First Person

Voices: Good high schools — choice and opportunity

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that families should be informed about the quality of high schools and student outcomes when choosing where to send their children to school.

Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.
Screen shot from the DPS school choice informational video.

Most parents want their kids to go to college. A poll released last week by Harvard, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that nine of 10 black families want to send their kids to college, and half of those also want their kids to get advanced degrees. Among Latino families, 95 percent of respondents to a 2009 national poll said they view sending their children to college as an ‘essential part of the American dream.’”

Yet parents in Denver are not consistently demanding the schools that will put their kids in the best position to attend college.

Perhaps there are misconceptions about school quality — or the persistent belief that students can succeed regardless of school. Many families see big high schools like Lincoln, Kennedy, East, Thomas Jefferson, Bruce Randolph and North as providing opportunities for all students, regardless of race, class or ability. Families believe that some of these schools may not work for some, but that their kid has a fair shot if they work hard and go to class. After all, the Harvard poll mentioned above found that fewer than 5 percent of respondents thought their child’s school was “poor.”

The fact is that for most students the numbers tell a different story. Only four African American students (3 percent) from East, nine Latino students (3 percent) from Lincoln and three Latino students (3 percent) from Bruce Randolph are likely to get a bachelor’s degree — not great odds.

Perhaps many parents know they are sending their kids to mediocre or bad high schools, but just don’t have better options. The fact is that while the number of high-performing high school seats in Denver is growing there are very few open seats (most are filled at the sixth grade for the good 6-12 grade schools). DSST schools, one of those high performing high schools had only eight open seats for the ninth grade and zero for the 10th grade (all of the other seats were filled in the sixth grade or with existing families!). Regardless of whether parents understand the quality of their school choices or have good options, most parents and kids in Denver aren’t in schools that would put their kids in a position to succeed in college.

How to choose a good high school?

Despite the high demand for poor schools, any realtor can tell you that plenty of parents of all colors and races know that getting into the right school will stack the cards heavily in their child’s favor. Hardly anyone is surprised to hear that school consultants are now commanding thousands of dollars to help parents get their kids into the best schools. So what is in their black box?

Some observations from the lists-
• Rich Colorado ski towns have some good high schools (Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, etc.)
• Charter high schools are disproportionately good (Peak to Peak, DSST, Vanguard, Liberty, Classical, etc.)
• You don’t have to live in a million dollar house to go to a good public high school, but it sure helps (DSST, Kiowa, Buena Vista, Swink, DCIS, East, etc.)
• Some districts (Denver, Boulder and JeffCo) have good high schools no matter how you judge them.
• Suburban high schools can be good, but it is surprising to see how many that have good reputations do not show up on these lists.
• Good high schools can be found in rural, suburban and urban communities in Colorado.
• There are no good high schools that serve a percentage of low-income students above 47 percent free/reduced lunch, and few above 25 percent free/reduced lunch.
• Colorado, as a whole, does not do very well on national high school comparisons. Once again, the Colorado Paradox comes into play. We import lots of college-educated adults but do a relatively poor job educating our own kids.
• You can get a good high school by selecting students for achievement or the arts (D’Evelyn and DSA).

It’s no great secret. There are three good ways to evaluate public high schools on paper (the next step is visiting them, taking a look at the boys’ restroom, and asking hard questions of their staff). Like looking for a car, it’s a good idea to look at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver because both provide a helpful lens for understanding the virtues of a particular car.

When looking at high schools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools. Here are three good ones.

  1. Colorado School Grades:  Ties schools to state ratings, taking into account student growth.  The School Grades’ website also allows a user to easily compare schools and rank them on the state’s measure.  The problem is that this high school growth metric only measures growth from ninth to 10th grade.  We need a metric for the growth from entering to leaving high school.  This ranking is heavily weighted to TCAP scores and ACT scores but does not account for pass rates on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams (unlike Newsweek or the US News lists).
  2.  Newsweek: Heavy emphasis on AP/IB offerings and course taking (30 percent). Only 10 percent of score goes to AP/IB pass rates with no adjustment for student population in terms of poverty.  Not surprisingly, schools serving the most wealthy students get the highest rankings, so this ranking is more reflective of the school community wealth than the power of a school to support student learning.
  3.  US News and World Report:  US News contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to develop a fairly complex methodology that begins with an analysis of whether the school under or over-performs relative to the average student in the particular state. If the schools over-performs, there is an additional analysis of AP/IB participation and performance.  Please see the technical appendix for more details here.

The ranking tools are much better than they were a decade ago, but still have room for growth. For example, we should be able to find out how students do once they leave a particular high school. How many were prepared for college? How many went? Where? How did they do? We have the ability to answer some of these questions now because we are tracking students as they move between high school and college, though school rating tools haven’t yet incorporated this (complex) data.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive and elite high schools do track college matriculation data. It’s big part of any marketing for Brearly, St. Pauls or Spence. The college matriculation metrics for these schools measure the percent of graduating class accepted to “Ivy/Stanford/MIT.” Notably, they do not measure number of students that attend local community college, or even schools like CalTech or Amherst. The schools have a clear goal. The Forbes top 20 private schools have an “Ivy/Stanford/MIT” acceptance range of 20 percent to 40 percent. Do we really still believe that wealthy kids are naturally smarter than poor kids?  Someday soon it would be nice to see what these same numbers are for the best public schools in US.

We’ve said it so many times before that we won’t beat the dead horse here. We do need more good seats. We realize not every parent has the option of buying a house across the street from Bromwell. (By the way, one way to level the playing field would be make every quality seat available through a lottery so that not just rich families living in the Country Club neighborhood have access to schools like Bromwell.)

Still, we parents must continue to use smart tools to evaluate and choose the best high schools because, ultimately, policy-makers and education entrepreneurs will respond to our demands. If families continue to say ‘we’re pleased with the status quo’ by choosing the lowest performing schools, low performing schools will persist and results will be predictable. The dream of nine of 10 parents will continue to be just that.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.