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No Left Side of the Curve

David Laude battles deeply ingrained notions at the intersection of education and social justice.

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In 2012, David Laude, a highly decorated 20-year veteran of teaching chemistry, was in New York City giving extemporaneous remarks at a conference when he looked up and said, “You know, I’ve been teaching freshman chemistry for 20 years now. That’s 20,000 students. People always thought I was a pretty good teacher, but every year I wouldn’t pass about 20 percent of my students. There are 4,000 kids whose hopes and dreams I destroyed, and I just want to say I’m sorry.”

The proclamation surprised even him, and in that moment Laude realized that despite his many accolades, he had to change his approach to teaching fundamentally. This year he adds another accolade, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, to his collection.

This shift in teaching philosophy began earlier that year when Laude was drafted into the central administration. UT had created the position of senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management and asked Laude to lead the effort to raise the four-year graduation rate. Because he did not stop teaching when he took on the new role, he could see data on his own students. “On the one hand, I was trying to fix four-year graduation rates, and on the other, I wasn’t passing 20 percent of my own students. If I hadn’t been doing both at the same time,” he says, “I wouldn’t have seen that disconnect.”

The profile of those in his failing 20 percent was uniform and deeply troubling: “Kids coming from economic disadvantage were the ones not passing. It was that simple,” he says. “Nothing else compared, because economic disadvantage figures into everything: the quality of the high school, the quality of the food you eat, the quality of the opportunities you have.”

So what could he do as a teacher to prevent those students from failing? It was not about inflating grades to achieve the perception of progress. Rather, it started by being an extraordinary motivator. “On the first day of class, I walk down off the stage to the middle of the auditorium and say, ‘I’m on your side. I’m not up there — I’m down here. I want you to know how important it is to me that you be successful.’ It’s amazing, when you create that connection to your students, how much harder they’re willing to work,” Laude says.

And what a motivator. A large-framed man with an intense stare, a forceful delivery and little need for a microphone, he has brought many university audiences to their feet with remarks on teaching. He is self-deprecating and authentic, funny one moment and full of fiery indignation over systemic problems the next. 

But there is much to his students’ success besides his being a compelling speaker. On the first day of class he puts up a slide called “How To Get an A on a Multiple Choice Test,” covering common-sense techniques that students from competitive high schools know but “kids coming from economic disadvantage have never thought about.” If students do not pass the first test, Laude requires they meet with him individually for 20 minutes. 

He bristles at the suggestion that rising grades must be a sign of dumbed-down courses. “I walk into class and say, ‘I believe in you! You can do it! Let’s go do it!’ You go to my website and there are 500 million things you can do to learn chemistry. I try to make it fun and exciting and a community. That’s a lot more successful than putting up PowerPoint slides and waiting for them to copy the stuff down. So shouldn’t my grades go up? Why should I recalibrate so that I can make sure that my kids from affluence are always the winners?” 

Laude finds little remarkable in the success of affluent students who have had life-long advantages such as private SAT tutoring. “When you have that, then you walk into my class and get the high grade on my test, all I’ve done is perpetuate what has always been true. The real thing to do is to find out whether that kid coming out of the Valley or East Texas or the inner city can overcome 18 years of not being advantaged so that they can succeed. Because if they don’t, if I decide to not pass them in that freshman year, you can write off them ever going to medical school, and then the economic divide just gets worse and worse in the state of Texas.”

Laude’s working-class upbringing might help explain his sensitivity to the relationship between wealth and education. He grew up in Modesto, Calififornia, and in high school drove a truck delivering replacement parts to canneries and farms. College took him to Tennessee, and he heavily mines his socially awkward undergraduate experience at The University of the South for anecdotes when counseling his own students.

Throwing down the gauntlet to those who still believe a certain portion of students must fail for success to have meaning, he says, “I don’t want there to be a left side of the curve. People might not like it, but I give 350 A’s in my freshman chemistry course.” He calls his new philosophy, in which he seeks for every student to get an A, “a stinging wake-up call.” “As long as you’re OK with the students from economic disadvantage being the ones who don’t pass, then go on teaching that other way.”