First Person

Graduation Time Bomb

Mayoral candidates Thompson and Bloomberg have so far avoided the most important failing of New York City’s public schools: Under new state standards, a third of today’s high school graduates will soon be ineligible for diplomas. The so-called Local Diploma, requiring a 55 on Regents exams, is being phased out and only Regents-endorsed diplomas, requiring a score of 65 or better, will be issued to the Class of 2012.

The graduation time bomb brings two issues into stark relief. The first, difficult enough to absorb, is that every year over 10,000 more New York City residents will enter the job market (college largely off-limits to them) without even the entry-level requirement accorded by a high school diploma. The second is the diminished meaning of current Regents standards and the political pressure for further decline in order to accommodate this explosion of almost-grads.

Increased Regents standards have been on the state agenda for many years, as documented by the February 2009 New York City Coalition for Educational Justice report, “Looming Crisis or Historic Opportunity?” That study and State Education Department data reveal that not only are about a third of 4-year diplomas “Local” (excluding IEP and GED diplomas which are not exit degrees) but that the percentage rises to almost 40% for students graduating in 6 years. None of those students would graduate under the new standard.

These dire numbers mask a greater tragedy about to befall Latino and Black students. The New York City Department of Education states that currently Black students have a 55% graduation rate and that 40% of these students earn only a Local Diploma. The graduation rate for Latinos is slightly lower, with the ratios similar to Black students’. By comparison, graduation rates for White and Asian students, while still inadequate, approximate 75% with Local Diplomas amounting to 12% for Asians and 15% for Whites. Since these data record 4-year rates and Black and Latino students disproportionately take 5 or 6 years to graduate, when Local Diploma rates are highest, the final cohort figures are likely to be even gloomier. Overlapping rates for English language learners (40% overall, over 50% of these Local Diplomas) and students in special education (25% graduation, 70% Local) are even more dismal.

This impending disaster is dispiriting enough. But it merely reveals the more dire problem: that our children are graduating without the subject mastery necessary for college and careers. Regents diplomas are subject to the same strong suspicion that they, like other state tests, are subject to substantial score inflation. Erik W. Robelen recently reported in Education Week about “Questions Raised on New York Test System’s Reliability,” citing GothamSchools’ Aaron Pallas and researchers Daniel Koretz and Diane Ravitch. Steve Koss, a former New York City math teacher, has published telling critiques of the key Regents Math A and Algebra exams. All of the critiques echo widespread dissatisfaction with the exams’ scaled scores, in-school grading, and “unraveling” of specific test administrations.

This has left John Garvey, a former City University dean, to conclude that “there is no clear standard for high school student achievement on the Regents exams that could even be compared with a standard for college readiness.” His Annenberg Institute study, “Are New York City’s Public Schools Preparing Students for Success in College,” found that only 7.5% of high school graduates had taken all the recommended high school courses considered necessary for college preparation and that 70% of students entering CUNY’s community colleges require remedial courses since they fail placement exams in reading, writing, or math.

Look around. The bomb has already exploded. For all the talk of accountability, we are living in a city without honest educational standards. Even those with diplomas are often hard-pressed to function according to commonly accepted levels of college and career readiness. With appropriate elimination of the Local Diploma and pressure on new Education Commissioner David Steiner to end the politicized upward drift of test scores, the reality of this devastation should become clearer.

Picking up the pieces and rebuilding will be the number one education job of the next mayoral term.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.