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Cheating Twice as Hard To Get Half as Much: Lessons from the T. M. Landry

Related imageWhen the NY Times published its scathing exposé of T. M. Landry College Preparatory  (“Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s The Reality”) it caused an uproar in the educational community as educators, admissions professionals, and parents were shocked to learn that behind the inspirational videos was a school in trouble. Many were stunned as revelations painted a picture of a school engaging in abusive discipline practices more reminiscent of the 1940s than the 2000s. These practices alone give adequate reason for outrage and when compounded by the evidence of significant educational abuses and fraud makes this an important story for everyone in the educational community.

After one recovers from the outrage and looks past the hoopla of Ivy acceptance videos, there is a subtext that indicts nearly every participant in the quest for admission to “elite” colleges. T.M. Landry exposed an educational system that continues to be rigged against black and low income children and puts a new spin on the African American maxim “working twice as hard to get half as much.”  This is not merely an indictment of two bad actors: it’s an expose of a black school trying its best to emulate the worst practices of many rich families and elite private schools. This is an example of a system that has been manipulated not in a worse way than unusual but in the worst example of the usual way.

The events at this school expose problems created by and for everyone in the system, from students to parents, from donors to admissions officers, from state agencies to the news media. There were warning signs of trouble for anyone who cared to look.  Few did, until someone tipped off the New York Times. These events reflect on the the education business writ large, from the charter school movement, to private schools, to tutoring companies, to motivational speakers, to admissions counselors and independent admissions counselors. And these events should impact the conversations about the influence of social media, the framing education as the way out of poverty, the meaning of merit and college ready, the influence of testing on teaching, affirmative action, the use of corporal punishment, and the philanthropic funding of education.

 

Social Media Darlings and Downfalls

Social media have deeply influenced education over the past few years. Schools at every level have taken to social media to market themselves both directly to potential students and to the national media. The college reaction video (a search online found more than 120 million results!) is a huge phenomenon but it is only one type of video about college on social media. Colleges are using twitter to announce admissions decisions and even First Lady Michelle Obama rapped encouragement to “go to college.”

The meteoric rise of Landry is the latest example of the impact of social media and also a great example of the pitfalls of a fast rise to prominence. Rather than building a reputation over 20, 30 or 50 years institutions can leap into the spotlight on the back of an anecdotal success story or two. This is understandable given that many of these schools are new schools serving low income and under resourced families who are looking for the fastest way to level the playing field with their richer counterparts.

T. M. Landry’s first graduating class in 2013 had 5 graduates. The school currently boasts 142 students in grades K – 12 and has graduated 50 students since its founding in 2005. No matter what accomplishments these students have, can we truly base conclusions about the school on so few students in such a short time period? This is an example of the excitement of social media leading to far too many overlooking basic principles of good governance and research. How many parents enrolled on the basis of the success of 2 students in that video? How many colleges visited and extended scholarships? How many donors took the video as a sign of a worthy investment of their dollars? A survey of the comments from the video reinforce the pedestal these children and the school are placed on as well as the racial animus that they face from those hoping for their failure.  This elevation of a school to savior status does T. M. Landry a huge disservice by putting this much onus on a school with only a 13 year history .

The thirteen year old Landry is trying to compete with the 112 year old Isidore Newman School and 240 year old Phillips Academy, which are better resourced and serve better connected families. This competition requires that Landry try to not only borrow from their playbook but also find other ways to get a leg up so as to account for the disparities income. Private schools, which tend to have a more affluent and more white student body, often market by signaling a calm expectation of feeding students to Ivy League schools through their own selectivity. With the disparate resources available for families competing for the same few spots in elite colleges, it’s no wonder that schools serving low income communities try to find as many advantages as possible. Viral videos present an opportunity to market a school widely –at  low cost, no less– but the danger with fame is that the same national attention that bolsters the schools profile with both potential students and colleges also make the schools more likely subject to scrutiny.

 

Saviors, Bootstrapping and Blackness

The struggles of African Americans to find high quality education in the segregated American system in part explains the ability of the Landrys to take a page out of the book of weight-loss and self-help gurus by playing on both the fears and hopes of these families in order to convince them to pay the tuition at his unproven school. African American parents constantly hear the narrative of bootstrapping, no excuses, and the accusation of not valuing education. The Landrys capitalized on that and on the dream of a better life. They drew in families that had some means ($7k a year post tax income is significant in a community where the median income is $35,000 per year) by promising access to the best colleges in the country.

The Landrys made the same promises of special access and connections to the Ivy League that have spawned an entire industry of test preparation and college consultants, who promise the tricks to the test or the secrets to getting into elite colleges. On top of the promises, the Landrys overlaid a demand forced compliance that allowed for the worst of the offenses to take place. Once again while richer peers are allowed to opt-out of testing, unschool, and eschew grading all together, their poorer counterparts are forced to deal with an environment of strict discipline and militaristic oversight, greater testing, and a narrower educational experience. This dichotomy between what this society asks and expects of low income (especially black) children and what they expect of richer children is one of the biggest problems facing America. How can the black community strive for the best when it not only has to avoid the systemic obstacles but also avoid the predatory practices of those within the community like the Landrys?

 

Defining College Ready, College Admissions and the Meaning of Merit

One of the most striking elements of this story was outcomes of the students who matriculated into these elite colleges. Against the backdrop of late transfers into T. M. Landry, fraudulent transcripts, and exaggerated or non-existent extracurricular activities the article reveals that one student is in his junior year at Ivy League Brown University seemingly doing well (at very least well enough to maintain enrolled status) and the other students are either also still in school or have left for reasons that do not seem to be academic. This revelation is most stunning because it contradicts every popular narrative about an elite education. If these students received a substandard education, one would assume they would not be able to succeed in the hallowed halls of elite academia. One underlying implication of the Landry story is that the students were not adequately prepared, they did not merit a spot at these schools, and had not been given what it takes to succeed. However, of the Landry graduates that we learned of only one has left college due to academic struggles. If multiple “underprepared” students who have gained admissions under false pretexts are performing on the same level as their peers who didn’t have false information submitted, what does that mean about the the validity of metrics being used to define and measure merit? This further underscores how this story raises questions about many of the historical tools used to determine college readiness and the metrics used to admit students.

Many elite colleges in order to sort through the vast number of numerically qualified applications seek personal narratives to gain a sense of the applicants. The Landrys told applicant to go well beyond the expected massaging of a narrative and outright lie about activities and life events, revealing publicly a system that has always been flawed in that it is essentially the honor system. How could one determine if black students lie more often about being from a single family home than rich students do about service trips to third world countries? Is it more likely that low income students would falsify how low income they are or that rich students would diminish the role wealth played in their overcoming of challenges. Does the Landrys exploitation of admissions officers expectation of black applications reveal a further bias in a system that is in so many ways biased against black students. What does this story reveal about the larger landscape of college admissions? If black students must tell tales of woe to compete with students writing about their love for riding horses at the country house, what harmful stereotypes are being reinforced?

So while the Landrys’ exposure will have repercussions on their students (and likely the larger community of black students, the actions taken at T. M. Landry aren’t exclusive to this school and aren’t most common in this community. When considered in context of the special privileges of Harvard’s z-list, the Stuyvesant High School cheating, the $16,000 private admissions camps, the private school scandals, the manipulating of testing accommodations, the grade inflation, the peddling influence, and the buying accomplishments is Landry merely following the playbook invented in the halls of the private schools that have fed the Ivy League since the early 1900s. Instead of placing a hyper focus on an outlier, should we not investigate and reconsider those who invented and are more effectively implementing that playbook?


 

Further reading:

Grade Inflation at Wealthy Schools – The74 and The QZ

GPAs Don’t Really Show What Students Learned – WaPo 

Cheating and changing grades – Huffpost, ABC News, and LA Times

No Excuses Schools – Education Post

The importance of viewing minority, low-income and first-generation students as assets (essay) – Inside Higher Ed

Study: White College Admissions Counselors Don’t Want ‘Woke’ Black Students – The Root

Admissions counseling services stories -Town and CountryThe Boston Globe, and a thread on Twitter

Students at private schools “shaping” their own grades – HW Chronicle

Are Charter Schools Good or Bad for Black Students? –  New Republic

Study: Hispanic, Black Parents Value College Degree More Than Whites – Education Writers Association

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