A letter to the New York City Board of Education, December 11, 2001.
Please see the Education Page of Bas Braams - Links, Articles, Essays, and Opinions on K-12 Education - and the NYC HOLD page for related matter.
to: Members, NYC Board of Education
by Facsimile and/or Email
Dear Members of the Board:
Before you at your meeting on Wednesday, December 12, is Item 16, a resolution regarding the establishment of the Upper East Side High School, Community School District 2. I urge you to defeat this resolution in its present form on the grounds that the school as envisaged in the resolution does not satisfy the urgent need of the District for a high school that offers a challenging college preparatory curriculum and a strong academic content focus.
I write from the perspective of a physical and mathematical scientist who has paid attention to the mathematics curriculum in the local schools and to national standards in mathematics and science education, and also as a citizen concerned about the enterprise of science and technology in this country.
The explanation accompanying the resolution before you describes the school as providing a challenging college preparatory program. I applaud the underlying sentiment. The City has three very selective schools that together cater to perhaps the academic top five percent of the entire student population. It is clear to me that there is tremendous need for additional schools that offer a program of high academic content to a broader range of pupils. I would not have guessed to read the phrase ``challenging college preparatory program'' in any other way, yet the remainder of the resolution before you appears to be entirely inconsistent with that aim.
The resolution before you states:
The admissions process will include an application and a review of 7th grade results, attendance, tardiness and test scores. The process will ensure a diverse and representative sampling of all ability levels of students by admitting students in proportion to the District's distribution of scores on the eighth grade New York State English Language Assessment.
I don't even know where to begin to evaluate this. What conception can one possibly have of a ``challenging college preparatory program'' that is compatible with a policy to seek a representative sampling of all ability levels? Let me say only that if it were to be policy that all students should be expected to go on to college then that would reflect a most serious abrogation of the obligation of the K-12 system to provide a sound and comprehensive education.
The resolution further states:
Upper East Side High School will provide a challenging college preparatory program where students are encouraged to develop their intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and social growth through an exciting interdisciplinary academic curriculum. Using the New York State Regents as a base, students will develop the skills essential to inquiry, reflection, discussion and articulation. The school will use a variety of teaching methods enhanced by the study of the arts, with a focus on music. Upper East Side High School's facilities will ensure that technology is an integral part of each discipline.
Nothing in those words seems to give any content to the phrase ``challenging college preparatory program'' or to distinguish this school's academic ambitions from those of any other high school in the District. Would the District not proclaim as its ambition for any other of its high schools that it encourages its students to develop their intellectual, aesthetic, emotional and social growth through an exciting interdisciplinary academic curriculum? We don't have to ask if the District will proclaim to use the New York State Regents as a base for instruction in all its high schools, and I am confident that the District would claim that in all its high schools students will develop the skills essential to inquiry, reflection, discussion and articulation. Is it not completely standard verbiage for the District to say that schools will use a variety of teaching methods? Are the words about technology different than those the District would use for any other high school?
When the routine verbiage is stripped off then the resolution before you appears to be establishing a school with a slight focus on the gentle arts and without any special focus on high academic standards or a challenging college preparatory curriculum.
The just quoted verbiage raises, however, another issue that is much broader than the present proposed high school. Curriculum policies in District 2 make it clear that a phrase ``students will develop the skills essential to inquiry, reflection, discussion and articulation'' in fact stands in opposition to an academic content focus and a strong college preparatory curriculum.
The District has mandated the ARISE program (aka Mathematics, Modeling Our World) for high school mathematics instruction. I have examined the four thick volumes of this text and find it challenging only in the sense that its mathematics content is so diffuse, imprecise and meager that it is a severe and wholly unreasonable challenge for even the most talented students to learn mathematics through this curriculum. I am afraid that proponents of this program may view this challenge as an entirely reasonable one --- it would not be their goal that students learn mathematics, but only that they ``explore, discuss and articulate'' mathematical concepts --- but I would hope that the Board of Education could return some sanity and common sense to the instructional ideology in this District.
With regard to Science instruction I fear that there too the District's concept of a focus on Inquiry and an Interdisciplinary Curriculum stands in opposition to an academic content focus and to a challenging college preparatory curriculum. It is my understanding that the District has initiated a strong focus on inquiry and on a project-based interdisciplinary approach in the middle schools, where it does not appear to bode well for high school. A cynical but to me entirely credible description is that most students simply sit in groups and read trade books, and then make lovely posters and give a presentation on something they know little about. The inquiry-based and interdisciplinary approach represents, I fear, in practice as well as in ideology an assault upon content knowledge and proper scientific understanding as the primary objectives of science education.
In conclusion, I urge the Members of the Board to review and affirm the need of District 2 for a high school with a challenging college preparatory program and a strong academic content focus and then to reject the present resolution on the grounds that the Upper East Side High School there described fails at conception to contribute to meeting that need.
Bastiaan J. Braams
cc: Schools' Chancellor Harold O. Levy
Deputy Chancellor Dr. Judith A. Rizzo
District 2 Superintendent Shelley Harwayne
Selected elected officials
Bastiaan J. Braams
Courant Institute, New York University
251 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10012-1185
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