My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Powerhouse School District Reaches Beyond the Elite

Here's an interesting article from the New York Times -- published February 5, 2009. I like the emphasis on both exposing all kids to research early on (7th grade!) and also increasing access to AP classes for all kids. I believe kids rise to the challenge when adults around them believe in them, set high expectations, and provide the support needed to succeed. The Port Washington approach sounds like a great success.

By Ruby Washington/The New York Times

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. — Six at a time, the seventh graders sprinted across the gymnasium floor in patent-leather flats, furry Ugg boots, clunky heels, sweat socks or bare feet. Their classmates timed them, carefully recording each fraction of a second.

Original research can be fun, teachers say, especially when it involves activity.
For the students, it was a science project studying the effects of footwear on speed. But for educators in this town on the North Shore of Long Island, it was part of a higher-stakes experiment: giving students with solid but not stellar grades access to the best academic and extracurricular programs.

After decades of grooming a handful of high school students in an exclusive research class to succeed in the elite national Intel Science Talent Search, school administrators this year, for the first time, required every seventh grader to do original research.

With similar goals in mind, the district has added honor societies in English, art and music — for a total of seven — to recognize students whose overall grades may keep them out of the National Honor Society. Since 2003, it has expanded its menu of Advanced Placement courses to 25 subjects and opened them to students who previously would not have qualified. And it instituted a policy prohibiting students from being cut from the orchestra, band and most sports, adding “junior varsity 2” teams to accommodate extra players.

Like many high-performing suburban school districts nationwide, Port Washington had heard complaints about the lack of attention to what is often called the great middle — students sandwiched between the overachievers who break records and win coveted prizes and the underachievers whose performance is monitored closely by federal and state testing mandates.

The district’s unusual focus on these average students in recent years has pleased many but has also drawn criticism that A.P. classes have become less rigorous, students have been coddled, and music groups and sports teams saddled with marginal players.

Students in A.P. classes say that some teachers, now required to accept students who did not pass a qualifying exam or get a teacher’s recommendation, have been known to weed out the weak with heavy reading loads, daily pop quizzes, and zeros on biology labs.

Joe Barrett, 17, a senior, said his United States history teacher went to the opposite extreme in the 2007-8 school year, presenting “elaborate PowerPoints with music videos to keep people interested.”

“At the beginning of the year, it was funny, but then it just got tiresome because there wasn’t a lot of content,” complained Joe, who earned the top score of 5 on the A.P. exam in the class last May. “I definitely could have learned more and faster. I felt like we skipped a lot of history.”

Jenny Park, 16, a junior who plays violin in the orchestra, said the inclusion philosophy went too far by rotating students, based on seniority, in the coveted first chair position. The first chair, designating the best performer in orchestral sections, is traditionally decided by audition. (In the violin section, the lead performer is also the concertmaster.)

“It’s not fair because I know I practice the most,” she said. “I take it so seriously and it could have helped my college application to say I was concertmistress since sophomore year.”

Despite such complaints, Linda Reyes Weil, a mother of three who is co-president of the high school’s Home and School Association, said the district was doing a better job by serving a broader population. “As parents, we all talk about the middle because we worry about the middle students getting lost in the shuffle,” she explained. “We all want that thing of beauty — a really nice transcript that will stand out in college admissions.”

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education, said that increasing access to advanced classes and extracurricular activities could “reduce the dog-eat-dog competition” in a school. While educators have long been reluctant to tinker with a system that worked for their best students, she said, college admissions have grown more competitive and the middle has become harder to ignore.

Decades after wars over tracking students by academic ability from year to year, this new push is meant to give average performers entree into what had been for so-called stars.

Saratoga High School, in California’s Silicon Valley, has, since 2005, allowed students with at least a C-minus average — “virtually anybody who wishes,” as the principal, Jeff Anderson, put it — to take honors or A.P. classes in English, social studies and science, abolishing the previous policy of requiring at least a B-plus average and a teacher recommendation.

At Palos Verdes Peninsula High School in Rolling Hills Estates, south of Los Angeles, school officials adapted a college-prep program, developed for high-achieving students in poor urban schools, into a course for more than 200 middle-level students; it offers SAT preparation and other help to increase their attendance at four-year colleges.

In the Chicago suburbs, the Glenbard Township school district last spring adopted a policy forbidding the elimination of freshmen from sports teams, reasoning that participation would help all students with the academic and social transition to its four high schools.

“There’s been such a focus on the high-high and the low-low that the parents of children in the middle are feeling like ‘our kids need attention, too,’ ” Professor Pope explained. “And what they want is what the top kids are doing.”

“But you do have to be careful,” she cautioned, “since some overzealous parents will push their children to take many A.P. classes when they really can’t handle that.”

Port Washington, a prosperous waterfront town, has long attracted top students with extras like its three-year research program preparing students for the Intel competition. The program accepts 30 of the approximately 400 freshmen each year and has produced 44 Intel semifinalists since 2003, including three announced last month. Starting in third grade, students with I.Q.’s of 130 or higher, among other criteria, are selected for the gifted and talented program.

“Nobody comes around and says, ‘You’re doing great with the middle kids,’ ” said Geoffrey N. Gordon, the superintendent. “They don’t get the Intel awards and they don’t go to the Ivy League schools. It’s not glamorous, which is why you don’t see more schools doing it.”

Still, in the last few years district officials have broadened their approach to push up the students at the bottom and the middle of the achievement ladder and allow the top to rise naturally.

At the start of this school year, 574 high school students — just under half the enrollment in grades 10, 11 and 12 — signed up for A.P. classes, up from about 250 in 2002. Of those, about 200 failed to qualify by passing a test or receiving a teacher’s recommendation, and about 40 of those students had to sign a waiver saying they would complete all the work and maintain a B average. Sixty-five students — including 24 who had to sign the waivers — subsequently dropped to lower-level courses.

Melis Emre, 17, a senior in the research program, said that allowing students to take A.P. classes when they do not meet the qualifications teaches an unrealistic lesson. “You have to learn how to deal with a situation not working out in your favor,” she said. “If you don’t get a job, you can’t sign a piece of paper and then come hang out in the office Monday to Friday.”

But district officials say that their efforts have improved the quality of education for everyone. Even as the number of A.P. exams taken by Port Washington students nearly doubled, to 1,134 last year from 603 in 2002, the average overall score climbed to 3.30 from 3.04.

At the same time, the percentage of students accepted to four-year colleges during that period also rose, to 82 percent from 74 percent, according to district records.

Dylan Snyder, 16, a junior who took A.P. European history last year, said he was happy to get a C-plus in such a hard class — until he realized that everyone around him was getting B-pluses. But he did not drop down.

“I like to work to learn because the payoff is better,” he said. “I would have felt bad if I had gotten kicked out because of my grades. I would have felt A.P. is not for me, ever.” Dylan has a B average in A.P. United States history this year, and plans to take A.P. courses next fall in government, physics and computer science.

At the middle school, the entire seventh grade is taking part in the science of sports project to fulfill the new research requirement. The students are creating a database of their individual running times, first in sneakers and then in alternate footwear, and evaluating how variables like height, gender, birth date and shoe type affect speed. They will present their findings in a research paper or PowerPoint presentation.

“I learned that I move faster without my shoes,” said Jermaine Brown, 13. “This is really fun, and it’s better than sitting in class.”

David Katz, the science teacher who came up with the running experiment, said that when he first asked students if they wanted to do original scientific research, 2 of 23 raised their hands. When they found out the research would involve sports, they all jumped up.

“They think research is more work, more papers,” he said. “But if you teach them in a way they can relate to, they grow to love it.”


Alison Donta-Venman said...

I like this idea of raising the expectations for all kids and creating more of a culture of excellence and achievement. I imagine that most of our students are capable of more than is generally asked of them. Especially if the culture of the schools reflect the expectation that ALL kids CAN achieve at these higher levels.

Ed said...

It took me 6 years to learn to swim and a year later I had passed the lifesaving exam and was going for the advanced degree. I am a firm believer in letting kids go into the deep end if they have the guts and willingness to try -- and if they are willing to do the work, I don't give a damn what the teachers recommend.

Oh, and yes, I got a "5" on an AP exam of a course that I was not supposed to be qualified to take.

Tracking is good in that it allows those interested in serous education to be involved in it without the disruptions, it is bad because it enables the 7th grade teacher to create shortcomings that plague the student not only into college but in some cases into grad school....

And there is the very real issue of bias against boys. Even those of you who hate everything with a penis need to remember that your daughters are 90% likely to marry someone with one and a generation of unemployable guys is inherently problematic to stable relationships.

Uggg boots aside, the example given was ideal for BOYS...

Anonymous said...

I agree that most of our students are capable of more than is generally asked of them. And I like the idea of opening up the AP classes to all students.

However, I think there is a delicate balance that must be achieved. The AP classes should not be watered down so that more students are capable of doing the work. We should have high expectations for all students, and we should also acknowledge that not all students are capable of doing the rigorous work an AP class entails.

Let's raise the bar and expectations for all, allow a broader range of students to take AP classes and, at the same time, maintain the rigorous standards of those AP classes. We want to raise the kids up - not dumb the curriculum down.

Anonymous said...

This is just a jokey comment - but wouldn't it be just like Amherst to offer AP classes to everyone, but have them watered down so that our kids could ALL feel successful?

Ed said...

to offer AP classes to everyone, but have them watered down so that our kids could ALL feel successful?

You mean like how everyone can go to college and UMass has to have either 20 or 30 sections of remedial math each semester?

Watering down the AP courses - either for this reason or to make them back into a CP-track course in a homogenious trackless system is a very real concern.

In theory - not always practice - the AP exam reigns some of this in as if no one gets a usable score (3/4/5) on it, one can ask questions about the course and its instructor.

But I have heard complaint about watered down AP courses in some of the state/national circles I travel. It is a very real concern.

Anonymous said...

Apparently Ed managed to avoid any remedial classes in English grammar, spelling or vocabulary!

Anonymous said...

I thought Ed was appropriately on point and articulate in his comments on this thread, and what he had to say was quite clear to me.