In the Classroom

Partnership merges high school AP courses, applied science

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Warren Township schools had to make cuts this year after a drop in federal poverty aid.

Should top students who are interested in both career technology fields, like engineering, and advanced academic courses, like physics, have to choose between them?

That’s what happens in a lot of high schools. Career technology is seen by some as a less academic track, but a new partnership of two top education groups that create high school courses wants to change that.

Choosing between career-oriented and academic electives isn’t easy, said Steve Rogers, chairman of the engineering and technology department at Warren Township’s Walker Career Center. Sometimes parents shy away from courses they aren’t sure will look challenging to a college or employer.

“But when you can have documentation for parents to say, you know, you should take both, then we won’t have stigma that engineering classes aren’t the same relevance as physics classes,” Rogers said.

That’s the idea behind a partnership between the College Board, creator of the SAT and Advanced Placement classes, and Project Lead The Way, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that develops curriculum for applied science and project-based classes.

The partnership would create new high school class sequences, or “pathways,” of both AP and Project Lead The Way classes and give students a certificate to show colleges they’ve completed a demanding course load.

“It is very much focused on pathways and helping kids not just do this once, but do this over time and invest in this and get the kind of preparation to build the confidence to find that this is the thing they are going to fall in love with,” said Anna Jones, senior vice president for Project Lead The Way.

Project Lead The Way moved its headquarters from upstate New York to Indianapolis in 2011. Its CEO, Vince Bertram, was named to the Indiana State Board of Education by Gov. Mike Pence earlier this week.

The organization seeks to encourage more students to study science and math by creating classwork that is rooted in problem-solving and applying the subjects to real life. Schools that participate pay a yearly fee for the curriculum, between $2,000 and $3,000. More than 400 schools in the state offer Project Lead The Way classes.

College Board is headquartered in New York and has been around for more than 100 years. The nonprofit writes tests, designs curriculum for Advanced Placement classes and offers resources for parents and students planning for college.

The partnership between the two would be fairly straightforward, Jones said.

The companies would take the existing Project Lead The Way programs — in engineering, biomedical science and computer science — and create options for how AP science and math classes could fit in. For example, a student might be on the Project Lead The Way engineering track and take introduction to engineering and principles of engineering as well as AP Physics.

Students who complete a combination of at least three AP and Project Lead The Way classes will earn the recognition certificate beginning in 2016. To be eligible, however, they must pass all the classes and earn a passing score of three, four or five out of five on an AP exam.

“This credential is designed to value the work that our students are doing that are participating in AP and Project Lead The Way,” Jones said. “So it really is building, frankly, the strength of both organizations.”

Showing the value of career tech classes

Rogers, who has worked as a Project Lead The Way teacher since 2003, said he likes that the pathways could be used to show parents how students could map out their classes during high school. That way, they might better understand what classes would help their kids succeed in college.

For many STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — professionals, that means both content-heavy AP classes and ones rooted in projects and problem solving like Project Lead The Way.

Oftentimes, Rogers said, it’s not clear to parents why students should forgo an AP or core academic class to try the Project Lead The Way classes. Universities typically count passing AP exam scores for college credit, but many don’t do the same for other courses. That means kids who take Project Lead The Way classes in engineering might be repeating basic skills classes in college.

“We have kids every year that take three, four, five (engineering) classes and go on to Purdue and Rose-Hulman (Institute of Technology) and really get no benefit,” Rogers said. “The class was a benefit, but nothing credit-wise to help the kids out.”

Edward Biedermann, with College Board, said the pathways might also help diversify both programs’ students.

“All too often we see some students think of themselves only as (career and technical education) students and not try to take AP, and other students may think of themselves as college-bound students who take AP and don’t focus on classes with applied learning,” Biedermann said. “This partnership is a way to get all types of students into an AP course that has the potential for college credit.”

Rogers said that though he’s just recently heard about the partnership, he thinks it has the potential to be mutually beneficial for students — AP kids can learn more about STEM careers they can pursue after high school, and Project Lead The Way kids focused on career and technical study, who might not be thinking of college, will be encouraged to earn college credit.

Plus, the new recognition might strike a chord with colleges and push them to cut repetitive introductory classes down the line, Rogers said, saving students time and money.

“It makes sense that we’re putting those courses together into more of a defined pathway because, let’s be honest, they need AP Physics, they need AP Chemistry,” Rogers said. “They might as well see it now when they’re in a class of 20 because they’ll take freshman chemistry in a lab, and it could be 200 kids at Purdue.”

discipline paradox

Do charter schools suspend students more? It depends on how you look at the data.

PHOTO: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
A student reads on a dotted carpet where students often sit for class at Harlem Success Academy.

A few weeks ago, a government watchdog agency released an extensive report on discipline in U.S. schools. It drew headlines for underscoring how black students, boys, and students with disabilities are much more likely to be suspended.

But there was one question that the report helped answer that didn’t get much attention: are charter schools more or less likely to suspend their students?

It’s a fraught topic, particularly as so-called “no-excuses” charter schools across the country have been criticized for what some see as overly harsh discipline. And the answer turns out to be complicated.

Here’s the latest national snapshot, which comes from 2013-14 data. Overall, charter schools have a somewhat higher out-of-school suspension rate — meaning the percent of students who were suspended at least once — than traditional public schools. But when you break down suspensions by students’ race, charters actually post slightly lower rates in each major group.

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection Graphic: Sam Park

How can that be? It happens because charters and traditional public schools don’t have the same share of students in each student group. Charters serve a greater share of black students, for one, and those students are much more likely to be suspended than other groups in both sectors. (Statistics teachers, you can use this as a real-world example of what’s known as Simpson’s paradox.)

These findings highlight how complicated it is to fairly compare suspension rates across schools, and suggest that charter schools may have have similar — even lower — suspension rates than traditional schools, depending on how the data is sliced.

At the same time, some of the most-praised charters, particularly those in the “no-excuses” camp, really have been shown to post high suspension rates, even accounting for differences in student populations.

A 2013 study showed that attending a Boston charter school, often lauded for high test scores, substantially increased the amount of time students were suspended.

And to be clear, the GAO data show that black students at charter schools — and all kinds of schools in the report — still get suspended at a far higher rate than other charter students. Moreover, the report shows that charter schools are more likely to suspend students with disabilities than traditional public schools (12.9 percent vs. 11.6 percent).

Charters reported lower overall rates of in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests than traditional public schools.

All of this data describes what is happening, but it doesn’t explain why. And the report doesn’t look at other characteristics — like students’ motivation or academic performance — that may be related to their likelihood of being suspended.

Keep in mind that although the data that GAO relies on, the 2013–14 Civil Rights Data Collection out of the U.S. Department of Education, is widely cited, it has important limitations. In particular, some have found evidence in past data collections that schools, including charters, misreported discipline rates.

(The author of the GAO report noted in an email that the department had made efforts to catch data problems by flagging large districts that report zero suspensions. But since charters are usually relatively small, these checks may be less likely to catch errors among charter schools.)

Charter schools are also more likely to deliver instruction entirely through virtual programs, and those cyber charters may be unlikely to suspend students. A more appropriate comparison might be be between brick-and-mortar charters and brick-and-mortar traditional schools, but the data isn’t broken down that way.

This data is notable, in other words, but should be interpreted with caution.

Homework

The Detroit district’s first homework policy is in the works. See how much homework it recommends your child do every night.

Detroit students who are drowning in homework — or unable to complete it because of challenges at home — could soon find relief in a new policy.

The Detroit district on Tuesday proposed putting a cap on the amount of time students in different grade levels spend on homework. Kindergartners would be limited to 10 minutes of homework, while high school juniors and seniors would see their homework load capped at three hours total, across all subjects.

The proposed policy, which a school board subcommittee is now considering, would also prohibit schools from penalizing students who can’t do homework assignments in the allotted time. It would also prohibit teachers from assigning grades on homework assignments and limit how much they can count whether students completed homework to just 10 percent of their final grades.

The policy, which is the new district’s first attempt at a formal homework policy, may address educators’ concerns that a student’s ability to complete homework reflects how much or how little support she receives at home, not her academic abilities. Indeed, some research has suggested that homework can widen performance gaps between students from affluent and low-income families. Research has also found little benefit to homework for young students and diminishing returns for older students after a certain amount of time.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he expects the policy to be welcomed by local families and educators.

“This will be a shift,” he said. “I think for parents this will be well received and for teachers it will be well received.”

But questions are already emerging about how the policy would be implemented — and whether it should be.

“I think that it’s awesome,” board member and former teacher, principal, and superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill said. “But is it realistic? I doubt it.”

Because a maximum number of minutes of homework time per night is for all subjects, board member Misha Stallworth questioned whether teachers would need to use more time to coordinate assignments with their colleagues, taking away from their own lesson planning.

District officials are still trying to figure out how to implement and enforce the new time limits, Vitti said.

They might discover that involved parents could be an obstacle. Dana Dacres, a parent of five children attending Burton International Academy, said she spends close to half an hour on homework every night with her kindergartner alone — time that she said is valuable.

“I can see the idea — they don’t want the kids coming home after spending six, seven, or eight hours in the classroom and then having to ‘take your work home with you,’” she said, “but the reality is that some kids need a little bit extra.”

Dacres said she does like that the policy might force students to work more efficiently.

“The idea is to get the work done within the allotted amount of time,” she said. “I like the idea of students becoming good time managers.”

The policies are heard first at the public subcommittee meeting where members can suggest changes. They are then read at a public school board meeting before being voted upon by the full board.

Find the maximum number of minutes of homework per grade below.