The Graduates/Los Graduados

The Graduates/Los Graduados on PBS’ Independent Lens looks at six Latino students who overcame challenges –including gang involvement, homelessness, teen pregnancy, undocumented status and homophobia — to succeed in school.

‘College isn’t for us’

“College isn’t for us,” Skylar Myers’ friend Randall told her in seventh grade when she talked about her private school’s College Day. In eighth grade, while she was applying for high school scholarships, Randall was arrested for the first time, Myers writes in the Hechinger Report.
Skylar Myers
Her other friends from the block — Miguel, Malik, Shaquencia and Jonathan — never made it to college. Their future held teen pregnancies, arrests, dropping out of school.

Myers’ parents weren’t college educated, but they made their only child’s education a priority. Her father taught her to read at 2 and started multiplication at 4. And they sent her to private school.

“I just thought you were some type of special case,” Randall said years later. “Your daddy was around and caring [about your educational needs]… if any of us had to go it would be you.”

Randall went to inner-city schools. He joined a gang, so he’d feel safe. He dropped out of high school and earned a GED. After three stints in jail, he was sent to prison. “I’ve always been just as smart as you, but . . . outside the understanding of what’s normally accepted as ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent,’” he told his “homie.”

Myers earned a film studies degree from the University of California in San Diego.

Music hath charms …

Music hath charms to close the achievement gap, writes Lori Miller Kase in The Atlantic. At least, researchers hope so.

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students.

The Harmony Project students were compared to similar students on wait lists for music classes. In second grade, Harmony participants improved in reading, while controls who had not studied music fell farther behind in reading.

SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) is a five-year San Diego study focusing on how music training influences connections in the brain.

Public schools teach just as much music (and art) as ever, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report. Nearly all elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools offer music classes. Students in low-poverty schools get higher-quality music instruction, writes Kase. I assume that means more opportunities to play an instrument.

Too much homework?

Doing his middle-school daughter’s homework for a week was exhausting, Karl Taro Greenfeld writes in The Atlantic. Most nights it took thee hours. His daughter, who attends a “lab” school for gifted students, is becoming “a sleep-deprived teen zombie,” he complains.

Well-educated parents lead the complaints about too much homework, responds Robert Pondiscio. Their kids probably would do just fine with “a humane 30 to 60 minutes a night”  of homework. Poor Students Need Homework, however, if they are to have any chance to succeed in school.

For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool.

The homework debate should focus on what kind of homework is assigned for what purpose, Pondiscio writes. Quantity is less important than quality.

Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.  And all of this is far more important for disadvantaged kids than for Greenfeld’s children, already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes.

How much homework do kids actually do?  Six percent of students say they spend more than three hours a night on homework, according to a 2007 Metlife study. Fifty-five percent spent less than one hour a night.[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]

Metlife Survey of the American Teacher

Blacks say they spend 6.3 hours a week on homework, Latinos report 6.4 and whites 6.8 hours. Asians average 10.3 hours.

Small school students show gains

New York City’s small public high schools are producing gains for disadvantaged students, according to a new MDRC study, Sustained Progress.

Students who win the admissions lottery to these schools are significantly more likely to earn a high school diploma (70.4 percent) than applicants who lost the lottery (60.9 percent) than lottery losers. Small schools  increased the graduation rates of special-education students by 13.8 percentage points and of English Language Learners by 4.9 percentage points, MDRC suggests, though the sample size is small.

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.

‘Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?’

In Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?, Ilana Garon writes about teaching English at a Bronx public school.

In books and movies, the “hero teacher” charges into failing “inner-city schools like a firefighter into an inferno, bringing the student victims to safety through a combination of charisma and innate righteousness,” Garon writes. But that’s a myth. Her students have “big dreams and uncommon insight” — and lots of problems.

What works for high-need students

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond talked about educational equity and what works for disadvantaged students with as part of Education Sector’s Redefining Equity Up series.

State achievement gap grows

“There has been surprising progress in educating disadvantaged students” since No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed in 2002, but some states are doing much better than others, according to The New State Achievement Gap: How Waivers Could Make It Worse – Or Better, a new Education Sector report.

The state achievement gap is growing. High-performing states are adopting robust reform plans in exchange for federal waivers from NCLB, while low-performing states are doing the minimum, such as signing on to Common Core standards, the report finds.

“We now have hard evidence that states have exacerbated differences in the achievement of disadvantaged students, with the guidance of ESEA,” say authors John Chubb and Constance Clark. “We also know that some states, both richer and poorer, are doing very good things for students in need. Washington should be investing time and money in understanding what is actually working and using that knowledge to write a new ESEA based on hard evidence and not political expedience.”

Colleges hire 75% more administrators

Massachusetts colleges and universities hired 75 percent more administrators in the last 25 years, three times the rate of enrollment growth. Officials say they need to provide more student services and cope with more federal regulations.

All 11 million community college students and 1,200 community college presidents should demand equitable funding for community colleges, which serve the neediest students, writes a professor. If protest doesn’t work, litigate.