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Tom Finneran: Just Say “Yes”

Friday, January 24, 2014

 

An exam school in Worcester would be a big step forward, believes Tom Finneran.

I confess. I am a big fan of GoLocalWorcester's columns on education—they are always worth reading. I can’t say that I’m always in agreement with their conclusions, but they are certainly thought provoking.

A further confession: I went to Boston Latin School, probably the most legendary public exam school in America. Thus Zeke Wright’s recent column and query “Does Worcester Need an Academically Selective High School?” caught my attention. In fact, the arguments and concerns of both opponents and proponents of the idea of an exam school for Worcester were well thought out and articulately stated. The entire column was a lesson in civics and public debate.

Given my personal bias as well as the indisputable history of Boston Latin School, my answer to Zeke’s question is “yes”. Worcester should embrace its own home-grown excellence and expand its future. It can do so by side-stepping the lowest common denominator style of current public school offerings and unabashedly celebrating the standard of high achievement.

That there are very bright students in Worcester is no secret. That there are highly focused families in Worcester, some economically comfortable and some frighteningly poor, is inarguable. That there are teachers who pray for such students and who cherish such focused families is well known. An exam school can bring these things into a symphonic harmony, lifting the entire city in its reputation and appeal.

Unfair Criticism

A common charge brought against Boston Latin School and its exam school counterparts is that it fosters an “elitism” that is out of place in America. Perhaps in modern-day America that is true. My response to such a charge is simple and direct—thank God for such elitism. We could use more of it in modern-day America. For it is an elitism of effort and achievement. In fact, it is an elitism as American as apple pie, an elitism that the poorest and most desperate of immigrant families insisted upon for their children---that should those children, by dint of perseverance and effort, qualify for the rigors of an exam school education, that they would not be consigned to treading water, moving nowhere, while waiting for less motivated or less capable students to simply put their toes in the water.

A city’s embrace of an exam school does not mean that its other students forfeit solid educational opportunity. Nor does it mean that the city chooses to deny skilled technical training to its trade-oriented students. Indeed, I would argue that the best school systems recognize the realities of different abilities and interests in any large grouping of students and that they offer meaningful opportunities to all comers.

American Decline

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, recently spoke about the serious decline in the quality of American education and the looming challenges we face from many countries. The common denominator in those countries is not anti-Americanism. Rather, it is a conscious determined decision to insist on excellent education for their children. Contrast that simple fact with modern America’s attitude that Johnny can’t flunk, that Susie must get a ribbon too, and that the notion of nightly homework is seen as a form of barbaric punishment taken from the Middle Ages.

I don’t like to live in the past but here’s the standard at Boston Latin School, AFTER you’ve passed the entrance exam and demonstrated at least some academic potential---that an “average” student will spend two to three hours on homework each night! That’s after sports practices or band or drama or glee club or school newspaper activities……………………….two to three hours a night. You might call that elitist. My mother, a really brilliant woman, called it effort. She was not confused. She knew that effort lies behind every achievement, every “genius”, and every invention. Secretary Duncan knows that too.

His focus of concern seems to be on parents who not only accept bland content but who actually insist on it, shielding their children from the hard work and homework of serious education. That America is in decline on many fronts is troubling. That such decline is self-inflicted is both painful and mind-boggling. In order to allow our children to feel good about themselves today we consign them to an increasingly bleak future, a future which will be dominated by those whose consistent efforts gained high achievements. Johnny and Susie might have lots of “every child is a winner” ribbons on their walls but their futures are grim. Maybe, just maybe, Worcester will light their lamps and brighten their lives. An exam school would be a big step forward.

Just say “yes”.

 

Related Slideshow: AP Opportunities at Worcester’s High Schools

According to ProPublica, studies have shown that students who take advanced classes have increased chances of attending and finishing college. However, with the number of advanced placement (AP) courses offered at Worcester's public high schools varying significantly, not every student is given the same chance. The slides, below, show the Worcester public high schools whose students have the most and least AP opportunities to help them get into - and graduate from - college. 

The below data were collected from the Civil Rights Data Set, released by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Right, and refers to the 2009-10 school year. The data were analyzed by ProPublica. 

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Worcester Technical High

AP Courses Offered: 3

AP Pass Rate: 15%
Inexperienced Teachers: 15%

Students Who ...
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 59%
Take At Least One AP Course: 6%
Participate in Sports: 19%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Univ. Park Campus School

AP Courses Offered: 4

AP Pass Rate: 21%
Inexperienced Teachers: 6%

Students Who ...
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 76%
Take At Least One AP Course: 22%
Participate in Sports: 56%

*University Park Campus School includes the 7th and 8th grades.

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Claremont Academy

AP Courses Offered: 5

AP Pass Rate: 14%
Inexperienced Teachers: 16%

Students Who ...
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 94%
Take At Least One AP Course: 16%
Participate in Sports: 18%

*Claremont Academy includes the 7th and 8th grades. 

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Burncoat Senior High

AP Courses Offered: 10

AP Pass Rate: 42%
Inexperienced Teachers: 16%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 56%
Take At Least One AP Course: 20%
Participate in Sports: 34%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

North High

AP Courses Offered: 11

AP Pass Rate: 23%
Inexperienced Teachers: 5%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 75%
Take At Least One AP Couse: 13%
Participate in Sports: 25%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Doherty Memorial High

AP Courses Offered: 11

AP Pass Rate: 38%
Inexperienced Teachers: 14%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 47%
Take At Least One AP Course: 15%
Participate in Sports: 43%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

South High Community

AP Courses Offered: 14

AP Pass Rate: 26%
Inexperienced Teachers: 13%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 73%
Take At Least One AP Course: 28%
Participate in Sports: 28%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Worcester School District

Avg. AP Courses Offered: 10

AP Pass Rate: 30%
Inexperienced Teachers: 13%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 66%
Take At Least One AP Course: 16%
In A Gifted/Talented Program: 10%

ProPublica analysis

Prev Next

Massachusetts

Avg. AP Courses Offered: 10

AP Pass Rate: 64%
Inexperienced Teachers: 12%

Students Who …
Get Free/Reduced Lunch: 35%
Take At Least One AP Course: 15%
In A Gifted/Talented Program: 9%

ProPublica analysis

 
 

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