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.

Duncan tells schools how to assign teachers

Uncle Sam shouldn’t try to manage school staffing, writes Rick Hess.

The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking “waivers” from the No Child Left Behind Act’s most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else. In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that “effective” teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.

Arne Duncan, who’s not the school superintendent for the U.S., wants to staff high-poverty schools with more effective teachers, writes Hess. That’s a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t be dictated from Washington.

 Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify “effective” teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.

Some teachers who are effective with easy-to-teach students aren’t effective with hard-to-teach students, Hess points out.

New SAT aims to help low-income students

By focusing on what’s taught in school, the new SAT will help students who can’t afford test prep, writes Ilana Garon, a Bronx high school teacher.

The ACT has passed the SAT in popularity, notes Garon.

While both the current SAT and the ACT have Reading and Writing sections, the SAT currently focuses on vocabulary and more verbally complex reading passages, while the ACT does away with vocabulary definition questions in favor of questions about punctuation and a longer, more involved focus on writing mechanics. In the Reading section, the ACT features articles in four known categories (as opposed to the random selection offered on the SAT), as well as a Science section, which makes students analyze graphs. The Math section of the ACT more closely aligns with a high school math curriculum, while the SAT features some logic games, which are more similar to LSAT questions, and does not include trigonometry.

Students who are strong in math or visually oriented will do better on the ACT, while “verbal” students “may find the SAT plays to their strengths,” writes Garon.

One of the on-going problems with the current SAT is not that it is “harder” than the ACT (as some would argue) but the fact that, more than its rival, it focuses on material outside of the scope of a high school curriculum. For wealthier students, an SAT tutor becomes a mandatory accessory; for many poor students, this type of service is out of reach, leaving them to take a test that is disconnected from what they’re learning in their regular classes with only sparse opportunities for preparation

College Board plans to inform low-income achievers about scholarships and aid to pay their way to selective colleges. But raising college awareness may be less important than redesigning the test, concludes Garon.

I’m not optimistic that the new SAT will be an equalizer:  Students who go to academically strong schools will have a huge advantage.

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.

Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.

“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

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.

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.

Title IX for boys

Stereotyped as troublemakers, boys do worse in school than girls and are less likely to go on to college, writes Glenn Harland Reynolds in Title IX for our boys in USA Today.

Girls are quieter, more orderly, and have better handwriting. The boys get disciplined more, suspended more and are turned off of education earlier.

Female teachers also give boys lower grades, according to research in Britain. . . . More and more, it’s looking like schools are a hostile environment for boys.

Hiring more male elementary teachers would help, writes William Gormley, a professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “Boys perform better when they have a male teacher, and girls perform better when they have a female teacher,” according to Stanford Professor Thomas Dee.

Yet our K-12 teachers are overwhelmingly female — only 2% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are male and only 18% of elementary and middle-school teachers are.

. . . If schoolteachers were overwhelmingly male and girls were suffering as a result, there would be a national outcry and Title IX-style gender equity legislation would be touted. Why should we do less when boys are the ones suffering?

Many boys — and girls — are growing up without a father in the home.

 

Pre-k for all?

Education reform has proven unpopular with teachers’ unions, a key Democratic constituency, so President Obama’s second-term education agenda will focus on preschool and college aid, writes Joy Resmovits on the Huffington Post. “Teacher quality measures have all but dropped off the administration’s billboard agenda . . .  and after Tuesday’s speech, both teachers’ unions issued effusive statements.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, criticized the president’s call for two years of pre-kindergarten for all students.  ”The equity agenda was missing from the first term and it’s also missing from the second term,” she said.

” . . . the thing for me that’s missing is the recognition that some schools, some families, some kids need more help than others,” Wilkins said. “When we have a tight budget … poor kids need pre-K first.”

Obama said high-quality preschool saves $7 for every dollar spent. That number comes from the Perry Preschool Project in the 1960s, which involved poor black children with low IQs  and dismal prospects and included weekly family visits by well-educated teachers. (The Perry kids did poorly in school and life, but not as poorly as the control group.) Head Start hasn’t produced lasting benefits. Preschool programs for middle-class kids do not improve school readiness.

Obama’s plan is expected to resemble a Center for American Progress proposal to provide two years of pre-kindergarten to every child, “paid for with federal funds matched by state spending, to the tune of $10,000 per child,” reports Resmovits. That could cost up to $100 billion. “It is unclear how the president would pay for the program while not increasing the deficit, as he promised Tuesday,” she concludes.

First, fix Head Start, argues Education Gadfly.

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.