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Addressing excellence gaps in a diverse high schoolPosted by Dr. Louis Moore on 10/25/2023
Dr. Moore's recent commentary Tracking ReconsideredPosted by Dr. Louis Moore on 12/3/2021
Does Tracking Work? Costs and Benefits Reconsidered
To track or not to track. Like Hamlet, American educators have struggled with an issue that presents us with no easy answers. Advocates assert that leveled classes can be taught more effectively than non-leveled ones. Critics draw on research that is critical of the tracking because it limits access to programs and contributes to racial, ethinc, and socio-economic segregation.
Defined simply, tracking is the practice of leveling students based on perceived deficits or strengths. The practice has deep roots in American education, the working theory being that homogeneous groups of students are easier to teach and leveling produces better total outcomes for everyone. Grouping motivated and successful students together, it is assumed, will ensure these students are not “slowed down” by students who are less prepared or motivated. At the other end of the spectrum, it is assumed that concentrating lower performing students will allow their teachers to focus on skill deficits or other gaps and bring them up to speed for future success.
At RBR, the response to the debate has been to attempt to occupy both positions simultaneously, resulting in a number of inconsistencies. For example, students are grouped in honors and CP tracks and in all core subjects in grade 10 but only in Geometry in grade 9. Lower tracks have been eliminated in social studies and English, yet continue in science and math, especially in grades 9 and 10. (Note: With the phasing-out of Exploratory Science, all first-year students now enroll in Biology 9 starting this year.)
In terms of AP and IB participation in grades 10 and 11, we remain committed to open access but require students to “waive” into these classes if they are not recommended. But open access is not the same as full participation and maintaining an academic hierarchy, even if access is open, produces glaring inequities in regard to involvement of all our students in top programs. Despite the best of intentions, RBR remains divided along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines in terms of where students are sorted within the academic pecking order.
The time has come for fresh thinking on this issue with the intention of scaling up those practices that are working and scaling down those practices that are not. A logical place to start is with a clear-eyed inventory of successes of which we all should be proud.
Success Stories: Expanded Opportunities and Inclusion for Some
For many years, Red Bank Regional High School has promoted participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. The most recent DOE School Report Card for RBR indicated that over 65 percent of juniors and seniors take at least one AP or IB course, up from 60.8 percent in 2017-18. In fact, only a small number of high schools in New Jersey performed better in this area.
Success can be measured not only in terms of participation but also in regard to academic achievement, a true reflection of the excellence of the professional staff and the strength of our students. In 2018-19 over 540 AP exams were administered and the average score was a 3, which is the threshold identified by the College Board as qualified for college credit. Across the board, grade averages in AP and IB courses are consistently higher than other courses, and these courses have remarkably low rates of failure.
Moreover, involvement in these programs is not limited to the academic elite. Strictly speaking, these programs are not tracked by ability. AP Composition, for example, typically enrolls a large proportion of the junior class, nearly 30 percent. In 2018-19 over half the students scored between 390-519 on the evidence-based reading and writing section of the PSAT in which a score of 460 represents grade-level proficiency. Yet the average AP exam score was 3.4 and not a single student failed the course. Across all subjects, students who disregarded placement recommendations and “waived” into IB and AP programs consistently succeed. In the 2018-19 school year, 24 out of 27 “waiver” students successfully completed the class and passed with an average grade of 82.
What’s the takeaway? Deliberate efforts to find just the right level for kids, e.g. assigning them to lower tracks that cover the same material at a slower or less intense pace, is not a magic formula. In practice these courses have significantly higher rates of student failure and might actually upend the assumption that grouping students with perceived deficits makes them easier to teach and more successful. In contrast, students appear to thrive in many of our most challenging academic programs despite the fact that they begin these courses from varied and diverse starting points.
If tracking does not explain the success of our AP and IB programs, then what does? I’ll start with a simple hypothesis: pedagogy matters. Our most demanding academic programs aspire to meet the needs of all learners through excellent instruction, not by leveling students by their academic starting points. What’s more, these programs succeed because they infuse all three elements of the instructional core: teacher knowledge, content, and student engagement. Content centers on clear and reachable end goals that reflect high standards; mastery is measured by an external authority. These programs also promote coherence and shared understandings around teaching and learning. By creating a common framework of what is to be learned, both AP and IB programs foster a rich instructional culture, both within schools and beyond. Knowledge is shared and becomes a storehouse of acquired wisdom.
Participation in AP and IB classes also prompts students to think about their roles in different ways. Students engage deeply with the subject and grow as thinkers, writers, and problem solvers. Jay Mathews, a leading education writer, made the point: “It goes beyond the test--in fact the test is a kind of proxy for something more important. Participation in higher level classes confers status and promotes agency.”
So what’s wrong? Sounds like all is well. It’s not.
Along with successes, we must acknowledge short-comings and gaps that require urgent attention.
Last year white students composed 57 percent of the total school population but represented 74 percent of AP and IB enrollment. Black students, who constitute 5 percent of the total population, represented slightly more than 3 percent enrollment in these programs. While Latinx students are 35 percent of our total enrollment, they represent only about 19 percent of students in AP and IB classes. Economically disadvantaged students are also underrepresented. In 2018-19, 25 percent of RBR students were eligible for free or reduced lunch but they constituted 11 percent enrollment in AP and IB courses.
What’s next? Some Thoughts on Equity and Tracking
Programming that excludes poor kids, Black kids, and Latinx kids needs to be called out for what it is--oppressive and wrong. Instead of ranking and sorting, an “all in” approach should be the underlying strategy. This does not mean that programs with clear skill and content prerequisites, such as AP Calculus or world language courses, can or should become the standard. But it does mean that many courses, especially those that do not have prerequisites, should become the “go to” for the majority of our students. Thankfully we are not alone in taking on this challenge. The College Board is working with partners nationwide to boost student participation and strengthen support for teachers and students in AP courses to meet the needs of diverse learners. Likewise the Rutgers Writing program is built on a framework where all students can participate and succeed, including ELL, IEP, and students who were not in the “traditional honors track” for language arts.
The story and the data shared above suggests a correlation between participation in our most challenging programs and student achievement. In striving for equity, we can build on the many strengths present at Red Bank Regional. Meeting students at their starting points, engaging them, finding their strengths and helping them to achieve--this is the essence of the great teaching and learning at RBR.
The combined impact of expert teaching, high standards, and raising student agency delivers great outcomes, not tracking. Formerly exclusive programs like AP and IB are now vastly more inclusive in terms of ability levels of the students they serve. Now is the time to continue this progress and ensure that they are truly inclusive for all our students.
The Promise of Publishing For EveryonePosted by Dr. Louis Moore on 2/5/2020
Last month the NJ DOE Digest celebrated efforts at RBR to elevate student voices through podcasting. Podcasting is booming and a major hurrah is due to April Bunn, Kelly Ann Moylan, Federica Proietti-Cesaretti, Jeff Mauro, Gabriela Castro, Irene Vergis, and Kaitlyn Muller who made this possible. POD-cast fans will be glad to hear that the new Media Center will have a dedicated studio space for this work.
Why has podcasting taken hold? Part of the explanation is that it presents everyone with the opportunity to find their voice and take a stand on an issue that’s important to them. In addition recording mandates sustained effort and a commitment to craft. Creating a script, selecting the right word, and speaking in the appropriate tone all come together in a successful podcast. Finally, podcasting does not follow the conventional assessment pathway. Unlike a test or a quiz, this work is not going to stop at the teacher’s desk. Instead it’s going to be pushed out, shared, and celebrated.
For many students at RBR, publishing, presenting, and performing their work is woven into the fabric of school. During midterms, students in Ashley Studd’s Engineering Design and Development class shared presentations on their senior projects. Students provided updates on their progress and sought honest and critical feedback in order to improve their final product. Similar experiences occur throughout the academic year in other academy programs. Think of the frequent VPA performances, showcases, and capstone experiences that happen all the time. Giving students the opportunity and agency to create and share work defines what our 4-year academies are all about.
This approach should be expanded to all our students across all subjects with the aim of celebrating academic work in the core. This caveat should be kept in mind: the model can only be applied to a limited number of assignments because publication is a process that requires time--time for drafting, receiving feedback, and revising. But the process is just as important as the final outcome and can be a powerful motivator for deep learning.
In addition to intellectual development, the publishing process generates social and emotional benefits. It often supports collaboration and is both empowering and fulfilling. Revising an essay, creating a documentary, or preparing a podcast clarifies our thinking, sparks creativity, and reduces stress.
What’s next? For the rest of our academic year, I’d like to start a school-wide conversation on ways to encourage all students to publish, share, and celebrate their academic work. This is not an elusive dream. In fact, because of our many strengths, the foundation has already been established. In addition to podcasting, the Buccaneer also welcomes student submissions on a wide-range of topics. Thanks to Cass Dorn, students have a great forum to share ideas and report on issues that are important to them.
Another source of strength, is the increased emphasis on writing across subjects. As Tom McDonough mentioned at our meeting, students have started using digital writing portfolios to maintain a record of their work for themselves and their teachers. A priority has been placed on providing students with feedback and opportunities for revision--essential aspects of the publishing process.
In addition, many students, with their teacher’s encouragement, have already shared and submitted their work for publication in the New York Times Learning Network. (The current Network challenge is a Stem Writing Contest.)
Let’s build on these strengths and insist that students become invested in their academic work by building up opportunities for publishing. A digital non-fiction journal can be established to publish, showcase, and celebrate academic non-fiction. By design it would provide a platform for both long and short papers, films, recordings, and commentary. Writing is the immediate “go to” for this work, but films, recordings, etc, would all be welcome.
Emerson observed that the “ends” should be implicit in the “means” we employ. If we want our kids to be deeply invested in learning, we must mandate tasks that require emotional and intellectual engagement. Prioritizing the publication, sharing, and celebration of academic work is a strong step in this direction.
Unplug and Read!Posted by Lou Moore on 12/5/2018
If you are concerned that passive screen time is taking up too much space in the lives of young people, you are not alone. A recent study found that the average American 18-year-old spent over nine hours per day connected to some form of media, including over four-hours per day on smart phones.
Managing screen time is important, both for our intellectual growth and mental health. Besides, as author Anne Lamott reminds us, “almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
One of the best alternatives to passive screen time and aimless browsing is reading. Sustained and purposeful reading requires active engagement--both emotionally and intellectually. Walt Whitman observed that “reading is not a half sleep, but in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle”.
As teachers and parents, we know that strengthening reading skills and encouraging students to be avid readers are essential. But whether or not high schools systematically attend to it is another question. In my own teaching, I practiced the “osmosis” method and assumed that students would develop the ability to comprehend complex text on their own. After all, I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. I am older and wiser now (at least I like to think I am). It’s clear to me that the osmosis model must be abandoned in favor of shared strategies that explicitly build up the reading capacity of students in all subjects. This is certainly a priority at Red Bank Regional. Our revised curriculums and related assessments stress reading and writing across all disciplines. A new reading specialist position to support students and teachers has been established. All first year students are screened to identify potential deficiencies in reading.
At home, families can support reading by setting time limits on phone and screen time. We can make it a point to ask students about what they are reading in their courses and outside of school. More important, parents and guardians can put time aside for reading to set a good example. (Education Week published these tips to in a “Spotlight” to make reading a bigger part of all our lives.)
As a parent of teens, I know that the steps suggested above are not easy. But the benefits are worth the effort. Actively mentoring students to become confident and capable readers enriches teaching, learning, and ultimately delivers lifelong benefits. Keep an eye out for updates from the RBR Media Center on activities to encourage reading!
Pulling Things Together: The Promise of a Connected CurriculumPosted by Lou Moore on 8/20/2018
A number of years ago, I asked a group of students what made high school different from elementary and middle school. Many commented on increased workloads, greater independence, and the excitement of meeting new people. I enjoyed hearing from the students but one insight really stood out. “We see our learning as a whole,” one student declared. “High school separates it.”
This was not what I hoped to hear but when you think about it the observation makes a lot of sense. Despite many changes, the basic organization of most public high schools has endured. Curriculum is separated by discipline with an emphasis on discrete content. Teachers usually do most of their work isolated in departments with little time for collaboration with educators in their own disciplines let alone across subjects.
Since I started teaching in 1990, secondary education in the United States has been buffeted by many changes. Academic rigor has increased, teacher evaluations are more demanding, and schools have implemented high-stakes standardized tests in almost every grade. But pursuing strategies to integrate and connect learning across subjects has not been a priority. This is a shame because pulling things together would deliver substantial benefits.
Most importantly, greater integration promises to boost learning and understanding for all students. An emphasis on content and skills that connect disciplines would challenge students to transfer knowledge to new problems. Furthermore by seeing themes emerge across the curriculum, students would be more likely to see the value of what they are studying.
RBR is already way ahead of the game on the coherence front and we take up the challenge from a position of strength. Our academies promote links across subjects and establish real world connections. Moreover, RBR is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated staff who collaborate effectively and encourage students to link and transfer knowledge across subjects. As we revise and develop curriculum, teachers are infusing vital literacy skills across multiple subjects. This will be readily apparent in the revised sophomore core curriculum that will be implemented in 2018-19. These courses of study reflect an important shift in emphasis away from fixed content and toward the development of the skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that are rooted in the subjects we teach. In addition, we are building in more time in our district calendar for collaboration among our teachers to develop learning experiences that stress an interdisciplinary approach to subjects. Moving forward we will continue to review and revise curriculum with these goals in mind and we will look for other ways to increase program coherence.
Connecting learning between subjects will require sustained effort, time, and some rethinking about the high school experience. But the potential benefits are great for both teachers as well as students with the ultimate aim of making high school academics more rigorous and rewarding for everyone.