NYC Schools Punish Students for Doing Challenging Work & Reward Minimal Learning

Adams: An A in an easy class outranks a B in a hard class — the type of negative feedback loop that repeats throughout the nation's education system.

This photo shows a student struggling with schoolwork on a laptop.

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In New York City, what students actually learn in school and how they are set up for future academic success are two parallel tracks that rarely cross. The system, as it currently stands, rewards never pushing yourself or taking any sort of educational risk. Instead, students are rewarded for performing well in less challenging classes in one grade by gaining entry to high-performing courses in the next.

Unfortunately, they may not have enough foundational knowledge to be able to do the work.

For instance, coming out of the pandemic, New York City standardized its admissions to screened public high schools. Students were sorted into tiers. Those with a grade-point average above 94.33 were slotted into Tier 1 and received first crack at the most coveted schools. Those with a GPA above 90.25 went into Tier 2, and so on down the line.

Final marks in seventh-grade English, math, social studies and science were used to calculate the rankings. What wasn’t considered was the difficulty of the individual classes. 

Take the case of a student who took Algebra 1 early, in seventh grade, at a gifted-and-talented middle school and a student who took basic math at a nonaccelerated school as part of the standard seventh grade curriculum. Their final marks would be given equal weight when they apply to high school. So if the Algebra 1 student earned a B, that would be deemed less impressive than an A earned by the second student in basic math. Based on that data, the first student would be assigned to Tier 2 by the Department of Education’s computer and basically taken out of the running for most of the top screened high schools.

Taking easier classes in middle school would give the first student a greater chance of getting into a higher-performing high school. Which seems like the exact opposite of how such a system should work.

Now that admissions to NYC gifted-and-talented programs in first through fourth grade is also grade-based, this contradiction will likely trickle down to the elementary school level. Parents might be less likely to place their kids into more challenging classes, or insist that they be given more difficult work, out of fear that it would hinder their chances for a G&T transfer down the line or a spot at an accelerated middle school.

My teacher husband is always talking about positive and negative feedback loops when it comes to learning. This definitely seems like a negative feedback loop for both students and parents. A’s are already the most common grade given at two- and four year colleges. High school teachers lament being pressured to pass all students, whether or not they come to class or do the work. Exit exams for graduation are being phased out. Some states have flat-out made it impossible for students to take advanced math classes even if they wanted to.

Right now, if college is the end game, or a top screened middle/high school, or even a G&T program, there is no incentive to take courses an NYC student might not ace with minimal effort. There is, in fact, a potential penalty to signing up for a class where a C is a possibility, no matter how much new knowledge or life experience might come with it.

The more families who decide to play it safe, sacrificing the concrete present for a nebulous future, the less demand there will be for challenging coursework at all grade levels. And with less demand come fewer advanced class options. The curriculum will dumb down itself. 

Families could end up advocating for easier and easier offerings as more and more A’s are given out. Tier 1 is for the top 15% of students citywide. As courses become less challenging, the GPA necessary to qualify will keep rising and the competition will grow tighter. 

But at the same time, those A’s will become meaningless. Already, only a little over half of NYC’s graduating seniors — 57% — are deemed college-ready, meaning they’re prepared to take a university-level course without requiring remediation. This despite a highly touted rising graduation rate, now at over 80%. Of those NYC graduates who went onto college, however, 37% drop out within the first semester.

It stands to reason that we should expect more such failure if pre-college work, starting at the elementary school level, becomes undemanding and shallow in the interest of grade inflation.

But it’s not impossible to reverse that trend. A simple tweak would be to weight GPAs, the way some colleges do, wherein bonus points are factored into more difficult courses, so that a B in seventh grade Algebra 1 isn’t worth less than an A in arithmetic.

Students and families might feel more comfortable asking to be placed in challenging classes if the reward of taking a risk is greater than the punishment that comes with failing to measure up. Schools might feel comfortable placing lower-performing students in those classes, giving them access to more complex material. Some might stumble, but without penalty, while others could well rise to the occasion, and be appropriately recognized.

Making it less punitive to take advanced and honors classes could open the door to more of them being offered. Which would benefit every student in the system. And finally make it so that learning, not just getting a good grade, becomes the key part of an NYC education.

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