There are so many studies of achievement, which is often non-achievement, in the public schools, so many approaches. I often wonder: Why not just teach kids to do the work? We used to do it. People emerged from public schools able to do the basics, reading, writing, and arithmetic, even if they weren’t rocket scientists. I suspect that one reason so many of our schools fail is that teaching, really teaching, is hard work.

In a wonderful piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, Marc Fisher reported on what can be done when teachers set out to do what schools once did: teach basic skills. The column is headlined “UDC Counteracts Damage Wrought by DC Public Schools.” In it Fisher writes about Daryao Khatri, who teaches physics at the University of the District of Columbia. Year after year, Khatri and colleagues were confronted with a bleak situation.

For example, Mahdi Hajiyani’, who taught organic chemistry course, had a dropout rate that usually went above 50 percent. A third of those who lasted through the year received  F’s. More than 80 percent of UDC’s freshman class, virtually all products of the District’s public schools, required remedial classes in math, reading and English composition. This rate is more than three times the proportion of remedial students nationwide.

Khatri, joined by a UDC statistician, hit upon a radical idea: teach the basics. They set up a summer program for which students were randomly selected:

“Then they started, from the beginning. Addition, subtraction, division, fractions . . .

“‘I never saw anything like it,’ says Kafayet Olayinka, 19, who came to UDC from Spingarn High School in Northeast, where, she says, ‘you can walk around and do whatever you want. You can sleep or eat in class. Here, if you didn’t follow the rules, you had to stay after and sharpen all the pencils or arrange the folders. Professor Khatri would call you up to the blackboard every day. At Spingarn, the teachers didn’t care if you never said anything.’

“In the two years Olayinka spent at Spingarn after emigrating from Nigeria, she never took a math or science course. This summer, she learned math from addition to algebra. ‘What I really appreciate is the multiplication tables,’ she says. ‘Now I calculate everything I see at the store, without using a calculator. I use my head.’

“There are no calculators allowed in the summer course, no electronic devices. ‘Just the mind,’ Khatri says. He tested students on those multiplication tables every single day.”

The success rate of this course is astounding (do read Fisher’s entire article), and the cost was surprisingly low: “For $38,000 — $2,000 per child — Khatri and company took a giant leap toward making up for 12 years of unspeakably expensive mis-education in the city’s schools.”  

But teachers had to be committed to teaching subjects considerably more difficult than self-esteem:

“‘In high school, these kids were told over and over, ‘I love you, you’re wonderful,’ but the expectations for learning weren’t there,’ Khatri says.

“In the UDC summer course, Brown says, the professors ‘just consistently gave them support until they got that they could do this, and then, oh boy, the confidence just blossomed.'”