Some Achieve but the Achievement Gap Persists

There was an interesting story in the NY Times last week about a low-performing high school with some extremely high-performing students.

As you probably know, Intel sponsors a science competition for high school students that is extremely tough and very competitive. They generally take about 300 students in the competition. There are always the perennial schools like Bronx Science with many candidates but there are also other schools moving up.

One is Ossining High School in Ossining, New York. Both Bronx Science and Ossining are in Westchester County in New York but Ossining is a diverse city best known as the home of Sing Sing prison. Out of the 300 students selected, 8 came from Bronx Science and 8 from Ossining. However, none of these students were selected as one of the 40 finalists.

Ossining's Intel students are mostly girls (there's one boy). Their research includes:

  • Jessica Brill (Development and Function of Extrathymic T- Cells in Athymic Bone Marrow Transplantation Recipients)
  • Alexander Cana (Interplay of Glycogen Synthase Kinase 3b and GABA Signaling in the Pathogenesis of Infantile Spasms)

  • Plus some interesting research on their peers:

  • Sarah Hardtke (A Socio-Cognitive Model of Adolescent Depression: Underlying Mechanisms of Competency)
  • Apryl Jimenez (Correlates and Consequences of Responding, or Failing to Respond to Thermoregulatory Signals for Sleep in Adolescents)

  • So how does this school do it? Like many schools that achieve greatness in one area, it takes one dedicated person. In this case it's "a maniacally dedicated science teacher" and "a decision by local officials to make science research a priority."

    That teacher is Angelo Piccirillo who started the science research program in 1998. Here's what he says:

    We started with three students, and they all dropped out,” he said. “We thought, well, we tried and it didn’t work. Who could have imagined we’d have 90 students 12 years later?”

    Mr. Piccirillo has built something of a machine that yearly accepts 30 freshmen out of more than 100 applicants. It includes guidance on research topics, mentors, and help with writing papers and presenting them. Ossining now regularly wins its share of prizes.

    “It’s difficult to explain, but the best way I can put it to you is that science research is now part of our culture,” he said. “One thing they say in administration is to make sure everyone is a stockholder in whatever you’re trying to do. That’s what we’ve managed to build.”

    But here's the rub:

    It would be nice if a fabulous science research program translates to a fabulous school and district, but Ossining’s overall test scores do not compare with those of the most successful districts. Its achievement gap between largely affluent whites and less affluent minorities, who make up a majority of the district, remains stubbornly wide. This year’s Intel semifinalists come overwhelmingly on the favored side of the demographic divide.

    On the other side:

    But then, there are more than a few parents in neighboring districts with higher test scores who are envious of the richer real-world experience students get in Ossining, where students come from an estimated 53 countries and speak 39 languages.

    Maybe, as budgets get tighter and tighter, someone will question whether closing the achievement gap and maintaining the expensive science research program can coexist.

    Do you think having such a well-performing program that admittedly only a few students participate in is worth sustaining? Does that kind of desire for excellence rub off on other students?


    David said…
    It seems like there is this constant pressure to tear down programs that succeed. Why is that? Is it that some see it as easier to narrow the achievement gap by wiping out anything that is scoring too high than to help those that are scoring low? More generally, wouldn't it be better in the long-term for the students, parents, and the district to duplicate and expand on our successes rather than tear them down?
    Anonymous said…
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Anonymous said…
    Um, Biotech Academy at Ballard, anyone? Not that Ballard was a low-achieving school like the one in the article, but in our area it is the perennial also-ran to Roosevelt and Garfield in terms of how its academics are viewed by the community. The kids drawn to and accepted by the academy definitely are high achievers. I know of several parents, me included, who feel the presence of the BA raises the overall achievement expectations at the school. It brings kids to the school who otherwise would go private or find some way of getting into RHS or GHS. It highlights the other excellent science opportunities at the school, notably in Marine Biology, Engineering and Physics/Astronomy. It draws the interest of kids who are academically motivated even if ultimately they enroll in one of several other great programs at BHS or just follow their own path through high school.

    So yeah, even though only 30 freshmen can enroll in the BHS Biotech Academy and a bunch are turned away each year (including my kid last year), it is well worth continuing.
    Jan said…
    I am with David. I suspect that programs like this DO have a "rub off" effect on other students in the school. But what if they didn't? Why would that matter? Why aren't we on fire to keep (and grow) ALL the programs that are excellent -- no matter how many kids they can serve (and how many they must turn away). I would love to see Ballard's program triple in size -- and don't know what the problems are with the limited size, but this District constantly seems to be asleep at the wheel. They never go all out to try to duplicate and grow the successful programs. No. That is up to incredibly dedicated and hard-working parents and teachers/staff/volunteers in each school. The District seems to think its job is to tear them down later (in the name of alignment, or fairness, or because their existence interferes with the Superintendent's sense of "control").

    Just like "schools" don't fail -- individual kids do (or don't), it is also true that teachers don't "teach" a "blob" of undifferentiated "kidmind." Individual brains, separate minds, do or do not learn every day. Much of what they learn is outside school. Some of it is inside. Each mind is different -- is caught and inspired, and motivated by different stuff.
    Not every program can/should/will appeal or be available to every child. No teacher can be an inspiring muse for every child. But we ought to facilitate the creation of excellence, the spark of inspired passion, the alternate path needed by an dyslexic but musically gifted child -- wherever we can get it to grow. The child who stays in school, and works like crazy to maintain a 2.3, solely so that he/she can hurdle, or play basketball -- ALL these kids need to be moved as far forward as our resources can get them.
    You know Anonymous, I did read that incorrectly (not from the Times but another source) and, of course, should have known better. Bronx Science is in the Bronx.

    (Unfortunately, I have delete your comment because we don't take anonymous comments.)
    Jana said…
    I read the article earlier in the week as well and do think that such programs are worth sustaining. Programs that can spark the interest of their students and build a love in learning need to be nurtured.

    It also highlights the fact that one (maniacally dedicated) teacher can make a difference. Something I think most parents and students know inherently, but seems to be forgotten by higher level administrators.

    Personally, I think that programs such as this within schools are wonderful and should be sustained AND I am also supportive of magnet schools such as Bronx Science which provide needed educational challenges for its students. Having attended Bronx Science myself, I look back on the experience fondly. I was fortunate enough to live in a city/state which embraced such schools as opposed to this state which tries to eliminate funding for such programs.
    Anonymous said…
    Interesting that comments here seem to support the idea that a good program can rub off on students in a school who are NOT in that program. Wasn't that one of the shrillest complaints about the APP split? That there was NO WAY APP located in a "regular" school could possibly inspire the non-APP (and mostly minority) kids!

    I guess it's easy to support an idea when it's not YOUR kids in question. And the beat goes on.

    Mod Squad
    Maureen said…
    I can see Mod Squad's point, but the difference for me is between placing a program in a school that the population that is already assigned there can access if they want (like BioTech and IB), vs. cutting and pasting a separate population of kids into a building with virtually no chance those kids will interact in the classroom (like APP at Thurgood Marshall). In the second case, the positive effect is expected to come from more parental involvement or money in the building, not through exposing the kids to anything different academically. I think APP at Garfield is more like the first example. NonAPP kids can benefit because they can access more high level classes than they could if the APP kids weren't there. (I'm not sure what the impact is at MS level)
    David said…
    Mod Squad, this discussion of expanding and duplicating programs that work shouldn't be about APP, but, once again, I can see the knives immediately come out for that program.

    For the record, I don't think anyone sees the APP split as an example of the district attempting to duplicate and expand on successes. APP parents widely perceived the split as damaging to the existing APP program. The overwhelming majority of APP parents opposed the split. That is not a recipe for success.

    Expanding on and duplicating successes means working with successful programs to learn how to best duplicate them and increase participation in them, not forcibly ripping them into pieces.
    Anonymous said…
    Well, Mod Squad, the Biotech program at Ballard is open to application by any freshman or sophomore. Admission is by lottery, pretty much (some weight is given to kids who are working at least one year ahead in math for the spots in the Freshman academy). No testing required to join, so even though the spots are limited no one is rejected for not being good enough.
    Elementary and middle school APP/Spectrum doesn't work that way. I do think those programs also benefit the schools they are in. They offer a counterbalance to anti-intellectualism and increase the population of kids who might like things like chess and debate clubs, therefore promoting those things. But the gatekeeping for those programs works the opposite way and in my opinion is detrimental both to the programs and the school population that isn't in them. Especially for middle school, I'm strongly in favor of letting kids try more challenging schoolwork instead of finding ways to keep them from giving it a shot.

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