Rather than celebrate performance versus low external standards, Public Prep is determined to deeply understand the full array of skills, knowledge, behavior, and habits of mind that reliably predict whether or not a student in a Public Prep elementary or middle school will ultimately complete a post-secondary degree.
Through this process, we have identified four priority areas:
1) Kindergarten “Un”-Readiness
From the beginning, many students served by Public Prep schools enter Kindergarten with significant vocabulary and language deficits. Much has been written regarding the unprecedented Early Catastrophe research that shows children’s vocabulary and knowledge acquisition differs greatly across income groups.
The research identified two important facts: (1) children from lower-income families had heard thirty million fewer words and lower quality vocabulary by their fourth birthdays than children from higher-income families; and (2) test performance in third grade could be reliably predicted from vocabulary at age three.
Key Insight – Unless this 30 Million Word Gap is addressed in the earliest ages, prior to Kindergarten, we are destined to continue to have the same mediocre outcomes years later and produce another generation of students who will not be able to fulfill their potential.
Thus, we will launch the Joan Ganz Cooney Early Learning Program in order to provide the integral first component of a content-rich, vertically-aligned Pre-K through 8th grade curriculum for 54 four-year-olds in the South Bronx, who will then matriculate to Girls Prep Bronx and Boys Prep Bronx.
2) Content Matters
In a national study titled Learning Less, in response to ELA & Math state test requirements, 81% of elementary school teachers reported they believe schools have narrowed curriculum, shifting instructional time and resources toward math and English Language Arts and away from subjects such as art, music, foreign language, science, and social studies.
This focus on skill acquisition only versus skill and knowledge acquisition has consequences, most notably in exacerbating the knowledge deficits already identified in the first priority area. At Public Prep, our interim assessment data consistently reveals that student success or failure is often highly correlated with whether or not the student possesses the vocabulary and background knowledge that would make them familiar with the materials being assessed.
In essence, regardless of a student’s traditional reading skills (e.g. predicting, summarizing, and decoding), their understanding will be severely impeded by a lack of understanding of relevant background knowledge – in this case scientific concepts like sound waves, air pressure, and space flight.
Education researchers like E.D. Hirsch and Dan Willingham have long advocated that reading scores will not go up and college graduation rates will not increase, no matter how hard good teachers try, if we fail to construct an explicit core body of knowledge that must be learned grade by grade in the early years. They have continuously made the case for bringing more non-fiction, informational content into the Language Arts block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum in the early grades.
With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in New York State, this idea of building literacy skills through a knowledge-rich curriculum is finally taking hold. Indeed, this passage from the Common Core state standards has now become known as the 57 Most Important Words in Education Reform:
“By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”
While the Common Core State Standards are focusing attention on the importance of content, it is still incumbent upon the school system to develop the exact curriculum that will meet those standards. To learn more about the difference between standards and curriculum, click here.
Key Insight - The absence of a coherent, vertically-aligned, knowledge-based curriculum across a balanced schedule and range of disciplines, especially in elementary school, led to Public Prep students not acquiring the requisite vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension skills necessary for future growth. Creation of such a curriculum must become central to Public Prep’s improvement efforts.
3. Character Matters
As critical as early learning and a broad-based, content-rich curriculum are to student success, they are but two rungs on the ladder to college completion (versus college or career readiness). This is especially true for students from low-income backgrounds. Accomplishment in ELA and math is necessary but not sufficient in ensuring students ultimately enroll in and graduate from college.
In his breakthrough 2012 book How Children Succeed - Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough challenges the conventional wisdom that success in academics and life is dependent solely on a student’s cognitive abilities or intelligence. Rather he argues that a set of non-cognitive skills or character-based strengths – like grit, curiosity, perseverance, resiliency, self-control, gratitude, and optimism – are equally or more crucial to success than other factors. Moreover, these strengths are not just innate; they can be developed through deliberate means.
Since our inception, Public Prep has prioritized cultivating what is now popularly called a “growth mindset” within our students. Our core values of scholarship, merit, sisterhood or brotherhood, and responsibility are embodied in all of our work with students and families, who we consider to be invaluable partners in their child’s academic and socio-emotional development. For example, our entire school community comes together at bi-weekly unity meetings to celebrate student success and reinforce our values.
Key Insight - These two ideas – the need to develop cognitive as well as character-based strengths – are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are mutually re-enforcing. Students who believe that they can improve their own life outcomes through hard work, a positive outlook, and relentless effort deal better with adversity and apply themselves more fervently to difficult academic tasks.
4) College Knowledge Matters
While more students from all backgrounds are finishing college, the difference in graduation rates between the top and bottom income groups has widened by nearly 50% over two decades. As the chart indicates, graduation rates for low income students have remained flat for decades.
Moreover, there is ample evidence that even the majority of high-achieving low-income students do not apply to any selective colleges because they lack college knowledge. Low-income students are often poorly informed about their college-going opportunities, or have financial, cultural, social, or family issues that make them unwilling to apply to strong postsecondary institutions, even if they are well-qualified for admission.
Key insight: Even though Public Prep is a network of only Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools, we must: (1) incorporate deliberate instruction that demystifies college for our students into our core curriculum, and (2) build formal partnerships with high-performing public and private high schools that will enable our alumni to find the right “fit” school and keep them on a path to college completion.