Hard work, high hopes

Here’s my take on college-prep high schools for disadvantaged students, which will be part of Fordham’s upcoming (next fall) book, Education for Upward Mobility. 

It starts:

In a Texas border town along a curve of the Rio Grande, everyone takes college classes in high school. Half of the class of 2014 earned an associate degree, a vocational certificate, or a year’s worth of college credits, as well as a Hidalgo Early College High School diploma. For Mexican American students in a minimum-wage town, it’s better to aim too high than to take the easy path, says Superintendent Ed Blaha.

At a San Jose charter high school, Latino students (and a few blacks, Asians, and whites) struggle to get on the college track and stay there. Ganas (Spanish for desire, determination, or—yes—grit) is essential for Downtown College Prep’s students.

“Find a way or make one” is the motto of Providence St. Mel, an all-black private school, formerly Catholic, on Chicago’s West Side. Every year, all graduates are accepted at four-year colleges and universities, and more than half go to selective “tier 1” colleges.

I look at common elements of schools that are making a difference.

Downtown College Prep (see my book, Our School) is fighting San Jose Unified’s plan to move the flagship high school to a site with half the classrooms it needs and no science lab. DCP students would have to walk across the street to a district high school to use classrooms, labs and athletic facilities. Why would the district try to disrupt a successful charter — and disrupt its own high school? It makes no sense.

Environmental science students work on DCP’s teaching garden, a collaboration with a local nonprofit.

Florida drops special-ed diploma

Florida’s special-ed students must take college-prep classes required for a standard diploma, reports The Ledger. A new state law has abolished the special diploma alternative. .

At Roosevelt Academy, a school for learning-disabled students in Lake Wales, ninth-graders were transferred from intensive math to Algebra I two months into the school year to comply with the law.

The special diploma is not accepted by state universities and may not be accepted by state colleges, technical centers, employers or the military.

But at Roosevelt Academy, teachers don’t encourage their students to go to college.

“We tell them that if you want to go to college, don’t come to our school,” said Phillip Miles, a life skills math teacher. “We’re preparing you for work, not college.”

Miles’ students are way behind in math. His class taught practical skills such as how to make a budget or calculate sales tax.

About 80 percent of Roosevelt Academy graduates have jobs by the time they collect their special diploma. That’s goal they and their parents set when creating an Individualized Education Plan.

Till now, special-ed students could earn a special diploma by mastering the “employment and community competencies” in the IEP and completing a semester of successful employment.

Now all students will have till age 22 to pursue a standard diploma — or settle for a certificate of completion.

Teachers are supposed to make college-prep courses accessible for disabled students.

In geometry, for example, a student who has trouble writing or speaking might point to an equilateral triangle rather than draw one or explain why it is equilateral.

. . . “They have to fail for four years before they even get a certificate of completion,” said Henry Smith, vocational teacher and career placement coordinator for Roosevelt. “I guarantee you the dropout rate is going to be astronomical.”

Seventeen states offer only a standard diploma, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

AP for average students

A Pittsburgh high school is “spreading the AP gospel” to average students, not just the high achievers, reports the New York Times. Brashear High, a school with “middling” performance, is collaborating with the National Math and Science Initiative, to get more students to take AP classes — and pass AP exams.

Brashear has offered A.P. classes in biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and statistics, but few among the school’s 1,400 students excelled. Last year, of the 159 enrolled in those classes, nearly two-thirds did not even take the tests, which normally cost $89 each. (Because of subsidies by NMSI and the school, the fee this year is as low as $9.)

Just 10 students accounted for the 13 passing scores of 3 or higher. No Brashear student has passed the chemistry exam since 2010, or scored higher than 1 in statistics in the two years that course has been taught.

NMSI uses teacher training, student study sessions and cash incentives to raise test-taking and pass rates.

In the first year of NMSI’s help, the number of passing scores on science and math A.P. exams jumps by an average of 85 percent, according to data from the College Board, which administers the A.P. tests. By the end of the three-year effort, the number has nearly tripled, on average.

Students get $100 for a passing score of 3 or better on the AP exam. The teacher also gets $100 — plus a $1,000 bonus for reaching a target number of passing scores.

Many Brashear students are struggling in rigorous AP classes this year, reports the Times. However, Principal Kimberly Safran has turned down most requests to drop AP. “Parents are beginning to understand that the rigor of the course and having the tenacity to complete the course are important for success after high school,” she said.

Advocates say students don’t have to pass the AP exam to benefit from the challenge.

“We think 20 out of 40 passing physics is better than 10 out of 10,” NMSI’s Gregg Fleisher said. “What typically happens is our pass rate usually stays the same, but the kids that were in class that were passing at 30 percent, now they’ll pass at 50 or 60 percent. And the kids who were never given an opportunity would pass at 20 or 30 percent.”

Today’s students, tomorrow’s jobs

(Academic) college isn’t for everyone, wrote Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Slate. Some students who are failing in college might succeed if they pursued job training, he argued.

It sparked a huge response. Many argued that students need college prep and career prep.
Others accused Petrilli of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.

“Community college ready” should be the minimum goal for all cognitively able students, responded Sandy Kress, an aide to George W. Bush. That means high school graduates should be able to take academic or vocational classes at a community college without the need for remediation.

Kress “prays” that “CTE advocates make these courses as rigorous and valued as they promise they will, and not just a dodge for them to avoid teaching and learning in the so-called old fashioned courses.” In the past, dead-end vocational education has been a “trap” for low-income and minority kids, writes Kress.

Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, edited by Penn Professor Laura Perna, looks at the gap between school and the workforce.

Check out “Nancy Hoffman’s excellent chapter on career and technical education,” advises Liz McInerny on Education Gadfly. Education and training for a specific calling  would keep students in school and on track for decent jobs, Hoffman writes.

ACT: 10% of blacks are ready for college

Most black high school graduates aren’t prepared to succeed in college, according to an ACT study.

Only 10 percent of African-Americans met at least three of the ACT’s four College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, compared to 39 percent of all graduates who took the test.

Sixty-two percent of African-Americans who started college in 2011 made it to their second year, compared to 73 percent of all  ACT-tested 2011 graduates.

Blacks were somewhat less likely to take a college-prep core curriculum in high school. “While 81 percent of Asian-American students and 71 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and sciences courses, only 57 percent of African American students had full access,” observes Ed Week‘s CollegeBound.

Charters grow, but so do wait lists

Charter schools are growing steadily — as are charter wait lists — reports the Center for Education Reform’s 2014 Survey of America’s Charter Schools.

Sixty-one percent of charter schools serve predominantly lower-income students. Charter students are much more likely to be black and somewhat more likely to be Latino than other public school students, according to the survey and National Center for Education Statistics data. Sixty-three percent of charter students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch compared to 48 percent of public students.

The populations of charter students and public school students appear to be comparable with respect to special education status, the proportion of English language learners, and gifted and talented students.

Educational approaches include: college prep (30 percent), STEM (8 percent), Core Knowledge (16 percent), Blended Learning (6 percent) and Virtual/Online learning (2 percent).

On average, charter schools receive 36 percent less revenue than traditional public schools, the survey finds. “Unlike other public schools, most do not receive facilities funds,” which means they must spend operating funds to rent space.

The percentage of charters offering an extended school day increased from 23 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2012.

More charters are paying teachers based on performance, the survey reports. 

Texas, Florida drop college-prep-for-all

Texas won’t require all high school graduates to pass Algebra II, reports the Texas Tribune. Of five new diplomas, only the honors and STEM diplomas will require advanced algebra. The school board feared struggling students would drop out if they saw no realistic pat to a diploma.

Only half of the state’s high school graduates go directly to college, writes Sophie Quinton

Rather than a recommended four years each of math, science, and social studies, Texas students now need just three credits in each and must take five end-of-course tests rather than 15. Students will be able to earn “endorsements” in areas such as public service, arts and humanities, and business and industry. The State Board of Education is currently debating which endorsements will require Algebra 2.

Florida is rolling back college-prep-for-all requirements passed in 2010, writes Quinton.  Students who take Algebra 2 and either chemistry or physics will earn a “scholar” diploma, while those who earn one or more industry certifications will earn a “merit” designation.

Sixteen other states have made Algebra II a graduation requirement, she writes. So far, they’re staying the course.

Once a state has multiple high school diplomas, it makes a lot of sense to create a college-prep diploma, a vocational-prep diploma and a basic diploma for those with minimal skills. People worry that fewer disadvantaged students will go to college. I think more will earn a degree if they’ve chosen the academic track. And those who choose the technical/vocational track will have a decent shot at success.

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.