Of course Stuyvesant is hard. Like climbing Mount Everest is hard. Like training to be an Olympic gymnast is hard.
Back when I started there 20 years ago nobody questioned if Stuyvesant had to be this demanding. The old principal, Stanley Tietel, used to tell the incoming freshman class “Sleep, grades, and social life. You can’t have all three, you have to pick two.”
Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about this among the teachers, the guidance counselors, the administration, the parents, and the students. The old principal’s ‘joke’ about picking two out of three is no longer something we tell incoming freshmen. But Stuyvesant struggles to find the balance between pushing students to the next level without crushing them.
There are some things that the school has put in place to reduce some of the pressure like, for example, there is a testing day for each department so there is no chance that a student will have to prepare for five tests on the same day. But we are always talking about what more can we do. The goal is to balance the ‘rigor’ that everyone is expecting of us with the need to be supportive of students social emotional needs. It isn’t easy.
One problem is that we have this ten period day and while it would be best for students to have two or three ‘free periods’ each day, some students want to take as many classes as they can. Maybe they are pressured by their parents and maybe they are pressured to keep up with each other like in a nuclear arms race, but it is common for students to take nine classes and I’ve even heard of some taking ten classes where they eat lunch during one class. There are students who take something like 10 AP classes before they graduate.
In math almost all the students come in having already taken the 9th grade Algebra course. So our goal in the math department is to get as many students as possible into an AP Calculus course by 12th grade and to get a 5 (out of 5) on the AP test. Other departments have similarly ambitious goals. In the literature classes I think they read a book every two weeks. In one of my first years at Stuyvesant I sat in on the ‘great books’ course and I had to read about 50 pages a night with for me was a challenge (note: I’m not saying that every English class assigns 50 pages of reading a night, just that the senior level ‘great books’ course that I sat in on did). Stuyvesant students must be fast readers. The other subjects are demanding as well. They do a lot of writing in their social studies classes. For the foreign languages there are advanced courses in all the languages. I try to give a reasonable amount of homework, maybe 30 minutes a night. But if everyone gives 30 minutes a night, a student could have four or five hours of homework. Plus when they have a test, which in some classes is every other week, they have to study for as long as they think they need, which could be several hours. Maybe the thing that students who are successful at Stuyvesant have in common is that they have the ability to do five hours of homework in just three hours.
There are about 800 students in each grade at Stuyvesant. The SHSAT test determines which 800 students come to Stuyvesant and the fact that those students can handle the workload is something worth analyzing. In the last post I said that there is a correlation between SHSAT and success at a specialized school. How is it that this multiple choice test based on math and reading can get us 800 students who can also master social studies, science, and all the other subjects? I think the correlation comes from the fact that success on the SHSAT is related to not just the three hours when they are taking the test but all the time it took to prepare for the test. I’ll cover test prep in a future post, but for now I just want to say that a student that is able to spend so much time preparing for a test, whatever has enabled them to do the long term planning to prepare for the test, well that same thing helps them throughout their time at Stuyvesant.
It’s not a total coincidence that the students we have are successful at Stuyvesant. Over the years there has been a feedback loop where the students have, in a sense, trained the teachers to offer the type of course that is compatible with their skill sets. So the SHSAT requires reading quickly and maybe long ago they would read 15 books a year (note: this number of books a year number is just hypothetical) but the students were finding it too easy — everyone was getting a 100 average. So the next year the teacher covers 16 books and in doing so we get to an equilibrium. They don’t try to teach 30 books a year, it’s too much. So in a sense it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy that the students we have do well with the curriculum we have. It has been incrementally tailored to them and their strengths over the years.
But are the 800 students who get admitted to the 9th grade class each year the only 800 students who could do well at Stuyvesant? No. Surely there are others. Maybe there are 800 completely different students who could be successful. Maybe there are thousands. Keep in mind there are about 100,000 8th graders and 5,000 do well enough on the SHSAT to get into some specialized school. There are 75,000 students who don’t even take the SHSAT, maybe some of them would do well at Stuyvesant.
If the admissions policy were changed significantly so that none of the 800 students from the currently policy made it in under the new policy, an important, though controversial, question that would need to get asked and answered is: Would Stuyvesant need to reduce its ‘rigor’ for this other group of students? Because I’ve read so many people arguing either side of this I really want to explore this question here.
As a teacher you have a limited amount of time. In a regular year there are 180 days and periods are about 45 minutes long. No matter how much content you cover, you could always have covered more if you went a little faster. But as a teacher you try to teach at a speed that is not too fast or too slow. A teacher might have an ambitious plan and then find out that he or she is trying to teach too fast and the students are struggling with the speed. When this happens the responsible thing for the teacher to do is to slow down. Maybe someone who isn’t a teacher will read this and think “Slow down? That’s lazy. Why not just teach better?” To me this gets to the essence of what the job of a teacher is. The teacher’s job is to make learning a fulfilling experience. It isn’t a race to cover every topic in the textbook. So if you have the choice between covering 35 topics well or 40 topics poorly the competent teacher should choose to do the 35 topics well. I know that that’s what I would want the teachers of my own children to do.
When Stuyvesant switched to full remote teaching for the 2020-2021 school year we created a block schedule where classes met every other day but instead of 41 minute periods we had 55 minute periods. Since 41*180 is a lot greater than 55*90, this meant the precalculus teacher team I’m on had to make a decision. Should we try to cram the entire curriculum into the shorter time frame or should we strategically eliminate some topics from the course so we can teach the remaining topics in a meaningful way. We chose to eliminate some topics. I did not see this as us somehow lowering our standards. Given the new constraints on time (the block schedule was implemented mainly as a way to reduce student stress during this pandemic year) this was what we determined to be the best plan.
In the math department our current goal of getting students to get a 5 on the AP Calculus test by the end of their senior year definitely depends on the students coming in having already taken ninth grade math. And for some other subject like English where maybe they currently read maybe 20 books in a year (note: again, hypothetical based on a senior literature class I sat in on for a month. 9th grade English classes have more writing projects and less reading, but the books per year is just a metric that I’m using to make it easier to quantify the ‘rigor’ level), it depends on how quickly the incoming students can read and comprehend.
If a new admissions policy creates an incoming class where the students had not already taken 9th grade Algebra, well, then we would have to decide to either 1) teach everyone five years of math in the four year time span so they can take the AP Calculus test in 12th grade or 2) teach everyone four years of math, Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus. Maybe some students would be able to take two courses simultaneously, but that would also then require hiring a lot more math teachers and even if we could, would that be a good idea? Why is it so bad if students only make it to precalculus as long as they get a meaningful experience in their four years of math.
You still might be thinking “What a cop out. So if you have less advanced students, you would lower your standard?”
The way I see it, my job is to work as hard as I can to get my students to progress as much as is possible in the time constraint that I am working in. So if I have very advanced students I will work really hard to get them to the next level. And if I have less advanced students I would work just as hard to get them to the next level. It’s not that I have advanced students so I can be lazy because they are already good at math and now that I have less advanced students there’s no way I can get them to the same place I could get those advanced students to because I’m not willing to work hard to get them there. Again, I’m going to work just as hard with whatever group of students I have.
And this is true for teachers all over the city. Staffs at other schools that don’t get the students who aren’t a year ahead already are not thought of as lazy because they are not getting their students through AP Calculus in four years. Yet I feel like when I say, which you can see that I’m getting to, that most likely Stuyvesant would have to reduce its rigor if the admissions policy were to change significantly, that I’m going to be accused of being a lazy teacher who only wants to teach the easy to teach kids but I’m going to lower my standards because it is too much work for me to get a group of kids that aren’t a year ahead to the same place.
I know I buried that in a big paragraph so let me say it more clearly: Stuyvesant would, most likely, have to reduce their rigor if the admissions policy changed significantly.
But before you get angry at me for saying this, let me say this next thing:
I don’t think this means that we should not change the admissions policy.
If we had a different group of students with different strengths and different weaknesses than the group that we have with the current admissions policy, there would be an evolution where if we needed to adjust the curriculum so our students can be successful and have a meaningful experience, we would make adjustments. Over a period of a few years, we would become the kind of school where the students under the new admissions policy can thrive.
Some people might think that the rigor of Stuyvesant should be preserved at all costs. They worry that changing the admissions policy runs the risk of needing to reduce the rigor and if that rigor for them is the defining feature of Stuyvesant then for them this reduced rigor would mean that Stuyvesant was somehow destroyed.
While I believe that a new admissions policy could lead to the reduced rigor, I don’t think that it would destroy Stuyvesant. Maybe the new Stuyvesant would be even better. What we could lose in rigor might be more than balanced out by the strengths that the students under the new admissions policy would bring.
Of course this would all depend on what the new admissions policy is and that is something I’ll leave for another post.