Tag Archives: Public Education

The Exam School Choice, #15: A mystery solved…sort of

Devil in the detailsThe Parent Imperfect got many questions (both online and offline) about the last post about how students get placed in the exam schools. Some people reported to me that they had put BLA first, but had gotten placed in BLS. This was a bit of an eye-opener, since other people said that they had chosen BLS first and gotten placed in BLA. What’s up? How is that possible, unless someone is doing the ropa’ dopa’ with this process?

One of these folks got back to me with an interesting explanation of how that happened, in her case.. When this woman investigated with the exam school people at the BPS, it turns out that the BPS never received the choice form for this student. The school had record of it being handed in, but it never got to Court St (Dudley, I guess, by this time). I had to chuckle as this is exactly what happened with our dear daughter, not once, but TWICE! Why do we bother filling out these forms?

In any case, when the BPS doesn’t have a choice form for a child that has taken the test, they have a default order of preference that they enter for him/her. It is: 1. BLS 2. BLA 3. O’Bryant. Isn’t that an interesting assumption? In any case, this child was assigned to BLS because that’s what the District assumed she wanted. Happily, because her mother is metida, this child is now high on the waiting list for BLA, and will likely get in there. All’s well that ends well, right??????

That explains this case, but what about the others?

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Exam School Choice, #14: But BLA was my first choice!

The LetterOn Friday, the Parent Imperfect received a number of messages from people who had received their exam school assignment letters from the Boston Public Schools. Their children had taken a private school admissions test that does not correspond to the BPS curriculum, and based on those test results and their grades in Grades 5 & 6, they were offered admission to one of the city’s exam schools.

Being who I am, I tend to hear from people who chose the nation’s oldest public school for their sixth grader, and got their first choice. Their doubts about this choice are returning and they are wondering if they can still opt for their child to go to one of the other exam schools. They want me to say that BLS will be fine for their child…as if I know.

This year, one of the most common questions came from people (four…this is not a huge sample size) who had chosen BLA as their first choice, but had actually received their second choice…Boston Latin School. One wanted to know if I thought that the BPS had just put her child into BLS because of her high score, regardless of their first choice, and the other three asked what I thought they should do, given that they had already decided that they didn’t want their child (boys, in each of these cases) to go to the nation’s oldest.

Since BLA accepts fewer students for seventh grade  (about 150 fewer, I think), it is not hard to figure out how this happens. Susie’s test scores and grades mean that she is ranked #340 for BLA, but that school is only accepting 332 children this year (these are made-up numbers). Susie, unfortunately, doesn’t get into BLA. The computer then goes to Susie’s second choice, BLS. It turns out that, at that point in the process, BLS has only filled 469 of the 534 spots it has for this year, so Susie becomes the 470th student assigned to BLS. She is admitted to BLS (her second choice) when some students ranked lower than Susie, who made BLS their first choice, won’t get it. Susie’s parents then have a decision to make.

Latin AcademyI’m sure that this has always happened, but I’m going to go out on a limb (with no data other than my own anecdotes) and say that more students with relatively high test scores and grades are making BLA or the O’Bryant their first choice each year. Gradually, this idea that BLS is “the only high school worth going to in the city” is going away. This is a very good change. There are still people who start choosing among private schools if their child doesn’t get into BLS, but I sense that the number of these folks is dwindling. I believe that more of the higher scoring students (not to be confused with “better” students) are still making BLS their first choice, and, eventually, attending that school, but the numbers are changing. “Sumus primi” remains the BLS motto, but that doesn’t mean what it once did.

If this shift is, indeed, taking place, it means something different for each school. For BLS, it would mean more academic diversity in the school (not necessarily more of any other sort of diversity). There may actually be more students at the school who have a hard time adapting to the academic expectations and social pressures of the school. The systems that exist at the school to support these students (peer tutoring, Saturday Success School, extra help from teachers, etc.) will be under increasing stress to meet increasing demand.

So what should Susie’s parents do? They went through this painstaking process of looking at the schools and deciding that BLA, as a more diverse school with a noticeably more supportive culture for students not in the top 25% of their class, was best for Susie. Now, her assignment for 7th grade is the nation’s oldest.

I don’t know what Susie’s parents should do, but there are a few things that I do that may affect such a decision:

1. Each of the three exam schools has much to recommend it. Parents have carefully ranked their preferences among the schools, based on their sense of the kind of environment that will work best for their child. That said, a lot of students who don’t get their first choice do quite well in the school to which they are assigned. I always suggest that people look closely at the school where their child has been placed, before assuming that a non-BPS alternative is the only option.

2. How one places in the exam school derby is not predictive of how they will do in any particular school environment. Our two children were not all that different in terms of test scores or elementary school grades, but their experiences at BLS have been totally different. The organizational skills, personality and learning style of the child seem to be much more predictive of success at BLS than where one places on the exam sorting list. Gender also matters, as I continue to be told that boys are the most challenged demographic group at the school, in terms of academics. This means, for example, that Latinos as a group (a quite small group) fare better at the school than do boys (a quite large group).

Wolfpack3. BLS changes a bit each year, but remains a place that works better for some types of students than others. Just last night, a mother wrote into the BLS Village list-serv to address the question of too much homework. Her son, a ninth grader gets fine grades at the school, while spending 1-2 hours on homework each night. She doesn’t say this, but he is apparently quite happy at the school. Others talk about children who are spending 4-6 hours per day on homework and routinely staying up past 11PM to complete their assignments. This puts an incredible strain on the child (and the family) at a time when the transition to adolescence is putting its own strains on them. We have lived both stories in our own household, and would not wish the strain and conflict on anyone. There have been important changes during the time we have been at BLS in how the school deals with students who struggle with the academic transition. I would not, however, begin to say that the school does everything possible to make it possible for every student to be successful. For example, after a lot of work by a community-wide task force, BLS adopted a “homework policy” mandating that students be assigned roughly 30 minutes of homework in each subject, each evening. There should be no homework over school vacations. Perhaps responding to curricular pressures, teachers routinely violate this policy, and there seems to be no way to hold them accountable to this or any other policy–regular information on student progress, for example–that might help struggling students.

4. Diversity matters and some schools better reflect the diversity of the BPS than others. We believe that economically and socially diverse schools better prepare students, including ours, to be good citizens in the very divided society that they are likely to live in. Of all BPS high schools, the O’Bryant more closely reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the BPS student body than any other school. BLA is less diverse, in this sense, but is still among the more diverse schools in an increasingly segregated set of high schools. BLS is simply off the charts in this regard. Because the student body of the school is so heavily Caucasian and Asian (two groups that, together, make up much less than 25% of the system’s students) BLS is, by quite a bit, the least diverse of the schools in the system. The BPS no longer collects good information about the socioeconomic circumstances of its students, but, based on older information, there is little doubt that BLS is an outlier in this regard, as well. Our children certainly have African-American and Latino friends at BLS, as well as friends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but their social lives immediately became dramatically less diverse spaces upon entering the BLS school environment. They are certainly not “bad’ kids as a result, but they are becoming different people. We knew that this would likely happen when we chose BLS for our children, so we must have decided that other factors were more important.  What we thought less about was the fact that this change in the social lives of our children would also impact the social life of the entire family.

According to the BPS, over half of the students taking the ISEE exam get into their first choice school. That means that a lot of those families are still facing difficult choices about high school for their child. And then there are all of the students who didn’t opt to take the ISEE, in the first place. With their families, they face an even more daunting set of choices. We wish that everyone in the system was in the position of choosing among quality options, but that is certainly not the case.

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Talking ChangE, Chang prevails

ChangNo doubt about it, the Parent Imperfect was surprised. Few of the handicappers gave Tommy Chang much of a chance when the four finalists for Boston School superintendent were announced on February 19, but that’s just who the school committee named, in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night. People at last night’s meeting were acting like the guy was holed up in a motel in Saugus and would be in Boston by sun up, but it seems that he will take a prudent amount of time to transition out of his role in Los Angeles. WBUR reports that he’ll be here by July.

The Mayor and the School Committee chair definitely wanted a unanimous decision, but it was not to be. Many people made public comments in favor of the candidacy of Pedro Martínez, and Committee members Miren Uriarte and Regina Robinson courageously cast their votes for the accountant turned school leader when the committee tally took place. I have to say that, while I was not a supporter of Martínez, the support he received from the community and the School Committee made me want to go back and take another look at all that the man said during his interviews.

Last night’s show had some of the feel of theater of the absurd. At 10:20AM, yesterday, I got an ominous e-mail from someone who was very much at the center of the hiring process.

Thank you for your thoughts.  I read your blog post with interest. I particularly agree with your final point.  At the end of the day, all of us who care about public education in Boston need to commit to doing all the can to support whomever is the new superintendent.

That did not sound good…at all. Then, just after noon, another message came in from an education advocate who has an uncanny way of knowing what is going on in City Hall.

Mayor chose Chang and is meeting with individual BSC members one on one.
 2-3 are not on board yet and …will make some statement of her own.

Can’t discuss now but really really shocking news here.

By the time I got to Court St., candidate Dana Bedden had dropped the bomb that he was withdrawing from consideration (he must have gotten the same noontime message I had), and boston.com was reporting that Chang was the one. So, virtually everyone in the room knew the result before the meeting started, but we all went through a 2.5 hour collective charade as if the decision was being made before our very eyes. People had to keep correcting themselves to maintain the illusion of a real process. It was truly bizarre.

No matter, Chang was the youngest of the finalists and arguably the least experienced of them, as well, when it comes to district-level leadership experience. In his public interviews, he emphasized his experience with Special Education and that seemed to catch the attention of some SPED parents in Boston. Two representatives of the local Special Education Parents Advisory Council spoke in favor of Chang at the meeting, one even introducing herself to the Committee as “Carolyn Chang,” getting the biggest laugh of the night. That said, the one SPED parent on the School Committee did not vote for Dr. Chang when the roll call came.

Chang was careful to be respectful of Boston school leadership and to acknowledge the achievements of the system, but also painted himself as a change agent, someone who embraced the idea of “creative disruption.” The message was that he is willing to challenge and even trash existing structures to achieve the change needed in the system. This nuanced commitment to risk failure in order to achieve dramatic change, coupled with at least one mention per minute of the word, “autonomy” gained him the support of many education reform advocates in the area. Most importantly, Chang became the darling of the Daddy Warbucks of education reform, The Boston Foundation.

In one school committee discussion during the interviews, a member memorably said what some others were obviously thinking. It was something like, “We need a leader who can speak the language of the people and institutions who can provide the resources we require to achieve school improvement.” Chang apparently speaks four languages, but our erstwhile School Committee member was not referring to one of those four in that statement.

School CommitteeBut this transformation talk didn’t just gain Chang the support of the deep pockets. Roxbury City Councillor, Tito Jackson, strode to the mike last night and offered surprisingly strong support for Dr. Chang. His main point was that we need transformation, not mere reform, (who would have thunk it? a City Councillor, channeling Che!) so we need a leader who will not just move the existing levers a little bit better. We need a change agent. Jackson’s spirited argument for Chang took me somewhat by surprise. I have to believe that his message might have been different had not Dr. Bedden bolted at the last minute. Bedden’s last-minute withdrawal completely changed the dynamics of the meeting.

Most importantly, some combination of things that Chang said and didn’t say gained him the support of the Mayor. In his statement expressing his pleasure with the School Committee’s choice, Marty Walsh characterized the new super as an “innovator.” I need to go on record here saying that I thought Chang presented himself very well and had prepared public framing of his candidacy that was second to none. He managed to somehow escaped the tarnish that should have come with playing a leadership role in a corrupt and financially profligate school administration in LA. He definitely talked a very good change game, at a time when Boston rightly feels that it needs deep transformation of our educational system. But when I look at the man’s record, I just don’t see the evidence of him initiating successful new ways of doing things.

But who cares about that now? The man is our next superintendent, and we will welcome him to Boston and make the very best of his leadership. Tommy Chang was not the only one who got a job last night. Any student, parent, teacher, principal, school administrator or public education advocate who is committed to equity and quality in education also got a big job last night…the job of making it happen when the wind just might not be with us.

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Super search sizzles down home stretch

super searchThe Parent Imperfect continues to look for signs of smoke rising from the City Hall signalling that a new Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools has been chosen (and has accepted the job). Despite advice from the Globe and others to slow the process down, all signs suggest that the Mayor really wants the decision behind him and his chosen School Committee. I have a feeling that, despite the pressure, the suspense will continue for at least a few more days.

To its credit, the search committee has orchestrated a near circus around the candidates this week. I think it is great that a wide cross-section of the community has had a chance to interact with the four finalists. I’m less clear how the input from these discussions will influence the final decision.

I wasn’t able to be present in any of the various rings of circus, but that would never keep me from having an opinion. My homework is done. I have listened to a whole lot of people who did attend. I’ve also tried to watch video of some of the candidate interviews, though I must admit that these interviews won’t be taking a lot of viewers away from the new season of “House of Cards.”

The first thing that jumps out at me about the four finalists is that they are all candidates of color. This was obviously a priority for the search committee and their headhunters, and the results speak for themselves. That’s great, but I do share the dismay of those who wonder why there are no women among the finalists. Seriously???? A national search in a profession where women have successfully opened space for themselves as leaders and we couldn’t find a single woman who deserved to be considered a finalist for this job? I’m amazed that neither the search consultants nor the mayor’s hiring committee hit the “pause” button on the search. Given how long this has dragged on, the pressure to move the search forward must have been considerable.

championEveryone has their priorities for a super in Boston. I think we need a very visible and dynamic champion of public education in the city, someone who knows that this institution so important to what is left of democracy in our country faces huge challenges and needs to change to meet those challenges. Our champion will know that the only way forward is to bring students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators and district leadership together with community and political allies behind a vision of quality and equity in public education. S/he (it ain’t over, ’til it’s over) will be an effective and decisive manager with a collaborative style and will know the importance of being a great listener. The new super must also manage a mayor and an administration who don’t seem to have a clear education agenda. A champion must, of course, be ready to fight for his/her vision, whether that is the fight to secure adequate funds for public education, to move the mayor, or to preserve the integrity of the system.

Predictably, no candidate emerges as the perfect champion for this moment. All four present themselves as change agents, capable of leading Boston through what will be a tumultuous time. Two of them, Chang and Martínez, seem ready to really shake things up in the service of change. Martínez is a former accountant who entered educational leadership not through the door of classroom instruction, but through a relationship with the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Of the four candidates, he has most clearly embraced the national education reform that has emphasized permanent testing, charter school expansion and “no tolerance” discipline in schools. In the interviews with him that I have watched, he seem brash, arrogant and extremely critical of what he sees in the BPS. This is an interesting strategy for someone hoping to lead a system.

Chang seemed like the sharpest and most dynamic of the candidates to me. He has been focused on how to improve instruction in some of Los Angeles’s most troubled schools, which would be a very useful skill to have in a leader of Boston’s schools. Chang certainly didn’t allow himself to be pigeon holed as a blind devotee of charter schools and the other pillars of education reform, but I have a sense that he would be more ready to move Boston in that direction than some of the other candidates.

Guerrero and Bedden are more clearly products of the liberal educational establishment, though as a military veteran, Bedden’s road to the establishment wasn’t the typical one. They both talked a lot about change, but the change they would lead would be more managed and incremental change, as opposed to the kind of disruptive changes that both Chang and Martínez seem ready to consider. Bedden is much more experienced than Guerrero and Guerrero brings both the advantages and the disadvantages that come with previous experience here in Boston. His six years as principal at the Dever School in Dorchester were not the high point in his educational career to date. The Globe has also made a big deal of Guerrero’s exit from the education doctoral program at Harvard. The ed school administratively terminated Geurrero because he didn’t finish his dissertation in time, and that wasn’t crystal clear on the description of him shared here in Boston. School Committee chair< Michael O’Neill has said that this was his error. Sorry, but this is not a big deal to me…at all.

Bedden seems like a very strong candidate. Chang-like energy was notably absent in Bedden’s interviews, but he calmly answered some tough questions by sharing examples from his district leadership experience in several places. His answers on his approach to charters were clearer and less worrying to this parent than what some of the others said. The fact that parents and community leaders in Richmond are trying to get him to stay also adds to his resume, but it also makes me wonder if he’ll take our job, if offered. Some parents and community members seem concerned about Bedden’s ability to work in a multi-cultural context, especially his ability to connect to Latino parents and students. I’ve seen information about a bad incident between African-American and Latino students in Richmond that was not well-handled, but it seems that this happened before Bedden took the Richmond job. He apparently was left to try to clean up a very messy situation. Bedden may not have handled that clean up in the best possible way, which is a concern.

Rumor has it that the Mayor wants to hire a Latino candidate, and the composition of the finalist pool would seem to support that idea. Given that Boston has never had a Latino super, that Latinos are now the largest group of students in the BPS and that the system has faced chronic challenges around educating ELL students, I agree that it would be great if a Latino leader committed to multicultural education emerged as the best candidate for this job. It’s sad, but I’m just not feeling it with either Guerrero or Martínez. The latter is the finalist I’d least like to see as Boston super, and I believe that Mr. Guerrero needs successful experience as a superintendent of a smaller district before I would believe he’s ready to take on a job like this one. I think Chang would be a very interesting choice, but I fear that he would not provide a good enough counterweight to the strong education reform push that I see coming from the Baker administration. If I had any influence on this process, Dana Bedden would be my choice.

Some say that there is a fifth candidate lurking in the wings who didn’t want to public exposure of the circus. I can imagine that there were several strong candidates not willing to take the risk of exposure, but I can’t imagine that any of them is treading water in some separate, confidential pool. That would be truly bizarre.

Others say that, even more than a Latino candidate, the mayor is after a “team player” who won’t overshadow his boss. I truly hope this is not the case, but one never knows…If I was concerned about the super’s shadow, I’d probably be thinking of the less-than-charismatic accountant with no credentials as an educator and minimal network here in the city.

Whoever gets this job, they have a rocky path before them.

 

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Dearborn…still

Dearborn SchoolLast summer, the Parent Imperfect did a lot of blustering about the community slam around Roxbury’s Dearborn School, but hasn’t had a lot to say about it lately. Incredibly, the school turnaround project that was on the fast track during July’s hottest days, was still there just last night. In one more time-pressured meeting, the “stakeholders group” met to interview the two finalists to become the “external operator” in the turnaround plan.

Back in August, in this very space, I wrote an open letter to Interim Superintendent John McDonough suggesting that he drop the district’s puzzling proposal to hand the $70 million project for a STEM academy in Roxbury over to a charter operator who had almost no experience running a school and ZERO experience with STEM. We suggested that it would be better to enlist some of the people opposing that scheme–including Dearborn staff, parents and students–to develop a community-supported proposal that could convince the Commonwealth’s education commissioner to back off and give that proposal a chance.

CommishDo you wonder about the PI’s influence (Ha! ha!)? Exactly three days later, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that the City was going to withdraw the charter proposal, and the BPS subsequently came forward with a shell of an alternative plan. The kicker (and maybe the poison pill) in the plan was the BPS’s insistence that the plan needed to feature an “external operator” that would be acceptable to the City, the community and, most importantly, Commissioner Chester. The Commissioner was threatening to put the Dearborn into state receivership because of continuing low test scores. From Day One, many in the community were skeptical about this “external operator” idea, but a credible community stakeholder group came together and the process ground forward, always up against some deadline imposed by the State.

One of the interesting moments in last night’s meeting came when a Dearborn parent reported that he had still not seen the scores for which the Commissioner is threatening to take over the school. Those scores allegedly became “public” in September. Who the hell has those scores and why do parents at the Dearborn not have them?

The meeting, itself, was high theater. First of all, it wasn’t held at the “Dearborn” building. That building is locked up, tight as a drum, awaiting the wrecking ball. That’s a whole other story that must await another day. The Dearborn school community has been evicted to an upper floor in the building of Jeremiah Burke High School, in Grove Hall. The meeting took place in a small room that couldn’t begin to accommodate the interested community spectators. It was a very direct experience of the difficulties faced by the school. When I got there (late, of course), there were a dozen people in the hallway, trying to listen.

LazarusI knew who the “finalists” were, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. There, like Lazarus, making a proposal to the community stakeholders, was the very same guy who I recalled so well making the ill-fated charter school proposal to a packed house at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church on a steamy night in August. He’s a perfectly nice guy (a JP resident, if I’m not mistaken) and obviously committed to education, but what does it say about this process that his organization has ended up as a finalist? The lack of relevant experience of his organization, the Boston Plan for Excellence, was one of the problems that the community had with the original charter proposal.

After the BPE proposal got its hour, in came an operation called MassPrep. Interestingly, the MassPrep guy stood up before the crowd and spoke with animo, where the BPE rep preferred to remain slumped in a seat for his questioning. The body language and the energy was completely different. Interestingly, MassPrep has no experience in Massachusetts (Hah?). In fact, it felt very much like a start-up, dependent on the name recognition and charter school pedigree of its co-founder.

This co-founder is another very engaging and intelligent guy, who began his talk by explaining that he had started on a path to Wall Street, but discovered School Street along the way. He started as an educator at a public school in New York, but quickly turned to the charter school sector and made a name for himself as a leader of the Mastery Schools network in Philly. When questioned, he failed to note that the Mastery Schools are well-known charter schools, but then proceeded to spend an hour talking about the relevance of the charter approach (without calling it that) to the challenges of the Dearborn.  I don’t know when I’ve heard the charter vision proposed more clearly, without using the words, “charter school.” In a tactical error, the speaker gave too little space to the women who accompanied him, including the other co-founder, a former basketball coach and quite a compelling speaker who actually seemed to have some direct knowledge of STEM education.

The most interesting conversation came after the finalists left. Not everyone among the stakeholders seemed ready to rush to judgement, but the pressure to move forward was palpable. The presence of a representative of the Commissioner, strategically positioned at room’s edge cast a long shadow over the proceedings, even thought the gentleman remained silent ’til the very end. Again, high theater. It’s hard to blame the community stakeholders for their hesitation. They are going to be accountable for this decision in the community, long after anyone remembers that it was the State and the BPS that pushed them into a corner with these two finalists.

How would you feel as a community member asked to stamp this process? After all this time, the process has come down to two finalists: an organization that failed with an earlier proposal and whose relevant experience has been questioned by the community since the very beginning, and a charter operator from Philly who doesn’t know Grove Hall from windfall. Neither group distinguished itself with its knowledge of STEM, the educational content that will determine the success of the future Dearborn.

Sitting directly across from these finalists, on the stakeholder group, was Dearborn’s interim principal, Mr. Willingham. The assumption–made by the State and not questioned by the BPS–behind this whole dance is that he and his team can’t turn the Dearborn around, yet he has shown on several occasions that he knows way more about STEM education than either of the guys with ties making proposals last night. I wonder how this makes him and those working with him feel about their efforts every day to keep learning happening under the most difficult of conditions at the Dearborn.

Cat playing organCity Councillor Tito Jackson, who sat and listened for most of the time, did his best to put a positive spin on the whole show. After saluting the efforts of the Dearborn teachers, students and community, he reminded people that it was their activism that forced the City to back off the original charter proposal and get back on the path of keeping the Dearborn a community school. As always, Tito was right, but I bet I wasn’t the only one wondering, “Absolutely, but what have we won if all this work comes down to a choice for a school operator that is between two guys who don’t know any more about STEM than a cat knows about an organ? One was the purveyor of the original proposal that we beat back and the other is a charter guy from Philly who needs a GPS to get back to South Station?”

Maybe this is simply what we have come to,..if people want a STEM academy in Roxbury, this is what it is. Maybe, but people didn’t seem quite ready to accept that, just yet. Somehow, even as the weather gets colder, the temperature around the Dearborn is likely to be unseasonably warm…still.

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The exam school choice, #13…something missing?

Latin EnglishThere is nothing quite like the Thanksgiving Day football game between Boston English and Boston Latin to get the Parent Imperfect thinking about the exam school choice in Boston. It is a huge choice for many individual families in the city, but it is also a choice that we, as a city, make each year about the sort of school system we want to have for our children.

This year, I’ve received an unusual number of questions about the BPS exam schools, some from perfect strangers. Last Saturday was the final day for students in Grades 6 and 8 to take the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) in hopes of entering one of the Boston’s exam schools for the coming year. I remember well that the parental stress level increased greatly in the days before that test. Now, at least there is a little break before the next decision point, when one must register for school and state preferences regarding the three exam schools in the system.

The calendar has generated many of the questions, but there has been another factor this year. In the midst of this year’s selecting season, BPS leadership has endorsed some eye-opening proposals to change the way students get into the exam schools.

Earlier in November, a highly publicized study of Black and Latino male achievement in the BPS confirmed what everyone in the system knows perfectly well. That the exam schools and the Advanced Work Class (AWC) programs are key elements of a system of tracking that aggravates the achievement gap in city schools. The question is what to do about the problem.

Opportunity and EnrollmentThe study, co-published by the BPS and two of the leading educational research organizations in the area, makes a number of recommendations, two of which focus on AWC and the exam schools. It recommends making all grade 4-6 programs Advanced Work programs, which is a positive way of saying that we should end the current practice of, beginning in fourth grade, taking the kids who score highest on a certain test out of their school communities and grouping them in special classrooms. If that’s not bold enough, the study went on to recommend that only children who attend the BPS for Grades 5 and 6 be eligible to apply for admission to the exam schools. This would eliminate the time-tested path to the exam schools, especially Boston Latin School, that passes through private and parochial schools. The goal would be to make the student composition of the exam schools more closely reflect the composition of the BPS, as a whole. I’ve seen proposals like this before (even made some), but at least in my memory, I’ve not seen a proposal like either of these in a document endorsed by the BPS.

Does this change anything for the kids who just took the test? I doubt it, at least in the short run. As in the past, families will rate the exam schools, according to their preferences, and test results will be fed, along with students’ Grade 5 and Grade 6 grades into the mysterious function machine that generates invitations to the O’BryantBLA and BLS.

Deciding on our order of preference among the schools felt like less of a turning point when we applied for Vince, as the word on the street was that it was pretty easy to choose BLS at first, and then change one’s mind later (not surprisingly, to change one’s preference to BLS was less simple, but that wasn’t our strategy). Now, because more and more parents apparently are making either the O’Bryant or BLA their first choice, it is more difficult to later change one’s first choice, regardless of what it is. I can find no data that says that more parents are choosing the O’Bryant and BLA first, but the cryptic placement results received by Connie suggest that it is, in fact, the case.

Latin crosswalkIn Vince’s case we later wished that we had paid more attention to the choice among exam schools. Even though it wasn’t at all clear to us that Vince’s learning style would work well at BLS (Liz will say that she was sure that it wouldn’t), we were convinced by the argument that said, “If he gets into BLS, let him try it. If it doesn’t work out, he can always switch.” Don’t be fooled by that argument. I can name you 25 kids in Vince’s senior class who have struggled mightily for 5+ years at BLS, but have resisted the idea of changing schools. Some parents of such students were clear enough or desperate enough to make the decision for their offspring, but we are among those who did not do so. In public conversation, Vince will say consistently that he really likes his school, and I have stopped doubting him on this point. He really likes the friends he has made at BLS, some of his teachers have been excellent and I expect that he likes being able to tell people that he goes to the such a revered high school. But all that love has come with considerable stress and conflict (for the whole family) and no small loss of self-esteem for the young man.

BLS has 2400 students, give or take a few, which I believe is way too many for a school with its approach to teaching and learning.  The “business model” of the school requires that the school admit well over 100 students each year that will face serious difficulties in adapting to its standards. There are more programs in place to support students in their transition (Saturday Success School, peer tutoring, etc.) than existed 10-15 years ago, but seventh graders at the school are still very much on their own to make their way in a large and unforgiving environment. There are, after all, something like 525 of them in seventh grade, so support anything like that received at many private schools is simply out of the question.

We visited both BLA and the O’Bryant with Vince and Connie. They liked things about the O’Bryant, but neither was drawn to attend the school. We never explored the reasons for that enough, but they seemed to have a mildly negative impression of the school before we even saw the place. Both liked BLA and would probably have quite happily gone there, had their parents pushed the issue, but we did not. They visited BLS after BLA and then “shadowed” a student at the school for a day. They didn’t shadow at either the O’Bryant or BLA. After shadowing, they were officially caught up in the hype and, truth be told, so were their parents. In the end, both Vince and Connie were on pins and needles in the days before their assignment arrived, anxious to hear that they were going to BLS.

The HypeThere is so, so much to say about the “hype,” and I surely can’t do it justice here. The hype is a comparative framing of the three schools and the way they sit in the whole BPS system (remember the English-Latin football game). Much of it is about the “best,” the exclusivity of exam schools and the power of the history embodied, especially, in BLS. But lurking in the definition of “best” are also powerful, often subliminal, messages about race, class and difference. I’m not accusing any school or any group within any school of projecting such messages. No one needs to project them: They are perfectly obvious, even if you aren’t looking for them, and they are powerfully reinforced by messages we all receive daily.

The hype and all of the changes going on for these kids (and their parents) at this time of their lives creates an emotional stew around the exam school decision that is even more toxic than the one surrounding Advanced Work Class. As parents who are busy doing too many things already, it is very easy to not deal with the complexity of this decision, let “the flow” carry one to a decision, and then, two years later, be wondering what happened.

Community conversationsWhat does it mean to “deal with the complexity” of this decision? The two-sentence descriptions of each of the exam schools are, by now, well known. Visiting each school usually provides enough information and direct experience to begin to challenge the stereotypes. People (especially mothers) discuss the topic obsessively among friends. And, of course, we try to talk with our children about what they want for themselves.

All of this is great and necessary. We did it all, but felt that something was missing. Maybe what was missing in our experience was any kind of a space for a broader community conversation about the choice, one in which we could get outside of our tight networks of friends and hear what others–including others who don’t have the exam school choice–feel about that choice. I remember really wishing that we could have this kind of conversation, even among parents at the Hernández, when Vince was in sixth grade. Since Connie was only at the Irving for a year, we didn’t have that kind of connection with parents there, so a different conversation would have been needed.

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The land of disparities

City yearYesterday, the Parent Imperfect joined a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at City Year, that temple of youth development in Boston’s South End. I saw lots of Boston Public Schools parents there, including one of the authors of the report, whose middle-school daughter was sitting in the corner of the auditorium, reading a book for the whole time. The daughter was amazingly patient (can I purchase a couple of bottles of this patience?) and Mom was very aware of her daughter, even as she tried to wield the stage hook against long-winded speakers.

The occasion these little dramas was the launch of a report about how Black and Latino male students fare in the Boston Public Schools. This report was a little different than many such efforts in that the BPS commissioned the work, participated in the study design and signed off on its findings. The Center for Collaborative Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform did the research. Speakers mentioned the Barr Foundation about 20 times, so I assume the foundation provided much of the dough for what must have been (and continues to be) a very expensive piece of work.

Privilege and prejudiceFor over an hour, slide after slide drove home the point that everyone in the room came in taking for granted: Structural barriers to achievement lead to very different outcomes in the BPS for Black and Latino males, on the one hand, and Caucasian and Asian boys, on the other. I would call these barriers, “institutional racism,” but, given the prominence of big institutions in the process, the study was politic enough not to use such incendiary terms. “Structural barriers to achievement” seems so much more neutral and, therefore, appropriate for polite company. I guess it’s OK to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about such terms.

Overly polite or not, this study makes its point with more detail and more nuance than I have ever seen it made, at least in Boston. Rather than just talking about this statistic for “Black” kids and that one for “Latino” kids, the study uncovers the diversity behind such words by exploring, for example, at the differences in achievement between African-American males, born in the U.S., and Afro-Latinos from the Caribbean.  “Whites” and “Asians” weren’t described with this same sensitivity to diversity, but I can live with that, given the point of this study.

All of this made for a more interesting (and lengthy) presentation, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. Girls do better than boys in the system, across all groups. Within the boys, Black and Latino boys face particular barriers to achievement. Among Black and Latino males, Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners face double or triple barriers.

The lack of economic analysis in the study disappointed me. The authors clearly wanted to keep the focus on the impact of race and ethnicity, but even a couple of slides acknowledging that children living in poverty make up a large part of the student body of the BPS and that social class also influences educational outcomes would have helped. I’m not sure we can understand how race impacts outcomes in the BPS without at least a nod to the way race is tangled up with social class in U.S. cities, but that’s a much longer thing.

METCOI also wonder if we can understand outcomes in the BPS without also including analysis of trends in enrollment and outcomes in charter schools, the METCO program and the region’s private schools. I don’t have data, but I am aware that significant numbers of high-achieving students, including more than a few Latino and Black males students that I know, have departed the BPS for these alternatives (and no small percentage of them come tumbling back into the district later). The growth of these alternative forms of educating our children is gradually changing the composition of the BPS student body and, the nature of the challenges faced by the district. But not even the Barr Foundation could pay for that sort of analysis. These things are on my mind, but they don’t take away from what is a really important piece of research by these people.

The best part of the study is that it takes the bold extra step of naming some of the causes of the problem, and then suggesting ways that we, as a community, might change this situation. It’s here that the tracking that is so central to the BPS experience gets a hard time. For these analysts, something about the way BPS has constructed and implemented Advanced Work Classes and the famous Boston exam schools make those two programs, as currently configured, an important part of the problem. Few of the study’s recommendations deal with AWC and the exam schools (two recommendations, I think), but those are two of the recommendations that are going to get the most attention. The “Village,” the community list-serve at the nation’s oldest public school immediately lit up with both indignation that anyone would dare question the current paths of access to the school, and indignation at that indignation.
Come togetherThe Annenberg Institute at Brown University can tell us just how bad the racial and ethnic disparities are in our schools. The Institute might even be able to tell us what we need to do to narrow those disparities, but it can’t tell us how we can come together to make it all happen. This coming together behind a different vision has always been the challenge and the glossy report handed out yesterday (pea-green and purple, for some reason) isn’t going to help us do that. Political leadership could help make that happen. We’ll see. For the most part, how to come together is something for those us–students, parents, teachers, school administrators alongside political and other community  leaders–who live and learn in the land of disparities to figure out.

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Filed under Boston Public Schools