Better than Shanghai

“While U.S. schools struggled to reach even an average score on a key international exam for 15-year-olds in 2012, BASIS Tucson North, an economically modest, ethnically diverse charter school in Arizona, outperformed every country in the world, and left even Shanghai, China’s academic gem in the dust,” writes June Kronholz on Education Next.

How do they do it?

“We do an incredible amount of work,” said Alia Gilbert.

Founded in Arizona by economists Michael and Olga Block (she’s Czech), BASIS admits any student — anyone who’s willing to do the work.

Fifth graders take Latin and can expect 90 minutes a day of homework. Middle schoolers have nine hours a week of biology, chemistry, and physics. Algebra starts in 6th grade; AP calculus is a graduation requirement. The English curriculum separates literature and language, or critical thought; high schoolers take both. There are year-end comprehensives; fail even one and it means repeating the grade.

Students take an average 10 AP exams each, and in 2013 earned an average score of 3.9 out of 5

BASIS teachers said that they offer slower learners abundant extra help, and that kids rise to meet the schools’ expectations. But at the same time, those expectations may scare off the less-able, less-interested students, which can mean a test-score bump for BASIS. (Sophomore Charlie) Murphy told me that his class had 120 students when they arrived as 5th graders, but the group has dropped to 40, as youngsters have transferred to schools with bigger sports programs, more social offerings, or an easier course load.

The Arizona schools operate on about two-thirds of the funding for a child in a traditional public school, writes Kronholz. Classes are large. Technology is minimal. With highly motivated and capable students, it doesn’t matter.

A new Washington D.C. school, which enrolls a high percentage of disadvantaged, poorly prepared students, is struggling to accelerate the curriculum, but test scores are far higher than in district schools.

BASIS teachers, who are expected to be “scholars,” start at about $40,000 and peak in the “mid-80s.”  They receive “bonuses based on the number of their students who pass AP exams—$200 for each student who passes with a score of 5; $100 for a 4—but schools must raise money themselves for other performance bonuses.”

BASIS Schools, Inc., a for-profit, “secures the charters, employs the teachers and handles centralized functions.” Each school is a nonprofit that owns its building. New BASIS schools use pre-fab buildings that can be assembled in four months for about $8 million, including the land. That’s half the cost of a typical Phoenix school.

AP access expands, but results are poor

Maryland schools are placing more students in Advanced Placement classes, reports the Baltimore Sun. But many fail the AP exam and and “arrive at college with. . . skills so low they must take remedial classes.”

“We just set those kids up for complete failure because they just get hammered when they get to college,” said Steve Syverson, a board member of the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

From left, Zainab Abbasi and Rasaundra Morrison study fungus under a microscope during AP Biology at Woodlawn High School, taught by Brian Patterson. Five of Patterson’s students took the AP Biology exam; two passed.

More than half of Maryland’s public school graduates now take an AP class and nearly 30 percent have passed at least one exam, the highest rate in the country. But in 19 high schools in the Baltimore region, more than half of the students who earned an A or B in an AP class failed the exam, a Sun analysis found.

 Trevor Packer, head of AP for the College Board, acknowledges that the program is being misused in some schools, with students taking classes before they are ready. For instance, he said, 20,000 African-American students in Maryland took AP exams last year, but the College Board predicted that only 2,000 had a strong chance of passing because of scores on other tests.

At Woodlawn, a high-poverty, high-minority school, only 7 percent of AP students passed the exam last year, reports the Sun. At Dulaney High, which enrolls primarily middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, most AP students will earn college credit.


“A common response to the access problem was to helicopter-drop AP courses into disadvantaged high schools,” said Kristin Klopfenstein, executive director for the Education Innovation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado. “The thinking was that this would improve these schools by setting high expectations.”

Adam Sutton teaches AP economics at Woodlawn. “I refuse to lie to my students about where they are with regards to meeting AP standards,” Sutton said. By mid-year, nearly half his students had quit the class.

Woodlawn doesn’t have a critical mass of top students who have grown up in a culture of high achievement, teachers said. Too often, students sail through the gifted and honors classes with top grades by showing up and following directions. And when they look around the school, they see themselves as the best students.

They don’t realize they’re not ready to do college-level work till they get to campus.

Many teachers think students will do better in college if they take an AP class, even if they fail to earn credit. It’s not clear that’s true, reports the Sun.

MIT: Boston charters raise achievement

Winning a charter high school lottery in Boston leads to higher SAT scores, especially in math, and increases students’ odds of qualifying for a state-funded college scholarship, concludes an MIT study, Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness. Charter students take twice as many AP exams and are more likely to pass AP Calculus.  They’re more likely to pass the state graduation exam on their first try and to enroll in four-year colleges and universities instead of community colleges.

Lottery winners who attended for as little as one day were compared to similar students who’d tried to get into a charter but lost out in the lottery.

“Because of the age of charter schools in Boston, it is now possible to examine the long-run effects of attending a charter high school in Boston,” said Parag Pathak, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Economics at MIT. “Our results suggest that attending a charter high school increases the rates at which students pass the MCAS, boosts students’ SAT scores and AP participation rates, and, perhaps most strikingly, raises the likelihood that they will attend a four-year college.”

The study also found that attending a Boston charter school “markedly” increases the rate at which special education students pass state competency exams.

Charter students are less likely to earn a diploma in four years; some need more time to meet school standards. Within six years, 82 percent of charter school students graduate compared with 78 percent of the control group.

The charter schools in the study received slightly less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools.

Exam schools from the inside

Exam schools — public schools for high achievers — attract far more applicants than they can take, write Fordham’s Checker Finn and consultant Jessica Hockett in Education Next.

Some school officials are uneasy about the practice of selectivity, given possible allegations of “elitism” and anxiety over pupil diversity. Still, most rely primarily on applicants’ prior school performance and scores on various tests.

. . . Their overall student body is only slightly less poor than the universe of U.S. public school students. Some schools, we expected, would enroll many Asian American youngsters, but we were struck when they turned out to comprise 21 percent of the schools’ total enrollment, though they make up only 5 percent of students in all public high schools. More striking still: African Americans are also “overrepresented” in these schools, comprising 30 percent of enrollments versus 17 percent in the larger high-school population. Hispanic students are correspondingly underrepresented, but so are white youngsters.

Exam schools are “serious, purposeful places” with motivated, well-behaved students. Teachers have high expectations for students. Most schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, their own  advanced courses and/or actual college classes. In addition, there are literary magazines, robotics competitions, sophisticated music and theater offerings, most of the usual clubs and organizations, plenty of field trips, and no dearth of sports—though champion football and basketball teams were rare!

But exam schools are under heavy pressure to get graduates into top-tier colleges. The “AP tiger” frustrates teachers, exhausts students and discourages  ”experimentation, risk-taking, unconventional thinking, unique courses, and individualized research, as well as pedagogical creativity and curricular innovation,” write Finn and Hockett.

While exam school students excel, it’s not clear the school added value to students who already were high performing, they write.

Should the U.S. have more exam schools for high achievers? Here’s the poll.

AP pilots classes on research, writing skills

Two new Advanced Placement courses will teach research and writing skills, reports College Bound. College Board and Cambridge International Examinations developed the pilot program.

The AP/Cambridge Interdisciplinary Investigations and Critical Reasoning Seminar will be offered in 11th grade. Students will work in teams to research and write topics of global relevance. Each school can choose its own topic and pair different disciplines, such as history and English.

The AP/Cambridge Capstone Research Project taken in 12th grade involves writing a 4,500 to 5,000-word paper that will be evaluated on the students’ ability to design, plan, and manage a research project, analyze information, and communicate their findings.

The new courses aren’t designed to replicate a college course, so there’s no exam. However, students who pass the two courses and earn a 3 or better on three AP exams will earn the Capstone Credential certification.

Boys dominate AP physics, computer science

Most STEM fields are likely to remain predominantly male. Boys take more AP physics and computer science exams, while girls now dominate AP biology (59 percent), notes Curriculum Matters, who’s been reading the AP Report to the Nation. While Calculus AB exam-takers are evenly split, 59 percent of those who tackle the more advanced Calculus BC are male.

Males make up 58 percent of AP music theory exam-takers, 74 to 77 percent in physics and 80 to 86 percent in computer science.

Gender differences were minor for Chemistry, European History, Latin, Statistics and U.S. Government and Politics.

In The Big Bang Theory, three males are physicists (theoretical, experimental and astro) and one is an engineer, while the female scientists are biologists.

 

Obama, the education president

Obama’s Education Record includes some success stories — and soft spots, write Mike Petrilli and Tyson Eberhardt in Education Next.

His Race to the Top (RttT) initiative catalyzed a chain reaction of legislative action at the state level, securing key reforms on issues ranging from charter schools to teacher evaluations to rigorous standards. His stimulus and “edujobs” bills seemed to maintain a critical level of investment in the public schools during a time of difficult budget cuts and financial strain. His administrative action to provide flexibility on No Child Left Behind’s most onerous provisions bypassed a paralyzed Congress and partially fulfilled his campaign promise to lift the law’s yoke off the backs of decent but maligned schools. . . .

. . . both the Common Core State Standards effort and the move toward rigorous teacher evaluations could lead to dramatic increases in student achievement, if implemented faithfully by states and school districts. Neither of these reforms would have been adopted so quickly, in so many places, were it not for the president’s leadership.

But the stimulus wasted a lot of money, they write. Race to the Top states have back-pedaled on reforms.

And Washington keeps tightening the screws on the states, while promising flexibility. Race to the Top required states to “develop plans that complied with federal guidelines set forth in excruciating detail.”  No Child Left Behind waivers required more hoop jumping. Now the Education Department has declared that “a disproportionate percentage of white students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes constitutes evidence of racial discrimination.”

“Obama and Duncan have been good on education reform” compared to their Democratic predecessors, write Petrilli and Eberhardt.  But “the administration deserves to be pressed on the cost-effectiveness of its education system bailouts, on the results of its Race to the Top initiative, and on the wisdom of its approach to federalism and separation of powers.”

 

Cash incentives boost AP pass rate

More students take Advanced Placement classes and pass the exam when teachers and students are offered cash incentives, reports the New York Times.

At South High Community School, a mostly low-income school in Worcester, Massachusetts, eight times as many students take Joe Nystrom’s AP Statistics classes. The pass rate has climbed from 50 percent to 70 percent.

South High students said Mr. Nystrom and his colleagues had transformed the culture of a tough urban school, making it cool for boys with low-slung jeans who idolize rappers like Lil Wayne to take the hardest classes.

They were helped by the National Math and Science Initiative, a nonprofit network that provided laboratory equipment and special training for teachers and organized afternoon tutoring and Saturday sessions. It also paid $100 each to students who scored a 3 or above on the A.P. exam — and to their teachers, who can also earn additional rewards. Because 43 of his students passed the exam this year, far above his target, Mr. Nystrom will add a $7,300 check to his $72,000 salary.

Kristopher Santana, son of a customer service rep, earned a perfect 5 on the AP Statistics exam after atttending 18 hours of Saturday classes organized by the initiative, and Nystrom’s twice-weekly, after-school tutoring sessions. The $100 was “a great extra,” he says.

This year, 308 schools in six states are participating in the program.

 Brian Leonard, who teaches AP calculus and statistics at Lake Hamilton High School in Arkansas, earned a$12,500 bonus for 65 students who passed exams. Three years ago, the high school had only nine AP math students, all the children of educated professionals.  Now students from a range of backgrounds are taking AP math — and passing the exam.

College in 3? Few choose fast track

The three-year bachelor’s degree isn’t catching on, despite soaring college costs and high school graduates with lots of AP credits, reports  the Washington Post.

“A lot of students are interested in it,” said Dave McFadden, executive vice president of Manchester College. “A smaller number of students sign up for it, and an even smaller number finish it.”

Completing in three requires students to pick a major immediately, pass up irrelevant electives, extracurriculars and junior year abroad and study when others are partying. Students say they’d rather enjoy the college experience then get into the job market a year early with less debt, the Post reports.

Motivated students with lots of AP credits can complete a bachelor’s degree in three years without signing up for a special program. They just do it. Some stay for four years and add a master’s degree. But these are excellent students who know exactly where they’re going.

CNN Money charts the growth in tuition vs. income. Four (or five or six) years of college is a luxury item. Costs are much higher for those who don’t live at home.

As portrayed on the left axis, median income has hovered around $33,000 since 1988. Meanwhile, college tuition and fees -- portrayed on the right axis -- have more than doubled.

As portrayed on the left axis, median income has hovered around $33,000 since 1988. Meanwhile, college tuition and fees — portrayed on the right axis — have more than doubled.

Colleges question dual enrollees' readiness

Many more high school students are earning college credits through dual-enrollment programs, but some colleges question whether they’re truly doing college-level work. More colleges also are refusing to give credit to students who’ve passed AP exams.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Fewer California community college students are transferring to the California State system, while more are choosing private and out-of-state colleges and universities. That’s much more expensive, but not if students factor in the time it will take to get the courses they need and complete a degree.