Thursday, June 20, 2019

Townsend Harris and Neighborhood Schools

According to, the top school in the state is Townsend Harris High School. Here's why, according to the article:

Students at Townsend have a 100 percent rate of 12th grade students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses, with 97 percent of the class earning a 3 or higher on the AP test.
With a 99 percent graduation rate, Townsend Harris students have a 99 percent ranking in mathematics proficiency and a 100 percent ranking in reading proficiency.

That's impressive, isn't it? What the hell is wrong with the rest of the schools in the city and state? If Townsend Harris can do this, why can't everyone? First, I want to say that I bear no ill will to Townsend Harris. One of my best friend's kids went there and had a great experience. I'm sure they have a great staff, and both they and their student body impressed me quite a bit when they moved to get rid of a terrible principal.

Furthermore, Townsend Harris is a better model than some of the other selective schools in that they don't just use SHSAT as sole measure of achievement, and are thus better integrated than schools like Stuyvesant. I'd actually thought they did, but a friend of mine who works for the DOE (Yes, I have a friend at the DOE.) told me I was wrong.

Townsend, like a number of public high schools, looks at the 7th grade test scores in conjunction with grades and attendance.

That makes more sense than a single test we'd score children on, forcing them to spend years prepping for it. Of course, I'm only referring to families that can afford to have their kids spend years prepping for it. I'd argue that this makes for anything but a level playing field. I'd further argue it's not a good use of children's time, and that they'd be better off studying for school, life, or pretty much anything else.

Like many others, I personally believe teacher grades are a far better predictor of success than a single test score. We do a lot of things other than take tests each and every day. Someone who can ace a test but can't get along with anyone may or may not get good grades in college, but "career readiness" certainly implies an ability to play well with others.

I once had a student in a beginning ESL class who got excellent grades on all my tests. High 90s, almost always. He was outraged that he was in this class. Unlike a lot of students who scored lower than him,  he never, ever spoke. He never even tried. One day he came in my office, screaming in a language I didn't understand. His translator told me he belonged in a higher class. He knew all this stuff already! He studied it in his country! I told the kid when he could come in and tell me himself, I'd try to get him promoted. His translator reported that to him, and the kid walked out very angrily.

Some people mix up test scores with The Ten Commandments. Bill Gates does that, and was responsible for a whole lot of school closings. I'm glad that Townsend Harris chooses to use multiple measures and actually values school grades and attendance. That's an example that could easily be replicated by selective schools.

Still, though, is it fair to compare Townsend Harris, or indeed any selective school, to those that simply take everyone who walks through the door? I'd say no. Is Townsend Harris the best school in the state? If you go by scores, maybe it is. But how hard is it to get good scores when you select all your students? I'd argue it would be a miracle if they didn't get high scores. Of course they must be doing something right because a whole lot of charters cherry pick and still don't outdo public schools.

Townsend Harris is a great school, no doubt. I'd argue there are reasons beyond test scores that reinforce that. Still, there are a whole lot of other great schools that don't pick their students. To compare them is ridiculous. Townsend Harris should be in a category of selective schools, and non-selective schools should have their own category.

This is a clear case of apples and oranges.
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