TUSCALOOSA LIBERALS: In search of Central High’s senior class!

TUESDAY, MAY 6, 2014

Part 2—Hannah-Jones softens the blow: We the people should thank the gods for kids like D’Leisha Dent.

Dent is a student at Central High, one of Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s three public high schools. She’s president of her senior class. Last fall, she was homecoming queen.

Dent is a highly accomplished athlete, a three-time individual state champion in track. Most important:

Based on the recent profile of Dent by Nikole Hannah-Jones, D’Leisha Dent wants to do good and do well in the world. It sounds like she’s a superb young person, like many others in Tuscaloosa—white and black, city and county.

Hannah-Jones' lengthy report appears in The Atlantic. For background, see yesterday’s post.

There is one downside to this portrait. Dent doesn’t exactly “excel in school,” though Hannah-Jones makes that peculiar, feel-good claim near the end of her report, which runs more than 9900 words.

Before she does, she cues the violins and starts to build the pathos, offering this portrait of Central High and the “stigma” it bears. In this way, Hannah-Jones softens the blow before presenting Dent’s academic profile:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): [I]n many ways Central is like any other high school. It’s got its jocks, its nerds, its mean girls and band geeks. D’Leisha herself is the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player. But students and staff say most people see only one thing about Central: it’s all black. And that still bears a stigma...

The principal struggles to explain to students how the segregation they experience is any different from the old version simply because no law requires it. “It is hard, it is a tough conversation, and it is a conversation I don’t think we as adults want to have.”

Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling.
As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes the one downside to this superb young person—in at least four tries, she hasn’t scored well enough on the ACT to qualify for attention from a four-year college. But before we’re given that news, we get the pathos, as we’re told that Dent has achieved good grades in “tough honors coursework” at Central.

The word “stigma” is littered into the portrait, pleasing our lazy hearts.

Can we talk? This superb young person isn’t facing an empty mailbox because of a “stigma” attached to her school. D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person, isn’t getting approached by colleges because of her low ACT scores, which suggest that she possibly shouldn’t have been assigned “tough honors coursework” at all.

Finally, Hannah-Jones delivers the bad news. This news defines one part of our brutal American history. It helps define the size of one problem we still face moving forward.

That said, Hannah-Jones has filled our heads with many distractions and misdirections before she delivers this unwelcome news about a superlative kid:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly): She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.

“My biggest fear right now is the ACT,” D’Leisha said. “I don’t have a good score. It’s been on my mind a lot.” She described an ACT study session she’d attended last summer at a community college. “We were with kids from Northridge, and they knew things we didn’t know,” she said. “They had done things we hadn’t done.”

Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”


Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16. So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again. She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point.
That passage describes a series of failures. On its surface, it describes a failure by Dent’s teachers and counselors, who assume she knows what she’s doing with respect to her pursuit of college.

Beneath the surface, it describes at least two other failures. It describes an apparent failure by Melissa Dent, D’Leisha Dent’s mother, a university graduate who ought to be helping her child with this daunting task.

In our view, it also describes a failure by Hannah-Jones, who has spent many thousands of words filling the heads of liberal and mainstream readers with a succession of feel-good themes before she drops this information at the end of her lengthy piece. In this way, she helps us persist in our cluelessness and our lack of concern about the depth of the challenge described in this tribally feel-good piece.

Does D’Leisha Dent “excel in school?” Dent is a superlative kid—but actually no, she does not. (Neither do many others.)

Should Dent have been taking “tough honors coursework?” Did she take tough honors coursework? Let’s recall the description of her Advanced Placement English class:
HANNAH-JONES: She [Dent] eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.

Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.

D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.
Based upon enrollment figures, the 17 kids in that AP class constitute perhaps the top twelve percent of Central High’s senior class. And yet one of those kids, a superlative person, can’t come close to producing a score that might get her those college brochures. Even with her superlative citizenship and her athletic success, colleges aren’t interested.

You can trust us—that lack of interest isn’t because of a stigma. It’s because of those low ACT scores.

Please understand: If Hannah-Jones can be trusted at all (and she can), D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. But also understand this:

Based on what we’ve been told, it seems the ninety percent of Central High’s kids may “excel in school” even less than she does—and plainly, she seems to be struggling.

By normal standards, D’Leisha Dent is struggling in school—and yet, she seems to be in the upper ranks of her school’s senior class! Adjusting for kids who have dropped out, she probably ranks in the top ten percent of the freshmen who entered Central High four years ago, in her class.

Why does such a superlative kid find herself in this position? And what about the rest of those kids, the kids who are doing less well?

For decades, mainstream and liberal writers have handed us feel-good treatments of these important questions. On balance, we’d have to say that Hannah-Jones has extended that tradition.

We liberals—you might call us “Tuscaloosa liberals” this week—seem to prefer it that way. To all appearances, we “Tuscaloosa liberals” don’t care much about superb kids like Dent.

We like to have our tribal beliefs reinforced in familiar, feel-good ways. If that doesn’t help superb kids like Dent, that seems to be too damn bad.

Tomorrow: Explanations, good and bad


  1. This series has to be the one in which Somerby's favorite description of other writers, mostly female, is best applied to him: clueless.

    1. Why are you calling Somerby clueless? This is a big problem, even outside the South. African American kids who are dubbed honor students are doing work that would be considered mediocre in white kids, and they struggle even when they are admitted to college. This is not true of all African American kids but it is true of enough that it is worth asking why we are pretending these kids are well prepared when they are not.

      Somerby implies that when we attribute low performance to racism and stigma, we avoid dealing with the needs of the kids themselves -- for honest counseling and coursework that will raise their performance.

      It troubles me that the only approach to her low ACT scores was to keep taking the exam repeatedly hoping for a better result. Her AP teacher should not be telling them they can pass the AP test when only 2 students in previous years have done so, and when they are not doing passing work in class. That is not giving accurate feedback on performance, without which it is difficult to learn. Are teachers and parents afraid to ask more of students? Is it racist to expect the same performance of all students or racist to ask too little of African American students out of fear that it will drive them to quit school or discourage them? Do we believe they are already doing the best they can and thus asking more would be cruel -- and is that belief accurate or racist?

      Somerby is right to be raising these issues.

    2. Was the teacher really asking too little? The students were given an assignment but didn't perform well on it.

    3. In keeping with the epistemological exercise of the Godel posts, I wonder why you think that if TDH is clueless, then it has to be the case that he's clueless.

      This series, like most of them, will be one in which TDH's commentariat trolls will be clueless. Does TDH claim that Hannah-Jones is clueless? No, he claims she's careless, and that keeps her readers clueless. Does TDH's criticism rely on the sex of the author? No, of course not.

      Just another day with trolls.

    4. Did you actually read the Hannah-Jones article, or are you simply going to take Somerby's word for what it says?

      The question is rhetorical, deadrat. Since Somerby has already told you what to think, why would you be bothered reading it and deciding for yourself? It would probably give you a headache.

    5. Your comment is laden with clues which partially answer the question you asked me but instead should be asking of yourself.

      "African American kids who are dubbed honor students are doing work that would be considered mediocre in white kids"

      (Are they?)

      "it is true of enough "

      (Is it? How much is enough?)

      "it is worth asking why we are pretending"

      (Who is pretending?)

      "Somerby implies that when we attribute low performance to racism and stigma"

      (Somerby implies things all too often, and even more often states others imply things he reads into their statements which are clearly not there and which others who read the statements may not think is there. Who do you think is attributing low performance to racism or stigma?)

      "It troubles me that the only approach to her low ACT scores was to keep taking the exam"

      (You assume the author of the article told you every approach?)

      "Her AP teacher should not be telling them they can pass the AP test when only 2 students in previous years have done so"

      (You have made one year's results into plural years and assume the teacher really thinks the students he is addressing cannot pass)

      "when they are not doing passing work in class"

      (What evidence do you have of this?)

      That is not giving accurate feedback on performance, without which it is difficult to learn.

      (What do students this year learn from the performance of students last year...If 15 kids from Central passed the exam last year would that help this year's students learn anything at all to help them pass?)

      As for your final flurry of questions to me, I suggest you wait for the next part in this series, in which the clueless Bob Somerby promises to explain good and bad, but perhaps nothing at all.

    6. "... he claims she's careless, and that keeps her readers clueless."

      Read comp fail, again.

    7. @2:09

      The quoted text states "Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well." That motivated Dent to ask about previous year's success rates, which were 2 out of 15. Passing rates (3+) for the English Literature AP are typically above 50% for all those who take the exam, so 2 of 15 is low. There is no reason to assume the previous year was a fluke. Having taught many years, I find the grade distributions don't fluctuate widely enough to justify encouraging these students who are not doing well in class and have no reason to believe they will exceed the previous cohort's performance. So it is false encouragement without giving them the tools to do better. There is no reason to expect that someone who gets a 16 on the ACT is going to ace an AP exam.

      Note that these kids (if not Dent, then the previous AP class cohort) cannot pass at the 3 level, much less get a 5 on the exam. A 3 is mediocre for someone in an honors class when 50% get that grade or higher. Kids who get 5's on AP exams in Literature read for pleasure, perhaps instead of becoming class President or participating in athletics.

      Perhaps Somerby is hinting that an all-black school deprives honor students of the chance to see that they are not performing as well as white competitors, so that they can work harder and strive to keep up with kids performing to a higher level, before they have to compete for college admission. Although it didn't sound like the AP class was too easy or that Dent was being complacent.

      Many white college-bound kids work their butts off in their AP courses and frequently have the experience that college is easier than their high school classes were. Perhaps we should be asking why African American honor students are not asked to do the same.

      How do I know she isn't doing that? First, the lack of results. Second, her extracurricular activities. In my family, academics were Job 1. My daughter wasn't permitted to do extracurricular activities unless she were taking challenging classes and doing well in all of them. Social life came second. Maybe the problem is the lack of guidance hinted at in criticisms of the mom and counselor.

    8. Anonymous @2:02P,

      Yeah, I read the H-J article, and guess what? It says pretty much what TDH reports that it says. Go figure.

      I'm gonna type real slowly now so you can follow, OK? My comment was in reply to your namesake at 10:04A, who basically claimed that TDH reported that H-J is herself clueless and that TDH made that report because H-J is herself a her. But TDH claims that H-J is careless, and there's no evidence from his critique that H-J's sex plays any part in his analysis.

      You could contest TDH's point that the story of the resegregation of Tuscaloosa's schools doesn't help us figure out how to help students like the one profiled. Well, not you, since you're interested only in making this about me. But someone with the interest and the chops could do so. I make no comment on that, merely on the misguided snideness of your namesake at 10:04A.

      Clear? Good. Now piss off.

    9. Anonymous @2:41P,

      Read comp fail, indeed. Your own. See below

      From the 5/2 blog entry
      We find a lot to criticize in Hannah-Jones’ approach to this story. We’re especially struck by her approach to the question of what constitutes a “good” or “bad” school—by her insouciance concerning the basic problems involved in running low-income schools.

      her insouciance: H-J's careless uncaring or uncaring carelessness. Take your pick.

      From today's blog entry
      … [S]he [H-J] helps us persist in our cluelessness and our lack of concern about the depth of the challenge described in this tribally feel-good piece.

      our cluelessness: H-G's readers'.

    10. 3:46 "

      "Perhaps we should be asking why African American honor students are not asked to do the same."

      Perhaps we should ask why you assume they are not.

      "Having taught many years, I find the grade distributions don't fluctuate widely enough to justify encouraging these students who are not doing well in class and have no reason to believe they will exceed the previous cohort's performance."

      Yes, I am sure there are many teachers like you who look their kids in the eye and say "I am not a good enough teacher for you to have done well in my class and this exam will prove you were wasting my time and yours."

      the sad fact is you still provide no evidence any of these kids is doing poorly in the AP class or that young Ms. Dent is not getting excellent grades. And neither does Soemrby.
      What you have is her consistent failure on one standardized test. At least Somerby says she is an otherwise good person. You, if she was your daughter, would deprive her of other things on which she does excel.

      I wouldn't want you for a parent nor a teacher for my children.

    11. Of course you wouldn't say something like that to a student. But instead of saying I know you all will do well, you can say that the test is hard and students need to work very hard to pass it. You can add the second part of the sentence that relates results to effort and urges students to improve by digging in to the material and rewriting those essays. You don't promise an outcome to a student when you have no control over what will happen. You DO tell them that they will do better if they keep working and then comment on their improvement. Teachers need to give students both encouragement (but not false praise or promises) and accurate assessment of their work.

      The article states that they are doing poorly in their AP class and that Ms. Dent is unable to get any higher than 17 on the ACT, a measure of college preparation. I'm sure she is getting good grades. But those grades are not an accurate reflection of her ability to succeed in college. I'm sure she is a good person. Yes, I would deprive her of her athletics if she wasn't doing well academically. Shot put is not an important life skill and will not contribute to her getting a job or getting ahead in life. Neither will being homecoming queen and I doubt being class president will do much for her future prospects either. These activities keep kids engaged but don't teach them as much as more coursework and practice at academic skills would. You can motivate kids by connecting their classwork to their future goals and income. If they want to stay poor, they can join clubs and marry a football player. If they want to get ahead they can learn to be productive in a job, preferably after college. We should care enough about kids to tell them the truth.

      This happened to white kids and their parents in my middle class suburban high school when I was a teen. They got A's and then scored in the mid 400's on the SAT and their parents couldn't figure out why their kids weren't getting into good colleges. It was because middle class parents expected A's and the teachers were happy to give them, but the level of challenge was insufficient to prepare them for college work. You don't have to be African American to have this happen to you. I applied to Pomona College and was turned down because of the poor quality of my high school.

      Those standardized tests do predict college performance. I am a professor and I've seen students with low scores struggle with reading complex material. Her consistent failure is a harbinger of her future difficulties with assigned readings in her courses. She may be able to overcome that with a great deal of effort, but many students admitted with similarly low scores do not.

      You do not hurt my feelings by rejecting me as a parent or teacher. If you don't understand the value of hard work and honesty, we might just frustrate each other.

  2. IMHO D’Leisha Dent can get probably accepted by a decent 4-year college, thanks to affirmative action. Whether she would be able to handle the course work there is another question.

    An unfortunate consequence of affirmative action in college admissions is to hide the inadequate education many black children are receiving. Because people like Ms. Dent are getting accepted by colleges, there is less focus on their level of ability coming out of high school.

    1. David, what is your evidence that she will be accepted? The article says she is not being solicited and states that cutoffs are 18 ACT, while she has 16. What is your evidence that affirmative action means underprepared students are accepted? Most programs I am familiar with do not accept students with scores lower than minimums -- affirmative action applies to those who are above threshold but maybe not the highest scorers.

    2. You may be right, 11:33. I have seen comments that at some schools there's a very big difference in average SAT score by race -- something like 200 points. I don't know how this figure corresponds to points on the ACT.

      I have also been told that many colleges put less weight on the SAT or ACT than some people imagine. I was guessing Ms. Dent's excellent grades and outstanding extracurricular activities would be enough to get her accepted somewhere.

    3. "I have seen comments"

      "I don't know"

      "I have also been told"

      "I was guessing"

      Four quotes which tell you why David in Cal should begin each comment with "IMHO." The "H" is not necessarily for "Humble."

    4. The "H" stands for "Hopelessly-ignorant."

    5. I also find it hard to believe that AA will do too much for an applicant with a 16 ACT score. The more important question, though, is what is the important variable responsible for her consistently low score?

      "Progressives" will claim it's due to racism and/or poverty. "Conservatives" will chalk it up to lack of preparation, low expectations, work ethic, no father in the home, etc. etc. etc.

      But perhaps the real reason is that in addition to the vast majority of her fellow students Ms. Dent, for all her other virtues, simply lacks the requisite cognitive ability to perform well on that test, and thus to do well at the collegiate level.

      This is what the blogger Education Realist describes as the "Voldemort" possibility, i.e., the explanation so disturbing to "conservatives" and "progressives" alike that it may be spoken aloud by neither.

    6. The average black (math and CR only) SAT score was 204 point lower for blacks than for whites. Yet, blacks get accepted by schools using AA pretty much in proportion to their share of the population. It follows that the average black student admitted at an AA college will have SAT scores around 200 points lower, with a larger difference possible. (For obvious reasons, colleges don't want to publicize this huge gap. But, it undoubtedly is the main cause of the enormous black college dropout rate.)

      For mid-range scores, a difference of 200 points of (math + CR) SAT scores corresponds to around 5 points of ACT. So, a school that takes average white students (ACT = 21) will take black students around ACT = 16, if it's using AA. Given Ms. Dent's outstanding record, I think her ACT score of 16 or 17 would be good enough to get accepted at a school that wasn't too demanding.


    7. The article doesn't support your speculation. It says her 16-17 is below the cutoff of 18 used by local colleges.

    8. The article actually says, "Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18." The word "many" rather than "all" suggests that some 4 year colleges will consider students who score below 18.

      BTW note how vague that term "many" is. We aren't told what proportion of colleges have a cut-off at ACT = 18, nor are we told the source of this alleged fact.

    9. The article says she will be accepted by a local college because of her athletics. So this is a moot argument. Her ACT scores are too low for her to be actively recruited despite her extracurriculars.

  3. For those of you keeping score at home, this is Somerby's seventh post about the same Hannah-Jones article.

    1. For those of us keeping score at home, could you tell us how many of those posts you read, and of those, how many you understood.

    2. As a seasoned Somerby reader with a still-functioning brain, I read the first two, decided they said nothing new, started to count how many posts Somerby could squeeze out of the same article, and then scroll to comments to find out how quickly deadrat could run to the defense of the guy who does his thinking for him.

      Only took three minutes this time,

    3. Shame on you for lying 1:50. This is only Part 2. And there needs to be at least one more Part because this article runs more than 9,900 words and we would not have known that important fact if Somerby had stopped with Part 1.

    4. Does this mean the "Eyes Off the Prize" series is over?

    5. Or the equally brilliant "Ways to Divide" series in which we first learned of Tuscaloosa schools and the horrendous way Hannah-Jones was writing about them, of course, assuming many facts about Tuscaloosa schools from the comfort of our Baltimore digs as we gaze at PR pictures of children happily playing together.

  4. I am only your average northern liberal. When I read the Atlantic article I actually thought it was about schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
    I cannot tell you how good this blow softening article makes me feel.

  5. What exactly are the feel-good tribal beliefs being reinforced here? It's a complex subject, and it seems to me Hannah-Jones has done an admirable job of in-depth reporting that captures that complexity. If there is going to be substantive criticism based on some phrasing she used somewhere in the article, or based on information she appears to accurately report -- which is that members of the Central High community have the belief that there is a stigma that affects their chances -- then make it. This kind of teaser stuff -- I'll show you what's wrong later in the week -- is annoying.

  6. "Beneath the surface, it describes at least two other failures. It describes an apparent failure by Melissa Dent, D’Leisha Dent’s mother, a university graduate who ought to be helping her child with this daunting task. "

    TDH can't POSSIBLY be suggesting that this kid's mother and father have anything to do with her poor college prospects. Government and racism explain miseries of blacks in 1964 and 50 years later in 2014, and always will. Failures by their parents and degenerated cultural expectations on the part of their parents and within their communities don't exist.

  7. Why does Somerby keep saying she doesn't excel in school? She does seem to excel in her school. It's her school that is letting her down. I don't think the author was wrong to say Dent excels in school. She meets and exceeds the expectations the school has for their students which clearly are too low.

    1. Bob cannot criticize the members of his former guild?

    2. Again we hear the tiresome mantra of "low expectations" popularized by the "conservative" side of this issue. If anything, the article actually implies the opposite -- i.e., that the school's expectations are calibrated way too high. After all, the school has formed an Advanced Placement class composed of 17 students who appear to have no business being expected to perform at an AP level. They are expected to prepare for an AP test when only a tiny percentage are likely to get even the minimum passing grade.

    3. The expectation problem is that these kids are being led to believe they will have opportunities to go to college when they are being passed over due to their lower test scores. Too many black students admitted with low scores do not finish because they cannot do the work, so the tests do mean something.

    4. Too many black students admitted with low scores do not finish because they cannot do the work, so the tests do mean something.

      Could you quantify that claim?

    5. Yes, there are statistics on the percentage of black students finishing degrees after 6 years and also statistics on the average test scores of black students. The completion rates are lower, sufficiently so that this is an area of concern discussed in academia, as are the test scores. I am not going to look these up because I am on my own time and would prefer to do something else with it. You can google this.

    6. Ah, there are statistics, which you're not going to look up. Well, that explains it.

  8. I hope Hannah-Jones follows up on this article so we know what happens to D'Leisha. I'm sure most of us wish her well.