Boston just approved sweeping changes to the process by which students are admitted to its three highly-sought exam schools. The idea was to free up more seats for disadvantaged children, some of whom have long been underrepresented at the institutions. Yet in one important aspect, the plan may do exactly the opposite: It’s likely to significantly reduce the number of seats that go to low-income Asian American students.
“The Boston School Committee on Wednesday night unanimously approved the biggest overhaul of the city’s exam school admission process in more than two decades, adopting a new system that should give disadvantaged students a better chance of getting in,” wrote the Boston Globe earlier this week about the city’s new plan for allocating seats at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.
With the mayor’s support, the new approach scraps a process that gave equal weight to grades and entrance exam scores, and replaces it with one in which grades count for 70 percent and scores 30 percent, and that seeks to boost applicants from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. It does so by sorting applicants according to the census tract within which they live and grouping the tracts into eight tiers, with each given an equal number of seats at the schools. The idea, reports the Globe, is to “reduce the likelihood that a low-income applicant would compete against an affluent one.”
Yet in one important aspect, the plan may do exactly the opposite of what its designers claim to intend: It’s likely to significantly reduce the number of seats that go to low-income Asian American students. Take, for example, the city’s Chinatown. “Downtown Boston’s Chinatown is the cultural heart of the Chinese community,” reads Google’s summary. Census data show that the majority of its population is Asian. And its median household income is less than $41,000—well below the Boston median, and less than half that of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, like Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
By measures regularly used to gauge advantage, residents of Chinatown would have very little of it. Yet according to the Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence, the neighborhood’s representation in the exams schools may be cut in half under the new plan. That’s based on calculations the group performed when it sued Boston during the pandemic after the city instituted a similar, temporary admissions policy that determined disadvantage with zip codes instead of census tracts. Chinatown is the rare neighborhood that is both economically disadvantaged and historically overrepresented in the city’s exam schools because of the praiseworthy success of its families and schools in preparing their students to achieve academically.
This ill effect, however, whereby admission is made more difficult for disadvantaged Asian students, is too rarely acknowledged—not only in Boston, but also in other communities where access to limited seats in top high schools is being rationed in new ways meant to advance equity. The Globe’s summary of the new plan, for example, doesn’t mention it at all. Instead, it writes that, “For decades, white and Asian students have been admitted to the highly sought after schools at disproportionately higher rates than their Black and Latino peers, and civil rights advocates have long argued that families with means often game the system by using private tutors and admission consultants.”
This is the type of framing that cheapens the success of Asian American students, makes it easier to pass policies that disadvantage them in new ways, and conveys the impression that these families have been doing something nefarious or unfair. Indeed, the first parent that the Globe quotes in a series of opinions about the plan says, “I support this compromise in part because it limits the extent to which admissions can be easily gamed by those who are privileged and well resourced. This plan will work to ensure a more level playing field for students experiencing the greatest challenges.”
The families of Chinatown are neither privileged nor well-resourced, so how are they gaming the system? And if the field they’re playing on is tilted, it’s against them—not for them—which is why admission policies like Boston’s that tilt it even further are ill-conceived and harmful. And why this harm needs to be acknowledged far more often than it is.
Such policies and oversight always call to mind my in-laws. My wife’s mother is Korean. She and her three siblings came to the United States as teenagers. They didn’t speak English. They didn’t have any money. And as such, none of them have college degrees. They also faced, and continue to face, significant racial discrimination. To provide for themselves and their families, they started small businesses, where all but one of them still work. For decades, they’ve toiled and persevered so that their children could have chances at better lives. And to their credit, they succeeded: All eight of the siblings’ children are attending or have graduated from a major university, and all who have completed their undergraduate degrees are in the process of earning or have earned a graduate or professional degree.
In other words, the challenges they faced were massive, and they worked very hard to overcome them. Stories like these are no doubt all over Boston’s Chinatown because they’re all over America in Asian family after Asian family. So policies that purport to help low-income and disadvantaged families—but actually stack the deck further against a significant subset of them—should be called out and opposed. Boston’s change to its exam school admissions process is one of those policies.
Editor’s note: This was first published by National Review.
So Tom Hanks didn’t know what the Tulsa Race Massacre was, and we’re told that it’s an indictment of the inadequate treatment of our racial history in schools. Well, alongside Hanks, two-thirds of Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was, and only two-fifths of Americans could name all three branches of government—one in five couldn’t name a single one. More broadly, less than a quarter of students demonstrated proficiency in civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
If our curricula have gaps about our racial history, perhaps it’s indicative of a deeper, far more pervasive mediocrity. The Fordham Institute ran a comprehensive review of school curricula across the country to investigate such shortcomings and found that schools too often provide overbroad, vague, or otherwise insufficient guidance for curriculum and instruction, and omit or seriously underemphasize topics that are essential to informed citizenship and historical comprehension.
The curriculum in my own state of Wisconsin exemplifies both weaknesses. Regarding the first point, one section asks students to “analyze significant historical periods” and “evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources.” Regarding the second point, where the curriculum does attempt to provide topics for learning, the standards list things like “Meeting of Peoples and Cultures” and “The Modern Era.”
These give me, as a teacher, about as much guidance regarding what I should do in my classroom as would an atlas without highway numbers and city names. Students could accomplish these goals with the words of the Constitution or a tweet in hand. Without sequenced time periods or events to cover, various teachers could end up teaching, in two or three different grades, labor history during the industrial revolution, with a student never once encountering Auschwitz or the basic structure of our federal government. Given that, they’re left with large knowledge gaps of what we would reasonably expect any citizen to know.
Such vagueness isn’t a result of pure incompetence either but has an ideological basis. In the early twentieth century, John Dewey popularized “progressive” education, contending that no content is in itself worth learning—neither Shakespeare nor Langston Hughes, germ theory nor individual rights. Rather, content such as literature, historical facts, or scientific theories should be used only as a modicum to teach students how to evaluate, analyze, and practice other academic skills. Let the student choose the content, and the teacher can adapt it to fit the skill.
After Dewey came critical pedagogues, such as Paulo Freire, who think of schools not as places of learning as we traditionally conceive them but rather as places of social action. They were Deweyites with a radical bent, replacing student-directed projects with advocacy. In practice, this looks like action civics, wherein students identify problems in their communities and write proposals to local legislatures.
Both the progressive and the critical approaches to education suffer the same flaw: Certain topics are in themselves worth learning. Surely, as a work of literature, “What to a Slave Is the 4th of July?” is superior to Divergent. Alongside my curriculum’s requirement that students “compare primary and secondary sources,” they should also specifically read the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
The worth of certain content is not only in its independent aesthetic value, either. Cognitive science has found that our ability to think is not some abstract skill as Dewey portrays it, but rather a knowledge-dependent process. A biologist, engineer, and historian can each critically think about an organism, a bridge, or an epoch, not because they have some abstract critical-thinking skill, but because they bring a wealth of knowledge within their specific domain to bear on the problems in their field.
Students, compared with experts, need a broad curriculum of specific knowledge to critically consider the present. For example, if students are to analyze an impeachment process, any practice of some academic skill would pale in comparison to their having read our nation’s founding documents, the details of the case, and contrasting contemporary articles. Once they have awareness of these documents and arguments, only then can they really think critically about impeachment.
Even if our goal is to improve the teaching of our racial history in schools, students would benefit most if teachers brought them through a curriculum that requires learning specific topics such as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Atlantic slave trade, and the Tulsa massacre. If instead our curricula give teachers vague directions, such as to interrogate structures that create inequalities or to use race as a lens to understand history, who knows whether students will get substantive readings and factual history or crass activities, such as ranking themselves on supposed privilege points?
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a seminal professor of education, has meticulously documented how the world’s most successful school systems bring their students through a sequenced curriculum of what he calls core knowledge—clear topics and readings worth covering. Contrary to the portrayal of such a curriculum as lifeless lists for rote memorization, many of our nation’s successful “no excuses” charter schools base their curriculum on Hirsch’s ideas, producing thoughtful and academically engaged students.
Our American pretensions spurn such prescriptive tendencies. Clichés abound suggesting that we teach the student, not content, that we should teach students how to think, not what to think. In reality, though, if our students don’t know basic facts—what the Emancipation Proclamation did, or how viruses spread—they’ll have no capacity for thinking. In reality, learning how to think begins with learning what to think, and so our curricula must give students something concrete to think about.
When Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter recently announced the city would spend more than $200 million dollars to develop a citywide reading and math curriculum, the smart and obvious take was the one suggested by the Daily News Editorial Board, which criticized the “fundamental mismatch of a square-peg single curriculum with a round-hole city” with diverse students with different talents and needs.
De Blasio’s track record, particularly the far greater sum of money wasted on his failed “Renewal” community schools initiative, doesn’t inspire confidence that he can be trusted to know what works in education. And the teachers union, which supports the universal “Mosaic Curriculum” effort, has long been viewed as a drag on progress. At a time when we’re arguing about whether and how to expose children to concepts like critical race theory and white privilege, it’s also fair to worry about whether this new curriculum will spread some very bad ideas far and wide.
But counterintuitively, there’s room for some cautious optimism here. It has less to do with the content of the still-unwritten curriculum than the effect of a common curriculum on how teachers spend their time.
Here’s a dirty little secret about teaching: Nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary school teachers according to a RAND study—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts (the numbers are similar for math). In theory, a child’s teacher is supposed to be an expert at “differentiating” instruction for every student in the room. In reality, it mostly sends them to Google, Pinterest, and the lesson sharing website Teachers Pay Teachers scrambling for materials of unproven quality.
A few years ago, I spent a year observing at a Success Academy school in the South Bronx, in the same neighborhood where I’d been a fifth-grade teacher in a low-performing Department of Education school. I hoped to identify practices that could be directly lifted from Eva Moskowitz’s model and applied to every public school in the nation.
The most significant one was the curriculum. Success Academy had a single curriculum across its entire network; DOE schools did not. The difference had less to do with the curriculum itself than its effect on how teachers spent their time. Hours not spent scouring the internet for lesson plans or creating them from scratch were spent by Success Academy teachers studying student work, anticipating misconceptions and practicing lesson delivery.
You can give teachers more resources and higher pay, but you can’t increase the number of hours in a day. There are certain things only a classroom teacher can do: assess and diagnose individual student strengths and weaknesses, offer feedback, build relationships with kids and parents, and deepen their own understanding of their subject matter. If a high-quality common curriculum enables teachers to spend more time on those tasks, and less time with an empty plan book at their elbow, wondering, “What I should teach?” it’s a win for kids and a more satisfying and effective use of a teachers’ time.
Nor does a common curriculum diminish a teacher’s professionalism or ability to put their own stamp on instruction. No one expects orchestra conductors to write their own symphonies. We don’t think less of a gifted actor for merely reciting Shakespeare’s lines. But we expect teachers to be experts at both lesson creation and delivery. It’s one of the ways in which we make teaching too hard for mere mortals. At Success Academy, lesson planning was “intellectual preparation” to deliver rigorous instruction, focused on student learning. The work is still hard, but the shift in focus appears to pay big dividends.
There’s still plenty of reason for pessimism. When politicians and special interest groups start mucking around in curriculum, they are more likely to focus on issues of identity and inclusivity rather than the harder and more important work of making sure children are taught using scientifically sound practices. Effective curriculum is the starting line, not the finish line: Rigorous and ongoing training also matters. New York could also reach out to the colleges of education across the state who produce most of the teachers who fill its classrooms and make it clear their graduates will have a leg up come hiring time if they’re trained as undergraduates to teach NYC’s reading and math curriculum.
Some curriculum is better than others, so we should reserve judgement until we know what materials will be placed in front of 1.1 million New York students. Creating curriculum that is rich, rigorous, and reflects high standards is no mean feat. But the impulse to have a default curriculum is not a bad one. It could be a significant improvement and a benefit for teachers and students alike.
Editor’s note: This was first published by the New York Daily News.
Myriad stories have emerged of non-school entities providing strong academic support to students during the pandemic disruptions of the past two school years. A recent working paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago indicates that investments in one such entity, local public libraries, were providing academic boosts for students, as well as other positive community outcomes, well before Covid-19 struck.
A trio of economists collected spending, revenue, and usage data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’s Public Library Survey, focusing on capital spending for major renovations and new library buildings. They were particularly interested in how such investments affect library operations, patron usage, housing prices, and student achievement. As these are typically one-time projects that expand fixed assets, the researchers termed the investments “spending shocks,” defined as an increase of $1,000 or more in per-student capital spending at libraries within five miles of a school district. Using this definition, 10 percent of all districts in the sample experienced such a shock between 2009 and 2018. They linked these data to district-level test scores from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA) and to zip-code level housing price indices from Zillow. They used both a difference-in-difference and an event-study design to analyze library spending shocks from 2009 to 2018.
Their analysis revealed a sharp and persistent 30 percent increase in library use among children that persisted for ten years after the capital investment. Further, they observed increases in the number of books on hand, number of employees, and total operating expenditures after the so-called shock.
The academic effects are a mixed bag. The researchers found that, after the capital investment, there were gradual increases in reading scores—on average approximately 0.02 of a standard deviation, with the largest effects (around 0.04–0.05 of a standard deviation increase) emerging later in the study window. These increases corresponded to increases in library use following the capital expenditures and were not driven by changing demographics, other government spending, or local policies, as best as they can tell. There were no observed increases in math achievement, nor did housing prices change in response to the spending.
Subgroup analyses are imprecise, but their best estimates suggest that the positive reading effects may be driven by White and Hispanic students. Analyses by socioeconomic status show similar patterns of results for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, with larger positive gains for the latter. They find no large differences by age group, which is somewhat surprising, but SEDA data cover only grades three through eight. Additionally, results show that reading test score effects are largest in the smallest school districts, consistent with the notion that students in those districts are more likely to live near only one library, so perhaps they receive disproportionate amounts of “treatment” from a given library spending shock. Finally, the analysts found that their results were driven by districts with moderate and lower amounts of school-level capital spending, with the largest effects visible in districts that spend the least on capital expenditures.
In 2018, there were roughly 15,500 local branch libraries across the United States, where children checked out more than 750 million library items and attended library events more than 80 million times. Libraries have long been viewed as places of quiet erudition, youthful exploration, and discovery of new ideas. With digital reading more popular than ever, it’s heartening that investments in libraries benefit both communities and families with young children. So take your kids and check out a few summer reading selections at your local branch. The kindergarten canon is a great place to start!
SOURCE: Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, and Peter Nencka, “The Returns to Public Library Investment,” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (April 2021).
A recent CALDER working paper examined links between teacher preparation programs and the chance that their candidates will enter or remain in the public school system for their first two years post-graduation. Its findings can help school systems improve teacher retention—a problem that many districts face, especially those that mostly educate disadvantaged students.
The researchers used data on 15,000 public school teachers and students in Washington State, combined with data on student teaching placements from fifteen teacher education programs in that state. Examining the years between 2007 and 2018, they used candidates’ teaching placement year and location, data on mentors, personnel records, and building-level information. They also conducted robustness checks to account for possible causal relationships between teacher candidates’ characteristics and experiences and their workforce participation.
The most significant finding is that candidates were 5 percent more likely to remain in the public school system beyond those first couple of years when their student teaching experience, specifically the school level in which they taught, aligned with their post-graduate teaching experience. Candidates were also more likely to enter public education if they earned a certification to teach a specific subject in a difficult-to-staff content area, with educators holding a STEM endorsement being 4.4 percentage points more likely to enter public schools and special education-endorsed teachers being 11.8 percentage points more likely.
Conversely, the characteristics of mentors who oversaw candidates as student teachers had little effect on whether they remained in the classroom. And those who graduated close to and during the 2008 recession were significantly less likely to teach in public schools, even up to a decade later: 76 percent of candidates from right before or during the recession were teaching in public schools up to ten years after graduating, compared to 84 percent among cohorts from after the recession.
The lessons from Washington State are likely useful elsewhere: Better align student teaching opportunities with post-graduate teaching jobs, encourage certification in in-demand areas and subjects, and find ways to support graduates of teacher preparation programs during hiring freezes, lest you waste talent that you’ll need when those freezes lift.
SOURCE: Dan Goldhaber, John Krieg, Roddy Theobald, and Marcelle Goggins "Front End to Back End: Teacher Preparation, Workforce Entry, and Attrition,” National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (2020).
On this week’s podcast, Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss how large school systems are spending their federal pandemic aid dollars. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how much remote learning harmed students socially, emotionally, and academically.
Amber's Research Minute
Angela L. Duckworth et al., "Students Attending School Remotely Suffer Socially, Emotionally, and Academically," Educational Researcher, (July 13, 2021).
If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a rating and review - we'd love to hear what you think! The Education Gadfly Show is available on all major podcast platforms.
- Under pressure from state officials, Hillsborough County reverses vote to close four high-performing charter schools. —Tampa Bay Times
- Texas’s annual STAAR exams revealed substantial learning losses caused by the pandemic, but it also produced useful data for teachers to help students get back on track. —Margaret Spellings
- Smart strategies for districts and schools to combat absenteeism this fall. —Education Week
- The parents of Fairfax County, Virginia flexed their political muscle by gathering over five thousand signatures to recall a school board member for her resistance to school reopenings. —Rory Cooper
- There’s hope for high school students who failed courses during the pandemic. Here’s how schools can support struggling students with quality credit recovery options. —Chalkbeat
- Arizona Governor Doug Ducey says it’s against state law to require unvaccinated students to quarantine if they’re exposed to Covid-19. —CNN
- Encouraged by unions, some districts are spending stimulus funds on teacher bonuses instead of helping students recover unfinished learning. —Wall Street Journal
- “House Democrats call for cutting federal funding for charter schools.”—CNN
- The Los Angeles school district violated federal law when it “kept millions in Title I funds from LA Catholic schools.” —Angelus News
- Prof. Samuel Goldman’s column presented two options for conservatives who want to defeat critical race theory. But here’s a better way to advance their vision for academia. —Ross Douthat
- There are reasons to be optimistic that families will use the new monthly child tax credit as intended and produce good outcomes. —New York Times
- Chicago’s district data revealed that boys, especially those who are Black and Hispanic, experienced more pandemic-related academic and attendance declines than girls. New evidence indicates that the gender gap may be a national trend. —Chalkbeat Chicago