In students’ words: Challenge us

When students who transfer from low-performing to high-performing high schools, they realize what they’ve been missing, writes Brooke Haycock in The View From the Lighthouse. It’s not enough for teachers to care about their students. They have to care about students’ learning.

At Elmont Memorial High School, teachers “get to know you so they can help you — so they can teach you,” says Keisha. “They’re, like, first your teacher — but your friend too. My other school, it was more like, they’re your friends but they kinda missed the teacher part.”

At Granger High School in rural Yakima Valley, Wash., George, a junior, reflected on his relationship with a math teacher at his old school: “He was really nice but he never made us do anything. And, like, if we were late for another class, even if it was our fault, we could just go by his classroom and he’d write us a pass. At the time, I liked it. And he was my favorite teacher. But now, I’m kinda mad, because I realize we weren’t learning anything. I don’t think he meant to do that — I think he was just more worried about us liking him.

“When educators can connect rigorous learning to student goals and opportunities beyond school and make students feel worthy and capable of real rigor, students don’t complain about the work or question its relevance,” writes Brooke Haycock, who’s writing Education Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series. It takes getting used to, students say. “In many cases, this is the first time they’re being asked to do anything that is genuinely hard.”

Some high school classes are easy and unfulfilling, say low-income achievers who talked to Ed Trust researchers for the Falling Out of the Lead report.

Actor David Duchovny’s high school basketball coach “respected me by demanding that I respect myself and a game,” he writes. “I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself.”

High-challenge high schools

Once again, Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter High has topped the Washington Post‘s list of the nation’s most challenging high schools. The index measures the percentage of students taking a college-level exam. It also shows the percentage of students who qualify for a subsidized lunch and the percentage of graduates who passed at least one college-level test.

The Oakland school board revoked the charter of three high-scoring American Indian schools last year, due to financial improprieties. AIPCHS and its sister schools remain open on appeal.

The list excludes selective schools, such as Stuyvesant in New York City, and schools that attract primarily high achievers, such as BASIS Scottsdale, a charter that became very popular with parents of high achievers. Mathews explains:

We do not include any magnet or charter high school that draws such a high concentration of top students that its average SAT or ACT score exceeds the highest average for any normal-enrollment school in the country. This year, that meant such schools had to have an average SAT score below 2005 or an average ACT score below 29.3 to be included on the list.

The Challenge Index is designed to identify schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college-level courses and tests. It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students. We put those schools on our Public Elites list.

Here are alternative ways to rank high schools.

Two-thirds of the most challenging schools don’t field an 11-member football team, writes Mathews.

Low-SES achievers falter in high school

Black, Latino and low-income achievers — kids who scored in the top quartile as sophomores — lose ground in high school concludes a new Education Trust report, Falling Out of the Lead.

The report looks at sophomores who scored in the top quartile in math and reading. Compared to whites and to students of higher socioeconomic status, top-quartile disadvantaged students complete high school with lower grades and SAT or ACT scores. They’re less likely to pass an AP exam or to apply to a selective college.

“These are the students who arrive at high school most ready to take advantage of rigorous and high-level instruction,” Marni Bromberg, The Education Trust’s research associate and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “But to reach the academic levels that they are capable of, they need exposure to challenging curriculum as well as support and guidance from their schools, including in selecting a college that can really challenge them.”

Blacks and Latinos who started in the top quartile were significantly more likely than high-achieving white students to graduate with a C average.

Displaying EdTrust_FallingOutoftheLead_Fig10.jpgCredit: Education Trust

The report praises Ohio’s Columbus Alternative High School, which pushes nearly all students to college.

A Fordham email suggests college-for-all schools don’t challenge urban achievers. “As Tom Loveless illustrated in a 2009 Fordham report, suburban schools by and large ignored the call to de-track their middle schools and high schools, and kept advanced courses in tact. Urban schools, on the other hand, moved to “heterogeneous groupings. That means the high achievers in the suburbs still get access to challenging, fast-paced courses, while those in the cities generally do not.”

The writing on the (cinderblock) halls

Low-income students see plenty of inspirational messages on the cinderblock walls, writes Education Trust playwright-researcher Brooke Haycock in The Writing on the Hall. They’re told to dream big. But students get a very different message in the classroom and the guidance office.

For all the talk of rigor and grit, many educators shield students from “the possibility of failure . . .  woefully underestimating their abilities to tolerate — and even thrive with — challenge,” writes Haycock.

I met Isaiah, a Latino 11th-grader, in the back of an English classroom at a suburban high school just outside of Washington, D.C. While the class down the hall read Macbeth, Isaiah and his classmates — at least those still awake — sat hunched over a Xeroxed reading passage about a squirrel. 

Deja, a high-achieving Michigan senior, told her counselor she was going to college.

Deja went on to tell me that she’d taken “all” the science classes, “through biology,” and that she took geometry her junior year.  “My counselor,” she assured me, “said I can get into A LOT of colleges.”

What no one bothered to tell Deja is that these aren’t even close to the full set of college prep courses required for entry into most four-year colleges — nor even, frankly, into credit-bearing two-year college coursework. 

While 76 percent of high school sophomores want to go to a four-year college, only 27 percent take the courses they need to succeed in colleges, writes Haycock. 

A year after her high school graduation, Deja was temping at a community college and saving money to enroll in the remedial classes she had tested into. “You do everything everyone tells you to do in school, and you work so hard,” she said. “And then you learn it’s not enough.”

The Writing on the Hall is the first of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series.

‘Incredibly good’ is bad for kids

Lavish praise makes kids who aren’t confident less likely to pursue challenges, according to a study titled That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful.

Honest praise is just fine, writes Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. But adults often heap compliments on children with low self-esteem.

In one study, Dutch children were asked to rate their confidence. Later they were told to copy a famous painting, which would be evaluated by a “famous painter.” There were three random responses to the child’s painting: “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).

The researchers . . . asked the children to make a new drawing and let them pick their subject: either a complex drawing or a simple one. It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. “Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,” the researchers wrote.

In another study, parents gave more inflated praise to children with low self-esteem than they did to children with high self-esteem.

 “Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well.  They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”

Confident children can handle excess praise, researchers said.

Bored in class? Deal with it

Nancy Flanagan writes about bored students and boring teachers at Teacher in a Strange Land.

Boredom isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, she starts.

If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.

Boredom isn’t a sign the curriculum or teaching has been “dumbed-down,” Flanagan adds. “Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times.”

Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however.  Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.

Boredom is not a sign of giftedness, Flanagan writes.

Students who “own their boredom” can find ways to deal with it, she advises.

I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education.

Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. “In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  “three or four years down the road.”

Challenge teaches perseverance

Challenging classwork teaches perseverance, writes Justin Minkel, who teaches second and third grade at a high-performing, high-poverty school in Arkansas. Non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, collaboration and goal-setting raise academic achievement, research shows.

Children will work hard on complex problems, he writes. “If a problem is easy, it’s embarrassing to get it wrong. If a problem is so complex even the teacher hasn’t figured out the answer yet, failure becomes a step toward success.”

His third graders design, build, advertise and sell a product for an economics unit.

The teams (or “companies”) will spend hours perfecting their design for an animal-shaped sticker book or toy iPhone, rehearsing the script for their commercials, and even spying on other teams with similar products to find out how they’re pricing them.

The first time around, only two of the eight companies made a profit. The kids on those teams didn’t sit back with a smug grin the way some students do when they get an A on a paper. Instead, they figured out how they could improve on their success to make an even bigger profit the next time around.

Kids on the six teams that lost money didn’t hang their heads the way students do when they get a D or an F. They immediately began talking about where they went wrong and how they could make a profit next time.

This what “productive failure” is all about, writes Minkel.

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  “gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

Is 25 the new 15?

Twenty-five is becoming the new 15, argues Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old.

Young people who’ve grown up in a responsibility-free “bubble” don’t know how to find a job, manage money, cook or care for themselves, write Joseph and Claudia Allen. They’ve been socialized by their peers, not by adults.

We’ve done away with “competition (too masculine, I suppose) and real-world feedback (kids need high self-esteem!),” writes Dr. Helen, a psychologist.

Young people spend more time as college students, often taking five or six years to earn a degree. If it’s a non-technical degree — or they never actually complete it — they’re likely to be living at home at 25.