Educating any one student is an immensely complex and challenging task. The larger the number of students we talk about educating, the more complex the task becomes - both to talk about it, and then to do it. So when asked a question like, “Is NYC on track to ensure that the new Common Core standards will address academic achievement gaps and build skills like problem solving and persistence that also are crucial to college and career readiness?” I need to admit that I have no idea. Anyone who says otherwise is either over simplifying the matter or far more knowledgeable than I can imagine being. It’s probably safe to say that there are many students who are on track, and others who are not. Many schools probably do a very good job for most of their students, others do a good job only for some. I do know that given current widely used measurements of student learning, we have no real way of systematically knowing much of value about how students are doing in relation to the standards, let alone more complex and abstract skills like problem solving and persistence. Therefore, I’d like to focus on some things we do know, and offer a few concrete steps that the next administration could take to allow us to begin having more informed conversations about what needs to happen.
The EdFunders commissioned paper, “The Experience of One New York City High School Cohort: Opportunities, Successes, and Challenges” by Douglas Ready, Thomas Hatch, et al of Teachers College offers a lot of insight. I was excited that the paper focused on the Cohort of 2005 or, as I knew them for the three years I taught them at the Bronx Lab School, the high school Class of 2009. I taught Global and US History to the entire Bronx Lab class of 2009, and during their senior year, I worked with the highest performing students to help prepare them for the rigorous reading and writing they would face in college. We read philosophical and theoretical works ranging from Kant to Fanon to Foucault, and wrote and revised college level explanatory and argumentative essays. Though the Common Core was a far off whisper at that point, my course far exceeded its demands, even if not all my students could meet them. That year, I also worked with the lowest performing students who had yet to pass the Global and US History regents. With them, I focused on mindless repetition of the facts that make up most of the Regents, and combined it with repetition of the formulaic informational writing that is assessed on its two essays. Everyone I worked with but one passed the test, and nearly all graduated.
For those seniors then, the report’s conclusion was correct in that “students experience two different school systems” (36), but I would suggest that, up until their last year, my students experienced a very similar school system despite having widely different sets of needs. And although these students did indeed enter “high school with dramatically different academic skills, and these initial inequalities were strongly reflected in their secondary and post-secondary outcomes” (1), those different needs had not really shifted for the cohort since elementary school. After all, “only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade ELA standard graduated from high school” (4). The report names something fundamental that should be on every person’s desk in the Tweed Courthouse: “Students in New York City are on different paths that lead to different ends” (36). To move forward, we need to differentiate between (at least) two very different sets of needs: education which moves people along the path that they’re on, and education that fundamentally alters the course of human lives.
If you’re reading this, there is a very good chance you were the successful product of the former variety of education. Our country is actually quite good at this, and I haven’t seen any evidence that NYC is any different. Students who come in motivated with at least mediocre skills seem to do pretty well in high school, college, and career. The more interesting discussion then, is what education that actually changes human beings and sets them on a different path looks like. It’s a complex conversation in which a huge number of variables need to be addressed simultaneously - socioeconomic conditions, pedagogical strategies, assessments, curriculum, social supports, etc. - and therefore is probably outside the bounds of a relatively brief piece of writing.
What I will offer, then, are some suggestions about how that conversation could become more meaningful under the new administration. First, we need to rethink what we measure. Currently, NYC Department of Education Progress Reports measure credit accumulation, Regents pass rates, graduation rates for four and six years, school survey results and a “College Readiness Index” based on Regents scores again, the names of course offerings, and post-secondary enrolment. The main problem with these measurements is that they are overwhelmingly binary; they only measure whether or not students met different criteria. It would be far more useful for schools if we measured how students improve over time. The Common Core standards give us the shared language to do so, but it’s important to note that the system’s current reliance on “on demand” timed tests will need to change. To cite one example of many, Common Core Writing Standard 7 demands students “conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem.” This cannot be assessed on a test; rather, students will actually need to perform research over extended lengths of time. If funders are looking for a good use of their resources, perhaps a study of how to scale and expand the New York Consortium for Performance Assessment - which has been doing this work in a rigorous way that leads to above average college success for decades - would be both valuable and viable.
Schools can also earn “bonus points” in Progress Reports for the performance of English Language Learners, Students with Special Educational Needs, Black/Latino Males in the lowest third of students, and the performance of the lowest third of students. While these are all important student populations to address - and there is value in incentivizing schools to focus on them - one of the most provocative findings in the report was that “race/ethnicity, gender, IEP, and LEP status, age, and free/reduced-price lunch status together explained less than 10% of the variance in four year graduation” (9). It seems then, that what should be rewarded is moving previously low performing students towards higher levels of achievement. This further reinforces the need to move beyond binary measurements.
If we can establish a continuum of learning, and shift incentives towards moving students forward, then hopefully we can also rethink the lock-step age-based progression in which we expect students to march forward. It makes no sense to give a 15 year old who reads at a 3rd grade level a 10th grade exam; we know the student will fail. Not only is this useless, but as the report points out, “for struggling students, repeatedly confronting demands for performance they cannot reach can undermine the motivation and confidence they must have to persist in school” (40). This is the effect of regular grade-based testing. Rather, we should create a system where students demonstrate progress as they are ready, and only true mastery is accepted, rather than the ridiculously low bar that currently allows students to progress based on various state exams.
Our current system, in which students who are not meeting standards in third grade are overwhelmingly not meeting standards in ninth grade, does not work for these students. As the report highlights, “despite this variability in students’ prior educational experience, New York City high schools are now expected to graduate every student” (3). It is insane that high schools are expected to change the course of a student’s previous nine years of education in four years. If our goal is truly to ensure that academic achievement gaps are closed, then we need to offer students and schools the time to do so. With that time, students can actually develop the skills of problem solving and persistence that are crucial for future success. If we shift measurement, and therefore accountability, towards growth on authentic tasks, we can then actually have a real conversation about how to make that happen for all students. This is a radical proposition, but given the overwhelming evidence, it seems only radical steps will serve all students, rather than just the ones for whom the system is currently working.
Stephen Lazar is a National Board Certified NYC teacher active in a wide range of activities to improve teacher preparation and building opportunities for teacher leadership. He helped start Harvest Collegiate High School, where he teaches students Social Studies and English, as well as serving as UFT Chapter Leader and Assessment Director.