By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
In the July 24 edition of First Teachers there was a discussion of the efforts of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the admissions process — currently based on a single test — to the city’s elite high schools, such as Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Latin, and Brooklyn Tech. De Blasio’s goal is find a way to increase the black and Hispanic enrollment at these schools, which is currently under 10 percent, in a city where the ethnic makeup of the public schools’ 1.1 million students is 15 percent Asian, 15 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 28 percent black.
A reader we will identify as W.W. weighed in on the implications of de Blasio’s actions. “Diluting the standards of superlative schools,” writes W.W., “has always led to the same end, namely eradicating that which made those schools superlative. They soon become no different from the rest of the herd. In some cases they lose the reason to exist at all. When that happens, the champions of the slack standards are nowhere to be found to explain why eliminating superlative schools is preferred to having them function superlatively!”
The problem in New York, W.W. continues, is that “aside from these five schools, NYC public high schools [attempt to] operate on a one-size-fits-all model. Why does that make sense? Different students have different skills and interests. Why not model high schools accordingly to get the best out of each student, at whatever level that student exists? Instead of watering down those five elite high schools, wouldn’t it serve all concerned to model public high schools on the college system? Keep these five as the ‘Ivy League’ of high schools in NYC!”
W.W. does not see anything objectionable about such diversity: “We have a tiered system of colleges in this country. No one objects. Each college selects, serves, and improves a student body whose talents and skills are suited to the tier in which the college belongs. The student’s SAT scores are a primary means to determine which colleges are best suited for each student. By and large this method does a pretty good job of getting a student into college in the tier best suited to him or her.
“My vision would be a system of high schools accommodating students ranging from future Ivy League to merely occupying (baby-sitting) students until they ‘graduate.’ As with colleges, inter-school transfers would be permitted, provided the student demonstrated the necessary skill level in order to transfer. Most college students routinely show pride in their colleges. Few are sullen because they don’t go to Yale. That would also be true for the high school students.”
On another topic: The Duval County Schools in the northwest corner of Florida became involved in an intriguing brouhaha recently. As reported on the web site Education News (www.educationnews.org), the authorities in Duval County sought to raise the reading levels of the students in its schools in response to a directive from Florida state authorities ordering lower-performing schools to add more time to the school day to improve this deficiency.
We frequently hear that parents favor more rigorous standards in their children’s schools. In Duval County that preference took an intriguing form. Duval County decided, according to Education News, to extend the school day, or “create more time during it for reading.” In the Jacksonville area, “52 schools will be changing their schedules” to add an extra hour of reading to the school day.
Parents in the affected schools met recently at Holiday Hill Elementary School to discuss the extra hour of school. Of the 200 parents who attended, nearly all raised their hands when asked if they were against the extra hour of reading. Denise Smith Amos, writing for The Florida Times-Union, reports that some parents were considering transferring their children because of the extra hour. Parents at this meeting aired their concerns about:
— The real need for extra reading help for their child.
— Seven hours being too long a day for younger children.
— Extended homework time resulting in less time for sleep.
— Traffic problems at the later hour encroaching on homework time.
— Parents having their workday, after-care or childcare disrupted.
One parent told the Times-Union reporter, “Most of our concerns are going to be what will they be doing for the extra hour. Will they really be focused and have one-to-one attention?”
The authorities in Duval County project the cost for lengthening the school day to be somewhere between $8-10 million. They point to what they say was a 67 percent improvement in reading proficiency when, in a trial run, they lengthened the school day for a dozen schools last year. But Greg Keefer, parent of a first-grader, says he and other parents are concerned about the costs and the impact the longer day will have on families. “We looked at the research and we do not see a return on investment for the sacrifice they are asking of our parents and our teachers and everybody,” said Keefer.
An interesting twist to this story: Not every student will have to stay for the extra hour of reading if this plan goes through. According to Education News, “Students who scored a 5 on Florida’s standardized reading tests are exempted from staying the extra hour.” This has led some parents to think of the extra hour as a form of punishment. Beyond that, many parents do not know how they will orchestrate the picking up of their children if they have one child who has to stay the extra hour and another who is not on the “added instruction” list.
So how should we view all this? Should we be critical of the Duval County parents for not “walking the walk,” for not being willing to expend the effort required to help their children take advantage of the added instructional time being provided in their local schools? Or should the parents be praised for refusing to go along with another attempt by government authorities to solve a problem by “throwing money at it”? In other words, are the parents making a sound cost/benefit analysis of the proposed extension of the school day? Is there a better way to improve reading scores than adding an hour to the school day?
It is difficult for an outsider to make a judgment in this matter. If there are readers of First Teachers familiar with the situation in Florida, we would welcome hearing from them.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.