Is Huck Finn too hard?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is too difficult for high schoolers, argues Kent Oswald in Education Week Teacher. He fears it will ruin “teens’ potential interest in serious reading.”

. . . during and after their two-chapter-a-night, test-in-three-weeks slog through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, few high schoolers gain any sense of why Twain is revered, understand what the book is even about, or have their thinking changed by absorbing how differing contexts have made the tale controversial from its time through today. . . . Potential barriers for teen readers include Twain’s use of highly colloquial period-speech and subtle subversion of the religious and slaveholding conventions of his contemporaries, not to mention some highly dense sections. So where is the rationale for forcing teens to read a book whose story is more or less simple but whose context is more complex than most of them are prepared for?

Twain wrote more accessible books and short stories, writes Oswald, who is described as a freelance writer with a master’s in teaching who works (doing what?) “in the White Plains, N.Y., school system.”

In the comments, several teachers say their students enjoy Huck Finn and the discussions it fosters about race.

Yes, I was a precocious reader, but I first read Huckleberry Finn in elementary school. When Huck thinks he’s sinned by helping Jim and decides he’ll willing to go to hell for it . . . I got it. I can’t believe high school students –with a teacher’s help — can’t understand it. At the end, Tom Sawyer says nobody was killed in a steamship accident, then says a slave died. That shocked me. But I got it.

‘I Learn America’

A new documentary, I Learn America, follows five immigrant students at Brooklyn’s International High School at Lafayette.

Urban high schools lose newspapers

Urban high school newspapers are folding, reports the New York Times. Fewer than one in eight of New York City’s public high schools reported having a newspaper or print journalism class and many of the surviving newspapers publish only a few times a year.  Some exist as online publications or blogs.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of public high schools have newspapers, according to a 2011 media study, but urban, high-minority schools are the least likely to have a newspaper.

Even the World Journalism Preparatory School, a public school in Queens that teaches its 600 students to use journalism skills to explore the world around them, has struggled to find a way to support the school paper, an experience the principal said provided a valuable real-world lesson about the industry. This year, the school eliminated financing for the paper after repeatedly telling students that it could not afford to indefinitely pay $10,000 a year to print it. The students, after failing to sell ads, opted for an online paper.

As funding is shifted to college-prep classes, school newspapers are turning to bake sales and PTA appeals to stay afloat.

In the Bronx, The Clinton News has published though the Great Depression, two world wars, school budget cuts and a spell in the 1990s when it looked as if it might go under. The school’s alumni have raised tens of thousands of dollars to help cover printing costs, buy new computers and software, and upgrade the pages to color.

Still DeWitt Clinton may close. It’s received an F grade for the past two years from city education officials.

When I started on my high school newspaper, it had just been cut from weekly to every-other weekly. My daughter was editor of her high school newspaper, which came out monthly. I’d much rather see school newspapers go online and be updated frequently than turn the school newspaper into a once-a-semester ink-on-paper leaflet.

I volunteer for Mosaic, a student journalism workshop run by my friend and former colleague Joe Rodriguez. Joe is trying to adapt Mosaic to fit the changing nature of high school journalism.

MIT: Boston charters raise achievement

Winning a charter high school lottery in Boston leads to higher SAT scores, especially in math, and increases students’ odds of qualifying for a state-funded college scholarship, concludes an MIT study, Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness. Charter students take twice as many AP exams and are more likely to pass AP Calculus.  They’re more likely to pass the state graduation exam on their first try and to enroll in four-year colleges and universities instead of community colleges.

Lottery winners who attended for as little as one day were compared to similar students who’d tried to get into a charter but lost out in the lottery.

“Because of the age of charter schools in Boston, it is now possible to examine the long-run effects of attending a charter high school in Boston,” said Parag Pathak, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Economics at MIT. “Our results suggest that attending a charter high school increases the rates at which students pass the MCAS, boosts students’ SAT scores and AP participation rates, and, perhaps most strikingly, raises the likelihood that they will attend a four-year college.”

The study also found that attending a Boston charter school “markedly” increases the rate at which special education students pass state competency exams.

Charter students are less likely to earn a diploma in four years; some need more time to meet school standards. Within six years, 82 percent of charter school students graduate compared with 78 percent of the control group.

The charter schools in the study received slightly less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools.

Florida legislators OKs two-track diploma

Florida will create a two-track high school diploma for college-bound and career-minded students under a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, reports the Miami Herald.

If the proposal becomes law, the requirements for earning a standard diploma in Florida will change dramatically. Students still will have to pass an end-of-course exam in algebra and a standardized test in language arts. But they no longer will have to pass end-of-course exams in geometry and biology.

Instead, those exams would count for 30 percent of a student’s final grade in that subject.

A passing score on the biology exam would be necessary only for students wishing to add a new “scholar” designation to their diploma. Those students also would have to pass the algebra II exam, earn two credits in a foreign language and enroll in at least one college-level class, among other more rigorous requirements.

Students also can add a “merit” designation to their diploma by earning industry certification in a field such as automotive technology.

A “scholar” wouldn’t be guaranteed college admission and a student who earns vocational “merit” could pursue a bachelor’s degree, reports the Herald.

Not every student is going to go to college, said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Subcommittee. However, all graduates “are going to be college ready.”

Why not say that non-scholar graduates will be ready for job training — in the military, at a community college or on the job — but not ready for academic higher education?

High school grad rate could hit 90%

U.S. high schools are graduating more students and could reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, according to Building a Grad Nation by America’s Promise Alliance.

Gains were strong for minority students: African-American students saw a 6.9 percent increase in graduation rates from 2006 to 2020, and Hispanic students had a 10.4 percent increase.

In the Davis Guggenheim documentary “Waiting for Superman,” Americans learned about “dropout factories,” high schools where fewer than half of all students graduated on time. Bob Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University professor, coined that term — and in the report out Monday, he found that the number of “dropout factories” has declined. In 2011, according to the report, there were 583 fewer such schools than there were in 2002. “The schools have gotten better, and some have closed,” Balfanz said.

In 2002, 46 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanics attended a high school where most students failed to graduate. By  2011, that fell to 25 percent for backs and 17 percent for Hispanics.

Early college for all

A rural North Carolina school district will offer all students the chance to take “early college” courses for credit and will try to create a “college-going culture” starting in kindergarten.

Fewer students need remediation when community colleges work with feeder high schools. South Texas College has helped set up dual enrollment programs at 68 high schools.

Idaho legislator: Require ‘Atlas Shrugged’

Idaho students would have to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and pass a test on it to graduate from high school under a bill introduced by Sen. John Goedde, chairman of the Idaho Senate’s Education Committee.

Goedde said he won’t push the bill, but wants to send a message to the State Board of Education, which repealed a rule requiring two online courses to graduate from high school. “It was a shot over their bow just to let them know that there’s another way to adopt high school graduation requirements,” Goedde said after the meeting.

He hasn’t read the book for 30 years, “but it certainly gives one a sense of personal responsibility,” Goedde said.

In the 1957 novel, productive citizens go on strike against heavy taxation and government regulation. When the innovators and makers disappear, society collapses. Capitalists have better sex too.

Rand’s Anthem would be an interesting choice for teenagers. It’s set in a world in which the idea of “I” has been lost. It’s a lot shorter than Atlas and I don’t think there’s much sex.

I had to memorize the Preamble of the Constitution to get out of junior high. Is there a book that all high school should be required to read?

High school is forever

High school is forever, writes Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine. Teens are stuck with an identity — nerd, princess, jock, brain, rebel — that sticks with them, in some form, even after they move into the adult world.

Until the Depression, most American adolescents worked alongside adults, Senior writes. Now they live in a world of adolescents that she calls “corrosive” and “traumatizing.”

Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

In 2000, three psychologists asked tenth-graders which Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be. At age 24, the self-evaluations were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors.

. . .  one datum was interesting: At 24, the princesses had lower self-esteem than the brainy girls, which certainly wasn’t true when they were 16. But Eccles sees no inconsistency in this finding. In fact, she suspects it will hold true when she completes her follow-up with the same sample at 40. “Princesses are caught up in this external world that defines who they are,” says Eccles, “whereas if brainy girls claim they’re smart, that probably is who they are.” While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.

My identity was formed long before high school. People thought I was smart and funny. Since many of my classmates were Jewish, good students were admired, not teased. Middle school was socially challenging, but I survived. (I was voted “girl most likely to succeed” in eighth grade, though they didn’t specify in what.) High school was tracked, which I loved. I wrote for the school newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine and Student Stunts. Was it really that awful for the average kid? Perhaps I was just lucky.

High school grad rate tops 78%

The on-time high school graduation rate hit 78.2 percent in 2010, the highest in a generation and up 2.7 points in a year.

“If you drop out of high school, how many good jobs are there out there for you? None,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told AP.

While 93.5 percent of Asian-American students and 83 percent of whites complete high school in four years, that drops to 71.4 percent for Hispanics and 66.1 percent for blacks.

State graduation rates ranged from 57.8 percent in Nevada to 91.4 percent in Vermont.

Comparing graduation rates to any year before 1992 is impossible, writes RiShawn Biddle. The data collection method changed significantly. Some states and districts are reporting very dodgy data. Connecticut reported a 98 percent graduation rate for the class of 2010, which NCES refused to accept. The District of Columbia claimed “only one percent of students officially drop out over a four-year period.”  The key word is “officially.”