Stephanie C. was apprehensive to take physics, but her counselor placed her in my class for college application appeal. Stephanie approached me the first week of school, intimidated by the math component of physics and unsure of her ability to succeed. I encouraged her to stay and assured her she could achieve success with effort.
Stephanie ended up developing a real interest in physics and invested a great deal of time and energy in her work. I provided her occasional tasks or resources from the “honors” level physics course and eventually she took the SAT II subject test in physics. I was thrilled to see a young Latina excel in a male-dominated subject area. But in spite of her success and newfound enthusiasm for physics, there was no next step available to her for the following school year. She could not enter AP physics without having taken honors, and she could not enroll in honors since it would repeat the physics requirement. I believe she signed up for physiology.
Having relocated now to a new city where I teach at a different school, I find myself reflecting on my prior work at Stephanie’s school. Our school was progressive, well-funded, and staffed with passionate people. Yet with the gift of hindsight, I have identified three major inadequacies in the experience I delivered to students there. These failures span the scale from the classroom to the school district to the city hall. First, at the level of my own daily instruction, students completed meaningful tasks but were not deeply engaged in long-term learning. Second, as in Stephanie’s case, our school and departments often tracked students in ways that inhibited equitable success. Third, historical and political factors shaped district boundaries to work against disadvantaged students.
My students had no chance to invest in the long-term crafting of beautiful work and no opportunity to learn deeply over time. The experience I delivered was fragmented into bite-sized chunks agreeable to 90-minute blocks and five sections of up to 36 students each. Lesson-level structures and the management of supplies dominated my daily experience; delivering effective lessons and labs was my primary goal. I implemented thematic unit-level planning for organizational purposes, not for inspirational purposes. Students seldom sustained work on an enterprise for more than one or two class meetings, often with no peer critique and minimal opportunity for revision. On any given day they demonstrated engagement and all its trappings, but rarely did students invest more time or energy beyond a single period.
I had no conception of this deficiency until I encountered the notion of “deep engagement” from David Price. I began to see my old practice in a new light. My students were engaged enough to invest energy in tasks, have academic conversations, and create decent quality work. Their engagement, however, was not based in voice, choice, responsibility, or personal investment. It lacked principle and pervasiveness because most student learning developed around discrete tasks and not larger undertakings. I made the science content accessible and appealing from day-to-day and unit-to-unit, but student interest felt rebooted each meeting rather than carried through as part of some greater purpose.
This major shortcoming went unnoticed in part due to my district’s teacher assessment methods. The administration employed rubrics and protocols similar to what Kathleen L. Gallagher describes in “Assessing Quality Teaching.” My daily instruction satisfied her eight “characteristics of quality teaching,” and indeed I scored well on teaching evaluations. These evaluations involved the observation of a single class period, conversation about the context of the lesson, and a debrief reflection conversation. The situation of learning in a larger pursuit does not appear in the metrics of such solitary or sparse evaluations. Across six years of teaching, I exhibited high quality instructional techniques without engaging students in deep long-term learning. Each day’s lesson or task was well crafted but poorly situated in a greater context.
Many of our students most in need of support never even crossed my path. I only taught students who passed science as a freshman and then chose physics from among several paths through science classes. I didn’t identify this practice as tracking because it gives an impression of furthering student choice, but it creates an environment where early performance strongly determines later success. Some students end up without access to high level courses. In virtually every discipline taught in the school, honors and AP options created desirable and undesirable course tracks.
Honors courses generally had stringent prerequisites, and passing honors gave access to AP courses. Given this sequence, a student’s performance during freshman and sophomore year affected whether he or she could even qualify for the most advanced courses by senior year. Furthermore, top marks in both honors and AP classes bestowed five points on students’ final GPA (one added to the usual four). As a result, a student’s final GPA and college prospects were strongly determined by her performance three years prior. AP science courses were essentially unavailable to students who failed biology during freshman year.
Even students who reached my physics course faced additional constraints. I embedded numerous mechanisms for students to improve their performance within their course, but had no path for a “regular student” to reach the honors level. Worse, there was no further course of physics study for a successful “regular” student. Students who passed honors physics could enter AP physics, but “regular” students did not qualify and also could not enroll in the honors course. Zero options remained for them to pursue an interest in physics.
The district’s most disadvantaged students are segregated in a school inconveniently far away from their neighborhood. The situation arose when one of the district high schools was shut down in 1981, its campus leased to a private academy. The board re-drew the district boundaries with the net result of re-segregating the poorest students. The most recent data available shows my former school to be over 49% socio-economically disadvantaged and over 45% Latino. The nearest neighboring district high school of comparable size, a mere 1.4 miles away, is under 19% socio-economically disadvantaged and less than 18% Latino.
The city’s zoning map reveals the least advantaged neighborhoods of the area are concentrated in the boundary of my former school. The boundary is roughly an elongated rectangle, several times longer from north to south than from west to east, with the high school situated at the southern tip. At the northern end of the rectangle are the poorer neighborhoods of the area, as indicated by the presence of low-income housing.
Within both boundaries, home values to the south are up to 500% more than to the north, so that students in the least advantaged areas systematically have the longest commutes. Only the city bus system is available for those unable to secure a ride, and only a small percentage of students are able to acquire a free bus pass. Paid or free, students from the outskirts of the district who ride the bus face a 45-minute sojourn and a 7:30am start time. In retrospect, our administration’s explicitly stated goal to “close the achievement gap” was doomed to fail.
These boundaries are not immutable. Only bureaucratic and political intractability stand in the way of change. I learned about our school demographics and picked up anecdotally that my former school was the “black sheep” of the district, but I never questioned the status quo. Some of my colleagues loudly derided the boundaries and pushed to raise awareness, going so far as to ride the student bus routes themselves in solidarity. I remained largely unaffected and ignorant, because the most disadvantaged students seldom reached my physics classes.
In a system that explicitly encouraged discrete daily objectives, student learning lacked long-term investment. In a system that gives high priority to AP and honors courses, students who cannot access them are relegated to second-class status. In a system that allows boundaries to be drawn that segregate low-income students, some neighborhoods are winners while others are losers.
The three inadequacies I have identified were not mistakes or errors of omission. All three were propped up by policy choices and encouraged by the status quo. I am most bothered not by the three inadequacies themselves, but rather by my own ignorance of them. I feel emboldened to address these inadequacies, and hopeful about the deeper learning that is possible if we allow for a dramatic departure from traditional models of education.
First, project-based learning stands to deepen student learning and extend engagement beyond the classroom. Demanding daily academic deliverables discourages the devotion of multiple class meetings to a singular goal. This fails to reflect the adult world, where most professional endeavors take a great deal of time. We must prepare our students for the visionary pursuits of the 21st century. They must experience investing great time and energy on ambitious projects (that sometimes fail).
Second, integrating all students instead of tracking them can empower them more equitably. When certain course options are preferable or more prestigious, a rift divides those with access and those without it. Instead, we must bring all students together while embedding personalization in the classroom experience. We must find a way to grant students equitable access to the resources we offer.
Third, the mechanisms of school boundary determination demand attention and innovation. Some programs have found success using a lottery system to admit students, as the chance-based process avoids the political drivers of resegregation and can help create a diverse student body.
I am optimistic about these potential remedies to the inadequacies. The status quo is ours to change.
Freemont High School 2013-2014 School Accountability Report.
Gallagher, Kathleen. “Assessing Quality Teaching.” UnBoxed: A Journal of Adult Learning in Schools. Fall 2014
Homestead High School 2013-2014 School Accountability Report.
Price, David. “Engaging Students.” UnBoxed: A Journal of Adult Learning in Schools. Spring 2010