Students at NYC high school get third grade-level lessons on Goldilocks
These high school kids are getting a ‘bear’ bones education.
Juniors taking American literature at highly rated Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn were tasked with a series of rudimentary assignments based on childhood fables and fairy tales — third grade-level classwork that stunned critics and parents called “educational neglect.”
After reading “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” this semester, the 11th-grade general education students were then tasked with answering simple questions, such as “Who?” “What?” “When?” and “Why?” according to students who provided copies of the lessons to The Post.
For an answer to “What?” in “Goldilocks,” one student answered, “eat bears’ food + slept in beds.” The “Why” was “hungry + tired.”
They were then directed to write a summary sentence of the “literature.”
Students at the Midwood school were initially as taken aback as the little bear was over his missing porridge — when they saw the sheer simplicity of the assignments. But they were savvy enough to realize a good thing when they saw one.
“I was confused why we had it at first but I was like ‘F–k, it’s an easy assignment.’ I’m not complaining,” shrugged one junior outside the school this week.
Another student called American Literature “the easiest class that I have” and speculated that the worksheet on the “Tortoise and the Hare” would account for 10% of her grade.
A third student showed an instruction sheet on writing summary sentences she received a few weeks ago, with “Goldilocks” as the example.
“This was just a starter to see what you could do. Just to see if you could do it first and then we were gonna move on to something more challenging,” the student noted.
A fourth student said he received both “elementary style” assignments.
“Besides annotating a lot, we don’t really do what I would describe as 11th-grade work,” he said.
The assignment sheet with the bear’s tale came with a version of the story from the British Council’s “LearnEnglish Kids” program which says it aims to teach the language to children.
A fifth junior said he doesn’t feel like classes are demanding enough and had received a similarly easy lesson in a world classics class.
“I feel like they’re literally just hindering us,” the student said. “I don’t find my classes to be challenging. I find that most of the work that we do get assigned is actually distracting us from what’s actually important.”
The literature class falls under the school’s Communication Arts department, which contends its primary aim is the “improvement of your ability to think critically and communicate effectively through the written and spoken word.”
The department website notes that famed broadcaster Murrow had a statement by Henry David Thoreau in his office which read, “It takes two to speak the truth — one to speak and the other to hear.”
Department of Education spokesman Nathaniel Styer didn’t directly respond to questions by The Post. Instead, he posted a lengthy defense on Twitter claiming the lesson will help prepare students for a tougher, similar assignment involving Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” which is more age-appropriate for high schoolers.
“This is what educators call ‘scaffolding,’” he tweeted. “You introduce a topic, have the students practice it on something easy, before you have them work with something complex.”
But one of the Murrow juniors said his class was assigned to read only a seven-page summary of “The Scarlet Letter,” not the full 272-page classic.
“We never read any full chapters of “The Scarlet Letter” and we never read the actual book in any way,” the student contended.
The kiddie-themed lessons galled some educators and advocates, especially given the reputation of the school, which was attended by the likes of famed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, actress Marisa Tomei, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky.
“That is horrifying to hear,” said an English teacher at another New York City public high school. “To use the ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ or ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ as a modified scaffolding technique undermines where a child should be in the 11th grade. That sounds like educational neglect.”
A 2015 article in the journal Instructional Science looked at 768 students aged 12-15 in the European Union and found that scaffolding is no panacea. “Scaffolding … is not unequivocally effective; its effectiveness depends, among other things, on the independent working time of the groups and students’ task effort.”
Chien Kwok, a parent leader and member of the Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 2, said the state has been continually lowering standards.
“Using a five-page synopsis of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ rather than having students read the whole book just confirms how low the standards have gotten at DOE,” said Kwok, co-founder of PLACE NYC, a parent-led education advocacy group.
Murrow has about 3,600 students and a solid academic reputation with a graduation rate of 86% in 2021. Only 8% of students are deemed English language learners, but about 47% of incoming eighth-graders did not meet state standards in English language arts in 2019-20, the latest year available.
“I’m appalled that a teacher or a high school would think that having kids start at a third-grade reading level for an 11th-grade English class would be appropriate,” said one parent who does not have children at Murrow. “It’s also shocking that they would read an abridged version of” The Scarlet Letter “and not the full book.”
“The DOE is not consistently teaching kids across the board. Murrow is supposed to be a good school. It has a strong reputation,” added the parent.
When an advocate tweeted about the Tortoise tale, one incredulous person responded “That’s 2nd or 3rd grade material… in Phoenix.”
Allen Barge, the Murrow principal, did not immediately return requests for comment.
Additional reporting by Rich Calder
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