellRead, a national “reading-intervention” company. In 2003, Kaplan hired former N.Y.C. Chancellor of Education Harold Levy as an executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2006 relocated its headquarters for Kaplan K12, the division of the company that works in schools, from Midtown Manhattan to luxury offices downtown. According to Crain’s, the company made the move “to be closer to the New York City Department of Education.”
Not wanting to be limited in its offerings to schools, Kaplan recently entered the business of selling content-based lesson plans. Although the shift from testing strategies to classroom content is a departure for Kaplan, the company sees little difference between the two. Earlier this spring, I designed a genetics class for Kaplan’s “Lesson Bank,” an online repository of short lessons that, for a fee, teachers can download in PDF form. As writers of the curriculum, we were repeatedly told that the materials had to provide hassle-free prep for teachers. When I submitted a first draft of a high school lesson on Mendelian genetics, the Kaplan staffer overseeing production, Tyler DeWitt, told me it was too complex. “We’re really trying to almost script lessons,” DeWitt wrote via email, “so that teachers who may be new or not the greatest (or smartest) teachers in the world can follow the ‘script’ and still give a great lesson.” For $35 an hour, I obliged and watered down the material, removing all “advanced” content points, such as co-dominance and pleiotropy (though these were subjects that I covered in the basic biology classes I taught a couple of years earlier).
Kaplan’s increased workload has produced some remarkable results, though not necessarily in the classroom. The company’s revenues have jumped from $354 million in 2000 to more than $2 billion today, and it is now the most profitable subsidiary of its parent, The Washington Post Company, accounting for almost half of the conglomerate’s income. More telling are the margins: in 2003, Kaplan posted a loss of $11.7 million; in 2007, the company reported a $149 million profit. Because the revenues from Kaplan K12 are folded into the test-prep operations, it is impossible to say with precision how much of the company’s income comes from Title I funds.
 In New York City schools, Kaplan contracts and purchase orders (which run to over 300 pages on the city’s “Vendex” contract database) have totaled $73 million since 1999, with the overwhelming number of these contracts awarded to the company after the passage of NCLB. (Princeton Review, Kaplan’s chief rival, has taken in $50 million in city contracts since 2005, when its Vendex records begin.)
 Kaplan’s communications director, Carina Wong, said the company’s recent growth has come largely in the area of higher education. “I can’t provide specific numbers,” she wrote in an email. “But NCLB has not been the driver of Kaplan’s rapid expansion.”
The K12 division’s fiscal success in public education, a realm long seen as resistant to profitability, has added a sense of swagger to Kaplan’s corporate culture. The company now considers itself more than a waypoint for the college-bound and the budding professional. During training, coaches are often reminded that Kaplan’s mission transcends the dysfunction and malaise that we’re told we will find in failing schools. “Good schools succeed for many reasons, but bad schools fail for all the same ones” is repeated like a mantra in these sessions. Shannon Bryant, Kaplan’s academic director, who peppers his speech liberally with SAT words, prefers the prefix “über-” in describing our work. At training pep talks and orientations, he utters phrases like: we go into the school, we’ve got to maintain an image of übercompetence,” or, “Since many of you are young and intelligent, many [students] will see you as übercool. It’s important to remember to keep a safe distance, to remain überprofessional. . . . Let them know you could be working toward your Ph.D. But you’re not. You’re here teaching them.”
The assignments given to Kaplan coaches are doled out largely based on experience—and responsiveness. In order to get work with some frequency, coaches must stay in constant contact with Kaplan’s implementation staff and confirm assignments almost immediately. The work is also tied to the ebb and flow of the school year. In the early fall, when the sales team is busy pitching its services to principals and most schools have yet to decide how to integrate these (often mandated) materials into daily operations, coaches frequently find themselves leading professional-development seminars. The “P.D.” meetings are intended to give teachers a thorough tutorial in the Kaplan materials, including an overview of lesson structure, key strategies, and, most important, how the curriculum should be taught.
One of my first P.D. assignments was at Harry S. Truman, a high school beside the sprawling towers of Co-op City, in the Bronx. I was supposed to talk up the merits of Kaplan’s SAT Advantage to the school’s math department. But early in the delivery of my P.D. script, I was cut off after I asked the teachers what the SAT was designed to do. It was a lame question, I admit, but the vehemence it unleashed surprised me. “It’s designed to keep people in their places,” a teacher shouted from the back of the room. “It serves the status quo.” There were approving snickers. “Are you saying there are things in the Kaplan prep book we aren’t already doing with our classes?” asked a teacher who began to rise threateningly from his seat. (Although I saw other indications of this antagonism at Truman—e.g., in a flyer tacked up in the main office that announced a meeting with the headline students corporations first—this last teacher’s hostility came from a different source. He had worked for the Princeton Review. During a short break in my presentation, he apologized for seeming upset. “It’s not you,” he said. “But Kaplan’s materials are weak compared to Princeton’s.”)
I agreed with many of the standard criticisms leveled against Kaplan and the other for-profit companies peddling test-prep methods in schools. Because of an ill-conceived and poorly executed federal policy, they were able to function like so many private contractors operating amid chaos and disarray—benefiting from the crisis but doing nothing to change the nature of the problem. Yet as I came under attack at Truman, I found Kaplan’s training reflexively surging into my chest. We had been told in practice seminars to diffuse criticism by acknowledging complaints and then responding with an array of talking points intended to play on teachers’ anxiety over metrics and accountability. As a kind of disclaimer, we were to emphasize our transient and limited role in schools: We, Kaplan, could not ultimately be held accountable for whatever inadequate form of instruction was taking place at the school. Other seasoned presenters I had been required to observe used more creative and provocative methods to evade criticism. One Kaplan representative, a longtime teacher in New York City public schools, invoked the renegade geneticist and scientific entrepreneur J. Craig Venter as a way to reconcile the seemingly contradictory ideas of profit and public service. At the end of his presentation, he held up Venter’s autobiography, A Life Decoded, and urged teachers to get their hands on a copy.
“You guys are doing a great job in your classes,” I said calmly to the math teachers assembled before me. “But this book will help you translate the content and help your students bridge that knowledge-performance gap.” To another teacher who said he already taught SAT problems in his class, I asked if he used a “consistent methodology.” Do you teach your kids ways to seek out the right answer without actually knowing the answer? Do you use the results of diagnostic exams to customize your lesson plans? Do you have them practice in real test conditions? Do you track student progress in a uniform way? Is that data centralized and easily accessible to the entire staff?
A solemn, gray-haired teacher said, “with all due respect,” that the test prepping would surely take away from his already limited teaching time. Another teacher, a large stack of papers piled in front of her, cut him short. “I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” she said. “We can just pick and choose lessons, exercises, and questions from the book. We can work it in.”
“We’re not ‘just working it in,’” the head of the math department, Ms. DeSimone, said with finality. “We’re supposed to be teaching SAT curriculum once a week. We didn’t pay all this money for this program for it not to be done right.”
The math faculty of Truman High School was no easy mark. A tough sell. But it didn’t matter. They were already owners.
“Customization” and the educationally in vogue “differentiation” are two of Kaplan’s professed guiding principles. But Kaplan’s boilerplate assignment sheets and teaching materials hardly reflect the particulars of each of its customers. For Kaplan coaches, entering a New York City public school for the first time is like the first day on a job. Without data, perspective, or familiarity, you quickly try to pick up on the culture of the place, to see beyond the oppressive similarities in the buildings—the uniform concrete corridors, the unsynchronized clocks, the scuffed linoleum and dented steel doors, the relentless echo. Indeed, the shows of police force and the prisonlike design elements, now nearly ubiquitous in underserved schools, often hide redeeming aesthetic qualities and important pieces of a school’s past. Once you pass through the security checkpoint that dominates George Washington High’s entryway, the architectural grace and history of the school suddenly come into relief. Two staircases run in torqued parabolas along the edges of the building’s grand atrium. Overhead, a balcony encircles the perimeter; from the balcony hangs a full-length oil painting of George Washington. The Battle of Fort Washington, a major defeat suffered by the American Continental Army in 1776, played out not far from here. The atrium also houses a gallery of the school’s famous alumni: Alan Greenspan, Jacob Javits, Henry Kissinger, Harry Belafonte, the baseball great Rod Carew. Alongside the photograph of Kissinger is a typewritten letter in which the former secretary of state recounts the importance the school held in his early life as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Although he regrets that he must decline the invitation to attend his induction on the school’s of fame,” Kissinger does offer, in absentia, words of encouragement to his G.W. successors: “In America, everything is possible. It’s up to you.”
A clearer understanding of a school also allows you to make adjustments to your lessons and teaching style. A school’s stairwells, for instance, tell you whether you’ll be spending the day in a safe or a dangerous place, whether the staff has ceded the margins to students. When students notice a teacher in these annexed spaces, their faces sometimes slacken to suggest that a tacitly agreed upon line, an unspoken boundary, has been crossed. At Wadleigh High School in Harlem, where I worked in March, I stumbled onto a group of students tagging the stairway walls. Lookouts were positioned on the top and bottom landings. I passed the sentries unnoticed and saw a young man in a Yankees cap straining toward the ceiling with a bright-green marker. “Oh shit,”the boy in the ball cap said, hiding the cucumber-sized marker behind his back. “Why didn’t you yell ‘teacher’?” he scolded his friends. I passed through a door into the lobby, where a police officer sat reading a newspaper. I told him what I had seen. He lifted his eyes heavily from the paper but did not budge from his seat.
Another place to learn about the day-to-day life of a school is the teachers’ lounge. Kaplan coaches are often sent here during downtime, or as they wait to “debrief” teachers on the day’s lessons. These mandated discussions give faculty members more cause to evade test-prep interlopers, but this isolation does bestow on coaches a certain invisibility, and you sometimes find yourself privy to conversations not meant for your ears. At Health Careers, for example, I overheard a teacher and an aide discuss a student who had recently become a “no-show.”
“Enrique has been missing class and sleeping when he’s here.”
“I’ve so noticed that too.”
“The kids tell me he’s joined a gang. I’ve been asking around.”
“A gang? He never seemed like the type.”
“I know. But they say he got kicked out because he missed a chapter meeting. So that’s why he’s been back in school lately.”
“Gangs have chapter meetings?”
“Well, you know what I mean. I mean he’s too lazy to even be in a gang.”
Some staff members are welcoming and go out of their way to present to itinerants like me the largely hidden idiosyncrasies of a school. As I waited one day to speak with Health Careers’ English faculty about “weaving” forty hours of Kaplan SAT instruction into their busy, test-laden, end-of-year schedules, Zev Shanken, an English teacher, directed my attention to the lounge’s large pane window. The window offered a spectacular view of the Harlem River, the bare limbs of Inwood Hill Park, the gray-blue mesa of the Palisades. He pointed to the school’s athletic fields, tucked into a small elbow of land at the edge of the cliffs. On this very field, Shanken declaimed, Manny Ramirez, the Boston Red Sox slugger, perfected his opposite-field stroke. The baseball diamond sits inside a rectangular, high-fenced enclosure that runs into a 90-degree corner at dead center. A ball hit to center would probably have to travel some 500 feet to leave the field, but to right field the fence appears to be no more than 250 feet from home plate.
“Kids ask me why Manny isn’t up on the wall of fame with Greenspan, Kissinger, and Javits,” Shanken said. “Some say it’s discrimination. I tell them no. The reason Manny isn’t up there is because Manny didn’t graduate. You’ve got to have a diploma to get on the wall.”
Since a day’s coaching brings me a wage that exceeds that of all but the most senior teachers, schools do not want to pay Kaplan’s hefty fees if they are not going to get an “honest” day’s teaching out of it. But occasionally teachers do not feel comfortable turning over their classes to strangers and say that they’d prefer to teach the test materials themselves. When this happens, Kaplan coaches watch and take notes on a teacher’s performance and then, later in the day, offer feedback on how the teacher utilized the Kaplan materials. The company calls this “spotting.”
At Truman High School, in April, I find myself spotting a Mr. Pacella. Mr. Pacella is a veteran of the Truman math department and a man of imposing stature, with delicate features set on a meaty swath of face. When I arrive at his classroom, he is using his girth to push two students out the door, much as a sumo wrestler forces an opponent off a mat. The two male students, slender as reeds and draped in baggy clothes, are knocked backward into the hall. They protest loudly that someone in the room has something that belongs to them. Mr. Pacella simply holds his palms flat toward them, closes his eyes, and silently shakes his head and hands. I maneuver between the students and introduce myself. Mr. Pacella tells me he has just passed out the Kaplan workbooks. But when I say I can demo a lesson, he declines the offer. “I’m okay on the teaching,” he says. “Have a seat wherever you’d like.” Several students huddle around each of the room’s trapezoidal desks. Any vacant space is covered by backpacks, soft drinks, piles of ragged textbooks. I take a seat atop the radiator, beside a window overlooking the New England Thruway.
By today’s standards in New York, Truman is massive. With an enrollment hovering around 3,000, it is one of the city’s few remaining “intact” high schools. For most of the teachers I spoke with there, this is a source of pride. Truman is big and the staff doesn’t want to see the school shattered into a babel of small academies. Hassan Laaroussi, a dean there, tells me that the school’s no-nonsense principal, Sana Nasser, is able to maintain order in such a crowded school through the use of a new surveillance network. When a student is caught breaking a rule, Principal Nasser will sit the offender in front of the video machine. “She’ll cue it up right to the spot,” Laaroussi says. “She can even zoom in. Then she’ll ask, ‘Is that you?’ There’s no arguing with the tape. If the kid tries to deny it, it’s over. He’s out.”
From the show of force at the beginning of the period, I expect Mr. Pacella’s class to be a regimented, disciplined place. But this is not the case. The room is loud. Students wander about. One student wearing large headphones stares into a corner, his head moving in little roosterlike stabs. At another table, a girl extracts bright-pink lip gloss from a plastic cylinder and dabs it repeatedly on her lips. A paper plate pasted over the classroom’s clock displays the scrawled phrase it is now. Mr. Pacella paces around the room, aggressively urging students to get going on “Page V, page Roman numeral five, page VEE!” Page V contains a short introductory quiz approximating the structure of the SAT math section. Despite his entreaties, few students have opened their books.
A female student who seems eager to get to work asks Mr. Pacella why they are using this book and not the normal math book. “We’re not learning about math today,” he says, his voice oozing sarcasm. “We’re learning about how to take a test.” Another student says she has been working with the Kaplan SAT book in her English class for the past two months. Mr. Pacella tells the girl to rephrase her statement in the form of a question. She pauses to reflect and then tries again. “So why are we just getting around to it now?” “Because it’s just the way things have worked out,” her teacher says.
After Mr. Pacella instructs his students to begin the introductory quiz, the class continues to buzz with conversation and nervous energy. A girl in tight jeans rises to a half-crouch and pleads with her classmates to be silent. “Everybody, quiet. Listen up. We’ve got a visitor!” she says, holding out an upturned palm toward me. No one appears to have noticed her seemingly heartfelt plea. A boy in the front row raises his hand and asks if he can use a calculator. The boy’s name is Ryan, and throughout the period a girl named Antoinette seated directly behind him has been using the thin handle of a comb to meticulously separate his hair into dozens of neatly spaced rows. Mr. Pacella replies dryly to Ryan’s question. He says he doesn’t have any more calculators because Ryan has “stolen” most of them. “How many of my calculators do you have at home now, Ryan?” Ryan smiles. “I don’t know, four or five.”
Mr. Pacella begins to read out the answers and scripted explanations, verbatim, from the next page of the workbook. “Wow, so did you hear that, class?” he says. “You get a point for a correct answer, you lose a quarter point for an incorrect answer, and you don’t lose anything for skipping.” By this time, Antoinette has nearly finished twisting Ryan’s hair into tight cornrows. The pair’s relationship appears to be symbiotic and is quite something to behold (not least for the fact that it is playing out in the very front of the classroom). As Antoinette fluffs, picks, and sculpts, Ryan dutifully copies the answers into his, and Antoinette’s, book.
Twenty minutes into class, and I begin to doubt whether Mr. Pacella will ever gain control. But then with the authority that experienced teachers can instantly summon—through a shift in tone, the light touch of a hand on the shoulder, a readjustment of posture—he signals to the class that it is time to pay attention. He ambles calmly to a chalkboard in the corner of the room. He plucks up a piece of chalk in his hands and pauses a moment, shaking it like dice. The class is rapt. I’m sure he’s working toward something big. Then I notice what’s already written on the board behind him: “Reasons Why Ryan Is Failing.” He begins to form a list beneath the header:
- Ryan only cares about his hair.
- Ryan is a constant distraction to Antoinette.
The classroom erupts in laughter.
When I catch up with Mr. Pacella later on in the day, for my required debriefing, he is seated at a small desk in the hallway, presumably on hall patrol. He is reading a self-help hardcover. I ask how he thinks the lesson went. “Okay. I’ve worked with Kaplan’s materials before,” he says. I can tell he wants to get back to his book.
“Yeah,” I say. “The first lesson is always a little rough.”
Lunch can be an especially solitary time for a Kaplan coach. So when Zev Shanken asks if I’d like to join him at a place near George Washington called Isabella, I happily agree. Since arriving at the school, in fact, I’ve heard teachers speak favorably, almost fawningly, about this Isabella. “Should we meet over at Isabella?” “Are we headed to Isabella for lunch?” I guess that it must be some local Washington Heights treasure, a low-key Dominican café or gem of a diner. I’m excited.
We pass through the security checkpoint and into the gray March afternoon. But instead of walking the half block to St. Nicholas Avenue, where there are a host of Latin eateries, Mr. Shanken makes a hard left and stops at the building next door to the school. Isabella is the sixteen-story nursing home that abuts George Washington. We enter and pick up little green clip-on tags that lie like potpourri in a small basket at the security desk. We move down the hallway toward the cafeteria, past a group of wheelchair-bound residents huddled beneath a television. “This place is a nice change of pace,” says Shanken, smiling at a wisp of a woman shuffling up the corridor with the help of a walker. Many of Health Careers’ teachers come here. Apparently the geriatric balm of Isabella is a remedy for the adolescent unrest of the school day. “Mr. Samuels, the math teacher you’ll be working with tomorrow, said he’d be up here too. I’ll introduce you.” When we get to the cafeteria, Samuels and a group of colleagues are seated around a table eating sandwiches and iceberg-lettuce salads from Styrofoam bowls. They look down at my Kaplan-stenciled bag and offer strained smiles. By the time Shanken and I make it back from the buffet line, they have gone.
Mr. Shanken is a compelling storyteller and a great lover of words. He talks excitedly about vocabulary-building exercises that use etymology, common roots, and associations. He says his Spanish-speaking students often get tripped up in these exercises by misleading roots or similar sounding words with a figurative component that is lost in translation. One example, he says, is the word “obscure.” “Oscuro in Spanish means ‘dark.’ But ‘obscure’ means ‘hard to see’ or ‘uncertain,’” says Shanken.
This appreciation of language has also led Shanken to work as a poet, an editor of a literary magazine, a freelance writer, and a journalist. His writing has found its way into various New York–based publications, including community newspapers like The Villager and the Westsider and erotic magazines like Pillow Talk and Variations. “It was great money,” he says of the literary porn. “It’s really no different from any other kind of writing. Apart from the fact that it’s very hard to write an original story about sex.”
Although I find it a little surreal to be discussing erotica over lunch at a nursing home, I press ahead and ask him how assignments come down. Are there traditional pitches, or do you just hack something out and send it in? He says once you have a good working relationship with your editors, stories are often solicited by theme. “An editor you’ve worked with in the past might say, ‘We need 1,200 words in a couple of days. Something really raunchy on a topic like soft-cock fucking or gerontophilia.’”
“Gerontophilia?” I ask. He looks around the room theatrically.
“Love of the elderly.”
In mid-May, as the school year neared its end, I received an assignment I had long sought: a month-long Regents prep course for “non- traditional” students. I was told that I was selected for the job—leading the prep for the biology Regents exam—because I ranked among Kaplan K12’s best teachers. Shortly after I accepted, however, Lauren Phillips, a Kaplan coordinator, expressed her relief in an email, writing that she was “afraid she was going to have to get on the phone and start begging folks.” Nevertheless, I saw the work as a sort of promotion, a hard-earned graduation back to the world of real teaching. Unlike my previous assignments, with this one Ihave a class of my own. I knew the students were in desperate need of guidance. Many of them had full-time jobs, children of their own, or other adult responsibilities that kept them from attending school during the day. And I believed I would now have enough time to do some actual good. Not only would I be able to learn my students’ names for the first time this year but I’d have the chance to gauge and cater to their individual academic strengths and weaknesses. Although I would be teaching Kaplan’s thirty-six- lesson prep course exclusively, I’d have a measure of control. Since there was no chance of completing the whole course book in the time allotted, I would decide what should be included and what excised. I would also be paid nearly $1,800 to teach the nine hour-and-a-half classes, an astonishing $130 for each hour of my coaching time.
The course was being held after the school day at John F. Kennedy, a high school located in a northwestern Bronx neighborhood called Spuyten Duyvil. Twenty minutes before the first class there, we are told in a brief orientation that our students are between seventeen and twenty-one years old. Some need only to pass the Regents exam to graduate; others have accumulated barely enough credits to be sophomores and juniors. All of the students assigned to my class have failed—several of them on multiple occasions—the Living Environment Regents exam, which New York State’s students typically take in ninth grade. The challenges pile up once class begins. Of the thirteen students signed up for my biology prep, four show up. In a class taught by one of my colleagues that evening, a tutorial for the U.S. History & Government Regents exam, just one of twenty students is present. So by the first critical measure of how many students we will potentially be able to help, we have failed before we have even begun. As troubling as the absence rate, however, is that not one of the students who is supposed to be in my class is fluent in English. This vital piece of information—that we will be working not with over-aged and under-credited students but with over-aged under-credited ESL students—has somehow slipped beneath the notice of the administrative bodies overseeing the program.
The attendance for the second class is better: six students turn up. All arrive seven minutes late, strolling in unhurriedly. I suppose I understand: When it has taken five years to accumulate the credit equivalency of a sophomore, what’s the point of rushing? We begin with an assignment designed to show students that Regents questions often contain bloated diction, and that very few of the words in the prompt are necessary to arrive successfully at an answer. But with the literacy limitations of the group, I find that getting the students merely to read the questions, let alone read them aloud, is a nearly impossible task. No one volunteers, and my attempts to nominate readers are met with firm resistance. So I fill the void with my own voice. I read the questions to them, knowing that such coddling will do them no good on test day.
As we move into the lesson, we encounter a question about the adaptation of species to their ecosystems. I ask students what the term “ecosystem” means. They have become more comfortable and have begun to talk to one another in Spanish when things get difficult. Yinette, a student who dresses like she might be headed to a nightclub after class, utters the word “ecosistema.” She and the rest of the group seem to understand. I point out the window at the trees along the steep hills rising from the narrow strait, linking the Hudson and the Harlem rivers, that is the neighborhood’s namesake, the “spitting devil.” I ask what they remember about how these trees looked a few months ago. A pony-tailed student named Pedro says they didn’t have leaves. “Now think about tropical plants you have seen in the Caribbean,” I say. “What do those plants look like in the middle of winter?”“The ones in the Dominican Republic still got leaves,” Pedro answers again. “They got flowers, and some even got fruits hanging down.” This is good, I’m thinking. The lesson has transcended a simple review of basic ecology. It has become an exercise in the logical progression of thought.
I say that the Regents will probably ask something like: “How are these plants adapted to their ecosystems?”
“Adapted?” asks a girl named Cynthia.
“Yes, adapted. You know this,” I say, but I can see that they do not. “What does ‘adaptation’ mean? Adapcion,” I try in an awful Spanish. Nothing. I attempt a different tack. “We said that the plants in New York drop their leaves and the ones in the D.R. do not.” Nods. “We said that this is because it gets cold here and it does not get so cold there. Right?” More nods. “So what does this tell us about how these plants are ‘adapted’?”
Cynthia’s eyes widen. As if channeling a biology textbook, she says, “The plants in D.R. are adapted to the warm weather and the ones here are adapted to the cold.” Right. And what are the adaptations? “The leaves,” she says, trying to project a sense of toughness, as if this whole tangled, exhausting effort to spit out a single sentence were beneath her.
A boy named Jaime lifts the brim of his Cardinals ball cap and looks up from his paper: “Say that again.”
The remainder of the program at Kennedy moves in similar fits and starts—of tidal wanderings, of ever more apparent gaps in language, knowledge, and continuity. The average attendance for my class is three students. In the eighth of nine sessions, the temperature reaches 97 degrees and the humidity is off the charts. Only one student comes, Yinette, who travels an hour by subway from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yinette is nineteen, and she has told me that she wants to be a flight attendant. The biology Regents is the last exam she must pass, she says, to graduate from high school and get into the community college where she can begin training for the job.
Yinette sits down and immediately pulls out a transparent folder filled with copies of past Regents exams. “Can you help me on these?” she asks eagerly. There is no air-conditioning. In the corner of the room a large fan on a steel pedestal whirs like the prop of a Cessna, buoying little flecks of dust and paper that float through the room on slow currents. Some of the exams she has scattered over the desk are in Spanish and some are in English. Her looping handwriting can be seen on most of the visible pages. I decide to overlook Kaplan’s policy of never deviating from the teaching script, which, with the slow progress till now, dictates that I conduct an “accelerated” review of two of the course book’s units.
We begin with a problem that references a cryptic flow chart of complementary and inverse processes of photosynthesis and cell respiration. The questions below the diagram are designed to test understanding of the inputs and outputs of these processes. These core concepts will probably surface in at least two or three different ways on the exam, so I’m heartened when Yinette shows that she knows this material. As she taps into her memory and recalls information gained at some indeterminate time in her past, she seems filled with optimism. “This is fun!” she says at one point.
We come to a problem about the functioning of insulin in the bloodstream. We work incrementally, reviewing information so that she can sufficiently answer the written responses.
“What is insulin?” I prod.
“How does it work?”
“Like a key, to unlock the cell.”
“Yes. So why does the cell need to be unlocked?”
“To let sugar in.”
“Why does sugar need to be in the cell?”
“To make energy.”
This feels almost like teaching. In all the other classes, I’ve pressed ahead in order to cover as much of the Kaplan material as possible, well aware that students hadn’t grasped the concepts presented. During this session with Yinette, there is real engagement. But too quickly the lesson is over. The electronic bell sounds; Yinette’s cell phone rings and rattles with new messages. “Thank you, Mr. Miller,” she says. We have one class remaining. “I’ll see you here on Wednesday, right?” I ask this because she has missed the previous two classes. Yinette says into the phone, “Lo siento. Lo siento. Lo siento.” Apparently I have already kept her too long.
At the final class, Yinette again is the only attendee. She has brought a few more retired Regents exams, and I do not protest when she asks if we can work on these instead of the Kap-lan manual. We review the tests together, but the openness and energy of the previous class have faded. Her recall of information has ceased. Tonight she seems to be operating in a mental shell, as if the idea is hardening that she will soon fail the Regents biology exam for the fifth time.
I find myself desperate. I can’t accept that I have not reached a single student in the program. Kaplan was being paid $1,200 per student (attending or not) for a job it knew from the outset it couldn’t complete. The money could have been used for an ESL or special- education teacher. Instead, I was receiving an entire day’s wage for each hour I sat in a nearly deserted classroom. “If you see the word ‘homeostasis’ in the answer choices,” I say to Yinette, “pick it. It is most likely the right answer.”Her eyes light up. This is the kind of teaching I loathe: the test fetishizing, the weasely code-breaking that begins when the hope of learning has evaporated. But what more, in this final hour, do I have to offer?
“So if I see that word, ‘homeostasis,’ it’s probably right?” asks Yinette.
“Probably,” I say and do not elaborate. As we move into the final section of the test, Latisha Hanson, the on-site Kaplan administrator, enters the room.
“Sorry to bother you,” she says. “But Lauren wanted me to remind you that we need to give the students the final diagnostic exam.” I look at her intensely, in hopes that I will pull her eyes magnetically down to the classroom empty save for one student, that she will acknowledge the tragic absurdity of her request. “We need to do it for record keeping,” Latisha says. “I’m sorry.” Then she places a couple of Scantron worksheets on the table. Yinette quietly tucks her practice Regents exams away.
The next forty-five minutes pass agonizingly. Several times Yinette asks me directly for information. What does UV stand for? What are the building blocks of a protein? What is a nucleotide? A week earlier, I would have refused to acknowledge such entreaties. But tonight I am a sieve, leaking weak encouragements and with them answers. At one point I interject, “I won’t be there on test day to give you this help.” Yinette says she knows, and then proceeds to ask me what the difference is between a heterotroph and an autotroph.
The clock reads 7:00, and I tell Yinette that it is time to stop writing. I say she needs to finish the question she is working on and hand in her answer sheet. Dog gedly, she continues. I repeat my request, and she looks up from her exam. She stops writing and hands me the Scantron. “I failed,” she says.
“You don’t know that.”
“No. I failed,” she says with jarring finality and rises to leave. She does not bother to retrieve her Kaplan workbook from the desk.
Nearly two months earlier, after I team-taught back-to-back SAT math prep classes at Harlem’s Wadleigh High, I found myself stuck for lunch and decided to eat downstairs in the school’s cafeteria. By the stairwell leading to the basement cafeteria were two stained-glass images of Goethe and Victor Hugo encased safely behind tough steel mesh. A tarnished plaque read, from the classes of 1907. The cafeteria itself was long and oppressively narrow, with small bench seats attached to foldout tables. The scene there was one of frenetic, centerless activity, of bodies moving and colliding in an elaborate and aggressive minuet. Two students were engaged in a sort of joust atop the bench seats, trying to throw each other off. A medley of mashed apples and oranges littered the floor. Students yelled to be heard over the yelling around them—an ever escalating feedback loop played out in a drab and unlovingly built echo chamber. The thump of basketballs from an outdoor court and the thrum of traffic added a sort of bass line to the tinny cacophony inside.
Jonathan Kozol writes of the “squalid feedings” that take place in these subterranean mess halls. He says that such conditions persist because of “a convenient defect of vision” and “are almost guaranteed to coarsen the mentalities of children and to manufacture restlessness and discontent.” Yet no laws mandate that additional funds go to improving these critical spaces. It’s perfectly understandable why rational adults don’t want to eat down here, and that afternoon I saw only one teacher, seated at the end of a row of foldout tables. When he saw my bag, he greeted me with a wordless nod. Apart from this teacher and the kitchen staff, one other adult, a female aide or assistant, was stationed at a little wooden table near the entrance. As if she were a small outcropping in a great river, students flowed around her. She hunched down over folded hands, her back to the current.
I stepped up to the lunch line and looked for something palatable. It was the typical school fare of processed chicken fingers and limp veggies steamed relentlessly into a weird gelatin. Behind the counter, a machine churned a pale slurry. I asked what was in the machine. “Smoothies!” the cook announced enthusiastically. In a small basket behind the counter were the smallest and waxiest apples I’d ever seen.
As I surveyed the grim offerings, a group from the class I had just taught slid in line next to me. “How’s it going, Mr. Miller?” It was a young man with a close-cropped stubble of hair, his dress-code tie neatly tucked behind a maroon cardigan. I was surprised that he remembered my name; I certainly didn’t know his or his friends’. During the previous period, their teacher, a Ms. Geraldino, allowed me to lead the lecture portion of the SAT prep but interjected occasionally to remind students of a recent lesson on factoring polynomials and of the importance of showing their work. At one moment, she stopped me entirely and separated the students into small groups so that they could illustrate the steps they had taken to arrive at their answers. Under the constraints of Kaplan’s routines of repetition and direct application, I tried to add pace to the lesson, and Ms. Geraldino and I proceeded to teach in different directions, offering students conflicting messages. Near the end of class, I announced to the students, “It’s not about the work you show. It’s about getting the right answer.” Ms. Geraldino, whose room was papered with complex algebraic equations, winced visibly.
The student said his name was Shawnell. He wondered whether I wanted to order something. His confident guidance made me feel like I had run into a Virgil of the Wadleigh High cafeteria. “What do you suggest?” I asked.
“Honestly? Nothing. It’s all really bad,” Shawnell said, shaking his head. “But I’d probably get an apple if I was you.” My thoughts exactly, though judging from the thick paste on the floor, I suspected that the apples made better projectiles than snacks. There were no registers, so I asked where I should go to pay.
“Pay? Nah. It doesn’t work like that. You don’t need to pay. It’s free.” Then my guide leaned over the counter. “Miss! Miss!” The lunch woman turned and smiled. “My teacher here, Mr. Miller, needs some apples,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Hello, Mr. Miller,” she said with a vibrancy completely out of line with her surroundings. Then she looked back at the boys. “So what’s Mr. Miller want?”
“He wants some apples. Not the ones that are all banged up. Not the mushy ones. Get him the good ones,” he said. The lunch woman carefully sifted through the pile, and when she came upon an acceptable fruit she laid it to the side. Shawnell and his friends peered over the counter, performing a sort of quality control. “Yeah. Yeah. That one looks good.”
She handed them to Shawnell, and he carefully placed them in my hand. Three perfect, tiny apples gleamed in my palm. “So are you going to be teaching us tomorrow?” he asked. “I like this SAT stuff.”
“No, I’m here only two days.” I replied. He nodded in quiet acknowledgment. He and his friends seemed to understand the arrangement. They had come across my type before.
“Good luck on the test in June,” I said. Then I stuffed the apples into my jacket pocket and ascended the stairs back into the world of adults.
More from Jeremy Miller:
Postcard — May 29, 2015, 10:30 am
Postcard — May 8, 2014, 8:00 am