Where high school is taken seriously

High school is serious business overseas, say U.S. students who’ve studied in Korea, Finland and Poland. PBS NewsHour interviews the three students featured in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Finnish teachers rely mainly on lectures, said Kim. “There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.”

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

All three countries provide alternatives to college prep. Polish students decide at 16 whether they want to attend an academic high school or start vocational training. Nearly half of Finnish 16-year-olds choose the vocational track. In Korea, 20 percent are in vocational high schools.

Hispanic grads pass whites in college enrollment

Hispanic high school graduates are now more likely than whites to enroll in college: In the class of 2012, 69 percent of Hispanic graduates and 67 percent of whites enrolled in college that fall. Hispanics are less likely than whites to complete high school, but the gap is closing. However, there’s a large college graduation gap.

Federal programs to help disadvantaged students earn college degrees “show no major effects on college enrollment or completion,” concludes a Brookings study. The U.S. Education Department’s college-prep programs cost more than $1 billion a year.

College-prep reqs can backfire

Requiring all students to pass college-prep courses risks raising the drop-out rate, concludes a Public Policy Institute of California report.

San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego have raised their graduation requirements:  Unless they sign an opt-out form, all students must pass all the courses required for admission to state universities, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Without strong supports, weaker students may give on earning a diploma, warns the PPIC report, which analyzed San Diego’s transition to the new requirements.

“San Diego students will need to dramatically change the courses they take,” said report co-author Julian Betts, who is also a UC San Diego professor.  ”Clear communication with students, parents, and teachers about the new requirements is critical — and that communication needs to begin in middle school, if not earlier.”

The study recognizes that students may have a harder time graduating with the more rigorous standards, unless schools undertake major interventions to ensure they can succeed.

Requiring college prep may discourage students from taking career tech ed courses, PPIC warned.

In addition, districts “will need to guard against two unwanted side effects: the watering down of a–g course content and possible grade inflation that allows students to graduate even though they are not mastering the content of a–g courses.”

When San Jose Unified required college-prep for all, teachers were under great pressure to give students a D- in chemistry, advanced algebra, etc. so they could earn a diploma.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

College prep for all relies on false data

Starting with the class of 2002, San Jose Unified raised its graduation requirements: All students must pass the college-prep courses required for admission to state universities. The rule doubled the percentage of university-eligible graduates — and nearly tripled college readiness rates for Latinos — the district reported. Inspired by San Jose’s success, other districts raised their graduation requirements. But requiring college prep classes didn’t work in San Jose, the Hechinger Report discovered. The numbers were fudged.

 For six years, the district misreported its results, counting seniors who were close to completing the college-prep requirements as having done so. San Jose claimed that the percentage of graduates who got at least a C in all these classes rose to nearly two-thirds from just over a third. The rate for Latino students rose to nearly 50% from 18.5%, and for black students to more than 50% from 27%, the district incorrectly reported.

After the district corrected its errors, the district reported only incremental progress that was comparable to school systems without the requirements. Of that class of 2011, a little more than a third completed the college-prep sequence.

In 2000, before the college-prep rule took effect, 40 percent of San Jose Unified graduates fulfilled state university admission requirements by earning C’s or better in college-prep courses known as the A-G sequence. In 2011, the number was 40.3 percent.  Of blacks and Latinos who entered high school in fall 2007, about 1 in 5 were eligible to apply to a state university four years later.

Students could graduate with D’s in college-prep courses, while state universities require at least a C. Failing students were transferred to alternative schools with lower expectations. Thanks to compassionate teachers and the D-, the dropout rate didn’t rise.

While San Jose Unified was claiming success, I was writing Our School, about a San Jose charter school’s fierce struggle to prepare low-income and working-class Latino kids for college. I wondered how kids who’d scored “below basic” on the state math exam were passing advanced algebra and chemistry.

Los Angeles Unified will require the class of 2016 to pass the A-G courses with a D or better, reports Hechinger. Next year’s ninth-graders must earn a C or better.

L.A. school officials said their program will include the support necessary to help students succeed. Supt. John Deasy has insisted that requiring students to get a C or better in these classes is necessary for a diploma to be meaningful and to ensure that low-income and minority students don’t have to settle for coursework that is “orange drink” rather than “orange juice.”

“This is all about a kid’s civil rights,” Deasy said. “I am confident in our students, that they will rise to the challenge.”

Meanwhile, Long Beach Unified also is trying to qualify more students for state universities. Instead of requiring A-G courses, Long Beach sets annual improvement targets for its schools. Only 25 percent of Latino students and 27 percent of black students were eligible for state universities in 2011. That’s not great — but it’s better than San Jose’s real numbers.

College isn’t for everyone

The crusade to send everyone to college has backfired, writes Robert Samuelson. It’s dumbed down colleges and filled high schools with bored, frustrated students who see no connection between their college-prep classes and their goals.

In Canada, male apprentices earn slightly more than community college graduates, new research shows.

Surprise! Early algebra doesn’t help weak students

Hold on to your hats: Low-performing students don’t learn much from middle-school algebra according to new research. From Ed Week:

Separate studies of urban middle schoolers in California and in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools suggest that placing struggling math students in algebra class does not improve their test performance on state math tests, and significantly hurts their grade point averages and the likelihood of their taking and passing higher math courses in high school.

Algebra is a gateway course to college, so reformers have pushed students to take it as soon as possible. Some 31 percent of students take algebra in eighth grade compared to 16 percent in 1990 to 2007. California’s standards call for students to learn algebra in eighth grade: 54 percent take the course, though many have to repeat it in ninth grade. And sometimes tenth and 11th.

LA requires college prep, but a D will do

Eight years ago, under pressure to qualify more Latino and black students for college, Los Angeles Unified’s school board voted to make the college-prep courses required by state universities a graduation requirement.  That policy goes into effect for ninth graders this fall. Fearing massive dropouts, district officials propose to let students graduate with 25 percent fewer credits, reports the Los Angeles Times. Students could pass with a D, even though the state universities require a C or better in what’s known as A-G classes for admission.

Currently, a student must earn 230 credits to graduate. Under the proposal, that requirement would be reduced to 170 credits, the minimum set by the California Department of Education. Among the requirements to be dropped are: health/life skills, technology and electives that cover a broad range of subjects, including calculus and journalism.

. . . Students who pass all their classes typically would earn a minimum 180 credits by the end of their junior year.

District officials hope to require students to earn at least a C in college-prep courses starting with the class of 2017.

Some argue that students benefit from taking college-prep courses, even if they scrape by with a D.

“These courses are the markers of a more rigorous curriculum,” said USC education professor Guilbert Hentschke. Since most students don’t attend a four-year university, a college-prep curriculum also “should have a giant effect on success in a two-year community college,” Hentschke said.

With fewer credits required for graduation, students will be able to retake classes they’ve failed — advanced algebra is a killer — during the school day, officials say.

In 2011, nearly half of graduating seniors failed to complete the A-G classes. Many students had dropped out by then. Fifteen percent of those who started high school four years earlier were eligible for state universities.

Requiring all students to pass the A-G requirements was “magical thinking,” not leadership, editorializes the Times.

D students will not succeed in community college. They’ll end up in the Bermuda Triangle of higher education — remedial math, writing and reading — from which few emerge with a degree or even with the ability to pass a single college-level class. Sadly, most C students don’t qualify for college-level classes at community colleges or state universities. If teachers lower expectations — inevitable when they’re teaching lots of poorly prepared students — the B students are likely to end up in remedial classes too.

Academic redshirting: Give students more time

Selective colleges should “redshirt” disadvantaged students, giving them an extra year of college prep, writes Grinnell’s president. It works for football players, he argues.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Police used pepper spray on protesters who stormed a board meeting at Santa Monica City College. They object to the college’s plans to charge premium pricing for priority access to high-demand classes.

A future for all

Despite fears of tracking, high-quality career tech programs are overcoming the voc-ed stigma, writes Dana Goldstein in The Nation.  At Aviation High, a five-year career and/or college prep school in Queens, junior Noel Adames taught her about welding.

A member of ROTC, Noel spends his mornings preparing to become an FAA-certified aircraft mechanic, learning the forty-three skills—from welding to air-conditioner maintenance to electrical wiring—required to service planes and helicopters. He spends his afternoons in traditional academic courses, including one college-level class, and will graduate from Aviation’s five-year program with a New York State Regents diploma. His ambition is to attend the Air Force Academy.

“If you understand how the inside of the plane works, it’s a whole other level of being a pilot,” he says. But if that doesn’t work out, Noel’s FAA certification will qualify him for a union job that pays about $55,000 per year with benefits, and could help him finance a college education.

While the Obama administration is pushing science and math education, it’s not funding hands-on programs to prepare students for STEM careers, Goldstein writes.

On Dewey to Delpit, which I’ve just added to the blogroll, Max Bean writes about the unrealistic expectations at no-excuses, college-for-all charter schools. Here’s part three.

“Ideally, every student not suffering from severe biological handicaps should receive the kind of rigorous academic training that would provide an avenue to college; but, even in ideal circumstances, not all students should actually attend college,” Bean writes. “Moreover, the rigid, uniform format in which college prep is currently being implemented in many inner-city schools is absurd and counterproductive.”

Discuss.