For much of the last decade, graduation rates for most of New York State’s Big Five school districts have been around 50 percent. But the numbers have gradually improved for the New York City and Yonkers districts, which have graduation rates over 60 percent.
Rochester’s graduation rates continue to hover around 50 percent, however, with 27 of its schools performing in the lowest 5 percent in the state.
One reason for the gains in New York City and Yonkers, says Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, is the implementation of what educators call the common core curriculum. Rochester is about four years behind New York City implementing the common core, Vargas says.
The district will hold a public meeting on Tuesday, February 5, to explain the common core to parents. The meeting's at 5:30 p.m. in the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street.
About 45 states have agreed to adopt the common core curriculum, including New York. The premise: a seventh grader in Rochester should be able to move to a public school in Massachusetts and demonstrate the same knowledge in math, for example, as the students in that school.
“It’s a clear set of standards,” says Anita Murphy, Rochester’s deputy superintendent of operations. “The standards say 'this is what children at this grade should know and be able to do.'”
The common core gives teachers a road map, Murphy says, but it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell teachers how to teach, she says.
“We used to hand teachers a bat and a ball, and tell you to go play,” Murphy says. “Then we’d come back and tell you that you failed because you played cricket even though we never told you to play baseball. That’s what we’ve been doing to teachers across this country.”
The common core also has a second tier. Just as the states have established common standards, Rochester has created a districtwide common core. For example: ninth-grade algebra, whether the student is enrolled at Monroe or Charlotte high school, will be the same.
The common core also emphasizes equitable standards: students in one city school should receive the same level of art and music instruction as students in another. And it emphasizes understanding over-coverage.
Murphy says the district’s teachers fell into a habit of offering students an assortment of course levels instead of the appropriate level, based on what it seemed like students could handle. For example, students would receive seventh-grade math instead of eighth-grade math or pre-algebra instead of algebra.
Remedial instruction was being offered instead of the course, Murphy says.
“Now we’re saying, ‘Don’t do that,’” she says. “'Have high expectations for our kids.'”
Implementing the core curriculum may be the biggest challenge the district has ever faced, Vargas says.
“The state used to give us more latitude, but now that latitude is gone," he says.