extra credit

Evaluating homegrown courses, city deems some 'college-prep'

Students at Central Park East High School, one of several now receiving city credit for college-level courses its teachers developed.

At Harry S. Truman High School, juniors in an honors English class arrange their desks in concentric circles to discuss Marxist and feminist theory in the American literary canon.

At Central Park East High School, students taking the Mt. Sinai Careers course develop research projects on the health sciences while interning in hospital departments like pediatrics, orthopedics, and Mt. Sinai’s morgue.

And at East Side Community School, seniors compare ancient Greek tragedies.

The courses are as challenging as any Advanced Placement class, their teachers say: To pass, students must demonstrate not only deep knowledge but also the kind of critical thinking required for success in college. But last year, when the Department of Education moved toward giving high schools credit in their annual letter grade for exposing students to college-level work, the courses did not count.

This year, they are among 52 courses in city high schools to get the department’s “college and career preparatory” stamp of approval, meaning that students who pass them typically stay in college after many ill-prepared students drop out.

The shift happened after the department proposed a new “college preparatory course index” that gave credit in part to schools where students passed “college-level” courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses or classes through the City University of New York College Now program.

Schools that struck out on their own to build college-preparatory courses were shut out of the extra points. So for this year, when information about course offerings started counting toward schools’ grades, the department offered to certify courses as “college and career preparatory courses” if their schools could prove that students who passed ultimately graduated ready for college-level work.

The certification program is part of the department’s recent efforts to scrutinize what happens inside classrooms after many years of leaving that up to principals and teachers alone. It seeks to reward schools for offering advanced classes that are homemade, said Nancy Gannon, the director of the city’s Office for Academic Quality, who is overseeing the effort.

“We have the opportunity here to give the school credit for pushing kids in a way that’s equally valuable to an Advanced Placement class,” she said. Officials are also recruiting teachers who get the department’s seal of approval to help other educators develop college-level courses of their own.

Last spring, schools proposed more than 100 courses for certification, and over the summer, department officials pored over the graded student work, syllabi, and other curriculum materials. They also looked at how students who passed the class and graduated were faring in college.

Ultimately, the department certified 52 courses at 34 schools, turning away more than half of the applicants. The stamp of approval went to classes about business law, philosophy, gastronomy, and personal finance, in addition to more typical courses in English, math, and science.

“The measure we’re using here is the Common Core learning standards,” said Gannon, referring to new standards that are geared toward college readiness. “Many that fell short were on their way there but hadn’t arrived yet. The texts weren’t rigorous enough, for example, or they were asking people to do a summary of a text rather than really do analysis.”

The schools that did make the cut include both Stuyvesant High School, which is highly selective, and John Dewey High School, which has struggled so much that the department recently sought to close it. Arts-focused schools are represented, as are schools that aim to prepare students for careers.

And both established schools and small schools opened under the Bloomberg administration had courses certified. (Schools had to have at least one graduating class to apply, and at 25 graduates had to have taken the high-level course, allowing the department to track whether they remained enrolled after their first semester of college.)

Gannon described Truman’s English class as “remarkable” for its ability to get students to talk at length about literary theories.

The class was developed five years ago when teachers realized that some of Truman’s strongest students were entering 11th grade with a basic knowledge of American history and literature already in place, according to teacher Zulay Martinez. The school wanted to push the students further by introducing them to literary theories they had never heard of, but are features of many college literature courses.

“Because they were honors students, we thought that would be a great opportunity to push them further,” she said. “We said, let’s look at it from a feminist perspective, a psychoanalytical perspective, a Marxist perspective.”

In the class, students routinely arrange their desks in two rows, to facilitate Socratic seminar-style dialogue, Martinez said.

“The idea that everything we need to know is already within us,” Martinez said. “We tell them, ‘You’ve read the story, you know the theory, all you need to do is put two and two together to answer the questions.’”

At a recent seminar on the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” students debated questions like “What’s the relationship between the narrator and women in the story?” and “Does the text support the cult of domesticity?”

Other schools shot for the same level of rigor but did not hit the mark. A Queens school’s pre-calculus course had its strengths, such as asking students to apply their mathematical knowledge to real-world problems, Gannon said, but students were rarely asked to explain their thinking in writing, a central demand of the Common Core standards.

Gannon said the department was also disappointed with the quality of feedback teachers were giving.

“It was really limited to basic cues or crossing things out,” she said. “There wasn’t much constructive and detailed feedback that would contribute to student learning from their mistakes or successes.”

Department officials said they gave feedback to each of the schools that applied and in many cases invited ones that did not meet the certification requirements to tweak their programs and reapply this year. Applications open next week.

Schools that apply must commit to sharing their course materials with the department, which will make them available to other schools in earlier stages of developing college preparatory courses.

The department is also recruiting successful applicants to guide other teachers who hope to bring higher-level courses to their schools in the future. In August, Joanna Dolgin, a teacher at East Side Community High School, led a seminar for teachers from six other schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Schools in the consortium require students to demonstrate mastery through real-world applications of knowledge, rather than simply by passing state exams.

Department officials said teachers from 21 consortium schools participated in the trainings this summer. The department is not yet offering  these seminars to other schools, but there are plans to expand the effort in the future.

Dolgin teaches a semester-long advanced English class called “Tragedy” that has students read classic works such as Antigone, Othello, and Oedipus Rex, and discuss the roles that big-picture concepts like tragedy, power and identity play in them.

The course isn’t perfect for all students, Dolgin said, and replicating it is likely to be a challenge. “Designing effective courses where the students are engaged requires a tremendous amount of time and collaboration,” she said.

Adding new college-level courses is hard work but well worth the benefits — which far exceed getting a boost on the city’s progress report, school leaders say.

“The course would be the course whether they certify it or not, whether we get credit on our report card or not,” said Bennett Lieberman, Central Park East’s principal. “We have not developed these courses with the report card in mind per se, but with getting our kids college ready. We’ve been working on that longer than the [department] has been grading us.”


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.