prep school

In pursuit of college readiness, a course about "Assimilation"

Mitch Kurz leads students through a true/false quiz about the psychology of dreams.

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurz worked as advertising executive before cashing out— to the tune of millions of dollars — and getting involved in education. Already a trustee of Teach for America, he joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2002 and now serves on the board of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Kurz believes city students fear college and sometimes struggle once they get there because they lack the vocabulary of the dominant college-going culture. At least at selective schools and schools outside of New York City, first-generation college students from urban high schools are a rarity, he said.

“We know adapting to the social environment of college, away from home, can be forbidding for tons of kids. [Alumni] would come back and say, ‘In my dorm room or in the hall or the cafeteria, these conversations would take place, and I never felt like I could participate in them,'” Kurz said.

So he designed a class to give the students something he thought they lacked: social capital, or, as he describes it, “All the non-academic stuff that makes up social intelligence, small talk, making conversation — even something as mundane as table manners. … Many young people have this, depending on their upbringing, but almost none of our students have it.”

Kurz’s recipe for social capital involves a crash course in foreign languages, religion, and schmoozing, in addition to other more academic subjects meant to introduce students to features of the liberal arts, such as sociology and psychology. His syllabus assigns each week a big idea, such as “happiness” or “social currency,” and breaks it down into wide-ranging content.

One day, students learned the rules of dreidel, the game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On another, they simulated eating at a formal dinner party, using plastic silverware and plates to practice dining etiquette. This week, Kurz used photos from his advertising days to teach students the meaning of the golden ratio — a mathematical concept related to image proportions.

The curriculum can seem to careen from one subject to the next, but researchers say the approach has important value.

“The premise of the class is solid,” said Will Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies college readiness. “The idea is supported by research that there are social adjustment challenges first-generation students face — particularly when they go to highly selective colleges and universities where there is a much smaller group of minority, working class students and a lack of information about how to function in college in ways that require familiarity with white, upper-middle-class culture.”

But Perez — who researches education, race and cultural capital — also cautioned that a course meant to explicitly introduce students to those cultural differences would necessarily walk a fine line between teaching students tools for adaptation and suggesting that their own cultural backgrounds are inferior.

The course title would suggest that Kurz aims to help his students become more like the middle-class children of professionals that he expects them to encounter in college. But he said his goal is not to press the students to change themselves but to equip them with the tools to engage in cultural “code-shifting” — altering their behavior based on where they are and who they are with — so they can fit into unfamiliar settings when they want to.

Past lessons in Kurz's class include "How to make an elevator pitch," and "What is Hannukah?"

It’s a mission that resonates with Lisa Delpit, an education researcher who has argued that educators should initiate minority students into the “culture of power” through explicit instruction — not only so that they can succeed in it but also so that they can ultimately influence it.

“I don’t want us to limit where kids can go,” Delpit said. “I think some of the things he’s talking about, students may or may not see in a college setting, but they certainly could come up in some settings. There is power in learning about other settings and other cultures.”

It is less apparent how the course materials may be relevant to students who do not choose to attend liberal arts colleges outside of the city, or do not participate in formal networking events. But Delpit say these subjects can hold value regardless of what students pursue after high school.

Luisa Diaz, a 2011 graduate of Bronx Center, said Kurz let students know right away that he wanted them to head off to college with their own identities intact.

“The first thing he said was, “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to exclude some cultures and include others,” she said. “And everybody in the class’s culture in some way or another was incorporated into the discussions.” For example, Diaz said, Kurz made sure everyone had a crash course in Spanish vocabulary — creating an opportunity for Latino students to share about their backgrounds.

Diaz, now a freshman at Hunter College, said some of the lessons have already come up countless times in her post-high school life.

“We’re studying in college right now the different stages of the human being — id, alter-ego, psychology,” she said. “I came into my religion class once and that was the first thing [the professor] put on the board, and I was the first one to raise her hand. Everyone was in awe, and I was saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Kurz,’ in my head.”

Kurz said he takes his own lessons to heart by challenging himself to leave his comfort zone — in his case, by carrying a grade-book stored in a colorful folder featuring the face of teen pop icon Justin Bieber.

“One of the ways you can make yourself feel more welcome in an environment is to make fun of yourself,” he explained to the students when they laughed about the notebook. “Everyone is more comfortable with people who don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Laura Rivera, a senior, said Kurz’s class inspired her to apply to colleges outside of New York City.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “And it’s helped me connect all my classes together. At first I thought, maybe I want to stay in New York, have my mom do my laundry and cook. Now, all my colleges are ‘aways,’ with exception of CUNY.”

study says...

In new study of school-district effectiveness, New York City falls just below national average

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Each year, state test scores offer a snapshot of how much New York City students have learned. But they say little about how the city’s schools stack up against other districts’, in part because the raw scores largely reflect student demographics — wealthier districts tend to have higher scores.

Now, a major new analysis of several years of test scores from across the country provides a better way to judge and compare districts: Instead of looking at a single moment, it shows how well school systems help students grow their skills over time.

Based on that measure, New York City falls just below the middle of the pack: In the five years from third to eighth grade, its students collectively make about 4.6 grade levels of progress — landing New York in the 35th percentile of districts nationally. By contrast, Chicago students advance the equivalent of six grades within those five years, giving the district one of the highest growth rates in the country.

Still, New York is slightly above average when compared to other large districts with many students from low-income families. And it trounces the state’s other urban districts — including Yonkers, Syracuse, and Rochester, which have some of the nation’s worst growth rates.

“Among big poor districts, it’s better than average,” said Sean Reardon, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the analysis. “In the grand scheme, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road.”

Reardon’s analysis — based on 300 million standardized tests taken by students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015 — is the largest of its kind. It looks both at student proficiency on third-grade math and English tests (that is, what share of students earned a score deemed “proficient”) and student growth between grades three and eight (how much their scores improved over time). Reardon’s research was supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to Chalkbeat.

The analysis controls for the differences in tests across states and over time by converting scores into a common scale that measures growth in grade levels, making it possible to compare nearly every district in the country to one another. (It excludes New York’s scores from 2015 and some grades in 2014 because of the high number of students who boycotted the state tests those years. However, each district’s five-year growth rates is actually an average of its year-over-year growth, so Reardon was still able to calculate a five-year rate for New York.)

Experts generally prefer growth rates over proficiency as a way to evaluate school quality, since growth measures the progress students make in school rather than where they started. Even if a district enrolls many poor students who are less likely than their affluent peers to hit the “proficiency” benchmark, its schools can still help them advance at a rate comparable to or even better than schools filled with wealthier students.

“Growth is way better than achievement,” said Douglas Ready, an education and public policy professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We know low-income students start school behind — the question is what do school districts do with the kids they get?”

New York’s growth rate falls just below the national median of 4.8 grade levels. Among big districts, its students made gains similar to those in Dallas and Detroit, and greater than students in Los Angeles, Miami, and Indianapolis.

By contrast, Rochester ranks rock-bottom nationally. In that high-poverty district, where the median income among families with children in the public schools is $26,000, students advanced about three grade levels in five years. Yonkers’ $48,000 median income is much higher, yet its schools barely do better, with students moving just 3.5 grade levels. (Among New York City public-school parents, the median income is $42,000.)

Reardon emphasized that test scores provide an important but incomplete picture of student learning, and growth rates are an imperfect measure of school effectiveness since factors outside of the classroom also influence how much students learn over time.

Still, he argued that officials who rate schools and parents who choose them would do much better to look at a school’s growth rate over its average test scores. In fact, he said, a focus on growth rates could theoretically drive down socioeconomic segregation since higher-income parents might be willing to enroll their children in schools with many poor students and low overall test scores if the schools nonetheless had outstanding growth rates.

Ready, however, pointed out that even when schools and districts are highly effective at helping students make progress, they are still unlikely to close the yawning achievement gaps that separate most poor and wealthier students from the time they start school. Reardon came to the same conclusion.

“The large gaps in students’ academic skills between low- and higher-[socioeconomic status] districts are so large,” Reardon’s analysis says, “that even the highest growth rate in the country would be insufficient to close even half of the gap by eighth grade.”

In response to the analysis, New York City education department officials pointed to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test taken by a representative sample of students in each state and certain districts, including New York. Only one other district among the country’s 10 largest cities performed better in reading and math than New York, which had the highest share of low-income students reach the proficient level on the reading test.

“Our schools are the strongest they’ve ever been, with record-high graduation and college enrollment rates, and improving state test scores,” said the district’s spokesman, Will Mantell.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.