How To Crack The Toughest Nut In Education: High School
There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about the lack of rigor in high school courses, and critics have blamed educators’ “low expectations.” But they’ve overlooked one powerful strategy that could boost both expectations and performance: teaching students to write about what they’re learning.
In recent weeks, two reports have cast doubt on whether schools are really preparing students for college and career—including students who get good grades.
One report, released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, documented rampant grade inflation. While 90% of American parents believe their children are performing at or above grade level, two-thirds of high school graduates are ill-prepared for college. Grades were most likely to be inflated at high schools serving students from more affluent families, the report found.
The other study included classroom observations and interviews with students. Called “The Opportunity Myth,” it was produced by a nonprofit called TNTP. The data covers third through 12th grade across five diverse school districts, but the focus is largely on high school, with stories from representative students.
Hajima, a 12th-grader who wants to be a neurologist, doesn’t feel challenged and watches the clock in class. Maggie, a 10th-grader who wants to be a trauma nurse and has always been on the “smart kids” track, sometimes feels the same way—and at other times feels the work is too difficult and she isn't getting enough support. Isaac, an 11th-grader who also wants to be a nurse, says adults at his school have discouraged his ambitions because of the color of his skin.
Like the researchers at Fordham, those at TNTP found evidence of grade inflation—although they found it was more likely to happen with students of color and those from low-income families. In the districts studied, 78% of white students who earned an A in a math or English AP class passed the AP exam—which is graded externally rather than by the teacher. Among students of color who earned As in those classes, only 30% passed.
Both reports identify the root of the problem as teachers’ expectations. The Fordham study concludes that teachers need to be educated “about high expectations” and provided with a vision of what excellence looks like—which may not be the same as the work their best students are producing.
The TNTP report concludes that much of the time, teachers are giving assignments that are below grade-level. While more than 80% of the teachers surveyed supported high standards in theory, less than half expected that their students could meet them.
Education reformers have been playing the “high expectations” tune for almost two decades now; George W. Bush famously denounced the “soft bigotry of low expectations” back in 2000. It’s a real problem. But merely telling teachers to have high expectations doesn’t work.
About five years ago, I volunteered to help students at a high-poverty high school who were enrolled in an advanced American history class, part of the International Baccalaureate program. My job was to work with them on their writing, but that was nearly impossible—not only because their writing was riddled with mechanical problems, but also because they weren’t grasping the material in the book they were supposed to be reading.
One day, I spotted a version of the book for “young readers.” Why not just give students that version, I asked the teacher? Oh no, he said—it was only for emergencies. This was, after all, supposed to be a college-level class.
The basic problem in that classroom—as in many others—wasn’t the teacher’s expectations. It was that students lacked so much background knowledge and vocabulary that they would have found even grade-level text impenetrable. Their earnest, well-meaning teacher wasn’t getting any guidance on how to maintain academic rigor while meeting his students where they were. And as far as I could tell, they weren’t learning much of anything.
The TNTP report asserts—without much detail—that when low-achieving students are given the chance to do challenging work they make greater progress. But it also acknowledges that many students get passed along without being adequately prepared, with the result that teachers often get students who “truly aren’t yet working at grade level”—like those in the American history class.
In principle, the solution is for teachers to provide students with the support they need to access grade-level work—a practice known as “scaffolding,” in education-speak. But “in practice,” the report notes, scaffolding “is a complex skill to master,” and it requires resources and training that most teachers don’t have. Aside from exhortations to listen to students and their families, hand out grade-level assignments no matter what, get students to “own the thinking” in the classroom, and—of course—raise their expectations, the report doesn’t offer teachers much concrete advice.
It does, however, contain a half-buried glimmer of hope: among the few bright spots researchers found was a high school where “students used a consistent writing protocol across all their classes.” I couldn’t find any further information in the report or its technical appendix, but the brief parenthetical remark rang true.
Since my experience with the high school history class, I’ve learned that writing is potentially the most powerful tool we have to teach any kind of content. Not only does it reveal students’ lack of comprehension before it’s too late, it can also ensure they absorb and remember the material they’re writing about and develop the ability to analyze it.
But writing can only confer those benefits when it’s explicitly taught, beginning at the sentence level. Writing is the most difficult thing we ask students to do. If they haven’t yet learned how to construct decent sentences—as even many high-schoolers have not—and teachers nevertheless ask them to write at length, they’ll become so overloaded by the mechanics that they won’t have the cognitive capacity to absorb and analyze the material. Not to mention that their writing is likely to be incoherent.
Ideally, this kind of writing instruction should begin in elementary or middle school—but it rarely does. The good news is that while it’s more difficult to begin it in high school, it’s not too late. As the TNTP report suggests, when teachers use a consistent, explicit approach to writing across the curriculum, it can work wonders at a grade level where few other reform efforts have shown much impact.
When one low-performing high school in New York City adopted such an approach, graduation rates began to climb and passage rates on AP tests soared. The school where I volunteered eventually adopted the same method, and after a few years students did so well on their writing-heavy International Baccalaureate tests that one education columnist could hardly believe the results.
Full disclosure: I am now the chair of the board of an organization that disseminates this particular method, The Writing Revolution, and co-author of a book by the same name (although I have no financial stake in either). Other similar methods might work as well—perhaps the one used at the high school briefly highlighted in the TNTP report, whatever it was.
It’s unfortunate that the report spent far more time lamenting teachers’ low expectations than zeroing in on an approach that could foster high expectations in the best way possible: by actually showing teachers their students are capable of meeting them.