Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 13 “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?”

Are there too many Jews in Hollywood?

Are there too many transgender people in the military?

Are the too many Latino baseball players?

Are there too many Asian students at the New York City specialized high schools?

Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above?

Asian students make up 17% of the 8th graders in New York City. They also make up 35% of the students who take the SHSAT and get 52% of the offers to the specialized schools.

Latino and Black students combine to make up 68% of the 8th graders, 32% of the SHSAT test takers, and 10% of the offers.

Statistically speaking, an Asian student is about 16 times more likely to get an offer to a specialized high school than a Latino student or a Black student.

These are the facts and they serve as a starting point for the big questions that this series of posts has been building toward.

To the question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?” some might say that this is the wrong question to ask. The proper question, they might argue is, “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”

Are those the same two questions, just worded in different ways? I don’t think so. The second question “Are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” has, in my mind, an obvious answer which is ‘yes.’ The more important question which cannot be answered so easily is “Why are there too few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?” I will address this later in this post, but first I want to explore the other question “Are there too many Asian students at the specialized high schools?”

There are a finite number of seats at the specialized schools. The only way for there to be more Latino and Black students offered seats at these schools would be for Asian students to be offered fewer seats at these schools. But if you believe “There are too many Asian students at the specialized schools?” you probably won’t feel comfortable saying it too loud. It has the same structure as the other “There are too many X in Y” statements I referenced at the beginning of this post. In any expression of this form, if the ‘X’ is not ‘white men’ you are treading into dangerous territory.

So how do you answer the two questions? Do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students but that ‘no’ there are not too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you think that ‘yes’ there are too few Latino and Black students and that ‘yes’ there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools. Or do you have some other set of answers to those two questions?

I think there are some people who believe (whether or not they say it so bluntly) that there are too many Asians in the specialized high schools and I want to address that belief here.

Some people who have been reading this series do not like when I use sports analogies, but with the summer Olympics going on right now, it is hard not to. There are certain events in the summer Olympics that have been historically dominated by different countries. Russia has won every gold medal in artistic swimming (used to be called ‘synchronized swimming’) since 2000. South Korea has won nearly every gold medal in women’s archery since 1984. China has won almost all the gold medals in table tennis ever awarded. Kenya has won all 9 golds in the history of the men’s steeplechase. Hungary has won nine gold medals in men’s water polo since 1928.

Does anyone see it as a ‘problem’ that Hungary keeps winning at men’s water polo? When you hear that Hungary won again in men’s water polo, how does it make you feel? Do you think that there is something about water polo that gives Hungary an unfair advantage? Do you think the rules should be changed so that it is a little easier for some of the other countries to win? Maybe the other countries get to start with a few points? Probably not. You probably just think that it is pretty impressive that Hungary is so good at men’s water polo. We don’t think the Hungary men’s water polo team is cheating in any way. We don’t say “Oh, it isn’t fair, they spent a lot of time practicing water polo.” There’s probably a culture in Hungary where kids aspire to be on the men’s water polo team and they’ve got water polo little league and the names of the men’s water polo players are household names. Maybe you don’t agree with all the rules of water polo, like how only the goalie can handle the ball with both hands and if another player does, they lose possession of the ball, but at least all teams have to play by the same rules as arbitrary as they may seem. You probably don’t think that Hungary has won “too many” gold medals, you tip your hat to Hungary and admire their accomplishment.

The United States hasn’t gotten the gold in men’s water polo since 1932. But does that mean we don’t train for the Olympics? Maybe the fact that Hungary will be participating is a motivating factor for the United States team to try to compete with the Hungarians. And even if the U.S. team, again, fails to medal was all that training a waste?

But when it comes to the specialized high schools some people don’t think this same way about the Asian students who gain admission to these schools. It’s not “Wow, those families supported supplemental learning for their children. How great.” For some of these families, maybe they take an ongoing course where the students improve their skills. These skills will not just help them on the SHSAT but in high school and beyond. For some families the supplemental learning may not involve a course but just that they encourage their child to sit for a few hours a week with a skills book. However they do it, why is supplemental learning not something not everybody wants to celebrate? In my opinion, the more students who study at home, the better. So that’s why I don’t agree with you if you think there are too many Asian students at the specialized high schools.

The former New York City schools chancellor Carranza was pretty clear about his feelings when he said at a press conference “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these schools,” about the fact that about half the specialized school offers went to Asian students.

But let’s say you’re someone who doesn’t think the problem is too many Asian students. You have no problem with the number of Asian students, you just think there should be more Latino and Black students. Well, I also think there should be more Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools.

The big question that everyone (or at least the 10 or so people who have been reading this 50,000+ word series of blog posts) wants me to answer is “Why are there so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools?”

The reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high schools has little to do with the specialized high school admissions policy. Yes, you can change the admissions policy if you want and get the numbers you think there should be, but that’s not fixing the problem really. If you fix the problem the correct way, not only will you get more Latino and Black students into the specialized high schools but as an added bonus even the Latino and Black students who don’t get into the specialized high schools will be more prepared for college or whatever future they choose to pursue.

One reason there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized high school is that politicians and high level NYC DOE administrators have not cared enough to ask the right questions to find out why there are so few.

For example, surely there are some Latino and Black students going into 8th grade next year who would be great candidates for the specialized high schools. But they aren’t going to take the SHSAT maybe. Have people at the NYC DOE ever tried to find out why those students don’t want to take the SHSAT? Have people getting paid to think about this stuff at the NYC DOE ever really tried to learn why Latino and Black students are not enthusiastic about the idea of going to a specialized high school?

And what about the Latino or Black student who was a superstar at his or her middle school and seemed destined to ace the SHSAT but didn’t make the cutoff? Has anyone ever taken a close look at the test they took and the answers they wrote? Has anyone looked over their math scrap paper? Has anyone ever sat with that kid for a few hours and asked, “Why did you write choice C for that one? What was your thought process?” If nobody is doing that kind of scientific research and getting this kind of data so you can more easily answer the question of why there are so few Latino and Black students meeting the SHSAT cutoff score, it says to me that in the current system there has not been the will to understand what the problem is.

There are a lot of theories about why there are so few Latino and Black students at the specialized schools. Someone from the NYC DOE actually should investigate them and see which of them are true, if any. But they don’t because they don’t care enough to apply the scientific method to this important issue. One theory is that private schools offer scholarships to the top Latino and Black students. Is this true? How many students does this affect?

Another theory is that many of the top Latino and Black students are attending high profile charter schools. These charter schools lose many of their low performing students over the years when the schools threaten to make them repeat a grade if they don’t transfer out. So the few students who make it into 8th grade in those schools are likely very good at standardized tests. So why aren’t those students taking the SHSAT? And if they are taking the SHSAT, has that charter school helped them succeed on it or do they discourage those top performing 8th graders from taking the SHSAT or preparing for the SHSAT or even from accepting offers if they do well on the SHSAT? The theory is that those schools want those students to attend the charter school high school. I think this theory has some truth in it. Here is something from the Success Academy blog about how two of their students qualified for Brooklyn Tech but elected to say at Success Academy for high school anyway. How many more Black and Latino students could there be in the specialized high schools if those students were encouraged to consider it? Again, this is something that someone at the NYC DOE should have already thought about and should be working on this. You’ve got to approach this scientifically.

But the bigger issue is that by the time students are in 8th grade, the low SHSAT scores are merely a symptom of a bigger problem that had been going on for decades. If Asian students are supplementing what they get in school in order to get better at math and reading, why can’t that supplementation be given to Latino and Black students as part of their regular schooling? I’m talking here about resources, or more specifically the lack of resources. With more money invested in the schools from K to 8, like for smaller class sizes, maybe the Latino and Black students would be more prepared for whatever the specialized high school admissions process is, even if it moves away from just being the SHSAT. This type of thinking leads to an authentic solution which benefits everyone. Even if it doesn’t change the demographics of the specialized high schools as much as some people hope it would, everyone would be better off.

I know there is a lot more to the issue than I’m able to fully appreciate. Here’s an article from The Atlantic called ‘Don’t Scrap The Test. Help Black Kids Ace It’ with a similar perspective. And here is an equally thoughtful piece with the opposite perspective from The Daily News called ‘Scrap the SHSAT, for diversity’s sake: Mayor de Blasio is right about selective high schools’. Here is another interesting take called ‘Is New York City’s Plan to Diversify Specialized High Schools Racist toward Asian Americans?’ by a bi-racial writer who says ‘no’.

I’m sorry if you were hoping that I would be able to give a more satisfying answer to this difficult question. I tried to offer some short term and some long term solutions. I don’t have the data to answer the question any better but through these posts I hope I have modeled for somebody what it means to approach something scientifically and to raise the right questions in order to tackle the big questions.

In the next, and final, post in this series, I will try to make some final reflections.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 12 “Is the 7% plan feasible?”

On June 3, 2018 Mayor Bill de Blasio and then schools chancellor Richard Carranza introduced a plan for an alternative to using the SHSAT for selective high school admissions. Known to some as “The 7% plan” the idea is to phase out the SHSAT and instead make offers to the top 7% of the students at each school. Each school would rank their students by state test scores and GPA to create the rankings.

Under the current process there are certain middle schools that serve as feeders into the specialized schools. An example is The Anderson School in which 75% of their students get an offer. A Chalkbeat article explains how 25% of the specialized high school offers come from just 10 middle schools. These middle schools are generally screened middle schools that had a standardized test as part of their admissions policy so it is not surprising that this happened, but it definitely suggests that student’s destinies were established when they did or didn’t do well on an entrance exam for a screened middle school that they took during 5th grade. There has been talk of eliminating screened middle schools for many of the same reasons that there has been talk of changing the admissions policy for the specialized high schools. Getting rid of screened middle schools wouldn’t necessarily cause the demographic mix they are looking for. It is possible that the students who would have gone to those screened middle schools would end up getting into the specialized high schools later on anyway. I point this out because many people would assume that eliminating the screened middle schools would very likely change the future demographics of the specialized high schools.

So according to a presentation made by the NYC DOE, making offers to the top 7% of students at each school would change the demographics of the specialized high schools. Here is a graphic they made about this:

Though this 7% plan would not exactly match the citywide demographics, it would be closer than the current plan. So if these charts are accurate, the 7% plan would achieve the goal of getting the target demographics while not being officially an illegal quota system. This doesn’t mean that this plan wouldn’t be challenged in court anyway if the intent is to reduce the offers to one ethnic group, namely Asians.

But the problem with education policy is that many of the plans people come up with are very short sighted. Maybe they ‘fix’ one problem while causing other problems. Most teachers I know are very good at evaluating some policy proposal and looking into the future with it and knowing what new problems will be created by the proposal. This is something that many education policy makers fail to do which, for some of them, is why they couldn’t cut it in the classroom.

In the current system it is definitely true that students at a middle school are competing with one another to get into the specialized high schools. So you take a school like The Anderson School where 58 out of 76 8th graders got offers to specialized high schools recently. And while the students do compete against each other, they don’t really think of it that way because there is a chance that everyone who takes it gets in because they are really all competing against the total population. So the Anderson students can learn together and have a fun middle school experience without the pressure of ‘beating’ their fellow classmates. They can root each other on and they hope they and all their friends get into the specialized schools and that they can go there together.

So now you change the admissions to the 7% plan and now the number of offers at Anderson is capped at 5 students, maybe one student for Stuyvesant. Suddenly Anderson becomes a very different place. There is no longer a chance that everyone is going to get in to a specialized high school. Now the students have to compete for the 5 spots. These five spots are based on GPA and on state test scores so suddenly every single test and assignment becomes a ‘high stakes test’ since it could be the difference between getting an offer and not getting an offer. Now the middle school teachers have a new kind of pressure they didn’t have before. Why did my kid’s friend get a 97 on this project while my kid got a 96 on the project? Yes, I know that this happens to some extent already, but if the 7% plan were put into place, it would increase exponentially. It would make teaching middle school a pretty miserable job, actually.

OK so maybe you don’t care so much about whether the kids at Anderson have to have a less fun middle school experience or whether the teachers enjoy their jobs there — nobody forced them to go or to work there, but still it is something I think is worth thinking about.

That chart that the NYC DOE made for their presentation shows how they predict the demographics would be under the new plan based on running the numbers for a previous year. But remember that in that previous year, students and families were not making decisions based on the 7% plan being in effect. If the 7% actually went into affect, people would make different decisions. For example, maybe some students who don’t care so much about grades but know they would do well on the SHSAT would change their strategy. So without the SHSAT they would instead use the time they would have spent on the SHSAT to instead get their GPA up and to get a 97 on the project instead of a 96. So the numbers that would actually happen under the 7% plan would likely be different than the numbers from the projection based on data about students who had a different strategy for getting into the specialized high schools.

If the 7% plan were actually implemented, there is a chance that instead of sending their children to Anderson, families instead send their children to a school where they are likely to be in the top 7%. So maybe you get a situation where the top 7% of the students at any given school are likely to be Asian and you don’t ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ of too many Asians at the specialized high schools but instead you inadvertently make the middle schools less segregated. Maybe that’s a good thing. But it’s how it could play out so these are the kind of things teachers are better than policy makers and looking ahead and thinking about. (A great mathematician / writer Cathy O’Neil make the middle school argument in this piece.)

Another thing not considered in the 7% plan is whether or not the students admitted under this plan even want to attend a specialized high school. Keep in mind that half the Asian students in New York City don’t even take the SHSAT so it is not a given that everyone even wants to go to a school that may have a 90 minute commute each way and when maybe they see nothing wrong with the neighborhood school that despite the propaganda from the Charter school lobby, is not a ‘failing’ school that students are ‘trapped’ in.

The NYC DOE presents this graphic to show that the 7% plan would not mean that the specialized high schools would have to become less rigorous.

In an earlier post I argued that a major change to the admissions policy would very likely require the specialized high schools to alter their curricula — and also that this wouldn’t be the end of the world if it happens. This graphic does not change my mind on this. Getting a 94 GPA at one schools is not necessarily equivalent to getting a 94 GPA at another school. I’ve taught at different schools throughout my career and I’ve never seen grades as some kind of rigid objective thing. So if I am teaching students who are behind and I have a student who gets 100 average, well I’m going to give them a 100 because they deserve it. They should not be penalized just because they had to start from an earlier spot. And the state tests, one issue is that the state tests have been made untimed while at specialized schools there are going to be several timed tests a week so it is important that a student can do well on a timed test. I guess if you were to make the state tests timed again and recalculated the numbers on this graphic, I could change my mind on this.

In some other cities recently, other plans have actually been passed that have some things in common with the 7% plan. The Boston Latin school is one of them. There will be a system where students will be divided into eight tiers depending on their family income and students will be admitted equally among those tiers. This article explains the new policy. Another school that has changed its policy is The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. That schools (known as T.J) is a big rival of Stuyvesant when it comes to the math team competition. They got rid of the $100 application fee and made other changes, but it is hard to compare their policy with Stuyvesant since under the old policy T.J. was less than 1% economically disadvantaged while Stuyvesant is currently 40%. And with the new policy, T.J. will increase to 25% economically disadvantaged.

One of the most puzzling things about the de Blasio / Carranza 7% proposal is that there was nothing stopping them from implementing it at five of the eight specialized high schools (which account for about 40% of the students in the specialized high school system according to what I calculated but in many articles I’ve read they say that those schools only have 25% of the students). The state law applies to just the ‘big 3’ Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The fact that they did not try to test the plan out with the schools that they could really makes me think they were not serious about the 7% plan besides saying “We tried to do something bold, but were denied.” When de Blasio was asked why not do this for the five other schools he said something like “We don’t want to do something halfway, we need to do it for all.” (Can someone find me the actual quote?) There is a chance it isn’t legal to change the policy at those other 5 schools, but there isn’t a policy against creating new schools — maybe you don’t call them specialized high schools you just call them magnet schools or something else — at which you can use something like the 7% plan.

This 7% plan makes me think that maybe an interesting compromise would be to make new specialized high schools for students who would be admitted under the 7% plan. Or if that seems like you are denying Stuyvesant to those students, why not just open up new specialized schools just for students who would have gotten into the specialized schools under the current SHSAT system. So you would have some new schools and the students who would have gone to Stuyvesant now go to some other school, call it what you want, ‘The school for kids who aced the SHSAT’ maybe. So Stuyvesant becomes the place for the top 7% plan students and the SHSAT school is available too. After a few years it would be interesting to see what happens. Would Stuyvesant still have the best math team and debate team, or would the SHSAT school? Would Ivy League schools look favorably on the SHSAT school as they do now for Stuyvesant?

So I see a lot of problems with the 7% plan. Others say that the benefits outweigh some of the issues I raised. There are just two more parts to this series. I was expecting some more attention to these posts but based on comments they have not been widely read. I spent years pondering if it was a good idea to write about this topic. I was scared to but based on the lack of attention and also lack of hate mail from some of the people who like to harass me I’ve either really bored everyone or I’ve been evenhanded. Either way, I will look forward to completing the last two posts in the next few weeks.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 11 “What other factors should be considered in the specialized high school admissions process?”

Currently the only factor to determine admissions to the New York City specialized high schools is a 114 question mainly multiple choice question about math and reading. Out of 100,000 8th graders — 25,000 who take the SHSAT test — 5,000 are offered spots in one of the eight specialized high schools.

There are specialized high schools in pretty much every city and also throughout the world. Most do not just use a single three hour test for admissions.

Other factors that could be included are middle school GPA, school recommendation letter, essay, interview, portfolio, among factors.

How can we know if the admissions processes ‘worked’? In other words, what is the goal? This isn’t an easy question.

An analogy that illustrates the difficulties of this is how to distribute tickets to something like the Super Bowl. Who ‘deserves’ to go to the Super Bowl? Right now if you have enough money you can easily get Super Bowl tickets, but is does a rich person ‘deserve’ to go to this game just because they are rich? It doesn’t seem so. What about a die-hard fan of one of the teams who watches every single game and paints their car the team colors and if they could go to the game would paint themselves the team color? That’s someone who really wants to go to the game. But is wanting to go to the game enough? What if there is someone who really wants to go to the game and will be very enthusiastic about the game but that person does not really know much about the rules of football? Does that person deserve to go to the game more than someone who studies the game and will enjoy the game at a much deeper level even though maybe they aren’t as enthusiastic?

There’s no right answer to the Super Bowl question, different people can have different opinions though most people would agree that just having a lot of money isn’t the most fair way to decide who gets to attend this game.

When it comes to the specialized high schools, who deserves to be admitted? There might be some students who really want to go to the schools but they are behind in their academics and they are not going to get such high grades there but they will still benefit from the experience and they will be enthusiastic and try their hardest every day. But unlike the Super Bowl where the fans don’t really affect what goes on in the game, in a specialized school the participants are also the players. So if the goal of the specialized high school is to get students into Ivy League colleges, then maybe desire to go to the school is not enough. They have to be already accelerated in their learning after the eight years of schooling they have already had. It is a tough question and everyone might have their own answer and depending on what their answer is about what the goal of the specialized high school is, they can determine after the fact whether or not the admissions policy ‘worked’ if the goal was met.

The current process of using just the SHSAT has produced, over the years, a group of students in the specialized high schools that have seemed to thrive. They get into Ivy League schools. They have the top math team. They have the top debate team. They have many students who become semi-finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent competition. So in that sense some might say that the admissions process worked. But since the admissions policy is based on such a narrow metric it opens up the question of whether changing the policy could make the collection of students even better by some metric.

Using the SHSAT is not perfect. Over the years there have been students who have really struggled at Stuyvesant. It isn’t a large percent, but I’ve known students who get averages in the 70s and who even start to cut classes and even fail them. When that happens it is hard not to think that if the admissions policy were different maybe that student would have not been admitted and in his place maybe a student who would have been more successful would have been there in his place and that would be a good thing.

The goal of this fourteen part series which could be compiled into a novella is not for me to conclude at the end that the current system is perfect as it is or even that it is good. I do think that just using the SHSAT does not produce the best possible group of students. There are students who get into the specialized high schools who don’t thrive there and ones who don’t get in who would thrive there.

But I also think that the selection process does produce a very good group of students and I have a theory about this. Imagine if there were a different single criteria for admissions to the specialized school and it was one that was even less relevant than the 114 question test. Imagine that the test was just how well you could do on the vintage 1980s videogame Pac Man. That would be absurd, right? But the schools are still what they are and families are told about this new absurd admissions policy. Now of course there are some kids who are better at video games than other kids and that doesn’t mean that they are better fits for the specialized high schools. But families know for years that this is the way to get into the specialized schools, as crazy and irrelevant as it is. Now a game like Pac Man is one that anyone can master, eventually. Some people might be more naturally good at it and maybe those people don’t need to practice as much as people who are not naturally good at it. But the people who really want to do well on this new absurd test are going to do what it takes to achieve that. So maybe it takes a few hundred hours of practice, but at the end it is possible (and I know this is a very strange hypothetical so I’m not saying we should do this) that the students who were able to get good at Pac Man after knowing that this was what the test was and because they really wanted to get in and to do whatever it takes to get in despite the ridiculousness of the contest having seemingly nothing to do with succeeding at a specialized high school, maybe you would end up with a group of students who would succeed at the specialized high school. What all those kids would have in common was the ability to have a long term plan to play by the rules and to master something that can be mastered by anyone who puts in the proper amount of preparation.

Well, I’m not suggesting that we make the test less relevant than it already is, I’m just pondering whether or not it matters how relevant the test is as long as everyone knows the rules and has ample time to prepare for it.

Actually this post is about how the SHSAT could be made more relevant.

The 114 multiple choice test on math and reading is really a relic of the past. It seems to be based on the SAT which has its own problems. So one idea I have is to add more sections. Have a written essay section. Have a science section. Have a history section. This would make it a lot harder to do test prep for.

Another thing I think they should have is a part where a student watches a 30 minute video of a teacher teaching a lesson on something that they haven’t already learned and then the students have to answer questions about it. Maybe this includes higher level questions to test for deeper understanding. It’s 2021, what would be so bad about having students on laptops watching short lectures and seeing if they can absorb new material like they would be expected to at the specialized school. This would also be difficult to test prep for so it would take away whatever advantage students get from test prep.

How about they give all the students a reading list of about fifty books. Then there are questions about five of the books, selected at random. The student who reads all 50 books will do well on that part while a student who only reads ten of the books is likely to do poorly on that section.

I think that schools should rate the students, at least with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about whether they think the student is likely to succeed at the specialized school.

I think that GPA could be a component though I would expect that most students who want to go to the specialized schools have pretty good GPAs and this wouldn’t change the final results by very much.

I think the ‘trick questions’ on the math especially should be removed since those check for test prep more than just intelligence.

I think all students should get more time for the test. Who says that 3 hours for 114 questions is the perfect amount of time?

So I definitely support modernizing the test and making it more relevant.

But I can’t promise you that this will fix what many people consider ‘the problem’ that it results in offers to too many Asian students. Making the test better might even cause that ‘problem’ to get ‘worse.’

As I’ve said in previous posts, there seem to be just three ways to make the specialized schools less Asian. 1) Have a quota system (which I’m told is illegal), 2) Start much earlier in the pipeline with outreach and helping Latino and Black students get prepared for whatever the admissions policy is, or 3) Find a legal way to get the same results as a quota system. This third way, the so called 7% plan, will be the topic of the next post.

In case you’re getting weary, there are just three parts remaining.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 10 “What happens to high performing students who are not admitted to a specialized high school?”

I’ve been following and participating in debates about education politics for about ten years. In an oversimplified way the two ‘sides’ of the debate are the ‘public education advocates’ and the ‘corporate reformers’.

The ‘reformers’ hit a peak of popularity about ten years ago with the movie ‘Waiting For Superman’ and outspoken leaders (where are they now?) like Michelle Rhee. They promoted a narrative in which most public schools are ‘failing.’ Students are not ‘first’ because the union forces them to be ‘trapped’ in ‘dropout factories.’ Charters on the other hand are proving just how lazy the union members are because with the exact same students and teachers who are not in the union, they are getting amazing results.

The ‘advocates’ say that this is a distortion of reality. Public schools are not ‘failing’ they are under resourced. Yes, they can and should improve, but considering the lack of funds and the large class sizes that teachers have, public school teachers are heroes fighting a very difficult fight. And the supposed success of charter schools has nothing to do with the teachers not being unionized but from charters rigging the charter lotteries and forcing bad fits who might bring down their test scores back into the public schools.

But one thing I’ve noticed that most ‘reformers’ and ‘advocates’ have in common is that they are in favor of drastically changing the admissions policy for the New York City specialized high schools.

For the ‘reformers’ I can understand this point of view. A school like Stuyvesant is not a ‘failing’ school by their definition using mainly standardized test scores. And when Latino and Black students don’t get into Stuyvesant their fates are sealed as they must attend their ‘failing’ neighborhood school and from their they have a bleak future.

But for the ‘advocates’ it seems a bit hypocritical. The advocates don’t say that every school that is not a charter or a specialized high school is a ‘failing’ school in which students are ‘trapped.’ They see those schools, despite below average standardized test scores, as places with hard working teachers and students.

Now I identify with the ‘advocates’ on almost every issue so I wanted to explore a question in this post that I haven’t heard asked so much and that is really important: What happens to high performing students who are not admitted to a specialized high school?

If the answer is that they generally drop out of school, well that would be evidence to support the ‘reformer’ position that most schools are ‘failing.’ But if those students thrive in whatever school they go to and they go on to college or maybe right to a career, well, that’s another story.

In ChalkBeat there was an article titled ‘How much does attending one of these elite high schools matter? Not as much as you might think.’ where they discussed various studies that showed that, for example, students who just missed the cutoff for Brooklyn Tech (which is the lowest cutoff for the specialized schools) actually were 2% more likely to graduate from a four year college. But in general the studies support my belief that high performing students will be successful at other schools. I am not surprised by this as I’m not in the ‘reformer’ camp that most students are ‘trapped’ in ‘failing’ schools.

Most high schools, I think, have advanced offerings for their highest achieving students. So maybe they offer just one section of Calculus instead of the 20 sections that Stuyvesant offers, but for the students in the one section at the other school, they still get to learn Calculus. And if there are schools that don’t offer advanced courses for their highest achieving students, well I think they all should. If you can’t go to Stuyvesant, why can’t Stuyvesant go to you? Yes, I know that it isn’t exactly the same to be in the advanced track at your school with the same 30 students in all your classes. There is something about being with 800 advanced students that you miss.

There are 520 high schools in New York City. The hysteria about what is going to happen to the 95,000 students doomed to be ‘trapped’ in one of the other 512 ‘failing’ schools is overblown and really a relic from the propaganda film Waiting For Superman.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 9 “How many specialized high schools should there be?”

There are currently eight specialized high school in New York City. Out of the total 100,000 8th graders in the New York City school system about 25,000 take the SHSAT — the sole criteria for admissions — around 5,000 offers are given to the top scorers. 3,000 of the seats go to the original ‘big 3’ schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. The other 2,000 go to the five more recently created schools.

An idea I’ve read in various editorials is to simply open more specialized schools. They did it in the past when they opened the newer five schools and nearly doubled the available seats. So why not just open enough so that all 25,000 test takers can attend a specialized high school? Or even better, why not just make all the high schools specialized high schools so that everyone can attend one? Problem solved, right?

How many, exactly, specialized high schools should there be?

For some people, the answer is very simple. There should be no specialized high schools. The first question I posed in this series was “Should specialized high schools exist?” and there are plenty of people who say the answer is “no” so for them the right number is zero. In that first post I explained why I disagree with that, but I can definitely see the rationale. One compelling argument is that by having the top students spread out throughout the school system, every school has some of those students and those students serve to raise the level in that school. Having different ability levels mixed together can be a good thing as the more advanced learners can help the less advanced learners and everyone can benefit, including the advanced learners since it is a valuable exercise to explain what you know to someone else.

Some people have noted that the SHSAT is a contest and the the top 5,000 students get in regardless of what their scores are and that a better way would be to establish a cutoff score beforehand and if fewer than 5,000 students achieve that score, maybe one of the specialized high schools is turned back into a non-specialized high school and if more than 5,000 students achieve that score then more specialized high school would need to be created. I don’t think this is a great idea, we wouldn’t do that for the Olympics, not field a team because the best we have did not meet some low bar. We wouldn’t be able to do men’s soccer anymore. But I think this idea comes from the possibility that maybe Latino and Black students are doing very well on the SHSAT but that the Asian and White students are just doing so much better and if there was a cutoff point and it turned out the the Black and Latino students were over that cutoff then we should create as many specialized schools as would be needed. In that way, it’s kind of interesting. This is why we should have more access to the SHSAT so things like this can be researched.

But for me, I think there should be at least one. It’s like asking “Should there be a Harvard University?” True, not everyone gets to go there, but I think it is good for there to be a “best” school that people aspire too (I know I’m going to get some hate mail from Yale graduates, I’m just saying Harvard as an example. I got rejected from Harvard and went to Tufts — Go Jumbos!). Or should there be an Olympic gymnastics team? I feel like there should, but maybe there’s a downside where so many young gymnasts spend their youth trying to make it to the Olympics but the vast majority of them never will. I don’t know, it seems like even those gymnasts enhanced their lives with exercise and discipline. Should there have never been The Beatles? Maybe all of these are rhetorical and I can come up with something where the answer isn’t so cut and dry like should there be an Andover school.

So I believe there should be at least one. But New York City has five boroughs and if that one school only admits 800 students a year out of 100,000, maybe it is too low of a percent. So for a while there were three schools admitting 3% of the students and now there are eight schools admitting 5% of the students. Somewhere between 5% and 100% the perfect number lies, but what do you think it is?

I will argue against 100%. I know it might sound good to say “Let’s make all schools specialized high schools” but depending on how you define ‘specialized high schools’ maybe not all students even want to attend a school like that.

I also think that even 25% would be too many. I mentioned above about how someone opposed to any specialized schools could be concerned about ‘brain drain’ and that by taking too many of the top students away from a school, the remaining students don’t get the benefit of the energy and motivation that those students bring to the school. So having too many specialized schools could make that happen but currently with specialized schools only taking 5,000 of the students who took the SHSAT, there are still another 20,000 or 80% of the test takers who do not get an offer to the specialized schools and those students serve the role of bringing up the level in whatever school they attend.

One thing about the whole ‘make more specialized high schools’ confuses me. Is the real problem in New York City that we have too many students who are able to handle the rigor of a Stuyvesant High School? I thought the problem was that we have too many students who are not able to pass the state tests. Which one is it? Or is it both?

There is an assumption baked into the ‘make more specialized high schools’ suggestion that the Latino and Black students just missed the cutoff score so if we could create 4,000 more seats then the schools would be more diversified. But I reached out to one of the few people who actually has the data to test this. Here’s what he wrote to me:

I did a quick look at the 2013 SHSAT results. That year 5094 students were admitted, 52% Asian, 25% white, 6.4% Hispanic, 4.6% Black, 10% unknown. If the lowest admissions score were lowered from 479 to 440, 8678 students would have been admitted, 46% Asian, 25% White, 8.8% Hispanic, and 7.3% Black. The additional students would have been 1338 Asians (37%), 890 Whites (25%), 528 Hispanics (15%), 398 Black (11%)

So there is some truth to the theory but still 62% of the 4,000 new spots would go to Asian and White students.

So making new schools but keeping the same admissions policy is not going to get the demographics that mirror the demographics of the city in general. There are two ways to change this, you can change the entrance policy (I will explore this in future posts) or you can invest resources into the pipeline so that more Latino and Black students will be able to compete in whatever the process is (I argued for that in the previous post).

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 8 “What should be the demographics of specialized high schools?”

There are about 100,000 8th graders in New York City. About 25,000 of them take the SHSAT. About 5,000 of them are offered a spot in one of the eight specialized high schools, 800 at the most competitive school, where I teach, Stuyvesant High School.

In the last post I showed this graphic from ChalkBeat:

The thing that is most striking to most people is that the first and third bars are very different. Latino and Black students make up almost 70% of the 8th graders though only 10% of the specialized high school offers. At Stuyvesant there is even more of a contrast where each year we see that the number of Black students admitted is sometimes as low as 7. The demographics at Stuyvesant are about 70% Asian, 20% White, 2.6% Latino, 1.3% Black.

The phrase “70% Asian” conjures up different images in different people’s minds. ‘Asian’ can mean a lot of things. It includes students whose heritage is from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Japan, and many Middle Eastern countries. I’ve noticed over the years the percent of Middle Eastern students has risen from about 10% when I first started there to over 20%, I believe, now. I don’t have the exact numbers but according the the school newspaper:

Stuyvesant’s demographics are constantly scrutinized by the public, with particular attention paid to the fact that approximately 70 percent of the school is Asian. However, this vague statistic obfuscates the truth hiding beneath the surface: the student body is incredibly diverse, with students from more than 50 countries and every inhabited continent on the globe.

Just over half of Stuyvesant’s Asian students are ethnically Chinese; they hail from both urban and rural parts of China and speak a variety of Chinese dialects. The rest have roots in a vast array of countries including Bangladesh, India, South Korea, Vietnam, Armenia, and Indonesia.

Similar diversity is found in the approximately 20 percent of Stuyvesant students who are white. Most come from Eastern Europe, with Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish students making up the largest part of this demographic. However, there are also Stuyvesant students who are British, Albanian, Portuguese, and Swedish.

Over 80 percent of Stuyvesant students are either first-generation immigrants or have parents who are. Approximately a quarter of students live in Manhattan, a borough typically associated with higher rent and income. The greatest number live in Queens, with just over 40 percent of Stuyvesant students residing in NYC’s largest borough. However, these students are fairly dispersed, with no more than a quarter of Stuyvesant students who live in Queens occupying a single district. About a third live in Brooklyn, with a large number of these students being concentrated in District 20, which includes Bay Ridge and 86th Street. Only a fraction of students live in Staten Island, making it the borough least represented among Stuyvesant students.

Even among a population of students from the same country, there is a lot of diversity. Stuyvesant is the fourth school I’ve taught at and in the other schools, there were small numbers of Asian students and in those schools the few Asian students I had were kind of quiet so I think I formed a bit of a stereotype back then. So when I got to Stuyvesant in 2002 I was fairly young and not so aware and I remember expecting the students to be very shy. Well, that stereotype didn’t last so long. I remember telling my wife (at that time she was my girlfriend) that I was not expecting there to be Preppie Asian kids and Goth Asian kids and Asian kids who love Led Zeppelin and Asian kids with all sorts of different interests and specialties. My wife shook her head and said “Why wouldn’t you expect that?” I didn’t really have an answer, but for sure I’m no longer surprised about any skill or interest and any Asian student, or any student of any nationality for that matter, has.

Not everybody agrees that “70% Asian” is ‘a problem.’ If the SHSAT test is a fair test (debatable, see other posts) and it really tests who after 8 years of schooling is most advanced and it turns out that Asian students are the most advanced and, I’m just saying this as a concrete metric, able to read at an 11th grade level by the end of 7th grade, maybe that’s just how it is right now and it reveals the bigger problem of ‘Why aren’t so many Latino and Black students able to read at an 11th grade level by the end of 7th grade?’ Someone with that view may not be bothered if the demographics were 100% Asian. But maybe even that person would be bothered if the demographics were 100% White.

When people ask me and I tell them that Stuyvesant is 70% Asian, they usually react by saying something like “wow.” But that “wow” isn’t likely “Wow, what a great story of the triumph of a culture to manage to get so many of their kids into this competitive school.” It’s more like “Wow, that’s a big number.”

While it is true that 54% of the students who get offers to the specialized schools are Asian, that is about 2,700 Asian students. This represents about 15% of the 17,000 Asian students in 8th grade. It also represents about 30% of the 9,000 Asian students who took the SHSAT. So most Asian students in New York City do not go to Stuyvesant or any of the specialized high schools.

So, to the “wow”ers, I wonder, “What number would not make you say ‘wow’?”

In other words, and this is something I want you, dear reader, to ponder for a moment, what do you think the ‘right’ proportions should be for the specialized high schools in general and for the top school, Stuyvesant High School, in particular?

You might say that anything other than 42% Latino, 26% Black, 17% Asian, 24% White so that it would mirror the population as a whole is discriminatory. So for that person anything more than 17% Asian would make them say “wow” maybe. Or maybe they are willing to give a little margin of error so if it was 25% Asian, even though Asians make up just 17% of the population as a whole, it’s still in the ballpark so that would be OK with them. What about 26%? Or 27%? Where do you hit the point where it becomes too many Asians?

Phrasing it as “Too many Asian students” maybe makes it sound worse than it is. How about instead “Not enough Black students.” We can do the same thing, currently only 1.3% of the Stuyvesant offers are to Black students. This is a lot lower than the 18% of the students taking the test or the 26% of the students in the 8th grade population. Must the number be 26% to be fair? Or should it be compared to the test takers so that it should be 18%? Or maybe you are OK if it is just 15%? What about 14%? Where do you hit the point where it becomes enough Black students?

Don’t expect me to answer the question. This is for you since if the policy is to change then the new policy will be judged if it made the demographics closer to your ideal numbers. But everyone has different ideal numbers, I just want you to think about what you think the ideal numbers are, in your opinion.

I can see someone saying “I don’t know what the ideal numbers, but I’m sure it’s more than 7 Black kids” and I would agree with them on that.

One idea is to have quotas. So someone makes up some idealized number like the percent of students of a certain ethnicity cannot be less than half the percent in the general population. So if 26% of the 8th graders are Black, then 13% of the seats are set aside for them. There are complications like what if someone is mixed race, but for now let’s not focus on those details. So at Stuy there would be about 100 spots set aside for the top scoring Black students. Surely there are 100 Black students who can thrive at Stuyvesant. Maybe they would need to catch up a bit. Maybe Stuyvesant could assign a little less homework to everyone and it could become a place where everyone has a little less stress. The long term benefit of this idea is that if those 100 students are successful, then those students can go speak at their middle schools and tell the kids there “Stuyvesant is a great place. You should try to go there.” and now the students in those middle schools are excited about Stuyvesant and they want to prepare for the entrance exam or whatever else is involved in applying and maybe after some years you find that you don’t even need to put seats aside anymore because you are getting 100 Black students admitted even without it.

Well, it has been pointed out to me, that having quotas like that is illegal. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know that they are illegal, but let’s say they are for now. So you try to come up with some other way of getting 100 Black students to Stuyvesant without using quotas. Maybe you find the 200 top performing Black students after 5th grade and you invest a few hundred thousand into a free test prep academy. I know this might seem like an unnecessary use of money but if it works and stays within the law, maybe it is a good idea.

There is a middle school in the Bronx, I don’t want to say which one, that had between 1995 and 2005 exactly one student get into a specialized high school. She got into Brooklyn Tech and graduated from there around 2004. The reason I know this is because I personally tutored her for the math section. A friend of mine was the principal there and he had an idea to run an SHSAT prep course for the top 7th graders. So he hired me and one of his teachers to do the summer course. I think we did four days a week, 6 hours a day, for about 4 weeks. There were around 30 students in the class, we split it up 15 for math and 15 for reading and then swapped in the middle. For some of the kids, it was too intensive. When the course was done I expected a few of them to make it. Only one did but that one was, as I mentioned, the only one in a ten year period.

So I do think it would help increase the number of Latino and Black students if we could have them take an intensive course to help them score better on the SHSAT. I know that there have been some efforts to do this in the past, but it has to be done right for it to work.

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 7 “Is The SHSAT Biased?”

Out of the around 100,000 8th graders in New York City, 25,000 of them take the SHSAT. Of the 25,000 test takers, about 5,000 get offers to one of the eight specialized high schools.

The demographic breakdown of New York City schools is around 40% Latino, 25% Black, 20% Asian, and 15% White. The demographic breakdown of students who get offers to the specialized high schools is 5% Latino, 4% Black, 54% Asian, and 28% White.

For most people, these are the numbers they know about and they conclude that the SHSAT must somehow favor Asians. I want to explore this since if there is some kind of bias in the test that puts one ethnic group at a disadvantage then this needs to be fixed. The two ways to fix this is to either change the exam to remove the source of the bias or to introduce other components of the admissions policy that somehow balance out the bias. That way the biased test becomes one component but other components like an interview or an essay might somehow be biased in a way that counteracts the bias of the test.

Ideally though, if the test is biased, the best remedy is to fix the test.

One piece of data that is relevant, though not well known, is that the demographics of the students who take the test is not the same as the demographics of the overall system. Chalkbeat made this useful graphic to show this:

So Asian students do comprise the majority of test takers so it is not so surprising that they are also the majority of students who get offers. But something that is bothersome is that it seems like if the test is fair then the demographics for the offers would be more in line with the demographics of the test takers. Also we would like to see the demographics of the test takers to be more in line with the demographics of the 8th grader population. Basically, critics of the specialized high school process would be content if all three of these pie chart like graphs were the same.

One question I think about is why do the test takers have a different demographic breakdown than the overall population? One possibility is that there has not been enough outreach to Latino and Black families to let them know that there are specialized high schools and that you have to sign up for the test which takes place on a weekend and in an inconvenient place. If this is the reason that Latino and Black students are not taking the test then there does need to be a campaign to let them know about this opportunity. Maybe the schools can get involved in making videos but it should not be just on the schools. There are NYC DOE administrators making a lot of money and this is something that they should be doing as part of their jobs.

One of the issues that happened is that there is a chicken and the egg sort of thing where maybe Latino and Black students don’t really want to go to a school that has so few Latino and Black students. So they don’t even try to get in and then the schools have even fewer Latino and Black students and you get into a vicious cycle where you end up with just 7 Black students admitted to Stuyvesant some years.

Something I have heard, though I don’t know if the source is reliable, is that many of the Latino and Black students who would have the best chance of getting into a specialized high school are given scholarships to private schools and that they are going there instead. Another thing that I know is happening though I can’t tell you how much of a difference it is making is that some charter schools discourage their best Latino and Black students from going to specialized high schools because they want those students to go to their high schools and bring up those high school’s test scores and college acceptance rates. I do know that this happens to some extent, and it could explain why the test taker demographic does not match the 8th grade pool demographics.

One suggestion I have heard is to have every 8th grader take the SHSAT. They would take it at their school during a school day, is how the argument goes. I can definitely see the benefit of doing it this way. I think the argument against it is that this comes at a great cost. It currently costs, I’ve heard, $8 million to administer the SHSAT the way they do it now. If you have the entire city take the test and you factor in the cost of losing a day of school for the 8th graders, depending on how you quantify that, maybe it comes at a cost of $50 million and maybe that is too much money, especially if it won’t change the demographics of the offers by very much.

There are different ways that a test can be biased. If, for example, the test had a section on Mandarin vocabulary, that would be a clear bias, but that is not what we see when we look at the SHSAT. It’s got 114 mostly multiple choice questions on reading and on math. It certainly doesn’t look biased at a superficial level.

A question to think about is: Does the fact that the demographics for the offers differs so much from the demographics of the test takers mean that there must be a bias? To that, I would say that it depends on the situation. Like for the gifted and talented test that the city gives (I think they stopped for at least a year) to four year olds, for sure the demographics of the offers should match the demographics of the test takers. If the gifted and talented test truly tests what it supposed to and not just how expansive was the day care you went to, then if the numbers did not match up, it would indicate a clear bias (and in NYC I know the numbers don’t match up but there are also other factors at play like is there a school with a G&T program in your neighborhood). I feel confident, even with the other factors, there was an unfair bias in the G&T test for four year olds.

But for older kids taking the SHSAT, if the test is checking to see who is two years accelerated by 8th grade then I do think it is possible for the test to not be biased while also not getting a demographic composition mirroring the whole population.

Is the sport of soccer biased because the United States men’s team never does well in the World Cup? In theory we should win 10% of the World Cups but we don’t. Even though the US has way more people than many of the small countries it plays against we are not competitive. But if the purpose of soccer is to score the most goals, and maybe there could be some other things that are important besides scoring goals but right now that’s how the game is played, then I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue that soccer is somehow a biased game because the United States isn’t as good at it as some other countries.

So the demographics of the different ethnic groups doesn’t, for me, indicate that there must be a bias in the test. But there IS a different way of looking at the demographics that reveals that there definitely is a bias, and that is the male/female demographics of the test takers vs. the offers. In 2018 while 51% of the test takers were girls only 44% of the offers went to girls. This was reported in The Daily News back then but it has not gotten enough attention I think.

There are certain contests where men and women don’t compete against each other. They do not race against each other in swimming or play tennis or basketball against each other. Those sports are biased in favor of men because the men are more muscular. But there are plenty of contests that women are better than men at and there are many in which there is no bias. So men and women athletes don’t compete against each other to get into college sports. Maybe some of of the games could be changed so there wouldn’t be a bias like in basketball maybe if you got points for accurate passing or for setting a perfect pick, maybe the men and women could compete against each other fairly.

But when it comes to math and reading, if the test for them is fair, the test taker male/female split should math the offers male/female split. And this reveals a bias in the test. Maybe that bias could be removed by just giving everyone an extra 30 minutes on the test. Perhaps the boys like to do the math in their heads and it saves them a few seconds here and there which add up. Maybe there should be a writing component on the SHSAT and the girls would excel in that more than the boys and the bias would balance out. And maybe removing the male/female bias that is certainly on the SHSAT would also help the racial group balance issue. But maybe it wouldn’t fix the racial group balance issue.

Now we should be able to change the test a little so that there wouldn’t be this issue with girls being underrepresented in the specialized high schools. But the other alternative would be to not have the boys compete against the girls. So 50% of the spots would go to the top scoring boys and 50% would go to the top scoring girls and this would be a way of acknowledging the bias that currently exits in the exam and I would have no problem with this just as I have no problem with there being men’s tennis and women’s tennis.

But can this same logic be used to change the ethnic demographics of the school. I have seen it proposed that we should reserve 40% of the spots for the top scoring Latino students and 25% of the spots for the top scoring Black students and 20% for the top scoring Asian students and 15% for the top scoring White students. But I don’t think this is fair the way I think it would be for the boy/girl issue.

The boy/girl issue stems from a bias in the exam — I think it would be fixed by giving all students more time or by adding a written essay to the test but if you’re not going to change the test the only way to fix it is to have the boys not compete directly with the girls.

I am open to the possibility that there is some bias in the test that serves as a disadvantage to Latino and Black students. I don’t know why there hasn’t been a serious study of this. One way to do this would be to collect the scrap work of all the students, at least for the math part, and you could see more clearly what happened, like were Latino and Black students running out of time? Were they not aware of some short cuts that students who have done test prep would be aware of? Perhaps the test can be modified to make it less biased, maybe you get rid of some of the questions that are most susceptible to test prep. And I do think we should find if there is bias in the test and if there is, it should be fixed.

But just having the different ethnic groups compete against each other does not seem right to me. It’s like in Baseball if you said that because the Dominican Republic has only 10 million people, there can only be 25 major league baseball players from the Dominican Republic rather than the 80 that there currently are. If I thought that there was a significant bias toward Asians on the SHSAT, and you might disagree with me and think that there is, then I might support a quota system where 40% of the offers go to Latino students, 25% go to Black students, 20% fo to Asian students, and 15% go to White students. I’m just not convinced that the issue is that the test is biased in this way until I see more proof of it.

The other way to try to compensate for possible bias in the test is to add other components to the admissions policy. But I don’t think you would get the 40/25/20/15 mix that you might want even with the other components since the students who do well on the SHSAT would likely do well on the other components and if the SHSAT is any significant percent, let’s say more than 25%, then that is going to become the deciding factor anyway.

Many people want to do away with the SHSAT altogether and I can see how that might seem to solve ‘the problem’ depending on what you think ‘the problem’ is.

In another post I’ll examine some of the proposed alternatives, including a way that they just implemented in Boston a few days ago, and think about the pros and cons associated with those plans.

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My Long Lost Book On Teaching ‘Beyond Survival’ — Found And Available As An eBook For $0.99!

The first book I wrote, ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian‘, was published in 1999 and it is still in print. That book was mainly a memoir about my rough first year and some advice about classroom management mixed in with it.

In 2008 McGraw-Hill invited me to write a guidebook for new teachers which would include things like how to plan lessons and how to ask questions in class and things like that. I’m a much better writer than I am a business person so I agreed to write that book for a $1,500 advance assuming that this is McGraw-Hill and the book is going to make a lot of money. So I wrote the book which I called ‘Beyond Survival.’ It took about 18 months to write that book and six of those months were the first six months of my daughter’s life which meant that any time I was writing was time that I wasn’t spending with my newborn or helping my wife. But the book came out very well I thought and I submitted it to McGraw-Hill and felt that maybe it would help pay for college for my daughter one day.

When I got a copy of the book in the mail I was kind of concerned. They made it was a tiny font and no line spacings so the entire book was only about 150 pages. And to make matters worse the price of the book was $40. So I got a bad feeling and that feeling was correct because the book only sold a few hundred copies and it never even made back the advance so I only made the $1,500 for the eighteen months of work.

More valuable than money, though, is helping people (right?) and I was happy to see that some of the exclusive group that actually got that book really liked it.

About five years ago the book basically went out of print and McGraw-Hill said I can have the rights back so I thought maybe one day I’d re-publish but then I forgot about it.

Well, a few days ago I got the idea to dig up the file, update a few things, cut a little, add a little, and then upload it to the kindle store as an e-book.

When you make an e-book you can set the price. If you want to get 70% of the profits, the lowest price you can make your book is $2.99. If you are OK with just getting 35% of the profits you can make the book $0.99.

So I figured since I haven’t seen any money since the initial advance check thirteen years ago, why don’t I just put it up for $0.99 and maybe people will buy it and maybe it will help some teachers.

If you want to get it on Amazon, click here.

See the reviews from the out-of-print version here.

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The Don’ts And Don’ts Of Teaching

In 2011 I was invited by ASCD to adapt a chapter from my second book ‘Beyond Survival’ and make an article for their new teacher issue. I noticed that the link to that article is no longer working so I’m posting the article here. I hope this advice helps some new teachers avoid making some of the mistakes that made my first year so difficult.

The Don’ts And Don’ts Of Teaching

One piece of advice that I’ve seen in numerous books about teaching is to always phrase
classroom rules positively. Instead of phrasing a rule as “no talking,” for instance,
teachers should phrase it as “talk in turn.” The theory is that when students are told not to
do one thing without being told what they should do instead, they may not know their
options. Proponents also argue that phrasing rules in the positive is less confrontational;
rebellious students will be less apt to break a positively stated procedure than a
negatively worded rule.

I don’t buy this. For new teachers, especially, classroom rules need to be rules, and a rule
should be stated in the clearest way possible. Many of the most important rules adults
have to abide by are written in the negative: No parking. No dogs allowed. Do not disturb.
Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. Thou shalt not kill.

The same books that suggest this positive approach to rule making often take a similar
approach to the rules they suggest new teachers should abide by. But just as it’s wrong to
be too subtle when instructing children, it’s wrong to be too subtle when instructing new
teachers. I was taught the essentials of teaching in this indecisive way. As a new teacher,
my classroom performance suffered partly because of this lack of clarity. I was told that
there are many correct ways to do something. Although this is true, there are also many
wrong ways to do something. Rookie teachers, who struggle to sort out right ways from
wrong, would be better served by a clear list of behaviors to actively avoid.
I made all the mistakes I describe here in my first year of teaching. As nobody clearly
warned me about these mistakes, I had to learn for myself through trial and error.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized that I’d made these blunders, I’d already lost my
students’ respect. It was too late to convince them that I knew what I was doing.
It’s a lot more efficient to learn a few mistakes that you should avoid than to learn all the
things you should do right. When I compare my awful first year with my very successful
second year, the main difference was not so much what I did as what I didn’t do.

Don’t try to teach too much in one day.
This is an easy mistake to make because it’s intertwined with another rule for new
teachers: Have high expectations. Of course teachers should always expect students to
do their best. But the oversold exhortation to “have high expectations” needs further
explanation. If it were only that easy, every teacher would be hugely successful.
New teachers, particularly those without extensive student teaching, take this advice too
literally and create lessons that are too difficult, too long, or developmentally
inappropriate. Even as a veteran teacher, I still often attempt to do too much in one day. It
comes from my desire to not bore students by doing too little.
But the risks of overpacking a class period are too high; better to split a lesson originally
planned for one lesson into a two-lesson affair. If you rush your lesson, it might not be
received well by students. Then you’ll have to spend the next day reteaching.

Don’t teach a lesson without a student activity.
One problem new teachers have is that they think they need to plan each lesson
“chronologically.” First they plan their opening exercises, then their direct instruction and
classroom discussion questions, and, finally, their activity. The problem is that they
frequently spend so much time thinking about all the great things they’re going to say in
their direct lesson that they use up their planning time—or fall asleep—before creating the
most important, most time-consuming, component. I advise new teachers to always plan
their activity first, even if it’s the last thing that will occur. We can wing direct instruction
and discussion if necessary but not a thoughtful learning activity.
When a lesson has no activity, students get restless and tune out. I find I’m more
enthusiastic and efficient with direct instruction when I know I have a great activity coming
right after my instruction.

Don’t send kids to the office.
No matter how many times a principal says, “just send them to me,” it’s not a good idea.
When you send kids out, it soon becomes the only thing they’ll respond to. So you might be
thinking now, “what should I do when students are misbehaving?” I have no pat answers
about the complex question of how to handle challenging behaviour but I do know that if you
avoid the mistakes I mention here, you won’t have as many discipline problems.
Unfortunately, if you do make these mistakes, anything you try to do to fix your discipline
problems will be as ineffective as sending kids to the office.

Don’t allow students to shout out answers.
Watch any current movie about a transformational teacher and you’ll notice the lively
discussions that go on in her class. These scenarios could make a novice teacher feel that in
a well-run classroom students don’t need to raise their hands to make comments. But novice
teachers need to know that it takes a fictional teacher-hero or heroine to get away with letting
students call out. Other students in the class often zone out when they know there’s no
chance that the teacher will call on them, so what feels like a class buzzing with discussion is
really just a few kids speaking up while the rest pretend to listen. Instead, expert teachers
pose thoughtful questions, wait for plenty of hands to go up, and then call on a volunteer—or
even a non-volunteer.

Don’t make tests too hard.
Although teachers use tests to gauge how well students are learning, students often use a
test to gauge how well the teacher is teaching. If you accidentally—or purposely—make a
test too hard, neither thing will be accurately measured. You might realize that the students
underperformed on your too-difficult test, but students might just assume that you didn’t teach
well. This will make them less enthusiastic about learning from you.

Don’t be indecisive.
Although this could certainly be phrased more positively (“be decisive”), I phrased it this way
to emphasize that teachers must actively avoid indecisive behaviour. When a student asks a
question like, “Can I do my test in red ink?” you have three seconds to pause, consider and
answer yes or no. There is no wrong answer, only a wrong way of saying it. If you conclude
you’ve made a bad decision, it’s possible to reverse it the next day. Even your reversal must
be done decisively: “I thought that, but now I think this. Let’s move on.”

Don’t tell a student you’re calling home.
When you’ve decided, in your mind, that you’ve had enough, keep that information to
yourself. When you warn a student you’re calling home, that student often increases his
misbehavior because he wants his classmates to think that he doesn’t care, even if he does.
Also, if you warn a student, she will get a chance to intercept your call, warn her parent or
distort the facts. Finally, you’ll look like someone who can’t follow through on a threat if, for
whatever reason, you are unable to reach the parent that evening.

Don’t try to be a buddy.
Another mistake we learn from inspirational movies is that to get through to certain kids,
you’ve got to be their buddy. This is a common new teacher mistake.

Don’t dress too casually.
New teachers often intentionally dress so that they don’t look like the typical teacher,
believing that a traditional looking teacher will have trouble reaching certain kids. A new
teacher with a casual personal style outside of school may genuinely believe, “If I’m not
myself, these kids will pick up on it immediately.” I disagree. If you look like a teacher, they
will treat you like a teacher. Not appearing like a professional is way too big a risk.

Don’t babble.
New teachers are usually nervous and nervous people often babble. The more words you
say, the less value each word has. I once heard that teachers get to say about 10000 words
before the students stop listening and that new teachers use up their words in the first week.
Choose your words carefully.

Fewer Mistakes = More Learning

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Questions about the specialized high school admissions process from a specialized high school teacher. Part 6 “Is It Cheating To Prep For The SHSAT?”

Though he died before I was born, I’ve heard many stories about my father’s uncle — my great uncle Moe. One of these stories was about how uncle Moe worked at the carnival and how despite being a small man, he had mastered the ‘strength test’ game (officially called ‘high striker’) where you get a mallet and hammer down on a lever that launches a piece of metal up a pole and rings a bell if it gets to the top. But it wasn’t because uncle Moe was strong, it was that he knew the ‘trick’ to the game and knew how to use leverage instead of strength. In essence, uncle Moe cheated the game.

Since there is a cheat to the high striker game, this is not something that we would want to use to determine who should represent the United States in the weightlifting events in the Olympics.

Admissions to the New York City specialized high schools is based currently on a single test, the SHSAT, a three hour 114 question multiple choice test on reading and math. Some people think that this test is not a good proxy for what it is trying to test. Like the high striker game at the carnival, the argument is that you can learn the tricks of how to beat the SHSAT even though it is just an illusion like uncle Moe’s supposed strength. Personally I think that the SHSAT is not an irrelevant test though it is a narrow test and in the previous post I made an analogy that it is like having track and field athletes compete to be in the Olympics but making everyone run a quarter mile even though for some athletes that does not showcase their talent and for those athletes they are going to have to prepare for this event even though it is not their specialty.

Regardless of your feelings about this particular test, I would think that most people agree that it is reasonable for there to be some process for applying to these schools. Even if you think there should be something more holistic like an interview or writing an essay or a portfolio, it makes sense for there to be something you should do to demonstrate that you are going to be able to handle the intense workload at these schools. And even those holistic things would take some time. If you have to write an essay, that’s surely going to take a few hours. If you have an interview you are going to have to get to the interview site and you’ll want to leave home nice and early in case there is a subway delay. And if for whatever reason you’re not able to put some hours into the application process, you’re probably going to struggle to do five hours of homework every night for four years.

And some applicants might put more time into the application process than others. So if there was an essay, how long should that essay take? Surely you can crank out an essay in 30 minutes but your essay would be better if you spent 30 hours on it over a course of three months. Maybe someone spends 300 hours on their essay. Is their essay going to be so much better than the essay of the student who spent 30 hours on it? After a certain amount of time, you probably have ‘diminishing returns’ on your time. But still, maybe someone who is able to dedicate 300 hours to their essay is someone who is going to be more successful in the specialized school than the student who does the minimum 30 minutes.

Using the essay analogy, there are some practices that would certainly qualify as cheating. Paying a professional to write the essay for you would be an example of this. But if a student spends 30 hours or even 300 hours, is that cheating? You might say that it is kind of unfair since for whatever reason it might be impossible for the 30 hour student to have done 300 hours and you might even say that for the student who was only able to spend 30 minutes on the essay, that student was at a disadvantage, how can they compete with another student who spent 300 hours on it?

The city puts out a booklet each year that has two sample SHSAT tests and detailed answers. Though the test changes format from time to time, you can go back and see previous year’s sample tests online and you can get about eight decent practice tests that way. There are also a few guidebooks you can get for about $20 each that have some practice tests and drills.

Now you don’t have to do any preparation for the SHSAT. You can walk in ‘cold’ and take the test and I’ve heard legends about students who have done this and have aced the test. And somehow it feels like the student who got a high score on the SHSAT is more deserving of getting a place at one of the specialized high schools than someone who got the same score but who took the time to practice before taking the test. I can appreciate that though I also feel that I’d be a little concerned about a student’s level of motivation who didn’t at least take a glance at what is going to be on the test before taking it. Knowing that it is worthwhile to prepare for something is an important skill that will certainly come in handy at Stuyvesant where you have to take several exams a week in your different classes.

In some ways the SHSAT tests whether or not you prepared for the SHSAT and maybe that’s not a bad thing. As a teacher at Stuyvesant I have found that my students are good at putting in the work and preparing for the exams that I give.

Just as there are legends about the students who came in with no preparation and aced the SHSAT there are also legends about the students who started prepping for the SHSAT in 2nd grade. Those students, we hear, go to SHSAT preparation all day on the weekends. Those students, we hear, don’t go to camp over the summer. They spend their summers also preparing for the SHSAT. And when we imagine this student who prepares for the SHSAT for thousands of hours over a period of six years, we don’t imagine a wealthy white student who is surely going to an expensive camp where they play sports nor do we imagine a poor Black student who is going to a less expensive camp or maybe no camp at all. No, what we imagine is a poor Asian student whose parents are maybe first generation immigrants who only speak a little English. And we imagine that they send their kids to the prep schools in Flushing and even though those schools aren’t charging so much per hour, the hours add up and they end up spending a year’s income over the course of the six years.

What is your reaction to this picture? Is it cheating to prepare excessively for the SHSAT?

At the Olympics do we look at the gymnasts and say, “Well they don’t deserve to be on the team, they took lessons”? No, we celebrate their commitment. Do we suggest that the parents of those gymnasts are somehow abusive that they supported their child to take the gymnastic lessons and to get up at 4 A.M. everyday to practice in the morning before school? I suppose some people probably do, but most people in the country are proud of the gymnasts.

But another issue, and this is something that we see in sports also, some ethnic groups don’t have the opportunity to do the same type of preparation as other ethnic groups and consequentially, there is underrepresentation of those groups at the highest level of those sports. Tennis is one that comes to mind but most sports do require a family to have the means to commit a lot of money and a lot of time that not all families are able to match.

Becoming an Olympic gymnast pretty much requires that you move your family near one of the elite training centers and dedicating an incredible amount of resources with money, time, and energy and that is unfair that not every family can do that so we don’t have true equity in gymnastics that way.

But does this Olympic analogy mirror the SHSAT situation?

To answer this, you first have to answer the question: “How many hours of test prep is sufficient to prepare for the SHSAT?” If the answer is 3000, well that will definitely leave out a lot of students. If the answer is 300, it will leave out fewer students. Though this is a question that people might have different opinions of, I think the answer is closer to 300 than to 3000. I know that there are supposedly Asian families where the kids do nothing but test prep every weekend and every day over the summer (and I don’t know if this is true, but it is something I hear people say when they are trying to characterize a family they consider to be cheating by doing more test prep than should be allowed). But there does become a point of diminishing returns where if someone is really doing 3000 hours of prep, most of those hours are not actually leading to a higher score.

Now I have not done research to back this up scientifically, but I think that 100 hours is sufficient preparation for a student who is already good at math and reading to get acquainted with the types of questions the student will expect to see on the SHSAT. They should take about 10 timed practice tests for three hours each and they should go over the solutions that are given in the booklets they can download from the city or in one of those prep books.

Yes, there are high priced courses that some students use but it is my opinion that those high priced courses are overrated. A student who doesn’t have the ability to self study for the test is often a student who isn’t going to get so much out of the course since the course doesn’t do the hard work for you and just taking a course doesn’t magically make you better at the SHSAT if you don’t do the homework seriously and really learn from the mistakes you make. It’s not like the courses give you a magic pill that you passively take. And it’s not like they just teach test taking tricks — much of it is just practicing fundamental skills.

If it were as easy as just paying for some lessons, my daughter should have been able to play the piano after five years of lessons but instead we had to call it quits after five years. She had no interest in practicing and when we would ‘make’ her practice she wasn’t getting much benefit from the practicing because her heart was not in it.

I know there are a lot of analogies here and maybe not all of them resonate with every reader, but here’s another. Suppose you want to lose 20 pounds and you can do it by getting liposuction or by changing your diet and going on an exercise regimen. Of course the diet and exercise is better and not a cheat in any way. Plus you are more likely to keep the weight off if you develop good eating and exercise habits. I see the prep courses more like diet and exercise and not like the liposuction. If it were a passive liposuction thing I think we would see most of Stuyvesant populated with the kids of wealthier families.

I’ve heard people suggest that we should just outlaw test prep. That way everyone is taking the SHSAT on an even playing field. The assumption is that we see Asian students taking most of the seats at the specialized high schools and that Asian families, as far as we know, send their kids to what we’re calling ‘test prep’ though of course these prep schools would still exist even if the SHSAT was scrapped and replaced with GPA since those schools certainly help boost GPAs. Even if you get rid of specialized high schools altogether these ‘test prep’ schools would continue to exist and Asian families would continue attending them. The country is about 6% Asian though 22% of medical school graduates are Asian so it can’t all be because of the tiny fraction of students from the five boroughs of New York City.

If ‘test prep’ were rebranded as ‘enrichment’ or ‘reinforcement of skills’ the idea of outlawing it would be crazy, it would be like outlawing eating healthy or outlawing exercise. So whatever negative reactions you have to the term ‘test prep’ I hope this gives you something to at least consider. An expression I often see with regard to test prep is that it is like an ‘arms race’ where the test prep is associated with something as destructive as nuclear weapons.

At this point maybe you’re thinking “OK, I get it. So maybe I was a little judgmental in how I thought about poor Asians and the test prep they do that helps them on the SHSAT.” Do you still have strong feelings though about rich white kids doing test prep for the SHSAT. Maybe instead of doing thousands of hours in a school in flushing with a group of students they do private tutoring at $200 an hour. They work for less hours but ultimately spend maybe the same amount of money. Maybe you’re OK with that because rich white students aren’t the ‘problem’ with the specialized high schools as white students make up about 20% of the Stuyvesant class and many of those white students are not wealthy they are second generation immigrants whose parents speak Russian as a first language, for example. So the rich white people even with their ability to pay for the most expensive test prep aren’t a large fraction of students. (Yes, you may be thinking that those families instead send their kids to a $50K a year private school, which may be true but I don’t want to get too far away from the point I’m trying to make here.)

So the issue is really about who gets the opportunity to the test prep. In Queens there are a lot of the test prep schools (sometimes called ‘cram schools’ unfortunately) while there aren’t many in Brooklyn or The Bronx. These schools are private businesses and people choose to open businesses where they believe they can make a profit so there is no way to expect someone to just open prep schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods just because that would give Black students more of an opportunity to get the test prep. It is definitely tricky but I’ve heard the suggestion before that we should offer test prep in neighborhoods where there are more Black students and I’m inclined to agree with that. I know that when you use the ‘arms race’ analogy where the only winning move, to quote War Games, is not to play, then you might think it would be better to have no test prep at all and then you would get the same results but everyone would save money. But that’s never going to happen. Especially, as I have argued, the test prep prepares the students for more than just the SHSAT. I think the city should invest money into creating free test prep opportunities in places where there are not many convenient options. I also think that the city should release the SHSAT after it is given so that everyone can have access to the most relevant test prep materials and that if Pearson is reusing the questions at all (and I’m not sure if they are but I suspect they are) they would be forced to stop doing that. If the reusing of questions is giving some students an unfair advantage (again, I don’t know that this is happening but if they would release tests it definitely would not be) then that advantage would no longer be a factor.

Now of course this all depends on whether or not the SHSAT is truly a good test and not one that is not biased in some way and that is something I’ll explore in another post.

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