First Person

Credit Recovery – Joel Klein’s Race to the Bottom

By failing to set standards or even track the use of credit recovery in New York City schools, Chancellor Joel Klein has provided a convenient back door for students to pass courses and graduate without subject mastery. The State Education Department has now capitulated to this agenda by promulgating a draft policy based on unpublicized negotiations with the city Department of Education. If implemented, the policy would do nothing to stem this tide of empty credits but, rather, encourage credit recovery by officially recognizing and regularizing it but with inadequate controls and monitoring.

What is credit recovery? The term is sometimes used technically to denote a formal program, such as summer school, with specified content, attendance, and assessment requirements. But the term is widely applied to any effort to help students pass courses that they would otherwise fail because of incomplete or below-standard work. These students substitute the extra work for regular assessments by writing a paper, taking a test, or providing some other evidence of proficiency in a narrow course topic.

Under the new state policy, schools would need only create a committee (which would not include the student’s teacher) to approve a student’s customized credit recovery plan for a course. The same committee would then review evidence of student proficiency once the plan was completed. The State does not require minimum class attendance or proof that the plan addresses all subject matter deficiencies. If a teacher says a book report suffices to show proficiency, the committee would not need to inquire beyond the teacher’s word. No record of how many courses a student passed using CR would be maintained. There would be no monitoring of assignments’ rigor or the frequency of CR’s use by teachers, schools, or the system as a whole.

What is the problem, though, with giving students a second chance at passing or completing a course by filling in the gaps?  First, without standards, there is no way to determine whether credit recovery assignments actually fill those gaps. Second, a course is more than the sum of its parts. For example, a student might fail a test in one unit of geometry and possibly another but if he or she understands other basic geometric concepts, they will likely pass the course. Course failure demonstrates significant overall deficits in factual and conceptual knowledge that a single assignment or mini-course can not erase. But passing the course will mean a lot to the student’s, the teacher’s, and the school’s appearance of success.

Helping students over the hump through credit recovery is not limited to New York City. Nationally, education publishers including Plato and Pearson sell credit recovery kits. But the DOE’s emphasis on data-based accountability, particularly high school credit accumulation and graduation, seems to have resulted in an explosion of credit recovery in New York. Schools are under tremendous pressure, through school report cards’ A-F rating, to produce progress in these metrics.

Credit recovery is a direct route to helping students and schools achieve the 10 credits each year that serve as the DOE’s benchmark of success. Then, with passing grades and a little luck on the Regents — often obtained through narrow and repeated test preparation — students are on pace to graduate. For hundreds of school principals, looking over their shoulders to stay ahead of the peer group against which they are measured, this is a matter of professional life and death. If one principal looks the other way on credit recovery in their schools, others are penalized for more rigorous standards. This race to the bottom will now be officially sanctioned by the State, urged on by Chancellor Klein.

If we do not reject this new policy proposal, more children will seem to be succeeding in high school and more will seem to be graduating with college- and job-readiness. But this will be a mirage. We will be gaming the system for students and administrators alike. We will be saluting proxies rather than real academic achievement.

The Board of Regents needs to put an end to this charade by rejecting this mockery and re-establishing high academic expectations for our youth.

David C. Bloomfield heads the Educational Leadership Program at Brooklyn College, CUNY and is an elected parent member of the Citywide Council on High Schools. He is the author of American Public Education Law.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.