What is College Readiness?

If you’re new to the conversation about “college readiness,” you might suppose that preparedness would be measured in multiple ways. Of course, many students who can score well on tests lack the personal and social skills necessary to succeed in college. On the other hand, some students struggle on standardized tests, but perhaps they could demonstrate readiness for college through grades, effort and teacher recommendation.

WRONG

According to the City University of New York (CUNY), the arbiters of college readiness for New York City public schools, it is much simpler than that. From the Academics section of CUNY’s website:

Students are considered proficient in reading and writing if they can document any one of the following:

  • SAT I verbal score of 480 or higher or critical reading score of 480 or higher
  • ACT English score of 20 or higher
  • N.Y. State English Regents score of 75 or higher
  • CUNY Assessment Tests:
    • Reading Test score of 70 or higher and Writing Test score of 56 or higher.

My school offers students college courses, at a CUNY school, as soon as they demonstrate proficiency by these standards, mostly Regents results. Lest you assume mathematics has more reasonable requirements, that discipline also publishes a set of scores that apparently correlate to “readiness” in a sense. Typically, students need to score an 80 on any math Regents exam, and earn credits in the other courses that offer Regents–algebra 1+2 and geometry. Look at the link above for detailed requirements for the different schools.

These scores, used as a gatekeeper for credit-bearing courses, are inevitably arbitrary. Although the assessment experts could (and have) explain how they were determined, scores on standardized tests that change regularly cant possibly be consistent measures of something as nebulous as college readiness. In fact, the foremost experts in assessment identified these scores after a study by Dan Koretz of Harvard University. This was a way to halt the score inflation that skyrocketed under former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg, allowing them to claim credit for score increases each and every year of the administration.

Unfortunately, the tests remain fairly meaningless. While a score of 80 on a math Regents may indeed predict initial success in a college math course (Koretz and his team say C+), there is little predictive value beyond the first course. Likewise, the Internet masses agree that the Regents are a poor indicator of college readiness. Oh, and as an aside, there’s quite a bit of debate over the fairness of any standardized tests. More importantly, college readiness remains a proxy for income, demographics and geography.

The Coalition for Educational Justice published an extremely valuable map of college readiness throughout the five boroughs. East New York, one of the poorer areas of Brooklyn and where many of my students reside, graduates 12% of students ready for college. Park Slope, an upper class neighborhood about 2 miles away, is at 48%. Across the city, the numbers are fairly predictable. Is college readiness simply a proxy for wealth? Zip code?

The school where I work was founded to remedy this apparent inequity in the education provided for our youth. Our staff meets regularly with college professors to map requirements for their courses back to our instruction at the high school level, meaning we have more information than most about what college readiness truly means. Yet, due to the rigid proficiency requirements linked above, students are not deemed “college ready” until they meet the test score benchmarks.

Before I began teaching, that requirement simply felt wrong to me…but I couldn’t define why or how. As a student, I had an easy time with tests and exams, so I rarely spent much time considering the impact of these clumsy instruments on students who do not perform well. But now, they’re sitting in front of me. Since we know, from reliable social science, that high-stakes standardized tests have unfair outcomes for minority, poor and ELL students (e.g. HeubertFleming & Garcia, Linn), it seems puzzling that we still insist on the numbers. While NYC is home to an extremely diverse population, very few Black and minority students ever attain “college readiness” by these measures; on the other hand, my short time in a school tells me that, given a real opportunity, these kids are extraordinarily capable.

State of the Union Shout-out

As I sat down to watch the State of the Union on Tuesday evening, carrying the usual skepticism that is owed to political oratory, I was hoping for new ideas that would guide the country towards progressive change in a second term. Although I work in a school, I listened for talk of education as well as climate change, gun control and foreign policy, among the myriad of topics covered in such a massive speech.

In his first term, Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered the Race to the Top competition. Much criticism has been levied at this initiative, mostly attacking the goals of the program–more charter schools, teacher evaluations and the removal of tenure protections, and the turnaround models that have been the subject of controversy in NYC. In addition, Obama and Duncan have been lambasted for designing a program that is based on competition rather than need. Civil rights groups have been especially vocal critics.

 

I find most of these critiques compelling. Race to the Top, while an effective federal program in terms of persuading states to adopt favored policies, does little to improve the in-school experience of our most vulnerable young people. Other aspects of Obama’s educational agenda are less controversial and more popular among progressives: expanding early childhood education and enhancing career and technical education for workforce readiness. These ideas received the bulk of attention in Obama’s speech, including a reference to the apprenticeship model employed in Germany, which combines high school and college to prepare students for meaningful career opportunities.
“Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/12/us/politics/obama-state-of-the-union-2013.html?hp)

P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School, is a new school in its second year of operation in Crown Heights, in the Paul Robeson High School building. The idea, as the President explained, grew out of a collaboration between IBM, the NYC Department of Education and the City University of New York. Students begin in 9th grade and have the opportunity not only to earn an associate in applied sciences degree, but also to gain meaningful work experience through internships and a sequence of work-based learning activities developed jointly between the partners, including the school’s staff. Having worked on the school’s design dating back to an internship at the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, I later transitioned to a role as a community coordinator at the school. I now teach social studies and coach the campus’ soccer team…only 3 years after my own graduation from college. I left college in May 2010 with a BA, entering an uncertain and challenging job market. Through some luck, I met a DOE official who hired me, one thing led to another and I have been working on P-TECH ever since. I feel deeply caught up in the school’s development–it is my main, really only, professional achievement, and I could not be prouder.

The school is special because it is not based on the competition inherent in other parts of the President’s education agenda. We are an open enrollment school, with students who cover the whole range of NYC public school students. With our legacy class of students in their second semester of what would be 10th grade, over 60% of students are enrolled in college courses, including computer science, speech and engineering technology. A white man from Connecticut, I led the school’s recruitment efforts for the first two classes of students, meaning I met nearly all of our 227 students before they arrived at the school for their first day.

None of our students look like me–in fact, most of my kids think I look like every other white man, from Kevin Love to Steve Burns, best known as Steve from Blue’s Clues.  Working in a community where I am an outsider is invigorating, and it gives me a chance to relieve some of the burden of white, male, suburban privilege that I carry by virtue of the accident of my birth. As a representative of the dominant culture, often one of the few my students have come to know on a personal level, I have become sensitive to the subtle discrimination that for centuries has denied those who look like my students all manner of equal opportunity. The basic unfairness, not just of the past but also of the present, is a big part of what motivates me.

 

The model that is employed at P-TECH is powerful because it does more than provide opportunity, it presents students with the real possibility of a middle class career at a company like IBM. All students are matched with a mentor from IBM, which along with site visits, opens up the world of the corporation to young people who, with rare exception, had not previously envisioned themselves in this kind of future. Watching my students begin to see themselves in brighter futures, with a true pathway to get there, is the greatest inspiration. The work is hard, and it has to happen again every day, but this is a structure that encourages the investment on the part of staff and students, because the future holds such promise, both real and imagined.

Education is…about people

From the New York Times today:

The New York City Department of Education said Thursday that up to 47 schools could be closed for poor performance, a huge increase from previous years if all remain on the chopping block.

In the eight years since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has used school closings as a cornerstone of his school reform strategy, 91 schools have been shuttered and replaced with new schools.

And from the New York Post, also today:

SUNY officials are mulling a new move that would try to turn around failing charter schools rather than just shuttering them — an initiative that could get its first trial at a struggling Harlem center.

While officials wouldn’t name the troubled facility under consideration for the less punitive measure, sources identified it as Harlem Day Charter School, which has a five-year charter up for renewal this winter.

The school’s test scores hit rock bottom in the spring, with just 20 percent of students scoring at grade level in reading and fewer than 25 percent doing so in math.

SUNY board members indicated that rather than simply close down the school, they might consider overhauling the administration and staff so that the kids could have continuity by remaining in the same school.

Maybe there’s a disconnect between the city DoE and the charter board at SUNY.  It’s important to note that these are two different bodies making these totally contradictory decisions.  But from the view of regular folks who will be affected by the changes, both decisions come “from the top,” without significant input from the school communities.  To their credit, this year the DoE is planning to hold hearings and meetings before making any final decisions–this was necessary after last year’s lawsuit and injunction against closing 19 under-performing schools.

Of course, “under-performing” is a mantle with different meanings to different groups.  To the city of New York, it seems like charter schools don’t underperform, while district schools seem to do so pretty often.  Even though some of the district schools slated to close are less than 5 years old, the clock apparently has run out on them.  At the same time, there are charters out there doing worse than these district schools, but they are expected to receive assistance to improve.  What a novel idea, offer help to schools that are struggling; I think this would be the proverbial carrot in the “carrot and stick” approach.  So far, all New York City has shown its public schools are sticks, and the only thing on the radar of charter schools is more carrots, more money and more love from all sectors of the media.

Some charter schools definitely deserve the love they’re getting, and all schools that are struggling deserve any help that the city or state can provide.  The problem is the double-standard that public school parents, teachers and students find so offensive when it comes to public and charter schools.  If Education is truly about fairness, then these schools need to be treated the same, end of story.  If we care about public education equality, all struggling schools either need to get the help charters are slated to get, or they all need to be threatened with closure, a la NYC public schools.

This second approach is advocated by James Merriman in a recent article on the Huffington Post.  He astutely notes that SUNY has proven its willingness to close charter schools in the past for low performance.  His argument is essentially that bad schools are doing badly by kids, therefore they should be closed down.  This brings us to the “backbench” idea, which comes up more often with teachers than with schools (explained in greater detail here).  It is the argument that, though there are many bad teachers who should be fired, if we raise the bar too high, we could run short of qualified teachers pretty quickly.  Likewise, running a school is tough business.  If fixing a school and making it work better is possible, that should always be the first effort.  Closing schools not only disrupts life for students and families, it disrupts communities.  And even schools that bomb standardized tests provide a safe space for lots of kids who don’t have any other safe spaces available.  Schools are anchors of communities and neighborhoods, and when they are shuttered so rapidly, it can leave a community reeling.

Education is about kids, and it’s about always, always doing whatever’s in the best interests of kids.  There are kids in this city who don’t have a safe place to express themselves outside of their school, and to shutter schools suddenly can really destabilize a kids life.  Education is about safety, too, and schools can provide both physical and mental-emotional safety for kids in need.  That’s something of value, perhaps of greater import than scores on an (obviously flawed) standardized test.

I guess the biggest problem I have with the mass closings of public schools is the mechanism.  Schools are closed based on scores from tests we now know, conclusively, to have been of extremely low quality and questionable validity.  Merril Tisch and the Board of Regents made wholesale changes after testing experts came in and pointed out the myriad flaws of these exams.  Yet, these tests remain very, very high-stakes.  The change I would advocate for most vehemently would be a cumulative review of schools which are up for potential closing.  That means more than looking at the A-F grade, their test scores, and any other numbers we can come up with.  Because, this is the clincher, Education is not about numbers, it’s about people.  And until SUNY and the DoE realize that–they sure haven’t yet–we’ll continue to see protests and lawsuits, because people need to have their value recognized in this kind of official process.  Numbers in a spreadsheet will never give the full picture, never, and for me, that’s all there is to it.