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Education


DC adult learners may qualify for regular diplomas—whatever those mean

DC education officials are planning to grant high school diplomas to adults who complete high school equivalency programs. But some members of the State Board of Education have challenged one program's rigor, raising the question: What does a DC high school diploma actually signify?


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Adults in DC who pass the GED exam currently receive a certificate, not a high school diploma. Some employers and colleges prefer a diploma.

In 2014, the GED organization overhauled the test, aligning it to the Common Core educational standards. The computer-based exam is now seven hours long and calibrated so that 40% of traditional high school graduates wouldn't be able to pass it.

In recognition of that increased rigor, DC's State Board of Education (SBOE) recently directed the State Superintendent of Education to draft regulations that would award high school diplomas to GED graduates. But in a more controversial move, the regulations would also confer state diplomas on those who graduate from the lesser-known National External Diploma Program (NEDP).

Rather than taking a single test, NEDP graduates must demonstrate 70 different "competencies" in subjects like financial literacy, civic literacy, history, and science. Students work one-on-one with a "buddy" and then are assessed individually on each competency.

The NEDP works better for some adults, but its rigor is unclear

Adult educators say the NEDP, intended for students 25 and older, is better than the GED for people who suffer from test anxiety or have unpredictable work schedules that prevent them from attending regular classes. There are NEDP programs in seven states in addition to DC, which has eight NEDP sites.

The developers of the NEDP say the assessment, like the GED, has been revamped to be more rigorous. And administrators at Academy of Hope, a DC adult charter school that offers both the GED and the NEDP, agree. Five of the six students who got the NEDP credential at the Academy last year are now enrolled in college and are doing well, they say.

But Ward 3 SBOE member Ruth Wattenberg and two of her colleagues have asked for objective evidence of the NEDP's rigor, along the lines of the documentation provided for the GED. The NEDP specifies standards and tasks—such as "Describe contributions from diverse cultures to life in the United States"—and requires students to demonstrate "mastery" of each of them. But, Wattenberg argues, it's not clear whether mastery means a Ph.D.-level thesis or a simple paragraph.

In response to Wattenberg's questions, the State Superintendent of Education, Hanseul Kang, has promised that testing experts at her agency will conduct an independent evaluation of the NEDP's rigor before the SBOE votes on the regulations at its meeting on January 20th.

One wrinkle is that graduates of the NEDP program already get regular diplomas, albeit ones issued by individual high schools rather than by the State Superintendent. At Academy of Hope, for example, NEDP graduates get diplomas from Ballou STAY, an alternative DC Public School high school that is also an NEDP site.

Kang says her office included the NEDP in the proposed regulations to ensure that in the future, graduates get a diploma regardless of where they complete the program. But the fact is, the proposed regulations wouldn't change the current situation for NEDP graduates.

Still, Wattenberg says that including the NEDP in the regulations without evidence of the test's rigor would set a dangerous precedent and—if it's put in the same basket as the GED—unfairly dilute the value of a state diploma for GED graduates.

What level of rigor does a regular diploma require?

That may be true. But a larger problem is that we don't know the level of rigor required to obtain a regular DC high school diploma.

Yes, DC's graduation requirements, which are Common Core-aligned and include three years of math, look rigorous on paper. And it's true students have to pass their courses in order to graduate.

But those familiar with high-poverty high schools say students are often promoted from grade to grade without having mastered course content. Teachers may be under pressure to keep up a school's graduation rate, or they may not want students with behavior problems back in their classrooms for another year.

And some high-poverty high schools saw none of their students score proficient in reading or math on Common Core-aligned tests given last year. On last year's SAT, eight DCPS high schools had average scores below 1,000, well below the national average of 1490.

Current graduation requirements are unrealistically high

A more fundamental question is whether we've set high school graduation requirements—including those for the new GED, and possibly the NEDP—unrealistically high, based on the assumption that all students need to be prepared for college. We shouldn't exclude any students from a college prep curriculum if they're willing to do the work, but we also need to provide high-quality options for those who want to head straight into the workforce.

Over 60,000 DC residents 18 or older lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many need diplomas to enter apprenticeship programs in the construction trades, or to move up in fields like health care or day care.

But officials at Academy of Hope say 90% of their students arrive functioning at or below a 6th-grade level. And it takes 400 hours to prepare them for the new GED, as compared to 100 for the old one. The numbers taking the tests have dropped significantly because of the new rigor, they say.

The biggest obstacle is algebra, as it is for students at traditional high schools. But according to one estimate, only 5% of entry-level workers actually need to be proficient in algebra. Are we simply putting an artificial barrier between people who could handle the demands of many jobs and employers who would like to hire them?

We should require that a high school diploma signifies a certain level of achievement, as Wattenberg argues. But ideally, that requirement would apply not just to adult learners but also to the many more who obtain diplomas the usual way.

And we need to question the assumption that high school or its equivalent is just a stepping-stone to college, especially when so few DC high school students get there. True, a high school diploma alone doesn't mean much in the job market these days. But that could change if we started equipping high school students with skills that would actually render them valuable to employers.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Education


DC schools are missing an opportunity to equip students for coding jobs

In recent years schools in the District have expanded opportunities for students to learn computer coding, an occupation where demand is outpacing supply. But they could do much more to engage low-income students in a potentially lucrative career path that doesn't necessarily require a college degree.


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There's been a lot of talk lately about the importance of teaching computer science in K-12 schools. Last week was Computer Science Education Week, during which students in DC and around the world participated in online tutorials billed as an Hour of Code. As part of the fanfare, the incoming Education Secretary, John King, visited a classroom at DC's McKinley Tech High School.

DC and 26 states now allow computer science courses to count towards graduation requirements, up from only 12 states two years ago. At least two DC charter high schools offer coding classes, and DC Public Schools offer a wide range of computer-related courses and extracurricular activities, although it's not clear how many students take advantage of them.

But much of the effort in DC and elsewhere is aimed at getting students to enroll in college and major in computer science. King, for example, asked how many of the two dozen students he addressed at McKinley wanted to study computer science in college. He was pleased when over half raised their hands.

There's nothing wrong with students majoring in computer science in college, of course. In fact, it's an excellent idea. The median salary for computer programmers is over $76,000. There are currently over half a million open computing jobs, according to Code.org, and last year fewer than 40,000 people graduated with computer science degrees. Forecasters predict that mismatch between demand and supply will continue at least through 2020.

The shortage of qualified college graduates is already creating pressure on employers to hire people who can simply do the work, whether or not they have the credentials. At Google, for example, 14% of the members of some teams have no college education. In general, 38% of those working as web developers aren't college graduates.

Some coders and programmers are self-trained, while others have gone through coding "boot camps" that give participants the skills they need in a matter of months. Although Obama administration officials are intent on encouraging students to go to college, they've also launched an effort to enroll more "low-skilled" individuals in coding boot camps and match them with employers.

Why not teach coding skills before kids graduate from high school?

No doubt these programs can be lifesavers for many who don't have the interest or resources to acquire a college degree. But why wait until after they've graduated from high school? Why not give students in K-12 schools the opportunity to acquire the skills they need to snag a well-paying coding job if they want one?

That's the theory behind the efforts of one DC nonprofit to bring coding classes to low-income kids beginning in 5th grade. The Economic Growth DC Foundation is in its second year of sponsoring its Code4Life program, which runs free weekly classes at one DCPS and two charter schools. The idea is that students will remain in the afterschool program through high school, receiving a series of digital badges that will ultimately render them employable as coders.

On a recent afternoon at KIPP DC Northeast Academy, kids in the program weren't focused on their future career prospects. But they were engaged and having fun. In one classroom, a half-dozen 5th-graders were using a simple program called SNAP to create intricate moving designs on their laptops. Down the hall, a group of 6th- and 7th-graders were learning how to use Excel spreadsheets to manipulate data.

At the same time, the kids were breaking down operations into steps and making the computations necessary to write their programs, acquiring logical reasoning and math skills that will serve them well regardless of what they ultimately choose to do.

Code4Life currently serves a total of only 75 students and relies on volunteers from Accenture and other places, including area colleges, to put together its curriculum and teach classes. The foundation's chairman, Dave Oberting, says he'd like to expand the program to more schools, but that would require funding to hire paid staff.

Ideally, Oberting says, he'd like to see coding become a standard part of the curriculum throughout DC. Code4Life, he says, "is a mechanism for showing that [teaching coding] isn't that difficult."

In some places, coding class is mandatory for all

Other school systems are managing to do it. Earlier this year, Arkansas passed a law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science classes. Some places are starting before high school—a good idea, considering that most adult coders say they became interested in computers before the age of 16.

The Chicago, New York, and San Francisco school districts have pledged to start teaching computer science to students of all ages. A largely low-income and Hispanic elementary school district near Phoenix is requiring every student to take coding classes. And beginning this year, Great Britain is mandating computer science classes for all students from the age of five.

One problem impeding some of these efforts is the difficulty of hiring qualified teachers, because people with computer skills can generally find better-paying jobs. But teacher salaries are relatively high in DC, so that might not present as much of an obstacle here.

Considering the potential benefits, all schools in the District—and particularly those serving low-income kids—should find a way to teach the basics of computer coding beginning in elementary school. And given the fact that fewer than 10% of poor children graduate with a college degree, DCPS and charter schools need to stop focusing blindly on their "college for all" mantra and start equipping students with the means to make a decent living with a high school diploma.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Education


Lower test scores aren't necessarily a sign we're heading in the wrong direction

This week Mayor Muriel Bowser and other DC officials released long-awaited results for grades 3 through 8 from the Common Core-aligned tests given last spring. As expected, scores were far lower than on the old tests, especially for low-income and minority students. But that doesn't necessarily mean DC schools are on the wrong track.


Photo by the author.

Proficiency rates on DC's old standardized reading and math tests hovered around 50%. On the new tests—devised by a consortium called PARCC, and taken by students in DC and 11 states—the proficiency rate is only about 25%.

But scores on the new tests aren't equally lower for all students. White students did far better than average on the PARCC tests, while minority and low-income students did worse. That was true on the old tests as well, but—as with the previously released high school PARCC scoresthe gaps on the new tests are even larger.

Scores on the PARCC tests fall into five categories, with the highest two (4 and 5) considered to be meeting or exceeding expectations for "college and career readiness." As you can see from the chart below, far more white students fell into that category than black or Hispanic students. And far more black and Hispanic students than whites fell into the lowest category, "Did not yet meet expectations."

The gap is even larger between white students and other groups, such as students in special education (SPED) and English Language Learners (ELL). (The "at-risk" category includes students in foster care or receiving government benefits.)


On the old reading tests given in 2014, the gaps between whites on the one hand and blacks and low-income students on the other were about ten percentage points smaller than on the PARCC. The gap between white and Hispanic students was about 15 points smaller, while the gap for SPED students was only one point smaller.

If you want to explore the PARCC data in detail, there are various spreadsheets and other resources available on this DC government website, and a series of nifty interactive graphics are on the District, Measured blog.

The PARCC reading tests assume more knowledge

Why have the gaps grown? The unsurprising answer is that the tests have gotten harder. And, as various officials explained at the rather sober press conference called to unveil the new scores, that's something that needed to happen. The old tests were so easy they didn't mean much. As in other cities, students in DC—especially poor, minority students—were graduating from high school without the skills they needed to enroll in college courses or embark on career training, even if they'd scored proficient on the tests.

And what makes these new tests harder? I'm not that familiar with the Common Core math tests, although I know they require students to demonstrate they understand math concepts rather than just apply math rules. On the reading side, though, the basic reason is that the reading passages on the test assume that students know more vocabulary and are familiar with a wider range of concepts.

Standardized reading tests, by their nature, don't test any particular body of knowledge. Instead, the tests assess a student's general ability to understand whatever is put in front of her. That's partly because different schools are teaching different content. And of course, it's important for students to develop general reading ability in order to function well in school and in life.

But, as cognitive scientists have shown, the ability to understand a given text depends a lot on whether you're already familiar with the words and concepts it contains. That may make intuitive sense: just think of what it's like to try to read a passage on, say, cellular biology if you know nothing about the subject. What's harder for some of us to grasp is how many words and concepts minority and low-income children aren't familiar with.

PARCC and the other Common Core testing consortium, SBAC, have released sample questions that provide an idea of the kind of knowledge and vocabulary the tests assume children will have. According to a group called Student Achievement Partners, the 3rd-grade questions use words like fraying, spouting, blossom, nifty, scorched, and nutrients. They also present topics and concepts like Babe Ruth, Indonesia, and the U.S. Congress, along with biological terms like gills, larva, and pupa.

More affluent 3rd-graders may not know all these terms, but—as the PARCC test scores indicate—they're more likely to have heard enough of them to be able figure out what a passage is basically about. (Cognitive scientists have estimated that a reader needs to be familiar with 90 to 95% of the words in a passage to comfortably understand it.) Studies have shown that children of wealthier, more educated parents hear far more words and engage in more dialogue than their low-income counterparts almost from birth, and they enter school with significantly higher literacy skills.

Schools can help close the knowledge gap

Some have concluded that, since so much of literacy is dependent on family background, there's not much schools can do about this situation. And schooling can actually make it worse: some studies indicate that the achievement gap grows the longer kids stay in school. But the fact is, we don't know what schools might be able to do to close the gap, because most elementary schools serving low-income kids haven't spent much time trying to systematically build their knowledge and vocabulary.

Instead, they've focused on the comprehension skills the tests seem to call for: finding the main idea, making inferences, and—in the Common Core era—connecting claims to evidence in the text. But if kids don't have the knowledge and vocabulary to understand a reading passage in the first place, they won't be able to demonstrate any of those skills on the test. And it may take years for a low-income student to acquire enough knowledge to do well on a test of general reading ability.

"People want us to just flip a switch, and young people will be off to Harvard," DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said at Monday's press conference. "That's not the way it works."

She's right: these things take time. The real question is whether schools in DC are on the right track. Henderson and others point to data in the test results to argue that the answer is yes: generally higher test scores at the lower grade levels than in high school. That shows, they say, that kids exposed to the Common Core approach from an early age are getting it, and that they'll continue to do better when they reach high school.

But the tests get harder in high school, and kids may just hit a wall—as they have in the past, even on easier tests. And the disparity in scores only holds true for math. In reading, the percentage of students scoring proficient was essentially the same at all grade levels, including high school.

Still, some DC schools are on the right track. A number of educators in DC, in both the charter and traditional public school sectors, have grasped the importance of building knowledge, especially for students who are disadvantaged. I've been in classrooms where kids are lapping up facts, words, and ideas that will serve them well in high school and beyond. Whether and when that knowledge shows up in their test scores should be a secondary consideration.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Education


Test scores may rise or fall, but the achievement gap persists

On Tuesday, officials released dismal scores from the new Common Core-aligned tests students in the District took last spring. The next day, another set of scores showed DC students improving faster than those in the rest of the country. One thing that was consistent in the results was a large gap between rich and poor.


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The first set of scores, on standardized tests known as PARCC, showed that only 25% of DC high school students were "college and career ready" in English. Even worse, only 10% met that bar on a test of high school geometry.

That looks like a huge drop from scores on the old DC test, known as the DC CAS. Last year, about 50% of 10th graders scored proficient or advanced on those reading and math tests. (PARCC scores for 3rd through 8th graders won't be available until next month. They may be somewhat better than the high school scores, but will probably also decline significantly.)

You might conclude that students' skills have suddenly plummeted, but in fact the two tests aren't comparable. The PARCC tests, which are designed to measure whether students have the skills they'll need to succeed in college, are far more rigorous. Instead of asking students to write an essay about their dream vacation, for example, a test might give them two sophisticated passages to read and ask them to make detailed comparisons.

In past years, DC's education leaders and elected officials have celebrated incremental progress on the DC CAS. This year, they lamented the low PARCC scores and somberly declared they were prepared to do the hard but necessary work to improve them. But barely had the words left their mouths, or their press releases, when their lamentations turned to joy.

DC's growth in NAEP scores outpaces the rest of the country

That's because DC bucked a national trend on the other test: the NAEP, given to a sample of students across the country every two years. The NAEP is considered far more rigorous than most of the old state tests, including the DC CAS. This year, math scores for 4th and 8th graders declined nationwide. But in DC, 4th grade scores rose by three points in math and seven in reading, while 8th grade scores remained flat.

On the face of it, the PARCC and NAEP results appear contradictory. But the tests were differently constructed, and they were assessing different grade levels. And while it's true DC's NAEP scores have gone up, they're still at or near the bottom compared to other states.

But of course, DC is more like a city than a state. And cities, which have higher concentrations of poverty, tend to have lower test scores. So it's fairer to assess DC's performance against another set of NAEP scores that compares large urban school districts to one another—although those scores include results only from DC Public Schools, not the charter sector.

On that measure, DCPS has improved—in fact, as DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson likes to point out, it's the fastest-improving urban school district in the country. In 2007, DC was at the bottom of the NAEP list of districts. Now, for 4th grade results, it's in the middle. But for 8th grade, it's still near the bottom of 21 districts: higher than two others in reading and only one other (Detroit) in math.

Both sets of scores reveal gaps between subgroups

One thing that the NAEP and PARCC scores have in common is that they reveal the width and persistence of DC's achievement gap. On the PARCC test, for example, School Without Walls—a selective DCPS school with a relatively affluent student body—saw 97% of its students reach the "college and career ready" bar in English and 76% in math. At the other end of the spectrum, three high-poverty DCPS schools had no students meet that bar in English, and eight had none who reached it in math.

Some previously high-performing charter schools saw their scores drop precipitously, as has happened elsewhere. Last year at KIPP DC College Prep, where most students are black and low-income, 95% of students scored proficient in math and 71% in reading on the DC CAS. This year, just under 20% of students met the PARCC bar in either subject.

Gaps between ethnic and socioeconomic groups loomed wide on the DC CAS, but PARCC has turned them into chasms. On the PARCC English test, for example, 82% of white students met "college and career ready" expectations, compared to 20% of black students, 25% of Hispanics, and 17% of economically disadvantaged students. On last year's DC CAS in reading, an even higher percentage of whites scored proficient—92%—but so did 44% of black students, 50% of Hispanics, and 42% of the economically disadvantaged.

And despite the increases on the NAEP for DC as a whole, a demographic breakdown of DCPS's scores reveals that gaps seen in previous years haven't budged. In 8th grade reading, for example, 75% of white students scored proficient as compared to 11% of black students, 17% of Hispanics, and 8% of low-income students. In DC as a whole, the gaps between white students on the one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other are the largest in the nation on the NAEP, according to one calculation.

To be fair, one reason for the size of the gaps is that DC's white and affluent students perform at an unusually high level. But to begin to close that gap, disadvantaged students need to improve faster than white ones. In fact, looking just at DCPS scores, proficiency rates for white students have either gone up or stayed the same on each of the four tests since 2013, while at least one other subgroup's rate has gone down on all but one of the tests.

On the English and reading side, the root cause of the gap in scores is the relative lack of exposure low-income students have to knowledge and vocabulary, starting from birtha deficit elementary schools usually reinforce by failing to focus on building students' knowledge. (Frankly, I'm not sure how to explain the abysmally low PARCC math scores: even among white students, only 52% met "college and career ready" expectations.)

Some will see the test scores, and the gaps they reveal, as evidence that education reform hasn't worked. Critics of the Common Core standards may use the PARCC results to argue the tests are unrealistically hard. Those on the other side will say the Common Core is revealing deficiencies that were masked by the DC CAS, and point out that this kind of change takes time.

There's some truth to all those arguments. But the bottom line is that our schools are continuing to fail many students who enter with the greatest deficits, and we need to find a way to bring their knowledge and vocabulary closer to the level of their affluent peers. Test scores can tell us how far we still have to go, but they won't tell us how to get there.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Education


DCPS is expanding AP classes, but at some schools everyone fails the test

As part of her Year of the High School initiative, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is expanding Advanced Placement offerings at all DCPS high schools. But at most high-poverty DC high schools, few if any students earn passing grades on AP exams.


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Starting this year, DCPS is raising the minimum number of AP courses each high school must offer from four to six. Next year, all high schools will be required to offer at least eight AP courses.

The expansion of AP in DC is part of a nationwide trend, fueled by the idea that all students benefit from taking the ostensibly rigorous, college-level classes regardless of how well prepared they are.

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews, a leading proponent of the AP-for-all theory, publishes an annual ranking of US high schools based largely on how many AP tests they administer per graduating student. Although Mathews' methodology and assumptions have drawn criticism, his ranking has spurred much of the AP growth.

Nationally, AP participation rates have more than doubled in the past decade, with 2.5 million students taking at least one AP exam in 2015. But as the number of AP test-takers has expanded to include many more low-income and minority students, the failure rate has grown even more rapidly.

AP exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, and the College Board, which administers the exam, considers 3 to be a passing score, enabling a student to earn college credit. (Many universities give credit only for scores of 4 or 5.)

Nationwide, about 60% of all test takers scored a 3 or better on at least one exam. But the pass rate for African-American students was just half the rate for white students.

In DCPS overall, the proportion of exams on which a student earned a 3 or above has gone up from 27% in 2010 to 33% in 2015. But those figures, provided by DCPS, don't reveal much about how students at each school are performing. Students at some schools may be taking several AP exams, doing well on all of them.

A DCPS spokesperson, Michelle Lerner, declined to release school-by-school pass rates, saying that some AP classes are small enough that individual students could be identified. But a retired DCPS teacher, Erich Martel, has calculated school-level scores on the basis of information he received from an internal DCPS source. The data lists scores for all AP tests taken at each DCPS high school in 2012 and 2013.

At some schools, almost all tests get a score of 1

In 2013, according to Martel, the overall pass rate for DCPS was just under 31%. But that rate drops to lower than 10% if you exclude relatively affluent Wilson High School in Ward 3 and three selective schools—Banneker, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, and School Without Walls.

At four high-poverty DCPS schools—Dunbar, Ballou, Cardozo, and the now-closed Spingarn—none of the tests received a passing score. At Coolidge, H.D. Woodson, and Anacostia, the pass rate was less than 4%.

Overall, almost 46% of tests taken by DCPS students got the lowest score possible, a 1. But again, if you exclude Wilson and the three selective schools, almost 70% got that score. At Spingarn, all 24 tests received a 1, and at Dunbar, 49 out of 52 did.

Mathews and other advocates of AP expansion argue that students benefit from the experience of taking AP classes and tests, even if they don't pass the tests. Some studies have supported that claim, while others have refuted it.

The most recent study concluded that merely taking an AP class, without also taking the test, had no effect on a student's score on the ACT college entrance exam. Those who took and failed the AP test scored a quarter to half a point higher on the ACT, which is roughly equivalent to the boost a student would get from test prep coaching. (Students who passed the AP test scored from one to four points higher on the ACT, depending on which AP class they took.)

About 95% of DCPS students who take AP classes also take the test, according to DCPS. But the lead author of the recent AP study believes that students benefit not from the three hours spent taking the test but from the studying they put in beforehand. So the real question may be: do the many DCPS students who get 1s on AP tests actually study for them?

No doubt some AP teachers out there could answer that better than I can. But when I volunteered as a tutor for a college-level history class at a high-poverty high school a couple of years ago, I realized that most students in the class lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary to gain even a basic understanding of the texts. And if students can't understand the material, they can't study for the test.

An AP score of 1 could mean that a student showed up for the test and just answered questions randomly, or didn't answer them at all. A study cited by Mathews in support of AP expansion shows benefits for students who get "even a score of 2" on the AP, but says nothing about those who get a 1.

AP-for-all defenders argue that even if students are unprepared for AP classes, they'll get more out of them than they would out of regular classes where exams are graded, not by an independent entity, but by teachers who may be willing to lower standards. But if the AP material is far above students' heads, they may not be getting anything out of the classes at all. Perhaps we need a third alternative: classes that are both rigorous and accessible to the students who are taking them.

While building a pipeline, keep AP classes small

"We believe that at every school there are students at AP level," says DCPS's Lerner. That may be true, but at high-poverty schools even those students probably need a good deal of support to do well. And unless classes are small, they won't get it.

Lerner says DCPS schools are required to offer the minimum number of AP classes even if only a few students enroll. But will school administrators resist the temptation to herd large numbers of students into classes they're not prepared for, as they seem to have done in the past?

Even if administrators keep AP classes small, without additional funds the result may be that other classes get larger. And the non-AP students may get inferior teachers, since schools generally assign their best teachers to AP classes.

Lerner says the district is "setting up a pipeline" for its AP classes and expects enrollment to grow in the future. That makes sense: if you want low-income students to be prepared for AP classes in high school, you need to start laying the foundation in kindergarten, if not before.

But increasing the number of AP classes now at all schools makes sense only if DCPS ensures the classes are limited to students who can actually get something out of them.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

The original version of this post said that the scores compiled by Erich Martel were not broken down by AP subject. In fact, they include both aggregate AP scores for each school and subject scores.

Education


Some are questioning whether all students should be on a college prep track

A former professor who spent two years teaching in a high-poverty DC Public Schools high school advocates separating students into a college prep track and other tracks that would lead directly to jobs. But to really know who belongs in which track we need to revamp an elementary school system that has left almost all poor students woefully unprepared for a college prep curriculum.


Photo from Bigstock.

The old practice of separating students into academic and vocational tracks has fallen into disfavor. That's because traditionally, school systems often funneled white and affluent students into college prep classes while relegating poor black ones into classes intended to prepare them for jobs in fields like auto repair and cosmetology.

Education reformers have generally insisted that all students follow a college prep curriculum. But some are beginning to recognize the value of what is now called career and technical education in engaging disaffected students and providing them with practical skills.

Some school districts, including DCPS, are beefing up their formerly anemic vocational offerings with new Career Academies embedded within neighborhood high schools. Two new ones, focusing on engineering and information technology, are opening this year at H.D. Woodson High School in Ward 7.

But these academies—and much of the vocational training finding favor among reformers—are an addition to, not a substitute for, college prep classes. The DCPS website explicitly says the expectation is that "all Academy graduates continue on to college before pursuing a career."

A former teacher and others question whether "college for all" makes sense

Caleb Stewart Rossiter, a former professor at American University who spent two years teaching math at H.D. Woodson, proposes a different approach in his book Ain't Nobody Be Learnin' Nothin': The Fraud and the Fix for High-Poverty Schools..

Rossiter says only about 20% of students at schools like Woodson are "within striking distance of high school standards." And he argues that under the current system, those students will never be college-ready because they're being held back by students who are disruptive or hopelessly behind.

In some ways Rossiter's version of tracking differs from the paternalistic model that prevailed in the old days, when the school system decided which track a student should be on. Students and their parents or guardians themselves would choose either a college-prep or vocational track at 7th grade, with an option to reevaluate at 9th. Rossiter wouldn't exclude any students who are highly motivated from college prep.

But, as under the old system, Rossiter wants vocational tracks to lead students directly to jobs rather than to college. And he wants schools to require students who are years behind to undertake intensive remediation before embarking on either track, although they might need less remediation for the vocational one.

Rossiter's book details extreme dysfunction at Woodson (which he refers to as "Johnson" in his book), characterizing the "unspoken bargain of calm high-poverty classes" as "don't push me to work and I won't disrupt the class much." In addition to tracking, Rossiter wants extremely disruptive students and those far behind grade level removed from regular classes and getting counseling and non-credit remediation.

Rossiter isn't the only one questioning the assumption that all students should go to college. When students are in 11th or 12th grade and still reading and doing math at an elementary level, subjecting them to a grade-level college prep curriculum appears to be a waste of everyone's time.

And, as Rossiter argues, the supposed college-prep curriculum isn't even doing a good job with the low-income students who manage to make it to college: 64.5% of low-income students who enroll in a two-year college need remedial classes, as do 31.9% of those who enroll in a four-year college. Only 9% of the poorest students complete a college degree—less than a third of those who enroll. Those who drop out are often left with huge debt and no degree.

True, poor and minority individuals who make it through college do far better than those who don't. But college doesn't seem to be the great equalizer that some had hoped for. A new study has found that black and Hispanic college graduates have far less wealth than their white counterparts.

So offering students the option of a track that leads to a job rather than to college makes sense. And there should be no shame in vocational education. Society needs beauticians and auto mechanics as much as it needs college professors and lawyers.

Vocational classes may solve some of the disciplinary problems afflicting high-poverty schools as well. As Rossiter saw when some of his most disruptive students eagerly embraced a challenging masonry task and excelled at it, some students are far more responsive and persevering when learning is part of a hands-on task.

Lately, some reformers—including the Obama administrationhave modified the "college for all" mantra, saying instead that "all Americans need some form of postsecondary education," if not college then at least a training or certification program after high school. But if we could embed that training or certification within a high school curriculum, and make it meaningful, we could save everyone time and money.

Before we embrace a version of tracking that allows some students to opt out of college prep, however, we should be aware of a couple of major caveats. One is that most decent jobs that don't require a college degree still require a high level of accomplishment. Some people who skip college and complete an occupational concentration in high school manage to out-earn college graduates, but only if they did well in Algebra II and advanced biology.

Inadequate elementary school education may be masking students' potential

More fundamentally, we may be overlooking a lot of undeveloped academic potential in low-income kids because of the education they get before they reach high school. Elementary education is currently so inadequate that we simply don't know how many kids would be capable of handling a college prep curriculum if they were given the right kind of foundation.

Even before standardized tests became important—but even more so afterwards—elementary schools have been focusing almost exclusively on basic skills in reading and math. In reading, that means hours every day practicing comprehension strategies like "finding the main idea" and making predictions.

Elementary schools have spent little or no time building students' knowledge of subjects like history and science. That's particularly harmful for poor kids, who are less likely to acquire that kind of knowledge at home.

When those kids get to high school, they suddenly encounter a curriculum that assumes a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don't have. As a result, they can't understand much of what they're supposed to be learning. No wonder they become disaffected.

Of course, some teenagers will be disaffected even if we inject actual content into the elementary school curriculum—a slow and difficult process that DCPS is now beginning to undertake. And some students who are engaged in school still won't be interested in going to college. But right now, we can't know for sure which kids fall into which category.

In the short-term, the only way we might be able to tell is to offer motivated students intensive tutoring in the subjects they're supposed to be learning—not, as Rossiter proposes, tutoring in "basic skills," which will do them no more good than a skill-based curriculum did in elementary school. That would require a huge and most likely expensive effort, but it's worth trying.

For the longer term, we need to revamp the elementary school curriculum so that poor kids are acquiring the tools that will allow them to access high school level work. Only then will students and their families be able to make a genuine choice between a path that leads to college and one that leads in a different, but equally fulfilling and possibly even lucrative, direction.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Education


Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education

DC is at the forefront of a movement to make education a more personalized experience, relying in part on technology to tailor learning to each student's needs and interests. The approach promises to ensure that advanced students are challenged and struggling ones engaged, even if they share the same classroom.


Photo from Bigstock.

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others need more help. Teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and some are lost.

While experts have long advised teachers to differentiate instruction so they can reach each student at her level, that takes a lot of training and talent. Some say it's impossible.

Now a different, more personalized approach is gaining ground across the country and in the District. While personalized learning models vary, most rely at least partly on technology to allow students to progress at their own pace, moving on when they've demonstrated mastery—sometimes of content they've chosen for themselves.

Programs that blend traditional and technology-based instruction are now in place at 17 schools within the DC Public School system on a school-wide basis. Many others use the approach in at least some of their classrooms.

And DC's CityBridge Foundation, through an initiative called Breakthrough Schools: DC, has provided funding and technical support to help 13 DC schools devise new personalized learning models. Each school can receive as much as $500,000 over the course of several years.

Evidence on the effectiveness of personalized learning has been scant, and the term embraces so many different models that it's hard to evaluate its success overall. Last year, however, two studies found that some low-income schools using personalized models had positive outcomes on test scores and other measures.

Some personalized and blended learning models could have drawbacks

Personalized and blended learning models have the potential to engage all students without separating them into different tracks, as schools used to do. But there are reasons to proceed with caution.

If kids are allowed to progress at their own pace, many may opt not to challenge themselves. If they're also allowed to choose what to learn, some may not choose wisely. And if each student is studying something different, it's hard to have a group discussion or an exchange of ideas.

And under many blended learning models, including those used at some DCPS schools, kids spend the day rotating between stations in a single classroom, spending a third of their time working at computers.

Students in those classrooms can lose valuable instructional time while making transitions. And in the many classrooms that have only one teacher, the unsupervised students working at computers don't always stay on task.

Even if they do, much of the software currently available has no connection to what students are learning from their teachers. Students may spend hours every week practicing reading comprehension skills rather than acquiring knowledge, an approach that is particularly harmful for low-income students.

Older methods of personalization are worth trying too

Given those possible flaws, we shouldn't lose sight of old-fashioned, low-tech ways of personalizing learning. One would be to have students write about what they're studying, something schools don't often do these days. Struggling students could write a sentence, more advanced ones a paragraph, and others an entire essay.

And then there's the time-honored version of personalization employed by the wealthy: tutoring.

There are logistical barriers to bringing both of these methods of personalization to schools on a large scale, but they're not insurmountable. DCPS has been piloting a writing program that has had encouraging results with students of varying needs and abilities.

And while tutoring has historically been expensive, at least one school has pioneered a low-cost version that has boosted achievement dramatically.

Like tutors, computers can get students to practice skills and give them immediate feedback. But they can't provide the emotional connection that is important in stimulating learning . Nor can they teach students to write well, or possibly to develop the analytical skills that good writing requires.

Of course, the high-tech and low-tech approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Used thoughtfully, computers can free up teachers' time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups, building relationships and doing other things only humans can do.

And personalization, if balanced by whole-group activities that create dialogue and a sense of community, is a more realistic approach than assuming that all students are proceeding in lockstep just because they happen to be the same age.

So by all means, let's experiment, judiciously, with these new approaches to an old problem. But at the same time, let's try to find ways to use older pathways to personalization that are tried and true.

An expanded version of this post is available at DC Eduphile.

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