College Readiness

Report: Many NYC high schools don’t offer advanced math and science courses

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee students who met their reading goals got a unique reward.

You need chemistry to become a registered nurse or an emergency medical technician. You need physics to become an architect.

But those occupations could be closed off to students attending a large number of New York City high schools, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. The report found that nearly four in 10 city high schools do not offer algebra II and both physics and chemistry.

The numbers paint a grim picture of the instruction many students are receiving in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The numbers look especially bleak for black and Hispanic students, who are underrepresented at the schools where most advanced diplomas are earned.

New York state is in the process of adopting Common Core learning standards that focus on skills students need for college-level courses or to enter higher-paying professions after high school. But as students struggle to adjust to a new Common Core-aligned algebra course, the report highlights that advanced courses remain out of reach for many students.

The rapid proliferation of small high schools in the last decade, which often offer a more limited range of academic classes than larger schools with more scheduling flexibility, are one cause, according to Clara Hemphill, editor of the school-review website Insideschools and one of the report’s authors. Another is that too many students arrive in high school ill-prepared to tackle those courses.

“Huge numbers of kids arrive in ninth grade not able to do fractions,” a skill students should begin learning in elementary school, Hemphill said. “So they just spend years and years and years getting caught up, and there’s just not enough kids who get that far.”

The city’s Department of Education is taking steps to improve its training and instruction in those subjects. In recent months, it has launched a free summer program to 1,200 students finishing second, seventh, and ninth grades focused on science, technology, engineering and math, provided more than 400 teachers with training in the STEM subjects, and released new science curriculum guidelines for elementary schools. In 2013, the city also announced an expansion of Advanced Placement courses in high-need schools.

“Our goal is to provide every New York City student with the math and science skills they need to succeed in college and meaningful careers, and we have taken concrete steps to improve offerings and raise achievement,” spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

But the report reflects a persistent contradiction: After a decade of aggressive changes to city schools, more students than ever are earning a high school diploma, and fewer than ever are dropping out. The needle has barely moved, though, based on one measure of students’ preparedness for college-level coursework — the proportion of students earning an advanced diploma. (To receive an advanced diploma, students must pass two additional math exams and one additional science exam, among other requirements.)

There are also disparities in access to high-level courses in high school. The city’s high school choice system means that a student’s future access to advanced course offerings in math and science is largely determined by seventh grade, since many high schools admit students based on their grades and state test scores from that year.

Nearly half of all students who received an advanced diploma attended just 25 of the city’s more than 600 high schools in 2013-14. At 100 other high schools, no students received an advanced Regents diploma, compared to 18 percent of students citywide.

White and Asian students, though they make up less than one quarter of the city’s high school student population, constitute 70 percent of students at high schools with that award the most advanced diplomas. Meanwhile, at 100 schools where none of those diplomas were awarded, 92 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The report offers some recommendations. High schools sharing space inside larger buildings should make greater effort to combine resources to offer advanced classes for top students. And recognizing that some students may never make it beyond introductory algebra, schools should offer “conceptual” courses in chemistry and physics. At Quest to Learn in Manhattan, a middle and high school, for example, teachers have developed a chemistry class for tenth graders that provides them with an introduction to the subject and, perhaps, a primer to take the Regents-level course in the following year.

A list of city high schools and their advanced math and science offerings in the 2013-14 school year can be found here.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.