A Tale of Two High Schools: Curriculum Matters

The DOE’s accountability systems reward higher graduation numbers. Do they miss what’s needed to succeed in college?

The Department of Education’s system of accountability is based on the premise that schools with the same Progress Report grade have made roughly the same gains with their students - that an “A” school is better than a “B” school. But the Progress Reports can mask the difference between a school that offers just the basics and one that offers a rich curriculum that better prepares children for college.

For example, Urban Assembly High School for Sports Careers and the Bronx Academy of Letters, both in the South Bronx, received “A”s on their 2009 Progress Reports. Both have graduation rates of nearly 90 percent. Most of the students at both schools pass most of their classes and state Regents tests. But the High School for Sports Careers offers a bare-bones curriculum, with just three years of science and one year of a foreign language, while Bronx Letters has Advanced Placement classes, opportunities for foreign travel, and a well-staffed college guidance office.

At Sports Careers, Principal Felice Lepore, who has a background in accounting, focuses the school’s limited resources on improving the indicators that will give the school an “A.” The school has just 13 classrooms for its 400 students; four are in red trailers parked permanently on the schoolyard. Course offerings are slim: The schools offers one course in the school’s theme, “sports careers,” in which students learn what kinds of jobs are available in the sports business besides being an athlete. There is one studio art class, but no music. Seniors have a short day, from 9:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and typically take just three courses: civics, English and precalculus. Spanish is the only foreign language offered, and most of the students speak Spanish at home.

The staff makes an effort to offer exciting extras: Two students were bat boys for the New York Yankees, and three had paid internships in the Yankees back office. But most of the school’s energy is directed toward getting kids to pass the five Regents exams that are necessary for graduation.

“Would I love to offer a fourth year of science?” Lepore asks. “Yes, of course. But my students have to pass the five Regents. If those are the rules, we should do everything we can to help them do that.” The school, founded in 2002, is housed in a building that once housed one of the worst high schools in the city, South Bronx High School, and its students are doing far better, on average, than those who attended its now defunct predecessor. Many graduates from Sports Careers go to college, mostly to the City University of New York or the State University of New York.

The city’s 2009 Progress Report ranked Sports Careers in the 86th percentile, outranking selective schools like Bronx High School of Science, which was in the 79th percentile. These accountability measures do not judge a school on its overall achievement levels - which would put a school like Bronx Science at the very top - but rather on how well it does compared with a group of schools serving a similar population, called a peer index. Accordingly Sports Careers is compared with schools with a similar proportion of special needs children, over-age students and students entering ninth grade with below grade-level reading and math scores. “I’m competing against my peer horizon,” Lepore says. “I can see how we are doing compared to schools with kids who are academically on a par with ours.”

A mile away, the Bronx Academy of Letters serves 600 students in grades six through 12 in a building that once housed IS 183, a middle school that was so out of control that a local newspaper reported in 2002 that an assistant principal quit after students beat him up and put a trash can on his head.

Neither Bronx Academy of Letters, which opened in 2003 with just 75 ninth graders, nor the High School of Sports Careers screens students for admission. Both accept students based on students’ interests, not their test scores. But Bronx Letters’ founding principal, Joan Sullivan, a Yale graduate, and her active advisory board raised $5 million in private donations to augment the school’s budget during her seven years as school leader. (Sullivan left the school in spring 2010 to become deputy mayor for education in Los Angeles.) While the students do well on Regents exams, classes go well beyond test prep.

On a recent visit, students argued whether burning the flag was protected by the First Amendment at a moot court, with local lawyers acting as judges. Every middle school child takes art, music and dance. Advanced Placement classes are offered in English, government and U.S. History. (In fact, three boys from the High School of Sports Careers took an Advanced Placement environmental studies class at Bronx Letters.) There are two full-time college counselors and graduates have been admitted to schools such as Wesleyan, Columbia and Sarah Lawrence. Students visit colleges in Albany, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Moreover, several go on organized trips abroad, and the school coordinates many summer internships. Bronx Letters was ranked in the 85th percentile on its 2009 Progress Report, or just a hair below Sports Careers.

The Progress Reports for the city’s high schools are based on how many students pass their classes each year, how many pass Regents exams and how many graduate on time. The DOE acknowledges that these statistical measures fail to capture the important work that schools such as Bronx Letters are doing.

“The tests that we have now are basic,” says Shael Polakow- Suransky, chief accountability officer for the DOE. “The basic skills are important. But you also need higher order skills and it’s time to start moving in that direction.” He says a number of high schools have been experimenting with “performance assessments” that may capture more nuanced information than the current Progress Reports.

Moreover, there is a growing understanding that the statistics on which the Progress Reports are based, such as pass rates on multiple-choice Regents exams, are poor indicators of whether a student is prepared for college. “There is no clear standard for high school student achievement on the Regents exam that would even be compared with a standard for college readiness,” said a 2009 report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform entitled Are New York City’s Public Schools Preparing Students for College? “College students are not usually asked to read very short passages and to guess at what they might mean,” wrote the report’s author, John Garvey, a recently retired dean at the City University of New York. “Instead they are asked to read lengthy essays and books and to work through what they might mean.”

To better prepare students for college, Garvey recommends that high schools offer more challenging academic courses as well as specially trained college counselors to better inform students of what they need to be successful. Those are two things that Bronx Academy of Letters does well - but which were not reflected on its most recent Progress Report.

Another problem with the Progress Reports is the reliance on “credit accumulation” to gauge school quality. The DOE has found that ninth graders who pass all their courses - and therefore accumulate sufficient credits to move to the next grade - are much more likely to graduate than those who flunk  any. Accordingly, the department gives weight in its progress reports to schools that show high rates of credit accumulation.

However, because each school and each teacher decide whether a child passes or fails a course, more demanding schools may have lower rates of credit accumulation than schools with lower standards.

“You can have no standards and 100 percent of your kids pass, or you can have high standards and none of your kids pass,” says Richard Kahan, who founded a nonprofit organization, Urban Assembly, which has created a network of 22 new middle and high schools, including Sports Careers and Bronx Letters. “You can be at the top of the charts with credit accumulation, but that might not reflect any rigor.”

“To the general public, it’s terribly confusing,” he adds. “I have to tell a parent you’d be better off at this “B” school that is way better than an “A” school.”