First Person

On The Meaning Of High School Philosophy Instruction

When I joined the faculty of Columbia Secondary School as a curriculum adviser last year, I had no inkling that I would eventually become the school’s high school philosophy teacher. This is an honor and an intellectual treat. I want to share my thoughts about what it means to teach philosophy at the high school level, what sort of curriculum we have, and what I am doing with it.

Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a selective 6–12 public school (currently 6–11) located in Harlem. The principal, Miriam Nightengale, has worked to build a strong curriculum and a lively school culture. The teachers are immensely dedicated, not only to the classroom, but to the school community; as a part-time teacher, I am humbled by their relentlessness and cheer. The students, who come from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness in common. All students take philosophy every year.

I wrote the high school philosophy curriculum last spring and will be fleshing it out as the year progresses. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. The philosophical texts range from ancient to modern; the 10th-graders, for instance, are currently reading the Book of Job; later in the unit, they will read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” The 11th-graders began with Sophocles and Plato, will soon read Aristophanes’ “The Clouds,” and will end the year with Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Eugene Ionesco.

I work from the conviction that these texts — and the lessons surrounding them — will give students perspective on their own philosophical questions and lives. The first challenge is to make sense of the texts. Often we have to take time with a single sentence, working through it and figuring out what it means. That can bring out surprising insights.

Philosophy is not all logical by any means. Much philosophical writing is poetic and allegorical. It is important for students to hear the cadences of the language; this often helps them find the meaning (and appreciate the beauty of the work). So I often read passages aloud, for their sound and rhythm and for the insights that these bring. I invite students to read aloud as well.

In the 10th-grade course, the Book of Job has posed some unexpected as well as predictable challenges. Many student are familiar with the story, but few have read Job in its entirety. I placed it first in the curriculum because it raises questions that recur throughout the course: Why must people go through extreme suffering? Within this suffering, do they have choices? Is there a proper response to suffering? Is there ultimate justice?

We read and discussed the first three chapters in class; all went swimmingly. Rapt students, fascinating discussions. Then I assigned them chapters 4 through 11 and asked them to explain in writing what Job’s friends are trying to persuade him to do and how he responds.

The following morning, before 8 a.m., student after student came to see me. “Professor Senechal,” a student said (the students call the teachers “professor” at my school), “I didn’t understand the reading at all.” Others came to me with similar reports. But when I received a stack of homework papers, I realized that they had tried to answer the question anyway.

At the start of class, I asked the students where their difficulty lay. Many had trouble figuring out who was speaking at what time. I explained to them that each new speaker is introduced and that a person’s speech might carry on into the next chapter. That cleared up a great deal of confusion. Most students had difficulty with the metaphorical language. I had anticipated that, so I directed their attention to particular verses — for instance, Eliphaz’s words in Job 5:17: “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth, therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty.”

As as we read and discussed these passages together, the students themselves figured out their basic meaning. This allowed them to see the pattern of the dialogues; they understood that Job’s friends assumed he must have sinned, whereas Job could not find any wrongdoing in himself. (There’s much more to it, of course.) From there, we were able to discuss the questions underlying the dialogues: Why do Job’s friends assume that he has done something wrong? Are they correct to assume this? If not, what is the exact nature of their error, and what can we learn from it? Is Job in error as well?

At the end of class, I asked how many students now understood the reading better than they had before. Many hands went up. (Not all students had trouble with it initially.) I asked them how the lesson helped them make sense of the text, and they responded that they had learned how to tell who is speaking, what the overall pattern of the story is, and how to work with perplexing passages. One student told me when class was over, “This is good challenge.” Another said, “I just want to thank you for this lesson.”

I do not pretend that my teaching has been perfect or close. I have much to organize and tighten over the next few days and weeks, and this lesson itself had room for improvement. I bring it up because it suggests that precise work with the text can lead to larger ideas and lively discussion. Also, it reminds me to take the time to point out simple and essential matters, such as how to tell who is speaking when.

Is this philosophy curriculum good? It is too soon to tell. I know that aspects of it are. I am excited about the texts; I see the students and parents taking interest in them as well. A curriculum is much more than texts, though; it includes ideas, skills, questions, problems, assignments, and more. I expect to hone it quite a bit — and work with colleagues to coordinate it with the English, history, and mathematics curriculums. There is much more to say about all of this, but there’s good reason to wait. I look forward to continuing this story.

Note: Some comments have been changed to protect students’ identities.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.