Opinion

Are there really no shortcuts for getting low-income kids to college?

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“There are no shortcuts.”

Inside the world of high-poverty charter schools, few mantras are as beloved as this one. Teacher-legend Rafe Esquith used it as a book title in 2004, and it was later adopted by prominent charter networks like the Knowledge Is Power Program. The slogan holds some truth: There are few quick and easy ways to remediate low-income students, and closing achievement gaps requires great effort, often sustained over significant periods of time.

The problem with the “no shortcuts” mindset, however, is that it has exacerbated the already dire situation in high-poverty schools around teacher burnout and turnover. Advocates of extended learning time argue that low-income students need longer school days and school years to perform at the same level as their more affluent peers. In my home state of Massachusetts, the most zealous charter schools expect students to attend school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and sometimes add an extra two to three weeks of classes during the summer.

Henry Seton

Henry Seton

Meanwhile, statistics on public schools nationwide estimate that close to a third of new teachers leave in three years, close to half in five years. Teachers in high-poverty schools face students with particularly intense academic and social-emotional needs. With extended school days, these teachers are typically asked to take on additional teaching and supervision responsibilities and are correspondingly left with less time to plan — not to mention catch their breath. In the Boston area, it is not uncommon to see charter schools lose more than a quarter of their teachers in a single year.

To support teachers in high-poverty schools, we must first acknowledge that these educators need even more planning time — not less — built into their schedules to collect data on student skill levels, fine tune remediation efforts, and devise interventions for struggling students.

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And while there may be no quick fixes for closing achievement gaps, there are definitely more and less efficient approaches for addressing student skill deficiencies. As teachers gain expertise, they learn more effective methods to hit lesson objectives quicker and serve every student so that less remediation is needed later. As a teacher in my seventh year, I have learned, for example, how to narrow vocabulary gaps using lively, three-minute games rather than worksheets that can take 15 minutes or more.

State testing data reveal the shortcomings of the “no shortcuts” mantra as well. Visiting the Massachusetts website, you can quickly find the schools where students are growing in their skills most quickly from year to year. Sometimes these high-growth schools are places with long school days, but often they have more traditional, sustainable schedules and are achieving faster rates of learning per hour of instructional time. They are proving that you don’t need to extend the day to close achievement gaps.

At the high-poverty school where I work, we have a slightly longer-than-average schedule four days a week (8:30 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.), but we send our students home at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesdays so that we have more time to plan supports and interventions for our neediest students.

When we realized several years ago that many middle school students were arriving years behind in core math skills, we gave these students an extra math class in the place of foreign language rather than adding to the school day. (They still have an opportunity to study foreign language in our high school.) As a result of moves like these, we have some of the highest student growth rates in the state, often outperforming both upper-income school districts and other high-poverty charter schools with much longer days.

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Ultimately, schools have a responsibility to ensure that they are maximizing the use of every single minute in their existing schedule before pushing for longer days. Schools that already have extended learning time and high teacher turnover should ask themselves whether they truly need every minute in their day. Extended day schools should also consider bringing on more tutors, student teachers and other support staff so that teachers have adequate time to plan during the day — a move increasingly popular here in Massachusetts. And with more student learning data available than ever, education leaders should research what schools with both traditional schedules and high student learning rates are doing to remediate students quickly while not adding hours to the day.

Preparing low-income students for four-year colleges is a grueling marathon. There may be no radical shortcuts in this work, but there are always ways we can be smarter about getting to the finish line, ways that leave both teachers and students ready and capable to race again.

Henry Seton teaches tenth-grade humanities and chairs that department at the Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts.

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