Talk to Philadelphia public school students and they will gladly share their feelings about their coursework. While some from the city’s high-performing magnet schools say they feel enriched by their studies, many students in Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools clearly are less engaged.
“The teachers aren’t hands-on,” says Cherelle Reed, a 12th grade student at Overbrook High School who is active in Philadelphia Student Union (PSU). “We work from workbooks. It’s not fun.”
Unfortunately, Reed’s complaint is common across Philadelphia.
In an attempt to raise test scores and close the achievement gap, struggling schools have put more emphasis on basic skills and less on subjects that students find interesting. Some experts warn of a national trend toward an impoverished curriculum.
Candace Carter, a 12th grade student at Sayre High School, describes her curriculum as “boring” but does not blame it solely on the teachers. “Teachers try [to make lessons interesting] but it’s hard,” said Carter, also a PSU member. “There is limited time. No time for analysis. It’s like a lecture.”
Recent studies conflict as to how much the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has done to close the test score gap, but several reports suggest that the law is a factor making it harder for educators to deliver a full and rich education.
Though NCLB lists subjects like history, foreign languages, civics, and the arts as core subjects, students are only tested in math, reading, and now science. Struggling schools and districts have placed an increased emphasis on tested subjects.
A study by the Center for Education Policy, released in December 2007, found that since the passage of NCLB in 2001, 44 percent of surveyed districts reported a decrease in time devoted to subjects other than reading and math, with a higher rate in districts with low-performing schools.
On top of this shift, the report says that districts have adjusted their reading and math curricula to “put greater emphasis on the content and skills covered on the state tests used for NCLB.”
That may be what has many students like Alphonzo Baban, a 12th grader at Strawberry Mansion High School, summing up his feelings about the curriculum in one word: “tedious.”
Comments like Baban’s are consistent with new data from a District survey of more than 12,000 high school students. According to the survey, only 53 percent agree with the statement, “In one or more of my classes, I usually look forward to going to class.” Only 60 percent agree that they have one or more classes that are interesting.
In stark contrast, students interviewed by the Notebook from Philadelphia’s magnet schools express more positive feelings about their studies.
Charles Hayden, a 10th grade student at the selective admission Academy at Palumbo, says he only finds one of his seven classes boring. And an eighth grade student at Hamilton Elementary, which selects high achievers for its middle grades, said that her curriculum was generally engaging, “especially math, social studies, and science.”
While White and affluent students are more likely to attend Philadelphia’s high-performing schools, the District, consciously or not, is responding to the achievement gap by emphasizing basic skills rather than enrichment in low-performing schools.
Some students say the District’s push to align with NCLB goals is actually pushing students out of school. Khalif Dobson, an 11th grader at West Philadelphia High School and PSU member, said he sees this happening in schools that are not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
“NCLB forgets about things that students like,” Dobson said.
Dobson suggested that reducing instructional time in traditionally engaging subjects like art, gym, or history may push some students to drop out because they are no longer getting enough of what is interesting or fun.
Carter believes that Sayre places an increased emphasis on math, English, and science because “they have to make AYP.” According to Carter, Sayre has an extended second period, which lasts 90 minutes and is usually used for English or math.
Students see less emphasis on state tests in Philadelphia’s high-performing schools. “We have test prep [at Palumbo],” Hayden said. “But it’s more SAT prep than the PSSA.”
About schools focusing more narrowly on math and reading, Hayden replied, “That’s dumb. Are you going to teach them all the [other] stuff when they go to college?”