academic performance

'Roundtable' discussions put students and teachers on the spot

Students discussed foreign policy during roundtable discussions at East Side Community High School.

While students across the city hunkered over bubble sheets and short answer questions during last month’s Regents exam period, seniors at East Side Community High School were deep in conversation.

In one corner of Ben Wides’s American Foreign Policy classroom, two students huddled with a university professor talking about the role of altruism in foreign policy. Three desks over, another group discussed the role of public opinion in policy decisions, and across the room, a student told a student teacher why he found the Mexican-American War so interesting.

The conversations were part of “roundtable” discussions that are a crucial early step in East Side’s assessment program. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the school exempts students from most of the exams the state requires for high school graduation. The students instead demonstrate competency by completing extensive research projects and presenting their findings to teachers and outside evaluators.

Wides’s students will write and defend original historical research papers at the end of the year in a process that he likened to a graduate thesis defense. Last month’s roundtables gave students an opportunity to practice discussing class material and defending their interpretations, he said, and they also gave him one more way to gauge mid–year what material still hadn’t sunk in.

“The idea is really being able to use information, to dig deep into text and things that you’ve learned, and then being able to use that information to make arguments, to back them up, and to be part of an adult, mature dialogue,” Wides said.

Currently, just 24 city high schools belong to the performance standards consortium, out of more than 500 in total. But performance assessments seem poised to arrive at more schools soon, particularly as pushback against standardized testing mounts and the new Common Core standards require that students be able to stake out positions and support them with evidence.

The city could also use performance assessments in addition to other exams to satisfy the “local assessments” portion of required teacher evaluations. Some policymakers, including City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, are pushing for more schools to adopt non-test-based assessment systems.

East Side Principal Mark Federman said he thinks meeting the standards set by Regents exams do not ensure that students will succeed in college and beyond.

“Throughout the semester, [East Side Students] know they’re going to talk in public, they’re going to be accountable to strangers,” he said. Students who start at East Side in sixth grade have presented their work to outsiders more than 50 times by graduation.

In Wides’s classroom, students discussed foreign policy with a CUNY professor, two East Side teachers, three student teachers, a consultant on peer mediation, a graduate student, a paraprofessional, and a teacher from another school whose classes were suspended for Regents week.

Speaking with a classmate and the professor, one student argued that altruism is a nice idea, but it is unrealistic to expect governments to make foreign policy decisions based on anything but their own best interests. Even decisions that look altruistic might not be, she said: The government decides whether to enter a war “based on what they think is best, but they cover it up with a story that would be acceptable to the public.”

The other student pushed back, arguing that altruism should play a role in shaping foreign policy. Wides asked for a hypothetical example of what an altruistic foreign policy decision would look like. “If the U.S. had entered World War II earlier, because so many people were suffering, then that would have been an example of altruism,” the student suggested.

Not every conversation reflected the same level of engagement. In a talk about public opinion on foreign policy, one student struggled to explain the relationship between the two.

“He wasn’t right there saying, what the public thinks matters because they elect the leadership in a democracy. He got there, but he got there through a lot of prompting,” Wides said. “That was a little painful for me, but that was also good feedback. It was valuable for me to hear that a relatively strong student wasn’t making that connection as facilely as I would have liked.”

He said he would revisit the topic in the second semester but would not count the challenge against the student. Unlike regular classwork and end-of-year historical research papers, roundtables are not meant to test students’ knowledge of specific facts.

“This does not substitute to me as an assessment,” he said. “What students are assessed on in the class is the work that’s in their portfolio…I’m not using the roundtable to figure out what kids know.”

Wides said the roundtables also keep teachers on their toes, because in addition to observing his students, “guests are in here observing me.” Teachers acting as guests in each other’s roundtables offer feedback and take notes on what they might do in their own classrooms. They also see how their colleagues are grading student work, preventing teachers from adopting wildly disparate grading scales.

In preparation for the roundtables, each student wrote a cover letter, which guests read alongside student portfolios just before engaging in conversation. In the cover letters, students made historical arguments and drew connections using examples from class material. They also offered personal reflections on their experiences in the class, which became part of their conversations.

“You wrote a lot of criticism, a lot of self criticism, which I thought was really wonderful to be that candid about saying, well, I wasn’t really organized,” Matthew Guilden, a former East Side dean who now consults on discipline and peer mediation with the school, told a student. “How are you going to fix that? Because you’re going to go to college next year.”

East Side senior Gabriella Castillo said after the class that roundtables push her to organize her thoughts and review what she learned during the whole first semester.

“I think if it’s a test, I’ll probably just make flash cards, memorize a few dates, and then it’s over,” she said. “But when you really get to discuss something, discuss all these topics that you’ve learned about and researched and stuff, this knowledge is going to come with you forever. Even right now, I’m still thinking about some questions that they asked me.”

Wides said the roundtable help him explain to students why they are learning certain topics.

“In a lot of schools, the answer is you’re learning this because it’s going to be on the Regents,” he said. He described a “Countdown to the Test” poster displayed prominently at Norman Thomas High School, where East Side was relocated for several months this year due to structural issues with the building.

“Here, I can say, you need to learn this because someone’s going to ask you about that at the roundtable,” he said. “But what that really means is that some adult is going to come in and take an interest in your ability to answer a real question, take a moral stand, or have a really thoughtful idea about cause and effect in history.”


Betsy DeVos

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 Bellevue, 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

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.