Photo by Phelyan Sanjoin on Flickr.

If you put more advanced classes into low-performing middle and high schools, will you get students who are capable of doing more advanced work? Or will administrators be tempted to fill those classes with students who aren’t ready for them?

One thing that Councilmember David Catania and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson agreed on at a DC Council hearing last week was that DCPS needs to standardize the offerings for its middle-grade students to ensure that all kids have access to advanced classes. Catania noted, for example, that some middle schools don’t offer algebra, while Deal in Ward 3 offers pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and geometry.

At the same time, Catania acknowledged that many students at DCPS middle schools aren’t prepared to do middle-school-level work. “We may have some empty algebra classes at the beginning,” he said. Henderson agreed, noting that standardizing the curriculum will mean that “every space is not going to be full.”

Catania advanced the notion that “if you build it, they will come.” That is, if you introduce more advanced programming in middle schools, students who can handle the academic challenge will be drawn to them.

That may be true in areas of the District that have been gentrifying or have long had relatively diverse populations, like Capitol Hill. Those neighborhoods have seen an influx of kids from more affluent families into the local elementary schools, but they usually leave before middle school.

But high-poverty schools east of the river haven’t yet attracted more affluent families even at the elementary school level. If DCPS’s reforms take hold, significant numbers of low-income kids will be able to handle more advanced work, but right now the gap in achievement here between wealthy and poor kids is among the largest in the country. So it may take a while before poor kids catch up.

And even in gentrifying areas, it may take some time before middle schools begin attracting students with strong academic skills. In the meantime, there may well be only a handful of students at a given school who can handle algebra or other advanced courses.

Resisting the temptation to fill classes

Catania and Henderson say they’ll be okay with largely empty classes for a while, but will principals be able to resist the temptation to fill them with students who don’t yet have the necessary foundation to do the work?

They’ve certainly succumbed to that temptation at the high school level. More and more high-poverty high schools have begun offering AP classes, but it seems that many of the students enrolled in those classes aren’t prepared for them.

According to the Baltimore Sun, at 19 Maryland schools last year, more than half the students who got A’s and B’s in their AP classes ended up failing the AP exam. And the paper reported that some schools have 75% failure rates on the AP.

I’ve seen something similar happen first-hand. I’m currently working as a volunteer tutor with an AP-like history class at a high-poverty high school. From what I’ve seen, only a small fraction of the 25 or 30 students enrolled in the class are able to understand the reading. There’s another section of the same class, with about the same number of students, and I have no reason to believe that those students are doing any better.

My guess is that perhaps 5 students at the school are truly equipped to do the work required for the class, and yet 10 times that number are taking it. No doubt the same thing is true of AP classes at many other high schools.

The phenomenon isn’t just limited to AP or similar International Baccalaureate classes, and it may well happen with middle school algebra classes. On a recent survey of Montgomery County teachers, a number of them said that one reason there has been such a high failure rate on final exams in math is that students are placed in courses that are above their ability level.

"A significant portion of middle school students are not prepared for Algebra 1,” one teacher commented, “yet they are placed there anyway.”

Why does this happen? Maybe some school administrators just can’t stomach the idea of “wasting” a teacher on a class that’s so small. Or perhaps they feel that putting so few students in an advanced class is an embarrassing admission that the vast majority of their students lack the necessary skills.

Benefits for low-achievers?

Or they may feel it’s beneficial to expose students to challenging work even if they don’t have the foundation to do it well. There’s some evidence to support that view. One study has shown that low-income high school students who take an AP class are 17% more likely to stay in college for a second year, whether or not they pass the test at the end of the course.

But from what I’ve seen, putting students in a class they’re not prepared for is more likely to discourage them, or at least waste their time. If kids don’t have the vocabulary or background knowledge to understand the reading, they may well decide to not even try. And if they were in a class where the material was more accessible to them, they’d stand a better chance of actually learning something.

Those students who are capable of tackling sophisticated material should clearly have the opportunity to do so, no matter what school they attend. But even they often need a teacher’s help, and they would surely benefit from a smaller class size. And research has shown that when higher-achieving students are grouped with lower-achieving ones, their learning often suffers.

It’s possible that this problem wouldn’t be as severe at the middle school level, because the work obviously gets more demanding the higher you go up the grade ladder. But the same principle holds true: students who, for example, still don’t understand basic arithmetic shouldn’t be placed in an algebra class.

So yes, let’s standardize the middle school curriculum, but let’s not be afraid of near-empty classes, and let’s make sure that kids and teachers aren’t being asked to do the impossible. It’s fine to have high expectations, but only if we give students the skills they need to meet them.