For the past five years teachers at Spokane’s Rogers High have pursued an approach that may seem counterintuitive: by making school tougher, they can get more students to go to college.

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The thorny question of how best to boost student achievement has plunged several Seattle schools into a high-decibel battle over two competing approaches.

On one side are those who believe all kids benefit by being taught in multilevel classrooms where students of varying strengths learn together. On the other, those who insist that “tracking” — that is, dividing students according to academic performance — allows slower kids time to catch up, while accelerated learners can zoom ahead.

But now comes a new experiment in Spokane, where teachers at the district’s highest-poverty high school with the worst college-going rates have decided that funneling more low-income students into Advanced Placement courses — whether or not they pass the final exam — is the best way to nudge greater numbers toward college.


Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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It’s an interesting gamble, especially as some researchers, like Jonathan Plucker at Johns Hopkins University, tell Education Lab that a score of 1 on the college-level AP test — the lowest grade — means “you’ve probably wasted that student’s year.”

This installment of Education Lab’s “What We’re Reading” looks at a new piece in The New York Times that suggests otherwise.

For the past five years, teachers at John R. Rogers High School in Spokane have pursued an approach that may seem counterintuitive: by making school harder, they believe they can get more students to go to college and stay there.

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To that end, Rogers has increased the number of Advanced Placement courses it offers and eliminated all remedial classes that don’t count toward college-ready transcripts — for example, Outdoor Living, a science course described as “Camping 101” by principal Lori Wyborney. Teachers now comb through lists of every student who might be able to do advanced-level work but haven’t enrolled, and track them down in the hallways, course-registration sheets at the ready.

Early results have been striking.

In the past two years, the number of students taking AP classes has jumped nearly 20 percent. And since 2012, the college-going rate is up 10 points, to 53 percent, as of spring 2015.

“We had some pushback on this from teachers and counselors — none of whom are here any more. But there wasn’t any complaint from students,” said Assistant Principal Brett Hale in an interview with Education Lab. “That’s really what resolved our decision. We said to each other, look, they’re not missing those classes. They’re rising to the challenge. You raise the bar and they will meet it.”