course count

In New York, students of color lack access to advanced coursework, new analysis finds

PHOTO: Emilija Manevska
Student writing on blackboard

If a student lived in a suburban, wealthy school district in New York state last year, her chances of attending a school with six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate were greater than 90 percent.

In New York City – where students are far more likely to be black and Hispanic – a student’s chances of accessing such a rich curriculum plummeted to 18 percent.

That is just one example of how New York’s black and Latino students are denied access to advanced coursework, including math, science, music, and foreign language classes, according to a new analysis of 2017 data released by the New York Equity Coalition, a group of about 20 civic organizations. The lack of access cripples students trying to prepare for college and denies them the chance to take rigorous coursework, the report’s authors argue.

“It should be cause for alarm and action,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, which is part of the coalition and conducted the analysis. “We see this question of access to rich and robust coursework as being essential for New York students.”

In New York City, officials have acknowledged many students of color lack access to advanced courses — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight it. The city has announced initiatives aimed at expanding middle school algebra courses, Advanced Placement classes in high school, and computer science education.

But Education Trust-NY’s new analysis sheds light on the depth of the problem facing the city. It also suggests that simply adding classes will not be enough to enroll more black and Latino students in advanced coursework, since these students are often under-enrolled in these courses even when they are offered at their schools.

The analysis looked at “gatekeeper” courses, which authors say either provide a springboard to higher-level courses or allow students to develop important skills or passions. The courses include middle school algebra and earth science, calculus, physics, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, computer science, advanced foreign language, and music.

Across the board, Education Trust-NY found that students of color in New York state are under-enrolled in these courses compared to their white and Asian peers. For instance, for every 100 New York high school students, about 15 white students and 20 Asian took physics, while only around seven black or Latino students did the same.

The analysis finds two reasons for the lack of enrollment among New York’s black and Latino students. The first is that students of color are more likely to attend schools that do not offer these courses. That problem was particularly acute in the state’s urban centers, including New York City, which enroll a greater share of the state’s black and Hispanic students than other areas in the state.

For instance, the share of New York City schools that offered algebra in middle school and physics, calculus, music, and advanced foreign language in high school was more than 20 percentage points lower than the state average in each case.

Secondly, even if advanced courses are offered in schools, black and Latino students may not enroll in the classes, the analysis finds. For instance, in New York City, 56 percent of students in schools offering calculus last year were Latino or black, while only 35 percent of student enrolled in calculus were Latino or black.

The city is working hard to combat both of these problems, officials say. Since the mayor unveiled his “Equity and Excellence” agenda in 2015, 152 high schools are offering new Advanced Placement courses, teachers have been trained across 550 schools to offer computer science classes, and teachers across 357 elementary schools have received training in the city’s initiative to boost algebra participation.

Additionally, since the 2017 school year, which is the year used in Ed Trust-NY’s analysis, 89 more schools in New York City offer additional Advanced Placement classes, according to city officials. However, it is unclear exactly how many new schools are offering algebra in middle school or computer science classes, they said.

The city also instituted a Lead Higher initiative, aimed at reducing disparities in enrollment among underserved students at schools that already have AP classes.

However, there are some aspects of the city school system that might work against offering more advanced classes in every school. The previous administration split many large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. Since smaller schools may lack the teaching capacity or number of students to justify a wide range of courses, students’ options may be limited.

New York City’s high school system is also extremely stratified by academic achievement. Top schools are allowed to select the city’s high-performing students, while the remaining schools have few students who can complete grade-level work in English and math. As a result, those schools – which disproportionately serve students of color – may lack advanced classes.

Critics may say that the lack of advanced classes is a symptom of a bigger problem: That many black and Latino students have not been prepared for more advanced coursework in their elementary and middle schools. Rosenblum said that may be true in some cases, but there are also many students who are prepared to succeed in advanced classes but are not given the opportunity.

“The research is really clear that vastly more students can succeed in higher-level and advanced courses than are currently in them,” Rosenblum said, adding, “If we want students to be prepared for rigorous courses in high school, we need more rigorous courses to prepare them.”

The analysis also points to another reason that student of color may not be encouraged to pursue advanced coursework: a lack of guidance counselors. Eight percent of black and Latino students attend a middle school without a guidance counselor, which is double the rate of their white peers. In high school, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where there are more than 250 students for every guidance counselor, whereas 27 percent of their white peers do the same.

Rosenblum and others at the New York Equity Coalition have posited several solutions to the problems outlined in their analysis. One suggestion would have students default to a more advanced set of courses that begins with taking algebra in middle school. In this scenario, parents would have to sign a waiver to opt students out of this more challenging path.

Solutions like this have the potential to appeal to those with dueling educational philosophies. On the one hand, it could appeal to those who have been calling for higher educational standards – since it would encourage more advanced coursework. On the other, it does not rely on test scores to achieve those higher standards.

This debate has bubbled to the surface recently in a conversation about New York’s Regents exams, which students typically must pass before graduating. Some argue the tests help make graduation requirements more rigorous, while others say they are a poor way to ensure more students are prepared for college.

State policymakers have signaled they are interested in rethinking graduation requirements and have already carved out exceptions for some students that stray from the traditional path of passing five Regents exams. But they have not yet coupled it with a way to ensure that students remain focused on advanced classes, raising concerns from advocates that they have been dropping standards.

Further, a wide range of politicians and policymakers have called for increased access to rich coursework, including officials at the state education department, de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival Cynthia Nixon.

Are Children Learning

Memphis schools in most need of growth see gains, but vast majority of students still not on grade level

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Melody Smith discusses how students at A.B. Hill Elementary grew significantly in test scores.

Three years after one elementary school joined Shelby County Schools’ flagship school improvement program, Principal Melody Smith says growth is proof their efforts are working.

“We came together we battled, we cried, we fought tooth and nail, but in the end we kept our students in the center,” Smith told teachers as they reviewed the results a week before school began.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teachers at A.B. Hill Elementary discuss what makes an ideal school.

A.B. Hill Elementary School, which is part of the Innovation Zone, went from less than 5 percent of students reading on grade level last year to 15 percent in state test scores released Thursday. That jump earned the South Memphis school the state’s highest ranking in growth, but the scores also mean about 85 percent of students still don’t meet state requirements.

The iZone’s two dozen schools have been heralded for how much students have grown since 2012, especially when compared to the state-run Achievement School District, which heavily relies on private charter organizations to boost test scores, and scored the lowest in student growth.

But the challenge is far from over, and school leaders are looking for ways to improve faster.

State leaders generally look at three years of data before determining if academic strategies are working. And in the past three years, the state’s switch to online testing has been tumultuous, which has caused some district leaders and state lawmakers to question the results. But on national tests, Tennessee was held up as a model for student growth compared to surrounding states in a recent Stanford University study — even while the state is still in the bottom half of test scores nationwide.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in July over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools.

Only three schools in the iZone — Westhaven Elementary, Cherokee Elementary, and Ford Road Elementary — have more than 20 percent of students reading on grade level. By comparison, 16 schools surpassed that in science, five in math, and four in social studies.

“There was a lot of movement in our elementary schools,” said Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for schools performing poorly on state tests. But “we’re going to need a laser light focus on our high schools and our middle schools.”

The district created the iZone to boost student achievement in schools performing the worst in the state, all of which are in impoverished neighborhoods. The state Legislature allowed principals to have much more autonomy on which certified teachers they could hire, pumped about $600,000 per school for teacher pay incentives, and added more resources to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom, such as clothes and food closets.

Now, entering its seventh year, the iZone is still outshining the state-run district, and students are still showing more growth compared to their peers across the state who also performed poorly last year. Nine schools in the iZone got the state’s highest ranking for growth, compared to just five last year when the state switched to a new test. (Scroll to the bottom of this story to compare test scores and growth for iZone schools.)

Of the 23 schools in the iZone last year, seven of them were high schools. None of the high schools had more than a third of students on grade level or above in any subject. Four of them — Raleigh Egypt, Melrose, Mitchell, and Hamilton — saw significant growth in at least one subject. Last year was Raleigh Egypt’s first year in the iZone under Shari Meeks, who previously was principal at Oakhaven Middle School.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Clothes closet at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis.

Burt said “the first big thing” that will be done to combat low reading scores in middle and high schools will be to strengthen curriculum. Adding curriculum for younger students played a part in boosting test scores that contributed to growth, leaders said.

Also, new reading specialists will teach a separate class for students who are the furthest behind on top of their normal English class. Before, teachers were responsible for catching up those students, or specialists would take them out of class to work on reading skills.

At the district level, Burt said science, social studies, math, and English advisors will be working more directly with teachers. And principal coaches will have more say in how and where those advisors concentrate their efforts.

Inside the school, Smith, the principal at A.B. Hill Elementary, said having teachers practice more difficult lessons in front of each other helped spur more ideas on how to make the curriculum work for their students.

Teachers said collaboration with others was key to figuring out the best way to improve test scores there. It was common for teachers to invite each other to sit in on lessons and give feedback.

“We would debrief with each other all the time,” said Brenda Pollard, who taught fourth-grade English and social studies. Now she says the foundation has been laid for higher achievement.

“It can be done,” she said. “We’re living proof it can be done.”

Below is a table of how iZone schools fared on state tests. Fields labeled “4.9” were hidden in state data, but are likely below 5 percent.

tar heel trivia

New education research? A good chance it’s from North Carolina.

PHOTO: Creative Commons/Boston Public Library

Barbeque. Basketball rivalries. The Blue Ridge Mountains.

Education research?

It’s something else North Carolina is known for, at least among a subset of social scientists.

“North Carolina has really done something special,” says Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor and the editor of Education Finance and Policy, an academic journal.

“If you look over the last 20 years and focus on the highest quality work, it’s disproportionately work that comes from North Carolina data,” says Dan Goldhaber, an education professor at the University of Washington at Bothell.

North Carolina students aren’t more interesting or easier to find. But a disproportionate share of education research — and therefore, a disproportionate amount of what we know about how certain policies work — comes out of the Tar Heel State.

That’s because North Carolina has kept track of things like student test scores, teacher demographics, and school accountability data since the ‘90s, and also made that information more accessible to researchers than anywhere else.

It works well for those looking for data. But it also underscores a troubling reality: We know much less about how policies play out in places where data is hard to access — and in some cases, may be kept under lock and key for political reasons. That leaves the public to take the best lessons it can from a state that’s home to just 3 percent of the country’s public school students.

“The problem is that what you really want to do is look at lots of places,” said Schwartz, a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “You want to be able to leverage the natural experiments and understand the variation in a way that’s really hard to do in one place.”

Of course, researchers in many cases do work productively with local officials to obtain data. And although it appears that North Carolina is the most commonly studied state in education policy, it is by no means the subject of the majority of academic papers. For instance, seven studies published in Education Finance and Policy over the last two years were focused on North Carolina — more than any other state or district, though over 30 others focused on K-12 schooling in the U.S used national data or data from elsewhere.

North Carolina’s popularity is tied to the fact that it is one of the few states where researchers can get student data (that has been anonymized) from a third party, in this case a research center established in 2000 that operates out of Duke University. In most states, the state education department or other state agency controls that information. Many states and districts lack the resources, streamlined systems, or staff capacity that North Carolina’s center has to meet researchers’ requests.

That center also separates policymakers and the keepers of the data — which may be crucial for ensuring information is made available.

“Not every place wants to open up their data and say, ‘Study what you want,’” said Schwartz. “The risk is that a researcher investigates something or casts it in a way that’s not positive for the school district.”

Goldhaber echoed this. “If you’re talking to somebody who’s involved with politics … they’re going to see everything through a political lens. And that when it comes to evaluating programs and policies, people often don’t see much upside,” he said.

In North Carolina, local researchers realized the importance of tracking students and schools over time, according to Duke’s Clara Muschkin, the faculty director of the data center.

When Goldhaber was studying schools there in the 1990s, he recalled, “There was a real belief that people ought to study these issues, and that was kind of pervasive under Gov. Jim Hunt.”

That extended to research that Hunt’s administration might not like. For instance, Goldhaber was interested in studying whether teachers who attained National Board certification were more effective in the classroom. Hunt was the founding board chair of the organization that awarded those certifications, and Goldhaber’s research had previously shown that certification types didn’t make much difference. But that didn’t stop the administration from providing that data to Goldhaber, who ultimately found North Carolina’s board certified teachers were particularly effective.

It’s impossible to say how often political concerns play a role in keeping data from researchers. When politics is involved, researchers themselves may not know, and if they do, they may not want to publicize it in hopes of eventually working out an agreement. (This reporter has heard frequent complaints about politics getting in the way of data access — but in most cases those are made off the record.)

A more subtle method of interference is when officials decide not to collect data in the first place that researchers might use to reach unflattering conclusions. California, Goldhaber said, is a particular culprit.

The largest state in the country has weakened, or declined to improve, its data systems since 2010, and the information that exists is not readily available to researchers. Governor Jerry Brown has argued that educational data is of little use to teachers and schools, and feeds into a test-focused mentality of schooling.

“You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” wrote Brown in a critique of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged more data collection. “I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”

Goldhaber has found it difficult to study the state’s education policies.

“There is just basic data that we could not get out of California,” he said, referring to a study he and colleagues are undertaking there.

Some places are becoming more cognizant of concerns about a lack of quality research about their schools. In Washington, D.C., the city council is considering funding an education research group and may make its data widely available to researchers. In California, some advocates and policymakers have pushed for improving its data systems, an idea the state’s likely next governor has backed.

In the meantime, those interested in key education questions — in California, DC, and elsewhere — can always look to North Carolina for answers. That’s largely a good thing, says Goldhaber.

“The fact that we are learning things in North Carolina is tremendously useful for informing policy and practice in other states,” he said.