When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.” The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

Good schools matter 

Families matter a great deal and schools very little when it comes to education, concluded the famous Coleman report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, 50 years ago. Coleman mixed up cause and correlation, writes Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby as part of Education Next‘s look back on the influential report.

Coleman “did not consider the possibility that advantaged children might have had high achievement precisely because their parents could choose good schools and ditch bad schools,” she writes.

Coleman believed teacher quality didn’t matter because measurable teacher characteristics, such as experience, education and vocabulary score, explained little of the variation in students’ achievement.

Parents always knew some teachers were better than others, writes Hoxby. These days, “numerous rigorous analyses of value-added demonstrate that teachers matter a great deal.”

Coleman failed to see that “good” families might be those who could discern which teachers were effective and get their children into those teachers’ classes. Thus, part of the apparent family effect was really a choose-effective-teachers effect.

(Before my daughter started kindergarten, I visited the two teachers’ classrooms and requested the one I liked the most. In later years, I networked with other parents to determine which teachers had the best reputations.)
Looking back, it is obvious that this early and voluntary desegregation was dominated by selection, that is, families’ own choices.Coleman also concluded that minority children achieved more when they had white classmates, Hoxby writes. But his study didn’t look at students randomly assigned to an integrated or all-black classroom. The data, from an era before desegregation orders, reflected “the sort of black families who were motivated and able to live in integrated neighborhoods.”

Hoxby attended voluntarily integrated schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio.  “Often, the blacks were professionals who already spent most of their working lives among whites, had white friends, and participated in mixed-race church and social groups. ”

Her research has found that “when students are randomly assigned to schools, it is the achievement and not the race of their peers that matters.”

Blacks graduate in lowest-paying majors

Black college graduates are likely to choose low-tech majors that lead to low-paying jobs, according to a report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Twenty percent of black students major in human services and community organization (median earnings of $39,000). They’re also over-represented in social work ($42,000), early childhood education ($38,000) and psychology.

Few major in engineering, science or math. Those who do often choose the lowest-paying speciality, such as biology for black women and civil engineering for black men.

Early childhood education, one of the lowest-paying majors, is a popular choice for black students.

Blacks are more likely to major in the “caring” professions, such as early childhood education, which lead to low-paying jobs.

Two-thirds of black college graduates are female, which surely explains some of the lean toward the “caring” and underpaid professions.

In addition, most black graduates have attended an open-admissions college that may have limited majors and inadequate counseling, the report observed.

Many Americans — and especially those who are the first in their families to attend college — think any degree guarantees a decent job and a middle-class life. Someone should tell them they’ll have trouble repaying student loans for a non-technical degree from an unselective college.

Teaching ‘manhood’ at school


Against a backdrop of role models, Ernest Jenkins III teaches a class at Oakland High School called “Mastering Our Cultural Identity: African American Male Image.” Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Hoping to lift achievement for black male students, Oakland (California) schools have hired black male teachers to teach African-American history and culture in what’s called the Manhood Development Project, reports Patricia Leigh Brown in the New York Times.

“The No. 1 strategy to reduce discipline issues is engaged instruction,”  says Christopher P. Chatmon, who runs the district’s Office of African American Male Achievement.

Rahsaan Smith, 13, is one of the few students in his Manhood Development class with a father and mother at home. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Rahsaan Smith, 13, is one of the few Manhood Development students growing up with a father and mother at home. Photo: Jim Wilson, New York Times

Many students have grown up without a father or male role model. Students form strong relationships with teachers and the program also brings in black male professionals and college advisers.

Chatmon’s office compiles an honor roll of black students with a 3.0 average or better. Three years ago, only 16 percent were male. That’s risen to 25 percent.

China is looking for male teachers to teach manhood, reports Javier C. Hernnandez, also in the New York Times.

Lin Wei, 27, a male sixth-grade teacher in Fuzhou, tells stories about manly warlords and soldiers. “Men have special duties,” he said. “They have to be brave, protect women and take responsibility for wrongdoing.”

Worried that a shortage of male teachers has produced a generation of timid, self-centered and effeminate boys, Chinese educators are working to reinforce traditional gender roles and values in the classroom.

In Zhengzhou, a city on the Yellow River, schools have asked boys to sign pledges to act like “real men.” In Shanghai, principals are trying boys-only classes with courses like martial arts, computer repair and physics.

The motto of West Point Boys, an all-male summer camp in Hangzhou, in eastern China, is: “We bring out the men in boys.”

When Mark Judge was hired as the only male teacher at a Catholic K-8 school, the boys were ecstatic, he writes on Acculturated.

. . . the boys literally formed a circle around me and started jumping up and down. There were requests to play football, questions about cars, inquiries into my favorite baseball player, light punches (from them) on my shoulder.

The U.S. should “encourage more men to become the kind of teachers our boys need,” he concludes.

To lure gentrifiers, NY school picks students


Parents and community members learned about plans for The Dock Street School last month. Photo: Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat

A low-performing, low-enrollment Brooklyn middle school will get a new building, a new name, a science-and-arts focus — and a student body selected for good grades, test scores and attendance. Middle-class parents said they won’t consider an open-enrollment school, reports Chalkbeat.

Brooklyn neighborhoods are gentrifying rapidly. Several elementary schools now draw white and middle-class students, but those students vanish in middle school. Most go to out-of-district public schools or to private schools.

Selectivity is the “secret sauce” of high-performing schools, charges NYC Educator.  “It’s, ‘We’ll take these kids, the ones who get high scores and everyone else can just go to hell’.”

Long Beach leads the way

Arie’ann Velasquez, 10, and her classmates tour Long Beach City College.

Long Beach, California has created viable kindergarten to high school to college pathways for its predominantly working-class students, reports The Atlantic.

Long Beach Unified, Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach collaborate closely to ensure students know their college options and are prepared to succeed.

Test scores, graduation rates, AP enrollment and college attendance rates have risen, even as the number of Latino students has increased, writes Lillian Mongeau.

When high school graduates with B’s and C’s were testing into remedial courses at City College, the college instructors got together with high school teachers to figure out how to strengthen the curriculum and raise expectations.

A collection of bills dubbed the California College Promise will “make several of Long Beach’s practices into state policy with the aim of seeing more California children to and through college,” reports The Atlantic.

Minority kids advance in choice schools

Urban minority students are more likely to complete high school aand enroll in college if they attend a charter or voucher-accepting school, writes Martin West in Education Next. Test scores may not be higher in urban schools of choice, but students go farther in school — and often in life.
Boston’s charter middle school students are closing the achievement gap in math, one study has found.

In Boston and New York City, other studies have found charter students are likely to avoid teenage pregnancy and incarceration and more likely to enroll in four-year colleges rather than two-year options.

In Washington, D.C., voucher usage greatly improved students’ chances of graduating. New York City voucher students are more likely to enroll in college and earn a bachelor’s degree than a control group.

“The chief beneficiaries of policies that expand parental choice appear to be urban minority students,” says West. “The benefits of school choice for these students extend beyond what tests can measure.”

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

Building a future in construction class

At Woodward Career Tech High in Cincinnati, Channell Rogers and Sierra Buster are preparing for construction careers, reports Outside the Box, a PBS series reported by high school journalists.

What does a high school grad need to succeed?

Many years — perhaps 25 — ago, I was asked my advice on a school district’s new graduation requirements. I said, “Go to your local community college and to employers who hire high school graduates. Ask what skills and knowledge one of your graduates would need to have a chance of passing an entry-level course or qualifying for an entry-level job. That’s what your diploma should require.”

Remedial math instructor Robert Fusco teaches at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. (Photo by Elizabeth Redden)

Remedial math instructor Robert Fusco teaches at Bergen Community College in New Jersey. Photo: Elizabeth Redden, Hechinger Report

A high school diploma should signify the graduate is ready for the first year of college, writes Marc Tucker in Education Week. That “is a far higher standard than most high school diplomas are set to currently.”

He envisions states setting the syllabi for required core courses and writing the exams, which would be graded by outside teachers. That’s a radical power shift.

Well-prepared students could complete the core in two years, he believes. Some would have two years for Advanced Placement or other high-level courses. Others could learn high-level technical skills, like vocational students in Singapore and Switzerland, at a community college or their high school.

Everyone would be expected to pass by the end of 12th grade.

We would be doing high school in high school, not in college, and therefore saving enormous amounts of money for both states and families.  We would have more brain surgeons and more specialty welders.

High schools could be held accountable for the proportion of students who earn the new diploma and the proportion who complete two-year and four-year degrees, Tucker writes.

What do you think? Is it doable? Should it be tried?