That’s the Idea: Some schools serving low-income students believe in a challenge
By Jay Mathews Columnist April 17, 2016 at 2:00 PM
I am having an argument with Erich Martel, an experienced former history teacher in the D.C. schools. He thinks it is wrong for schools to require that all, or nearly all, students take Advanced Placement courses, among the toughest our schools have.
I disagree. My view stems from hundreds of successful teachers I have interviewed who believe lack of progress in U.S. high school achievement is because so little is demanded in most classrooms. The 2016 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, released this week by The Washington Post, reveals growing numbers of schools that share this opinion and are taking even low-income students much further than before.
Most public schools in the Washington region are in this group. The national list shows only about 10 percent of the nation’s schools meet our definition of challenging, compared with more than 70 percent in this region. Most suburban districts here are involving average students in AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge courses and tests on an introductory college level.
D.C. schools also are doing more with AP. The Columbia Heights Educational Campus, a program led by innovative principal Maria Tukeva for 35 years, requires all of its students, mostly from low-income families where English is not the first language, to take AP English. It has made significant gains in the percentage of students passing the three-hour final exams.
Even more startling is the appearance of six public charter high schools in some of the poorest parts of Texas among the top 50 schools on our list, which I have produced for The Post (and previously for Newsweek) for 18 years. Those six schools, and a seventh that ranks No. 106, are all part of the Idea Public Schools charter network. Last year they had AP test participation rates twice as high as those of affluent public schools such as McLean and Whitman high schools, or private schools such as National Cathedral and Holton-Arms.
Martel, very active in D.C. school policy debates, dislikes that approach, particularly the new D.C. policy requiring six AP courses per school next year and eight AP courses the year after that. It ignores student readiness and interest, he says, and forces “students who are interested and who actually prepare for class to have their learning interrupted by students who are bored and don’t want to be there.”
But what if you have teachers who are skilled enough to grab the interest of many of those habitual slackers and who can show them that struggling with a challenging course is less boring than sitting through a painfully slow remedial course?
That seems to be what is happening in the Idea Public Schools network. It has 23,000 students in 44 schools in San Antonio, Austin and the Rio Grande Valley, where it began with teachers Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama in 1998.
Low-income students who take AP courses “are significantly more likely to graduate from college than students who never take an AP course,” said Michael Franco, the network’s vice president for secondary school programs. “In one year we . . . more than doubled the number of tests passed, increasing passing rates while increasing access. Last year, 81 percent of our seniors graduated with AP credit.”
Most colleges grant course credits to students who pass AP tests, giving those students an edge before they even begin their college years.
Idea network students have courses on AP skills beginning in sixth grade, and in ninth grade they take their first AP course, Human Geography. They are scheduled for 11 AP courses in all, with a goal of passing the exams in at least three of them to win an AP Scholar designation from the College Board. Most suburban high schools would reject this as too demanding, but disadvantaged Texas families see a bleak future if their children cannot break out of remedial courses. Idea teachers increase homework gradually so students get used to the load.
The largest national organization championing this approach is the nonprofit AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). It has classes for 444,559 students in 4,514 U.S. middle and high schools, including nearly 300 in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Anne Arundel County has AVID in every comprehensive middle school and high school, and some elementary schools. Since 2003, when the program began giving students extensive tutoring and other preparation, the number of AP and IB tests given in the county has increased to 15,512 from 3,519.
Despite the growth of such programs, they don’t reach the majority of schools. In a survey of more than 1,800 schools that submitted data for the 2016 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, just 29 percent said they had programs similar to AVID.
Passing rates on AP tests in such schools are often low, but teachers report the struggle is good for many low-scoring students, and more are passing because of better preparation. Columbia Heights’s AP passing rate has gone from 13 percent in 2012 to 30 percent last year. The passing rate for D.C. Public Schools has gone from 27.5 percent in 2010 to 33 percent last year, district spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said. Last year, 15 percent of Idea seniors graduated having passed at least three AP tests. The network’s goal is 35 percent.
That will take good teaching. D.C. Public Schools has spent $500,000 to raise the quality of AP instruction. Idea has partnered with the very experienced National Math and Science Initiative to help its teachers improve. That group also awards $100 bonuses to students and teachers for every passing AP score.
All could learn from teachers such as Martel. He found many ways to help students. He gave regular short quizzes to make sure reading was done. He had time-management work sheets so students could get organized. He conferred with parents on helping the most easily distracted.
What matters is not so much how difficult a class is, but how important. We worry that college-level courses focusing on writing and thinking — something high schools rarely do — are too stressful for teenagers. But if we were talking about teaching third-graders to read (also stressful for many), would we say such instruction isn’t for everybody?
The list reveals many schools that have decided thinking and writing are as important as reading. With good teaching, they have found ways to convince even the most laid-back, average students of the necessity and importance of those subjects, too.