Predictably, many regard the Kashawn Campbell story as proof of low school standards. But I would argue that the underlying problem is grade fraud, which is a different issue.
I’ve been writing about grade fraud for college admission for a while now. Wait, you say, that’s a link to a KIPP piece. Well, yeah. Charters are among the worst offenders in grade fraud, which is the tacit admissions directive enabled by Top Ten % or eligibility in the local context plans: the kids with the best grades in their schools are guaranteed entrance to the public universities.
The policy rewards compliance more than ability, as I’ve also written; I routinely see bright kids with low GPAs in every type of school. If we are going to lower standards to bring in underrepresented minorities, far better to find the brightest ones—which aren’t necessary the ones with the best grades. And when I complain about this, some folks say some version of “Well, what’s wrong with rewarding hard work?”
Well, what’s wrong with it, eventually, is Kashawn Campbell. The people who value grades like to believe that the difference between an A and a B is nothing more than effort, when in fact, teachers can give whatever grades they like, with only a few restrictions that limit how low we can drop a grade. None limit our ability to give an A.
So the people blame crappy schools, because of course the only thing that prevents Kashawn from learning is a school that wanted the easy way out. And if we’d have Common Core, then we would have known Kashawn didn’t know anything. This line of thinking ignores the fact that California state tests almost certainly showed that Kashawn didn’t know anything—assuming, that is, he took the standard tests (more on that later). And then you have the affirmative action complainers—this group, I generally agree with but I am coming to the point of finding college admissions so revoltingly corrupt that affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics seems almost benign compared to the contortions universities go through to bring them in under alternative means.
But that’s not what interested me.
No, I’m wondering why the reporter, Kurt Streeter, who is African American, hinted at so much. Some details are so instructive that I can’t figure out why he didn’t go further or, more typically, leave them out.
What details? Well, the big one I wonder about: is Kashawn brain damaged? (Or, as a National Review commenter said in summarizing this essay, perhaps he is not neurotypical?)
“When I delivered him, I thought he was dead,” said his mother, Lillie, recalling the umbilical cord tight around his neck. “He was still as stone but eventually he came to. Proved he was a survivor. Ever since, I’ve called him my miracle child.”
Umbilical cord around the neck is pretty common and doesn’t usually lead to brain damage. The “still as stone” bit makes me wonder, though, if he was oxygen starved during birth.
He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”
“It was clear that Kashawn was someone who didn’t know about, or maybe care about, social norms,” said one of his friends. “A lot of people would laugh at first. They didn’t understand how someone could be that enthusiastic.”
They sat together in the front row. One teacher noticed that Kashawn subconsciously seemed to mime his roommate: casually cocking his head and leaning back slightly as he pondered questions, just like Spencer.
Kashawn reveled in the class in a way he hadn’t since high school. He would often be the first one to speak up in discussions, even though his points weren’t always the most sophisticated, said Gabrielle Williams, a doctoral student who helped teach the class.
Many of them jaywalked. Not Kashawn. Just as he’d been taught, he only used crosswalks, only stepped onto the street when the coast was clear or a light flashed green.
Sometimes in the dorm room, Spencer would look over at Kashawn and see him sitting in front of his computer, body frozen and face expressionless, JVC headphones wrapped over his ears, but no music playing.
He’s weird, in other words, and completely unconscious of it. Nothing wrong with that. Except he was prom king, and most likely to succeed.
His teachers and his classmates at Jefferson High all rooted for the slight and hopeful African American teenager. He was named the prom king, the most likely to succeed, the senior class salutatorian.
That strike you as a tad odd? Since when do high school kids name socially awkward kids prom king? Huh. Something comes to mind. But take a look at this first:
Part of the pressure came from race. ….When Kashawn arrived, 3% of Berkeley undergraduates were African American.
Kashawn’s high school is 91% Hispanic. So Kashawn went from being a 9% minority to a 3% minority. Not entirely sure he’d notice that difference.
A black kid with a goofy affect, limited social skills, geeky, awkward, and attending an all Hispanic school is declared prom king and most likely to succeed?
You know when a slight, geeky, weird guy with awkward social skills is voted most likely to succeed and prom king? When it’s an act of charity, an act that makes a group of tough kids feel good about themselves—that is, when the kid in question is “special”. You see it in all those feel-good articles about a special day student who becomes kind of a mascot for the school, the one everyone loves, who brings all the feuding elements together. Naturally, there might be another explanation. But anyone familiar with high school dynamics has to wonder about the specifics of Kashawn’s popularity.
Which is what I’m wondering, because even within the context of a low income, low ability school, Kashawn’s writing problems and his failure to improve seem significant.
And then, of course, there’s the friend, Spencer:
Spencer was raised in a tough L.A. neighborhood by a single mom who had sometimes worked two jobs to pay the rent. Spencer had gone to struggling public schools, receiving straight A’s at Inglewood High. Spencer didn’t curse, didn’t party, didn’t try to act tough and was shy around girls.
To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.
He was cruising through Cal, finishing the first semester with a 3.8 GPA despite a raft of hard classes. “I can easily see him being a professor one day,” said his political theory instructor, noting that Spencer was one of the sharpest students in a lecture packed with nearly 200 undergraduates.
Why not write an article about Spencer? Wouldn’t it be nice to see a story about an inner city kid who was prepared for college? You could even include his SAT scores–hey, speaking of metrics that are totally absent.
Notice that Spencer and Kashawn take African American studies together. Notice that Kashawn got an A on the essay and a B on the midterm–and an overall A in the class, and that he “copied” Spencer’s every move. And notice that his writing professor basically accused him of cheating:
After reviewing his writing, though, it was clear to her that he had received far too much help from someone else.
It’s never mentioned again, this little cheating episode.
- How did Kashawn pass the Introductory Science class with a D? No information about that class or the teacher is included.
- Why did the writing instructor give him an Incomplete twice instead of an F?
- What did Kashawn’s African American studies essay look like? Was it a deserved A, or a pity A? If the former, why could Kashawn only write well in this class? Why didn’t Streeter ask to see the A essay?
- Why doesn’t Streeter mention what classes Kashawn took in high school? Kashawn was a junior in 2011, which would be the last year he took the California end of state tests. Only 22 juniors at Jefferson High were black that year. Nine of them took geometry, nine took algebra II, two of them took Summative Math (for precalc and beyond). Which of these was Kashawn?
- Streeter clearly reviewed the school’s test scores. What were Kashawn’s scores?
- Did Streeter know that Kashawn’s school was 91% Hispanic? If so, why imply that Kashawn felt isolated in a non-black environment?
See, Kashawn’s story isn’t unusual—well, if he’s suffering from brain damage or is actually mentally retarded, then it’s a bit unusual. Otherwise, thousands of African American and Hispanic kids enter college every year, woefully unprepared to even begin to succeed. And, as the story clearly illustrates, the ones that work terribly hard or show the slightest bit of effort are often given passing grades out of some combination of pity and paternalism.
I am puzzled, however, that Streeter has left clues. Why mention Kashawn’s unusual affect, his nomination as prom king, his faithful copying of Spencer, to make it fairly clear to a closer reader that there’s something really off about the kid? Why be so uncompromising on the point of Kashawn’s incoherent writing and his failure to improve in any way, unless it’s for the same reason he includes only one quote from his mother which suggests his birth was unusual?
If Streeter wanted to indict the University of California admissions system, he has the stuff: an illiterate, possibly retarded, student is accepted via a standard specifically created to bypass the affirmative action ban. But he could have been more explicit: included SAT scores, state test scores, courses taken, specific examples of Kashawn’s writing.
If he wanted to indict Kashawn’s high school, which is how most readers seem to interpret the story, he could have gone even further and shown exactly how deep the fraud went. What math had Kashawn advanced to? What were his state scores? What books had he read in English class? How badly had his school fooled him? But all of that data is missing in action.
Of course, he might not have included this data because it would have given far too much away.
Or perhaps Streeter just wanted to illustrate the tremendous internal pressures experienced by a clearly wonderful young man who has no ability to complete college level work. Leave aside blame. Leave aside larger policy considerations. Just tell his story. Okay. Then why just hint at the special ed and the cheating?
Reporters often tell me they simply seek to tell the story, that they don’t think of policy issues, which strikes me as just a tad disingenuous. I have no idea what Streeter’s response would be but surely not that. How can any reporter tell a story about an unprepared African American student at the top public university in the country without thinking of the larger social issues he represents? He can’t. And if he can avoid the larger issues, surely his editor wouldn’t?
Then I read the article comments, and interspersed between the jeremiads about public education and complaints about affirmative action, I see:
Keep up the hard work Kashawn, college is not easy and your story is not an isolated one. There are thousands of college students that struggle like you, remember to stay motivated and keep working hard. If college was easy everyone would go (and graduate).
Keep it going Kashawn! Nothing that is worth it comes easy! Everyone is looking for “that chance.” I don’t think it’s wrong to give him one.
Keshawn – do not let anyone take away your stellar record and GPA from Jefferson or your heartbreaking first semester at CAL. You have heart and you will continue to make it. Good luck.
You can do it, Keshawn! I am a Cal grad who had the advantage of tough private school training. Your story makes me realize how lucky I was. You’ve got my full admiration for your integrity and determination. Don’t ever quit!
…and I realize that for some people, Kashawn’s story represents a beautiful struggle and success. And maybe Streeter is just writing for them.
The rest of us should avoid drawing any policy implications, and just pick up on the hints.
Updated to add: A few commenters have suggested that Kashawn has Asperger’s or autism. I thought of including this originally, but I’m not an expert, even though I sound like I think I’m one in the comments.
Kashawn doesn’t seem anything like the Asperger’s students I’ve worked with, but then, none of them have been low IQ. I’ve only worked with one diagnosed autistic student, and I do see some similarities.
But if Kashawn was autistic, wouldn’t Streeter mention this? UC Berkeley has a huge organization dedicated to helping students with disabilities, including autism, and extensive support for learning disabilities. Yet there’s no mention of that in the story.
I’m not any sort of expert on autism spectrum disorders. It could be that autism, rather than hypoxia at birth, is at the root of Kashawn’s oddness. However, I still don’t see any reason for withholding information about Kashawn’s high school academic record unless it would reveal that Kashawn’s cognitive abilities were profoundly limited.