‘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.

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

How black, Latino males succeed

Black and Latino males who are doing well in high school credit their parents’ high expectations, relationships with caring teachers, a respectful, college-going culture in their high schools and a desire to get out of poverty.

Succeeding in the City, a study by Penn Education Professor Shaun Harper, is based on interviews with New York City juniors and seniors with a B average or higher in college-prep classes. All were engaged in school activities and planning to enroll in college.

Two-thirds of the students’ mothers and three-quarters of their fathers lacked any college degree. However 45 percent lived with two parents, which is above average for low-income urban neighborhoods.

“Staying on track can mean staying indoors,” writes Emily Richmond in The Atlantic.

When asked how they avoided being drawn into gang activity in their neighborhoods, many of the students said their parents prohibited all outdoor activity after dark. Some students said that having a reputation as a serious scholar headed for college actually protected them from gang conscription. Many of the respondents also stayed on campus long after classes ended for the day in order to do their studying and hang out with friends, often as a means of avoiding the disruptive neighborhood environment.

Harper also tracked 90 young male black and Latino college students from the same high schools. “Students said they had difficulty with time management–in high school, teachers were careful not to overload students with competing assignments due on the same day, and a student who asked for an extension would likely get one.”

All the high school students could name a teacher who’d helped them succeed. None of the college students could name a supportive professor.

The promise of iPads for special ed

Technology can free special education students from worksheets, writes Anya Kamenetz in The promise of iPads for special ed on the Hechinger Report.

When Neil Virani walked into his middle school special education classroom at Mulholland Middle School, part of the LA Unified School district, three years ago, he encountered a roomful of students with a range of cognitive, emotional and physical challenges. But the most toxic problem they had to combat was the low expectations from the school system they’d been in since kindergarten. “All they had was coloring books and watercolors. They were not working on any academic aspects of the curriculum,” he says. “When I saw a [previous] teacher had written of  a student, “they don’t require ELA writing instruction because they’re never going to manipulate a writing device,’ I said, before I met him, this kid is going to write.”

Today, not only are most of his students reading and discussing stories, producing sophisticated written essays, and scoring proficient in math, they are drawing mind maps to organize their thoughts, building catapults in class to demonstrate physics principles learned from the game Angry Birds, and shooting and editing video documentaries of their experiences, which they storyboard in advance with cartoons.

The iPad and its wide range of apps has enabled students to meet the “highest possible realistic expectations,”  the teacher says.

A student who has control over only one finger was unable to write with a $15,000 assistive technology chair. One involuntary movement would erase what he’d typed. After an hour with a $500 iPad, he wrote his name for the first time.

The iPad has changed his students’ thinking, says Virani. “They believe in themselves; they can do what anyone else can do.”

Core standards: It’s not about the benjamins

Democratic state senators in Pennsylvania have come out against Common Core State Standards “without adequate state financial resources,” reports Ed Week.

It’s not about the benjamins, responds Marc Tucker on Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog. Some high-achieving countries spend substantially less per student than the U.S. ”Top performers . . . redesign their school finance systems” to provide more resources for hard-to-educate students.

When Florida first proposed to raise its standards years ago, some people objected on the grounds that high standards would hurt the poor and minorities, who would not be able to meet them.  The standards were raised and the students whose scores improved the most were poor and minority students.  When Massachusetts set out to raise their standards, the liberals objected that the poor and minority students would be hurt, because they would not be able to meet the standards.  And–you guessed it–when the standards were raised anyway, the students who made the greatest gains were the poor and minority students.

Years ago, he asked parents in a focus group about standards.  An African-American single mother living on welfare said her middle-school son was getting A’s for coloring in a coloring book. “The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s,” she said. “When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store.  I want my child to have the same opportunities they have.  I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

It will be very hard for schools with low-income and minority students to meet the new standards, Tucker concedes. Spending more won’t be enough.

We already spend more money on average than every industrialized country except Luxembourg and Norway.  We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams.  Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.

Rejecting high standards isn’t an option, Tucker argues. Employers will enforce the standards when they decide who to hire. Selective colleges will enforce the standards when they decide who to admit.

Parents are the silver bullet for kids in poverty

Parents, not teachers, are the “silver bullet” for kids in poverty, writes Pérsida Himmele in Charting My Own Course on Ed Week Teacher.

Her immigrant father, who had an eighth-grade education, asked all seven of his children the same question. “To what college you go?”

 Though we lived in the poorest neighborhood, surrounded by rampant drug use, teen pregnancy, and violence, we all followed through on his expectations for us. Our highest earned degrees consist of two PhDs, two master’s degrees, one theology degree, one bachelor’s degree, and one high school diploma (earned by my sister, who has special needs). Our success was no accident.

Now an education professor, Himmele tells future teachers to help parents understand that their expectations are likely to determine their children’s future.

Do the parents in high-poverty areas know that the schools can’t educate their children alone? Do parents of children at-risk know that the odds are against their children, unless they start pressuring their children to do well in school, and pressuring the school to do well by their child? Do Latino and Black families know that in some urban programs, their children’s chances for completing high school are less than 50 percent? Do they realize that if their child drops out he or she will be working twice as hard for less than half the pay as compared to their college-bound friends? Do they know that a dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison than a high school graduate?

She tells parents in high-poverty areas about the choices: “Your kids can work twice as hard for a little while, or they will work twice as hard for the rest of their lives.”

At San Jose’s high-poverty Overfelt High School, two-thirds of students who started four years ago have earned a diploma. Many of the “miracle” graduates heading for college grew up in immigrant families, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Jessica Nuñez, who started school speaking no English, won a scholarship to Berkeley.

Ruben Contreras Rios, 17, received a full scholarship to Santa Clara University, where he’ll major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. “The comfort he found in science and math, when ostracized as a new immigrant, is paying off.”

Juan Guzmán, who “retreated into books when classmates teased him for his immigrant accent and clothes, hopes to become a teacher like Natalia Baldwin, an Overfelt teacher.

With Baldwin’s encouragement, Cesar Torres raised his grades from F’s to A’s. He plans to study business at Chico State and become a billionaire, so his parents won’t have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to work long hours at tough jobs.

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.

The elephant in the integrated classroom

Clashing parenting styles, cultures and expectations undermine school integration, writes Jennifer Burns Stillman in The Elephant in the Classroom in Education Next. She interviewed white, upper-middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods about their school choices.

. . . white, upper-middle-class families prefer a progressive and discursive style of interaction with their children, both at home and in school, and lower-income, nonwhite families prefer a traditional or authoritarian style of interaction with their children in these same venues.

White parents who try an urban school and then leave cite overly strict discipline and  ”near-constant yelling—from principals, teachers, school aides, and nonwhite parents who come to drop off and pick up their kids,” Stillman writes.

White parents who wanted to volunteer said principals and non-white parents saw them as pushy interlopers.

One principal was angry when white parents gave each teacher a $100 book card donated by Barnes & Noble, seeing it as “bribing” teachers. Parents called various principals “not the brightest bulb in the box,” “insane,” “crazy,” “incompetent.”

White parents didn’t do enough “ego stroking,” one mother said.  When parents offered to help out, “it came across as, ‘You’re broken and you need fixing,’ rather than, ‘We’ve got extra hands, we’ve got extra energy, let’s build up what you already have.’ ”

“Creating a successful, truly diverse charter school is enormously difficult to pull off, ” writes Alexander Russo, also in Ed Next. Students come with a wide range of abilities and background knowledge. Parents have different cultures and expectations.

. . . the list of strategies applied is a long one: frequent online assessments to diagnose and direct students to the appropriate activity; open-ended assignments allowing kids of varying skill levels to engage at their own levels; coteaching in which two teachers share responsibility for a group of kids; and looping, in which teachers follow kids from one grade to the next.

In one Brooklyn Prospect classroom, the English teacher makes as many of her lessons open-ended as she can and coteaches half of her classes with a special education teacher. She also offers additional uncredited projects called “Seekers” so that kids who want to can go faster without disadvantaging kids still working on basic skills.

“You can’t just put a heterogeneous population together and think it’s going to work,” Summit cofounder Donna Tavares tells Russo.

Mike Petrilli’s book, The Diverse School Dilemma, offers three ways to create integrated schools in newly gentrified neighborhoods.

Ed Sector: High standards help low achievers

High Standards Help Struggling Students, argues Education Sector in a new report. Using NAEP data, Connie Clark and Peter Cookson Jr. compare “below basic” students in states with low and high standards in 2003 and 2011.

In fourth-grade math, the percentage of below basic students, on average, declined 26 percent among high-standards states and 20 percent in low-standards states. In reading, the decline was narrower, with a 10 percent reduction in high-standards states, and 9 percent in low-standards states.

In eighth-grade math, the reduction in the percentage of below basic students was 23 percent in high-standards states. In low-standards states, the decline was 14 percent. In eighth grade reading, the decline was 10 percent in both cases.

A state’s economic health had no effect on the achievement gap, Clark and Cookson found.

States do not need to dilute Common Core State Standards or set lower expectations to help low achievers, the report concludes.

Hopeless

“Michael” was graduated from high school with no academic skills and unrealistic expectations. Now he’s at an open-admissions college, where he’s  trying hard, but failing. What can his instructor do?