First Person

A Graduate’s Case Against Specialized High Schools

When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place.

At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence.

In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal?

I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.

The SSHSAT is an exam created to systematically sift out the brilliant test takers of New York City. When you remove the most aggressively studious types from all the schools of New York and force them in a school together, you create an environment that is not conducive to learning, but is rather the academic equivalent of a pressure cooker. Here, competition is palpable. I’ve seen students spiral into deep depression over a couple meager points shaved off a test score. I’ve seen tiny students hauling multiple textbooks in their backpacks at once, in a cartoonish display of upper body strength. I’ve seen students skip lunch and dart to study hall to snatch up library textbooks before the next kid, in attempt to cut into that night’s staggering homework load before arriving home after sundown.

The scariest part of all this, is that it only seems outrageous to me in retrospect. When you’re in the Stuy bubble, all of these neuroses seem perfectly normal. Stress is normal. Fatigue is normal. Depression is normal.

My parents wanted me to get into Stuy for the same reason many New York parents do: to get a free ride to four years of superb academics (and to brag, naturally, but that’s beside the point). For many, it’s a way to avoid subpar educational experiences at other schools. But they encounter subpar, and sometimes even damaging, conditions of another type at the city’s beacon of excellence.

Academic reforms have recently been proposed to try and mitigate Stuy’s cutthroat competition and workload: for instance, limiting the amount of homework assigned and asking that all families sign a contract promising academic integrity. In reality, however, these reforms wouldn’t do much more than encourage students to find other outlets to excel (and whether an anti-cheating contract would be effective seems like wishful thinking to me). This is a school that runs on the steam of its vigorous meritocracy, so to try and curb competition would be largely futile. It could be that changing the admissions process, as a civil rights group last week called on the city to do, would effect some culture change. But I believe that fundamental academic reform is something that needs to start in the home.

This is no longer the age where a seat at a top-tier university will guarantee you success and a job. Bachelor’s degrees have been rendered compulsory, and they are useless if not coupled with individual passion. Young people have to be encouraged from a young age to find and hone in on their strengths. I would stress to youngsters that highly selective schools and universities (i.e. those illustrious Ivies and specialized science high schools) are not the be-all-end-all of an academic career. An acceptance letter is not a ticket to success, and it is vital that one’s strengths and interests are not overshadowed by one’s attractive GPA.

Here is the fundamental problem with our standing academic system: Standardization and emphasis on quantifiable achievement have turned schools into assembly lines, throwing individual capabilities to the wind. This is the age of hyper-specialization, and there needs to be a fresh initiative to get students to narrow down their academic concentrations and develop their strengths, perhaps by means of specific academic tracks or concentrations. Likewise, individually tailored mentality needs to be fostered in the home. Parents, I urge you to pay attention to your children’s natural abilities and cultivate them by means of extra curricular activities. Academic advisors should do the same. When I was a sophomore at Stuy, I was perpetually bogged down by pressure to excel at subjects utterly irrelevant to me. By the time college rolled around, I was so forlorn and overwhelmed by options that it took me years to discover strengths I had all along — and that if someone had taken time to notice, I would have capitalized on sooner.

Ask anyone that’s attended Stuy and they will tell you the same thing — that sure, we had some great teachers and neat facilities, but that’s not what made the school. The students were the school’s shining glory, and let’s be real — they would excel anywhere if given the opportunity. They didn’t need to enter the Stuy machine to get into “good” colleges. In fact, Stuy often works against students’ favor in the application pool, because so many of its students apply to the same schools and compete against each other. No one should be subjected to that harrowing cult of achievement.

The aphorism is true — a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. It is a shame for our bright young minds to be wasting valuable energy on fruitless efforts. Merit for merit’s sake will only harbor frustration when the fruit of one’s labor does not ultimately translate into success. Competition is only healthy when one strives to achieve something of value — and more often than not, it is not something quantifiable with a test score.

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.