What’s Fair?

The Hechinger Report produced a powerful article, “Rich School, Poor School,” by Erin Einhorn, and the subtitle tells it all: “How the class divide is widened by gaps in counseling kids for college.” You should read the story in its entirety. It tells the sad truth that many of us know, but would like to forget: There is no equity in college counseling services for U.S. high school students; a student’s chances of getting into a selective college are clearly improved by attending a great high school—public or private—where dedicated college counselors know how to make the college applications system work for them.

What's Fair in College Counseling? By Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education

To be honest, I worked recently with a couple of students who attended two of the best high schools in our area—a famous competitive public high school in New York City and a well-respected public high school in one of the richest towns on Long Island. I was not impressed with the work of the college counselors in either one. However, each school had college counselors, who had access to the fancy software that Ms. Einhorn refers to in her article and who, at least, tried to keep students on a schedule that would get college applications in on time. And, of course, these students were further supported by the strong college-going culture that is present in such schools—schools where almost every student goes on to college and where many of them go on to great colleges.

It’s just not fair, you might say, reflecting on Ms. Einhorn’s story about a private school and a public school not 20 miles apart in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, Michigan. What is fair? I once worked with a wise principal with an unusual definition of “fair.” Chris Aguirre used to say, “Fair is not when every student gets the same thing. Fair is when every student gets what he or she needs.” Man, with that definition, students in poor urban high schools should be getting three or four times as much college counseling support as students in rich suburban high schools and private schools. As Ms. Einhorn points out, it is just the opposite now. The kids who need college counseling least get the most. The rich kids whose parents and school culture could handily make up for a lack of counseling time and expertise actually benefit from the most counseling time and expertise. No wonder the gap is widening.

The free weekly podcast that my nonprofit started, NYCollegeChat, is designed to help narrow the gap. It is aimed at parents who personally lack the college background to help their children negotiate the world of college and the college applications process. It is aimed at the kind of parents we saw in the New York City public schools—parents who wanted the best for their children, but had no way to get it without relying on an understaffed public high school’s help. While we originally targeted the podcast for parents in New York City and New York State, it really works for almost any parent who needs some guidance in understanding the world of college. It’s just a small way we thought we could help.

Thanks to Ms. Einhorn and The Hechinger Report for reminding us of something we should not forget—that is, what’s fair.

Why Parents Should Want To Move to Ohio

I have done a lot of projects with Ohio school districts and with the Ohio Department of Education over many years. But I never thought I wanted to live there. Now I would if I still had children in school. Here’s why.

Why Parents Should Want To Move to Ohio by Regina Paul, Policy Studies in Education

This fall, Ohio will implement its own new version of a dual enrollment program: College Credit Plus, which will allow students in grades 7–12 to earn both college credits and high school credits at the same time by taking courses from two-year or four-year colleges. The courses can be taken at any Ohio public college or participating private college (though my guess is that most students will study at a nearby college) or can be taken online; some courses will be offered at high school facilities as well. If the college is public, the course is free (including books). If the college is private, the cost will be extremely low. All school districts are required to allow students to pursue these newly expanded college options.

Wow.

Ever since I co-founded a public Early College high school in Brooklyn in 2009 (with Chris Aguirre and Marie Segares), which had a great partnership with CUNY’s New York City College of Technology, I have been impressed with and championed the Early College initiatives found nationwide. To be sure, Ohio has had a proud tradition of Early College high schools (thanks, in part, to the leadership and support of Andrea Mulkey and other staff members at EDWorks, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks). But now College Credit Plus seems to hold out a kind of Early College opportunity for all Ohio students.

Well, Early College high schools do provide a lot of academic and personal supports for their college-going students and likely will produce graduating seniors with more college credits than individual students will figure out how to get through College Credit Plus. Early College high schools also make it their business to see that more than just the brightest students are encouraged to pursue college study. That is one of the important principles of the Early College movement, which recognizes that sometimes students who are struggling in high school can actually do better in college. We saw that happen at our own Early College high school. It was unforgettable.

But Early College high schools are not everywhere. I wish they were. Maybe College Credit Plus is the next best thing. Congratulations, Ohio.

You can listen to our interview with Andrea Mulkey on NYCollegeChat here.

How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong

No one loves the arts more than I do. No one is a stronger advocate for K–12 required arts classes in the public schools than I am. I have three children with recent college degrees in the arts: one music; one art, design, and media; and one dance. I edited and co-authored a whole curriculum series called ArtWorks, designed to integrate the arts into the core academic subjects for students in grades K–5. So don’t tell me that I think the arts are any less important than anything else in school.

But the arts advocates who keep fighting a public school system that marginalizes the arts—especially when budget cuts come—do not know how to talk to the opposition. So let me try to help.

How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong, by Regina Paul, President, Policy Studies in EducationRecently, I read a thoughtful article by Dr. Matthew Lynch (“Happier Students, Higher Scores: The Role of Arts Integration”), which was posted in The Edvocate. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

The arts have always had a secondary place in K-12 learning. If you doubt that statement, think of the first programs to go whenever budget cuts are implemented – music, fine arts and even physical fitness which includes dance. I’ve yet to hear of a school board or administrators discussing the way cutting math programs could help the school’s bottom line. There is a hierarchy of academics in America, and arts education tends to fall pretty low on the totem pole.

That’s why some districts are implementing arts integration in their curriculum. Instead of treating the arts like a separate, distant relative to other classroom endeavors, these programs integrate musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing and more into traditional subjects like science, math and language. When implemented correctly, these programs are enthusiastically received by students who learn comprehensively.

Yes, I too like the idea of arts integration. But what are we integrating? It should not be “musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing,” but instead something in the arts that Americans think is important. What is that?

For many years, my nonprofit organization conducted the Educational Goals Survey, in cooperation with the National School Boards Association, in school districts across the U.S. We surveyed tens of thousands of citizens, teachers, high school students, and recent high school graduates. First, we asked them to rate a wide variety of educational goals, covering all school subjects, on their importance for students to learn and, separately, on their importance for schools to teach.

Then, we said: “Here is a list of 11 school subjects. You are a taxpayer with just $1,000 to spend. How would you divide up the money? Consider how important each subject is, but not the actual costs of teaching it. You may spend your $1,000 on as few or as many subjects as you wish. Just spend the money to show where your educational priorities are.”

Just as Mr. Lynch noted in his article, art and music usually fell at or near the bottom of the list of school subjects when participants played the money game. It made me sad, because it is absolutely true that, for some students, music is the only reason to come to school. When I helped to co-found an Early College architecture and engineering high school in Brooklyn, I insisted on an after-school music program and on two music courses (one required of all students)—because, for Wilmer, music was the only reason to come to school. I never regretted it for a minute.

But the real news for arts advocates is what happened when participants rated the individual art and music goals in the first part of the questionnaire. As it turned out, there were some things in art and music that participants felt were much more important than others—some things that actually might be worth paying for, some things that might survive budget cuts. Those things were spectator art and music, not varsity art and music. Not bowing and blowing, for example, but listening to and appreciating music and its place in our culture and indeed in other cultures, past and present.

I have worked with many art and music teachers over the years to create curricula for their school districts. They are an accomplished and passionate group. I always learn a lot when I work with them. But somewhere along the line, “appreciation” got a bad reputation. It is as if “appreciating” art or music is a lesser thing than doing art or music. That is a shame, because 100 percent of American schoolchildren can learn to be great appreciators of art and music and dance in a way that will improve their understanding of culture and history and that will be a pleasure to them for the rest of their lives, but relatively few of them can actually do art and music and dance nearly so well. And everyone who pays taxes knows it.

If art and music and dance classes in school were more about appreciating and understanding the history and looking at what artists are trying to communicate and seeing the value in multicultural contexts and were less about producing and performing, they would be more important to most taxpayers and less likely to be cut when budgets tighten. Take an analogy from literature. Taxpayers will pay for schoolchildren to read the great short stories and novels of authors from across the globe and across the centuries without expecting those children to write great works of fiction themselves. They are reading for a different reason.

Arts advocates, sometimes you are your own worst enemy. When it comes to integrating, you don’t have to integrate the actual performance of the arts—that is, the varsity version. You can integrate—or, if you can make the arts important enough, you can even keep separate—the spectator version. Because, when you are talking about that, there is nothing more important.

Schools Need Principals, But Only If They Are Great

For almost 40 years, my nonprofit has carried out curriculum reform projects in school districts all over the U.S. In addition to working with thousands of teachers, I have worked with hundreds of elementary and secondary principals. I have spent time with them individually, in small groups, and in large groups; I have watched them interact with central office administrators, teachers, students, and parents—for thousands of hours. I can count the number of great principals I have seen on two hands.

Okay, maybe my standards are unrealistic. Maybe finding only 10 great anythings in a population of hundreds is to be expected. Maybe finding only 10 great doctors in a population of hundreds of doctors is just fine for patients. Maybe finding only 10 great chefs in a population of hundreds of chefs is just fine for restaurant-goers. But we are entrusting our children to a principal for something like 1,000 hours a year—every year for 13 years. That is a lot of time for someone not to be great.

A recent article by Matt Collette discussed teacher-led schools and posed the question of whether schools really need principals. I believe that schools really need principals if they are great—otherwise, maybe not.

For decades, education literature has espoused the notion that principals make the difference in schools, that good principals are instructional leaders, and so on. I never really bought it—until I met Claire McIntee, and then I became a believer overnight. Ms. McIntee was my children’s elementary school principal at P.S. 94 in Little Neck, Queens, New York. She was a brilliant and energetic leader. She was tough; she set high standards for the kids and the teachers in everything they did. She did not fool around. And yet, she was loved by all of them—and by all of the parents. She made that school tick like a Swiss watch. Ms. McIntee was promoted (unfortunately, as most great principals are) to become a district superintendent in New York City and then went on to become what I like to think of as a role model for training and supporting principals at New York City’s Leadership Academy. After she left, P.S. 94 was never the same. The kids and the teachers and the parents were pretty much the same, but the school wasn’t. That’s how I know it was all about Ms. McIntee.

7 Things That Make a Great Principal by Regina H. Paul on Policy Studies in Education

I never had the privilege of working as a professional with Ms. McIntee, so I did not learn her secrets. I never got to see exactly how she did it. When the time came years later to choose a principal for a new public high school I was helping to establish in Brooklyn, I was understandably a little wary. Oddly enough, after one interview with Chris Aguirre, I knew he was the right choice. This time, as I worked with Chris over the next five years, I watched him closely to figure out exactly how he did it—that is, exactly what makes a principal great. Here are seven things I know now are true:

  1. A great principal has a vision for the school. Yes, I know that sounds trite and clichéd. But, as it happens, it is true. From the first planning session long before our school opened, Chris had a vision for our school that I thought was crazy. He imagined graduating average New York City high school kids in three years (instead of the traditional four) and helping them earn real college credits on a college campus along the way. It seemed impossible. But we made it work. Without his vision, the rest of us never would have tried it.
  2. A great principal is ridiculously dedicated. Let’s face it: It is almost a 24–7 job. There are late afternoons with troubled kids, concerned parents, anxious or excited teachers, and districtwide administrative meetings; evenings of PTA and advisory board meetings, open houses for interested families, students’ plays and concerts and science fairs and basketball games and so on; weekends of writing up teacher observations and plans for teacher inservice sessions and letters to parents and reports for the central office and grants for new programs. Why so busy? Because none of this gets done during the school day, when the great principal is in the classrooms watching instruction or in the hallways watching the students—but definitely not in the principal’s office.
  3. A great principal is a great teacher. You might think this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. I love that the principal is typically called the “head teacher” in the U.K. If a principal is not a great teacher (any grade or any subject will do), then he or she cannot supervise the teachers in the school. You cannot supervise what you cannot do. Everyone knows that—including every teacher. If a principal cannot write a great lesson, deliver a great lesson, be creative in using all of the technology available, make up an appropriate student assessment, and keep the students engaged throughout, then that principal might as well stay in the office (which we already know means that he or she is not great).
  4. A great principal insulates teachers from central office intrusions. Teachers probably don’t realize how many of those intrusions there are in a week or a month or year, but there are a lot. I have worked with a lot of central office administrators—including really good ones—and I know there are a lot. A great principal wants to keep teachers focused on the students and on the learning; doing that sometimes requires principals to step in front of the teachers and take the heat or the guff or whatever is being handed out. That is a thankless job, but can make a big difference in what gets done in the school.
  5. A great principal goes out on a limb when it is necessary. Playing by the rules is important, but sometimes it is just not enough. Early in our time in Brooklyn, we wanted to hire someone to teach physics. Our best candidate by far was a professor with two doctorates who had taught in colleges both in the U.S. and abroad and in high schools abroad. He made a lot of sense for us because we were an Early College high school. The only problem was that New York City, at that time, would not hire anyone with that background, even though New York State had a route for such a person to get a teaching credential. We appealed New York City’s position all the way up through the personnel bureaucracy until, finally, the Chancellor agreed with us. It was a long haul. I don’t think that many principals would have made that trip. Chris was way out on a limb, but it was all worth it.
  6. A great principal is honest, even when it is not to his or her personal advantage. Quite frankly, this is why we hired Chris. In his interview, he told us a story about an early administrative assignment of his in New York City. He was sent as an interim principal to a school that was failing, that was out of control, that you would not send your child to. He worked as hard as he knew how for some months, but he knew that it would be a long time before he could turn the school around and that, in the meantime, a lot of students would get a less-than-adequate education. When the Chancellor visited and asked him what he thought, Chris said the Chancellor should close the school. He was not willing to sacrifice the education of those students while he figured out how to make the school work. It was not a great career move, but it was the truth. I never saw Chris not tell the truth. Teachers can put a lot of trust in someone who always tells the truth.
  7. A great principal is really smart. When my colleague and I used to conduct workshops across the U.S. for school administrators, we were fond of saying that the principal should be able to pass every test given to students in the building. The statement always woke the people up. Yes, they could imagine that an elementary principal could pass all of the tests given to elementary school children. But could a high school principal? Or even a middle school principal? Should a high school principal have a high school education? Just think about it.

I can see why teachers would not want to be led by principals who are not great. I can see why there are not a lot of great principals. Maybe some people are born to be great principals, and others can never be made into great principals, no matter how hard we try to teach them administrative skills. I wish I knew if that were true.

Honoring Hope Boykin and Alvin Ailey’s Legacy

In 1975, I started my professional career at Policy Studies in Education. A few months later, I started dance classes at The Ailey Extension (“real classes for real people”), after my real dancing days were long over. Some of my earliest classes were Horton classes—that is, Lester Horton’s modern technique, as passed down to the legendary Alvin Ailey. My favorite Horton teacher was a young Milton Myers. I knew Milton was a genius then, and the world soon found out when he joined the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and went on to dance and teach and choreograph around the world. After almost 40 years, I am still at Policy Studies in Education, the nonprofit educational consulting organization I head today, and I am still taking classes at The Ailey Extension. In fact, the only thing I might know more about than education is dance.

So, if you are in New York City between December 3 and January 4, go see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at New York City Center. Trust me. If you have a choice of dates, go on December 16, the night that Ailey celebrates its women. Now, truthfully, I have always been about celebrating Ailey’s men. No company in the U.S. has the deep bench of male dancers that Ailey has now and always has had. But it will be with a full heart that I will be there on December 16 to celebrate one of those Ailey women, Hope Boykin.

Honoring Hope Boykin & Alvin Ailey's Legacy by Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education

 

I first met Hope a number of years ago at a Lincoln Center retrospective of films about Alvin Ailey and his groundbreaking company. I took my daughter, Polly, to hear Donna Wood speak. (Ms. Wood was one of my favorite Ailey dancers of all time, and, to my mind, no one will ever match what she did in George Faison’s breathtaking Gazelle.) After the program, I saw Hope up front and recognized her from the many times I had seen her dance with the Ailey company. Polly and I went up to her, and I said what remains true today, “You light up that stage like no one else.” She made a warm and gracious reply, and Polly and I went home delighted.

Several years later, Polly became a freshman in the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program (those of you who listen to my weekly podcast NYCollegeChat, cohosted by Marie Segares, have heard me talk about this unique dance degree, offered by a partnership of two impressive institutions). As luck would have it, that fall Hope was asked to choreograph a piece for the freshman class of bright young dancers. I was thrilled. What an opportunity for those kids, I thought.

Then my husband Jay died unexpectedly—right in the middle of Polly’s rehearsals. For a few weeks, about all Polly could make herself do was get up and go to rehearsal with Hope. I thanked God for Hope. Then Hope did something extraordinary—something my family will never forget. She choreographed a prelude to the freshman piece. It was a tribute to my husband’s loving bond with our daughter. In the new opening, Polly is moving slowly with the shadow of her father watching over her. Hope subtitled the piece, “For Jay.” Who does that? Who takes the time to watch out for one child like that? Hope Boykin.

When you go to Ailey’s December 16 performance, you will see what I mean about Hope’s lighting up the stage. You will see that huge smile and the sheer joy with which she dances the final section of Ailey’s signature piece, Revelations. Her smile reaches out into the audience in a way that just makes you smile back.

It is exactly what Mr. Ailey imagined. He was known for saying that he wanted to bring dance to the people—to make dance something that everyone can embrace and learn from and take pleasure in. When Hope dances, she brings dance to the people. She dances from her soul, and somehow she touches yours. What a way to honor Mr. Ailey’s legacy.

Bloomberg Got Some Stuff Right

I read with interest about Michael Bloomberg’s latest good deed—that is, his initiative to get more high-performing lower-income high school students into top colleges. That is an easy initiative to support. I had just written an article about how guidance counselors are not really equipped to do what needs to be done for most high school seniors (both because guidance counselors are overworked and because they lack the background and personal experience with a wide variety and large number of colleges to help students make an informed choice). Bloomberg’s plan to hire full-time counselors (who, I hope, are truly qualified), bring in current college students as part-time advisors, provide application-fee waivers, and so on is great—as far as it goes.

Bloomberg Got Some Stuff Right by Regina H. Paul on Policy Studies in Education

I understand the impulse of philanthropists, politicians, business leaders, and other thoughtful individuals to take care of lower-income smart kids who do not have the family background and cannot afford the outside help they would likely need to navigate the confusing waters of college admissions, especially to the best schools. But let me say a word or two about the lower-income average students who cannot figure out how to get into college either.

In the public Early College high school I co-founded in Brooklyn, we took in average and not-quite-average students coming out of eighth grade classrooms across all five boroughs. Though our innovative school was designed to operate on trimesters and send kids to college early after just three years (instead of the traditional four), our students were typical New York City public school students. Most of them were not high performing; they did not take entrance exams or need impressive middle school grades to get into our school. Our principal, Chris Aguirre, said from the beginning that this school would be for all kids, especially those who had not gotten a break in elementary or middle school, often through no fault of their own. As you might guess, there are a lot of these average and not-quite-average students.

Our small high school gave these average and not-quite-average students, mostly from lower-income families, every advantage—from small class sizes to hand-picked teachers to rigorous high school courses to college classes to staff focused almost entirely on getting them into the right college. Most high schools in the U.S. cannot possibly do that. And still, getting them into the right program at the right college was a struggle, even though many of them were going directly into our Early College partner, the CUNY campus across the street.

The fact is that there are more average students than top-performing students. Average students also need the best higher education they can get, and there are many colleges in the U.S. that will happily take average students and give them a good education that will improve their chances of having a productive career. Affluent average students go to those colleges; lower-income average students more often get lost in the shuffle. That’s what Bloomberg’s plan will not fix.

By the way, some of those low-income average students might have been top-performing high school students if their lives had been a bit different—if they had not been living on couches with relatives or in homeless shelters, if they were not working at night at a fast-food restaurant, if their public middle schools had been better, if they had gotten extra help when they needed it in earlier grades, and so on. That means that they could turn into top-performing college students, given a chance at college.

So, kudos to Bloomberg. But now, who is going to work on the problem for all the rest of the kids?

3 Reasons a Guidance Counselor Cannot Help Your College-Bound Child Enough

I have spent a lot of time in high schools all over the U.S. and have had a lot of chances to observe students and staff members at work. As an outside consultant, I have worked closely with many of those staff members—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and others—and talked for hours and hours with students and their parents, individually and in groups. I have watched guidance counselors deal with students in serious trouble—especially personal and interpersonal trouble. I have been amazed at what students have to cope with at home and at school and what guidance counselors have to help them cope with. That is a full-time job for anyone.

Perhaps that is exactly why a high school guidance counselor cannot help your child enough when it comes to exploring college options and then choosing one. That is not to say there are not some guidance counselors whose high schools have allowed them to specialize in college placement and who have become experts in the world of college and its overwhelming number of opportunities. If your child’s high school has such a guidance counselor, you are lucky indeed.

3 Reasons a Guidance Counselor Cannot Help Your College-Bound Child Enough by Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education

If I were a parent of a high school student now (as I once was, three times over) and I were relying on a guidance counselor—or any other college advisor—to help my child navigate the world of college options, I would ask that person these three questions:

1) How many colleges have you visited? This sounds like a low hurdle, but I am convinced that many guidance counselors and other college advisors do not have a broad background of visiting a wide variety of colleges—in your city, in your state, in your region of the U.S., in other regions of the U.S., and abroad. Even though many students end up going to college in their own state for a variety of reasons, which certainly include logistical and financial ones, it is not good enough for someone to advise your child on what colleges to consider if that person has not “seen it all”—or, at least a lot of it. Your child’s college advisor should be able to talk about a variety of urban, suburban, and rural college campuses from firsthand impressions of those campuses and then to discuss whether a beautiful campus or a certain geographic location close to or far away from home or a particular type of setting makes any difference to your child.

I might ask someone trying to advise my child, “Have you seen the handsome University of Washington campus or the color of the buildings at Stanford University or Thomas Jefferson’s realized vision for the University of Virginia? Have you been in the freezing cold of the University of Chicago or the sweltering heat of Rice University? Have you been on the University of Pennsylvania’s City-of-Brotherly-Love campus or Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in the prettiest city in the South or the picture-perfect setting on the Thames River of the lower-division campus of Richmond, the American International University in London? Have you seen the grand LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas or the world-class Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University? Have you seen idyllic Kenyon College’s Middle Path in the middle of nowhere or majestic Columbia University in the middle of everything?”

Why do you think that parents who can afford it take their children on the traditional college tour so that they can see the options? Because sometimes place means a lot. If someone has not seen, say, 150 such places—college campuses of all sizes, locations, and settings—I would not want that person advising my child.

2) How many colleges have you studied at or had family and close friends and former students study at? Yes, I know that most people (guidance counselors and other college advisors included) probably studied at only one or two or possibly three colleges, but were they all the same? Ideally, someone advising my child would have some experience—either firsthand or close secondhand—with the variety of collegiate institutions available.

There are the public and private and public/private institutions, two-year and four-year colleges, liberal arts and technical schools, big universities and small colleges, single-sex and coeducational schools, faith-based institutions, HBCUs, fine arts and business schools, military service academies, and more. That is a lot. While no individual can know about each of these types of institutions firsthand as a student, I would want someone advising my college-bound child to know about most of these at least secondhand—that is, by the testimony of thoughtful family members and informed friends and trusted former students who had gone there. If a guidance counselor or other college advisor cannot be an expert in every individual college, he or she should at least be an expert in the types of institutions that are available to my child.

3) How many colleges have you worked at or closely with? Most guidance counselors and other college advisors based in high schools have not also worked at colleges, and that is a shame. Yes, they were all once students in college, but that view is very different from the view you get as an employee or even consultant. You can learn a lot about the operations of a college when you are working backstage, and you can better figure out how those operations impact students.

For example, if a guidance counselor had worked with college support services offices, it would be easier to judge what services might be available for a student with special needs. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with a number of college department chairs, it would be clearer how easily a student might be able to change a major if that student started down the wrong path. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with college registrars, it would be easier to figure out how to get a student credit for college courses taken while a student was still in high school.

Of course, all colleges are not the same. But a firsthand dose of working at a college can sometimes go a long way toward helping students choose a college that is a good fit.

———-

So, ask the questions and listen closely to the answers. Then, get whatever additional help you might need so that your child makes the best college choice possible.