When is it okay to have an empty classroom?

If you put more advanced classes into low-performing middle and high schools, will you get students who are capable of doing more advanced work? Or will administrators be tempted to fill those classes with students who aren't ready for them?

Photo by Phelyan Sanjoin on Flickr.

One thing that Councilmember David Catania and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson agreed on at a DC Council hearing last week was that DCPS needs to standardize the offerings for its middle-grade students to ensure that all kids have access to advanced classes. Catania noted, for example, that some middle schools don't offer algebra, while Deal in Ward 3 offers pre-Algebra, Algebra I, and geometry.

At the same time, Catania acknowledged that many students at DCPS middle schools aren't prepared to do middle-school-level work. "We may have some empty algebra classes at the beginning," he said. Henderson agreed, noting that standardizing the curriculum will mean that "every space is not going to be full."

Catania advanced the notion that "if you build it, they will come." That is, if you introduce more advanced programming in middle schools, students who can handle the academic challenge will be drawn to them.

That may be true in areas of the District that have been gentrifying or have long had relatively diverse populations, like Capitol Hill. Those neighborhoods have seen an influx of kids from more affluent families into the local elementary schools, but they usually leave before middle school.

But high-poverty schools east of the river haven't yet attracted more affluent families even at the elementary school level. If DCPS's reforms take hold, significant numbers of low-income kids will be able to handle more advanced work, but right now the gap in achievement here between wealthy and poor kids is among the largest in the country. So it may take a while before poor kids catch up.

And even in gentrifying areas, it may take some time before middle schools begin attracting students with strong academic skills. In the meantime, there may well be only a handful of students at a given school who can handle algebra or other advanced courses.

Resisting the temptation to fill classes

Catania and Henderson say they'll be okay with largely empty classes for a while, but will principals be able to resist the temptation to fill them with students who don't yet have the necessary foundation to do the work?

They've certainly succumbed to that temptation at the high school level. More and more high-poverty high schools have begun offering AP classes, but it seems that many of the students enrolled in those classes aren't prepared for them.

According to the Baltimore Sun, at 19 Maryland schools last year, more than half the students who got A's and B's in their AP classes ended up failing the AP exam. And the paper reported that some schools have 75% failure rates on the AP.

I've seen something similar happen first-hand. I'm currently working as a volunteer tutor with an AP-like history class at a high-poverty high school. From what I've seen, only a small fraction of the 25 or 30 students enrolled in the class are able to understand the reading. There's another section of the same class, with about the same number of students, and I have no reason to believe that those students are doing any better.

My guess is that perhaps 5 students at the school are truly equipped to do the work required for the class, and yet 10 times that number are taking it. No doubt the same thing is true of AP classes at many other high schools.

The phenomenon isn't just limited to AP or similar International Baccalaureate classes, and it may well happen with middle school algebra classes. On a recent survey of Montgomery County teachers, a number of them said that one reason there has been such a high failure rate on final exams in math is that students are placed in courses that are above their ability level.

"A significant portion of middle school students are not prepared for Algebra 1," one teacher commented, "yet they are placed there anyway."

Why does this happen? Maybe some school administrators just can't stomach the idea of "wasting" a teacher on a class that's so small. Or perhaps they feel that putting so few students in an advanced class is an embarrassing admission that the vast majority of their students lack the necessary skills.

Benefits for low-achievers?

Or they may feel it's beneficial to expose students to challenging work even if they don't have the foundation to do it well. There's some evidence to support that view. One study has shown that low-income high school students who take an AP class are 17% more likely to stay in college for a second year, whether or not they pass the test at the end of the course.

But from what I've seen, putting students in a class they're not prepared for is more likely to discourage them, or at least waste their time. If kids don't have the vocabulary or background knowledge to understand the reading, they may well decide to not even try. And if they were in a class where the material was more accessible to them, they'd stand a better chance of actually learning something.

Those students who are capable of tackling sophisticated material should clearly have the opportunity to do so, no matter what school they attend. But even they often need a teacher's help, and they would surely benefit from a smaller class size. And research has shown that when higher-achieving students are grouped with lower-achieving ones, their learning often suffers.

It's possible that this problem wouldn't be as severe at the middle school level, because the work obviously gets more demanding the higher you go up the grade ladder. But the same principle holds true: students who, for example, still don't understand basic arithmetic shouldn't be placed in an algebra class.

So yes, let's standardize the middle school curriculum, but let's not be afraid of near-empty classes, and let's make sure that kids and teachers aren't being asked to do the impossible. It's fine to have high expectations, but only if we give students the skills they need to meet them.

Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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The phenomenon of filling up AP classes with students who aren't prepared could be a response to Jay Matthew's ridiculous "Challenge Index" which purports to rate public schools exclusively on the ratio of AP exams taken to size of a graduating class. The numerator, and thus challenge index score, increases regardless of the score on the AP exam. So in cases--like all of middle school--where AP isn't on the line, then principals might be more willing to tolerate low enrollment classes.

The bit about high achieving students suffering when placed with low achieving students is a very important one. It is glossed over, or even turned on its head, for example in the recent Op-Ed about school diversity that was discussed here on GGE yesterday.

by thm on Feb 6, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

I think there's a big difference between a student who is not prepared to take an advanced course, and a student who takes an AP course but fails the AP exam. Also, I can't find the original report, but the WaPo article says that the top reason given by the Montgomery County teachers surveyed as to why their students failed math exams had to do with study habits (this theme also shows up in the Baltimore Sun article linked to above about AP exams). Are any middle schools trying to address this problem? It would seem to me that middle school would be the ideal time to teach these skills.

by grumpy on Feb 6, 2014 2:23 pm • linkreport

The problem with very small advanced classes is that DCPS doesn’t provide middle and high schools with enough teachers to support them and still provide reasonable class sizes for other courses. These advanced classes often have to be offset by enormous classes in lower level and required courses, which disadvantages the remaining students, many of whom are ill-prepared for them and also need small classes.

DCPS raised the pupil/teacher staffing ratios for middle and high schools a couple of years ago, and on top of that the staffing plan for grades 6-12 does not take teacher planning periods into account, misleading people into thinking that those ratios are the same as class sizes. The staffing ratio for grades 6-8 is 1-22, which means an average class size of a little over 26 and the staffing ratio for grades 9-12 is 1-24, which means average class size of 29-32, depending on the school’s scheduling model.

In elementary schools, teacher planning periods are covered by art, music, PE and world language teachers, who are provided on top of regular classroom teachers, but there is no separate allocation for these subjects in secondary schools.

Some of us have tried for a long time to convince DCPS to do otherwise, but the responsible officials refuse. We’ve testified about it before the Mayor and Council, who do nothing. I’ll try again at the Council hearing next Thursday. I invite others to join in.

by Mary Levy on Feb 6, 2014 2:41 pm • linkreport

I am a high school math teacher for DCPS. I would very much like us to move towards having rigorous courses but only placing kids who are ready for those courses in them. As with the algebra example given, I think this logic extends to normal math classes too.

Currently DC Municipal Regulations require that students take four years of math in high school. The lowest level of math that qualifies as fulfilling this requirement is algebra. So no high schools (that I know of) offer pre-algebra. That means that a student can be many years behind but have no option but to take algebra in the 9th grade. That often means that high school math will just perpetually be inaccessible.

I think the only real solution to this problem is to have a lower standard of what students must know by the end of high school but measure that much more rigorously (like with a required score on an end of course exam.) Because what we have right now feels rigorous -- we offer pre-calculus to lots of students -- but does little to serve either the kids who are behind or those who are ahead. The former are lost and the latter are frustrated by the necessitated remediation put into supposedly advanced courses.

By changing how we give credit for a class (through standards-based assessments) we will be forced to have schools better adapt to serve their student population. You can't just pass your 8th or 9th grader along. If they can't pass the test, they will need to fill in the holes in their knowledge. That will hopefully inspire schools to provide a more adaptive curriculum. (The general "have them repeat the class" method doesn't work -- many kids would rather drop out then have to sit through a class they feel they already had to endure.) It would also allow us to use student test data more constructively to inform instruction-- do we have a whole bunch of kids whose tests indicate they don't know fractions? Then let's catch them up on that.

Our current reality also puts teachers into an unfortunate bind. Do I hold a kid back who has come every day and done everything they can to learn my inaccessible material (and risk them dropping out)? Or do I reward their hard work and leave them to suffer through more inaccessible material in an even more difficult class (which they may then fail)?

by A DCPS Teacher on Feb 6, 2014 4:34 pm • linkreport

I am one of those parents East of the Park parents that won't even consider a school if it does not have these classes. The Charters that have managed to have more rigorous programs also have fairly focused summer programs to help kids that need more supports. This last summer there was a lot of people crying about students that were selected for summer school that were just on the bubble, but what if we focused on the group that was on the bubble between proficient and advanced and provided advanced focused summer reading and math programs starting in third grade in failing schools. Waiting for middle and high school is just too late.

by DC Parent on Feb 6, 2014 9:07 pm • linkreport

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