By David Adams & Marisol Rosales, originally published in the June, 2021 issue of Equity & Access
Twenty years ago, the city-wide graduation rate in New York City was 48%. NYC educators rarely sent their own children to our public schools and community members pleaded for an education system that did more than sort the wheat from the chaff.
With a mandate to improve these outcomes, NYC invested in a host of reforms to improve public education – the breakdown of large high schools that were only graduating one out of every two students, new school support models, and the adoption of teaching and learning frameworks that created clarity in classrooms around how to enhance learning for all. At the student level, small schools were developed to ensure that every child was known, data-driven practices and a culture of innovation flowed from partners to the New York City Department of Education and back again.
As a result of these efforts, graduation rates grew, ten, twenty, eventually thirty percent in our city. More and more students were able to contribute their talents to our communities, our society and our nation, because our energy was channeled into improving public education for all students. And as the graduation rate grew, the conversation about education in our city shifted. From all kids to my kids, from students to screens, from improving public education to excluding children from the very institutions meant to nurture their potential.
If we intend to recapture the energy that has created progress for our youth and lift up their experiences as students, members of our society, victims of this pandemic, and resilient leaders, then we must invest in systems that know, believe, and lift up each student.
Let’s Revisit the Notion of School Quality
Often, an appreciation for the rate of growth students achieve as a result of their school experience has been overshadowed by a singular focus on measures of absolute proficiency. This obscures the impact of schools who continuously make huge strides in student growth metrics only to be condemned for missing proficiency cutoffs. This emphasis has led to an arms race amongst schools to corral the highest achieving students in their buildings, gerrymandering the educational process and channeling energies from teaching and learning to rejection and exclusion. This process does not improve our public schools, and it may not improve student outcomes either.
According to Jonathan Plucker, a noted researcher in the area:
“…sophisticated research designs have produced mixed-to-negative results regarding whether attendance at selective high schools improves student outcomes $bdulNadiroálu et al., 2014; Dobbie & Fryer, 2014). In essence, the research issue for selective schools is not whether their students have impressive accomplishments (e.g., admission to highly selective colleges, major academic awards, high SAT and ACT scores) but whether their students would not have the same accomplishments if they attended another, non-exam high school.”
According to the Hechinger Report:
“Students’ reading scores were only slightly higher after receiving gifted instruction, moving from 78th to 80th percentile in reading on a national yardstick. The boost to math achievement from gifted instruction was much smaller, about a third of that size. No improvements were detected in how engaged or motivated students were in school after joining a gifted program. For example, teachers reported no difference in how hard students worked, how much they participated in discussions or how much they paid attention and listened in class.”
In our pursuit of excellence, we’ve allowed ourselves to forget that highest quality schools nurture the potential of all students.
Schools like Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, an unscreened school in Manhattan and part of a network of schools whose focus is on growing the talent of all youth, who hold themselves accountable not for who their students are coming into their schools, but who they are when they leave: what they know, what they do with that knowledge, the whole person.
Schools that live their values around the common good while preparing their students for elite institutions like Cornell University. This is the promise of a public education. This is the promise of our public schools. By investing in students, not screens, learning not exclusion, rate of growth not absolutes, we will continue the improvement of our public schools and we will reap the benefits of that investment.
The disparity and disruption from the COVID 19 Pandemic and the awakening of racial and social calls for justice are giving us a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine excellence and equity in schools. We recognize that our system’s emphasis on equity could be stalled and pushed to the wayside without an agenda that pays attention to the classroom based interactions that drive student growth.That without deliberate action and advocacy on the part of students, educators, and parents we may fall victim to distractions that belie the actual drivers of growth and achievement in our city.
These threats to our system impact our city’s school children and, in particular, those who have the most to gain by the rising quality of our city’s schools. Therefore we believe we have a moral, social, and professional responsibility to think clearly about the quality of learning, and embrace this moment as an opportunity to create, collaborate, consider new ideas, innovate, and align resources so that all students have an educational experience that is both equitable and rooted in high standards.
This work requires us to reset our mindsets from deficit to asset based, considering the gifts within our students and their communities.
This Is the Time to Imagine: What If?
What if our school system drove innovation toward models that propelled student growth across the range of incoming student proficiencies?
What if we redefine gifted education by lifting up identities, cultures, talents, and abilities found in all students and all classrooms, that is, things that make a difference in outcomes?
What if we support approaches that provide schools and districts with a framework for academic enrichment that is student-centered rather than school-centered?
What if we recognized schools for their drive to accelerate growth rates?
These opportunities rest in innovations like individualized digital portfolios that capture students’ progress alongside trends across the school. These act as passports that complement standardized assessment with clear demonstrations of student growth. Innovations like work-based learning that helps students apply content and social emotional skills to real world contexts, supporting meaning-making and driving motivation. Innovations like academics that incorporate student-driven concepts and maximize relevance and engagement. These “what if” questions once drove our improvement. It’s time to ask them once more.
The New York City Graduation Rate Sits at 78 Percent
We can continue to improve that number. We are committed to improving that number. It’s time to reinvest our energies back into things that matter. It’s time for all students to grow their thinking, their knowing, their doing. It’s time to get back to improving public education. We hope you’ll join us on this journey. To recognize student growth rate as the measure of a high-quality school. To realize that excluding students will never improve public education. To believe that every student can and should contribute to our society.
When we reclaim this legacy of improvement, we will reclaim the purpose of our public schools. Until the day where every school invests in every student, we will stay the course and we will succeed.