Photo: Photo For The Washington Post By Maddie McGarvey
The Washington Post’s Oct. 11 story on Shaker Heights High by national education writer Laura Meckler is one of the finest explorations of a school in crisis I have ever read. It details the effort by the school to get more black students into college level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and the anguish that erupted when a black student and her mother alleged bullying by a white AP English teacher.
I can add nothing to Meckler’s deep dive into the history of racial diversity and academic excellence at that venerable suburban Cleveland school, which Meckler attended. But I can show how Shaker Heights’ campaign to improve AP and IB access compares with the rest of the country.
Even though it is hard to motivate teenagers to tackle tough courses, the numbers suggest Shaker Heights has done a good job challenging even average kids.
I compile an annual list called the Challenge Index. It ranks high schools that have the greatest participation in college-level exams such as AP and IB. I take the total number of those exams completed by all students at each school and divide it by the number of graduating seniors. On my 2019 list, Shaker Heights has an index ratio of 3.214, in the top 3 percent of U.S. public schools.
Some people shrug off that success as a byproduct of the large number of well-educated and affluent families in Shaker Heights, historically both black and white. They don’t know that many parents and teachers at well-off schools oppose letting average students into such courses for fear that will put too much stress on those adolescents or diminish the level of instruction. Wiser parents and teachers, such as those at Shaker Heights, understand that AP and IB exams can’t be dumbed down because they are written and graded by independent experts, and average students do better in college having taken AP or IB even if they fail the final exams.
There are many public schools that are more affluent than Shaker Heights, yet have significantly lower AP and IB test participation rates because of that fear of letting in B and C students. About 30 percent of Shaker Heights students are from low-income families. Here are the percentages of students from low-income families at a sampling of schools that rank significantly below Shaker Heights on my list: Wellesley High School, in Massachusetts, 7 percent; Deerfield High, in Illinois, 4 percent; Piedmont High, in California, 1 percent; Blue Valley High, in Kansas, 4 percent: Harrison High, in Georgia, 8 percent; and Medfield High, in Massachusetts, 6 percent.
Shaker Heights has been working on ways to increase college-level course and test participation for a long time. When I visited the school in 1997, I encountered the Minority Achievement Committee (MAC) Scholars program. It was run by black juniors and seniors with good academic records. Each picked a ninth-grader to introduce to the social advantages of hard work and good grades. There were special outings and a once-a-month meeting with boys in coats and ties and girls in dresses. The MAC Scholars will celebrate their 30th anniversary next year, with the program now reaching third grade.
Eric Juli, principal of Shaker Heights High, said teacher recommendations and test scores – which tend to limit AP and IB participation – still influence course selections, but he also pointed to summer and lunchtime programs that support African American students who take AP or IB classes. IB has focused on raising the level of learning in all grades. John Moore, the district IB coordinator, said Shaker Heights was one of only eight districts in North America to have IB available for all students, from pre-K through 12th grade. Participation by students of color in the IB diploma program, which requires a daunting 4,000-word essay, is also increasing.
There is more the school can do. Washington-Liberty High in Arlington, Virginia – like Shaker Heights – is in an affluent and diverse district. Yet its AP and IB test participation rate is nearly twice as high. That is because while at Shaker Heights all students are told they may take AP or IB, at Washington-Liberty they are told they must take at least one of those courses and tests.
Shaker Heights administrators seem headed in that direction. They agree students learn much even if they fail the IB or AP exam. Marla Robinson, the district’s chief academic officer, said, “The exposure to rigor benefits students, even those who struggle.” That does not appear to be a majority view in America, but times are changing, even at a 101-year-old school like Shaker Heights.
Published at Sun, 20 Oct 2019 11:44:00 +0000