When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  ”astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

No choice for the wealthy

Actor Matt Damon, who opposes school choice for low-income students, has chosen to send his children to private school in Los Angeles, where he’s just moved, notes Andrew Rotherham in TIME, who calls the actor a “hypocrite.” The son of a teacher turned education professor, Damon has campaigned against education reform and in favor of public education. But he says there are no progressive public schools in Los Angeles, so “we don’t have a choice.”

Los Angeles has many charter schools and traditional public schools in demand by parents, responds Rotherham. Superintendent John Deasy offered to help Damon “tour a number of schools so he can have choices from our amazing portfolio of schools.”

 In addition to the traditional and charter schools in the LA system there are Mandarin immersion schools, magnets with different focuses, and even schools that focus on activism. If none of those schools turn out to work for the Damons that’s still a powerful argument for the ideas he works against publicly: Letting parents and teachers come together to create new public schools that meet the diverse needs of students. That’s precisely the idea behind public charter schools, an idea derided at the rallies where Damon is celebrated.

“Los Angeles now has a number of charter schools that are propelling first-in-family students into and through college,” writes Rotherham. That increases social mobility and reduces inequality. “If that’s not progressive enough, then what is?”

Wealthy parents can afford to live in an area with excellent public schools. That’s the most common choice for those who value public education.

Damon’s new movie, Elysium, is about a future dystopia were the uber-wealthy live in an edenic space station — with great medical care — while the 99.9 percent suffer on a polluted Earth.

Elite students excuse cheating

Cheating is easy to rationalize, say students at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in the New York Times.

The night before one of the “5 to 10” times he has cheated on a test, a senior at Stuyvesant High School said, he copied a table of chemical reactions onto a scrap of paper he would peek at in his chemistry exam. He had decided that memorizing the table was a waste of time — time he could spend completing other assignments or catching up on sleep.

“It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ — no. No one wants to fail a test,” he said, explaining how he and others persuaded themselves to cheat. “You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.”

A recent alumnus said that by the time he took his French final exam one year, he, along with his classmates, had lost all respect for the teacher. He framed the decision to cheat as a choice between pursuing the computer science and politics projects he loved or studying for a class he believed was a joke.

“When it came to French class, where the teacher had literally taught me nothing all year, and during the final the students around me were openly discussing the answers, should I not listen?” he said.

Stuyvesant students are competing for highly selective colleges. They work very hard in the classes they care about, but try to limit their workload in other classes. Copying homework is considered OK, students told the Times. Cheating on tests requires some extra excuse-making.

In June, 71 juniors were caught texting his each other answers to state Regents exams.

Education and civil rights group charge the elite high schools’ admissions test screens out black and Hispanic students, reports the Times. The Specialized High School Admissions Test is the sole criterion for admission to eight specialized schools.

According to the complaint, 733 of the 12,525 black and Hispanic students who took the exam were offered seats this year. For whites, 1,253 of the 4,101 test takers were offered seats. Of 7,119 Asian students who took the test, 2,490 were offered seats. At Stuyvesant High School, the most sought-after school, 19 blacks were offered seats in a freshman class of 967.

“Stuyvesant and these other schools are as fair as fair can be,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a news conference. “You pass the test, you get the highest score, you get into the school — no matter what your ethnicity, no matter what your economic background is.”

Can schools raise social mobility?

Can schools spur social mobility? asks Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

No way, says Charles Murray, who visited Fordham to promote his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray sees a growing division between well-educated elites, who marry college classmates, and a semi-educated class who are less likely to marry at all.


New York Times columnist David Brooks worries about “the opportunity gap.” College-educated parents spend more time with their children — “reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines” — than working-class parents. Affluent kids are more active in sports, theater, yearbook, scouting, etc. They’re more likely to go to church and to volunteer. It all adds up.

What to do? asks Petrilli

Our argument, as it goes, is that we’ve never really tried. Because of low expectations, mediocre teachers, a lack of options, ill-designed curricula—name your poison—poor kids have never had a chance to see their talents flourish. Put them into the right educational environment, surround them with supportive adults, and (if you’re of the broader/bolder persuasion) provide them with all kinds of social supports too, and we’ll see our elite college campuses—gateways to the new Upper Class—democratize before our eyes.

But academic ability isn’t evenly distributed. Whether by nature or nurture, successful parents are raising successful children.

“We’ve gotten really, really good” at identifying talented children from low-income and working-class communities and providing scholarships to good colleges, Murray says. Petrilli thinks online learning could provide more access, but there are limits to how many diamonds will be found in the rough.

 The second strategy is to be more realistic about the kind of social mobility we hope to spur. Getting a big chunk of America’s poor kids into the New Elite in one generation might be a fool’s errand—our meritocracy has put them at too great a disadvantage. But getting them into working -class or middle-class jobs isn’t so impossible. Here’s a question for the KIPPs and YES Preps of the world: Would you be happy if, ten years from now, your middle schoolers were working as cops, firefighters, teachers, plumbers, electricians, and nurses? This would be a huge accomplishment, it seems to me, as most poor kids will go on to work in low-paid service jobs a decade hence.

Rewarding people based on “real merit” — skills and performance — rather than credentials — SATs and degrees — would mean less social equality, writes Mickey Kaus. “Web-schooled winners” who rise without a university degree are likely to be smart people who have smart children who do well in school and out. “The social centrifuge separating the meritorious from the less meritorious won’t have stopped spinning. In some ways it will be spinning faster, with greater precision. Sorry.”

 

Few black, Hispanic students at elite public school

Few black or Hispanic students qualify for an elite magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in northern Virginia. While blacks and Hispanics make up 33 percent of public school students in the region,  they comprise less than 4 percent of TJ’s student body. “Initiatives to enlarge the pipeline of qualified black and Hispanic students in elementary and middle school have flopped,” reports the Washington Post.  Asian-Americans are now the largest group of students.

Like other public schools with competitive admissions, TJ screens applicants through grades and test scores. A key requirement is that students take Algebra 1 by eighth grade. Many disadvantaged students don’t clear that threshold, which presents a national challenge for science and math instruction.

Competition to get into TJ is fierce. Some private companies charge hundreds of dollars to prepare students for the school’s entrance exam, a two-hour test of math and verbal-reasoning skills. For those who get in, the payoff is clear. The school has an array of laboratories in fields such as biotechnology and microelectronics, and students follow a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum that culminates in a senior research project.

The school adopted race-blind admissions in 1997. In 2004, officials decided to let race and ethnicity be considered as a factor, along with essays and teacher recommendations, once applicants had been screened by test scores and grades. But the admissions rate for blacks and Hispanics continued to fall.

Other selective regional schools have stopped using affirmative action, the Post reports.

Fairfax school officials say that diversifying TJ requires more than making admissions criteria more flexible. It means helping black and Hispanic students keep up with their white and Asian American counterparts at an early age, especially in math and science.

Since 2000, a county program known as Young Scholars has tried to recruit elementary students who might one day attend TJ. More than half of the program’s 3,776 students between kindergarten and eighth grade are black or Hispanic. Next spring, the first 30 Young Scholars will graduate from high school. Only one will be a TJ graduate.

The school’s Parent Teacher Student Association also offers free test-preparation courses for minority students.

Because there’s little diversity, students “are missing out on a critical part of their education,” says Melissa Schoeplein, a history teacher who complains of teaching about race and poverty in classes with no blacks or Hispanics.

In California, many high-achieving Asian-American students come from low-income and working-class immigrant families. I’d bet that’s true in Virginia too.

Via Education Gadfly