First Person

Pairing serious inquiry with play, my students find a balance education policy lacks

At a Washington Heights bookstore in May, senior Sofia Arnold asked, “Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” She then took a rose and polled five audience members—first calling the object a garbage compactor, then a rose.

Sofia’s presentation, which also included lines from Macbeth and King Lear, was one of three “empirical Shakespearean experiments” that played a part in the launch of our school’s new philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE.

She and other students at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering created the journal over the course of the academic year. For them, the event was an exciting chance to celebrate their accomplishment and experience their ideas in action; for me, a teacher who has seen pedagogical reforms swing between what I’ve come to think of as piety and play, with little in between, it was refreshing to see students so naturally balancing the two.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter posits that the intellectual life has “a peculiar poise of its own … a balance between two basic qualities in the intellectual’s attitude toward ideas—qualities that may be designated as playfulness and piety.”

For this context, “piety” consists of the pursuit of specific goals; “play,” in the unraveling and teasing out of possibilities. The primarily “pious” educator structures a lesson to meet clear objectives; the primarily “playful” educator welcomes the unexpected question or tangent, and follows it where it leads.

Hofstadter’s larger argument is that intellectual life requires a combination of piety and play. One must have goals and structure, but one must also have room for questions and surprises.

Unfortunately, education policy rarely gets the combination right.

Today the dominant emphasis is on piety, with little room for play. Teachers are encouraged—even mandated—to establish and meet clear objectives in every lesson. NPR recently featured a model Common Core lesson in which the students began by reading and discussing the Common Core standards that the lesson would address. Many would consider this good practice, but others would have the students set their own goals or even let the goals develop gradually.

Sofia Arnold conducting an  "empirical Shakespearean experiment."
Sofia Arnold conducting an “empirical Shakespearean experiment.”

In contrast, certain strands of progressive education (from the early twentieth century to the present) have emphasized creativity, spontaneity, and discovery—often at the cost of the structure and content I believe students need.  For example, proponents of “discovery learning”–many of whom teach at education schools or serve as consultants–maintain that students should discover subject matter on their own, with minimal direction from the teacher.

Given this landscape, what can policymakers do to foster intellectual life in schools? Attempting to prescribe a mixture of piety and play could harden quickly into dogma. But one step policymakers can take is avoiding dictating exactly how to teach. The “how” is the teacher’s vitality; remove it, and you drain the profession. On a school level, teachers can encourage intellectual life by thinking about the subject matter, mulling over questions, and listening closely to their students.

I support a structured curriculum with room for the unexpected—where the point is to open up the subject and the mind.

Granted, my experience is atypical. I teach at a selective school in Harlem, where certain basic skills are assumed. But I have also taught at struggling schools and seen students respond to a mixture of concrete learning and playful questioning.

Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from a student-written philosophy journal.
Nafassho Nafasshoev and Memphis Washington reading from CONTRARIWISE, a student-written philosophy journal.

During the journal celebration at the bookstore, my current students embodied the balance my colleagues and I have tried to create.

Take the introduction, for example. Rather than simply describing the journal, editors-in-chief Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, both juniors, staged a playful interruption that also demonstrated their engagement with a core philosophical question.

Ron mentioned that the audience would have an opportunity to ask philosophical questions at the end, if there was time. A sixth-grader, Theo Frye Yanos, shot his hand in the air.

“Excuse me, I have a question,” he said with spontaneous flair, though the interruption had been planned.“What is time?”

Nicholas responded that they would answer the question after “an interval in the non-spatial continuum of the succession of events.” After conferring with Nicholas, Ron awarded the “H. G. Wells Award” to Theo for being the first to ask a question about time.

After Theo received his award, the event continued with readings, philosophical improv, more humorous awards, a song, a cake, and more.

Students read pieces from the journal— ranging from Faith Flowers’s “Roundtable on the Distribution of Health Care Resources” to Anthony Lewis’s “Letter on the Ethics of Lying,” in which Jiminy Cricket lectures Pinocchio sanctimoniously on Kant but then finds a contradiction in his own argument.

The delight of the event lay in its intellectual liberty; these students saw no contradiction between serious study and fun.

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.