First Person

Recession hitting Colorado kids hard

Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign

Colorado is quickly losing its ability to provide adequately for its youngest residents, according to the first systematic measurement of the Great Recession’s impact on children in the state.

The 2011 Kids Count report, released Thursday, shows the number of youngsters statewide living in poverty rose by 31,000 between 2008 and 2009, cementing Colorado’s distinction as the state with the fastest-growing level of childhood poverty.

More than a quarter – 28 percent – of Colorado’s children live in a family where no adult has full-time employment. And in 2010, there were more than 18,400 homeless students enrolled in public schools in Colorado, up 53 percent from the 2006-07 school year.

While the bulk of them were living doubled-up as guests in other people’s homes, nearly a thousand were living in motels and 684 were living in cars or campgrounds or abandoned buildings.

“While economists proclaimed the end of the Great Recession more than a year ago, the end was nowhere in sight for many Colorado families, and especially for our children,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which releases the report annually.

“Though economic indicators can change quickly, the impacts on lives are often much longer-term.”

Even for parents who are working, affordable child care continues to be an issue, with child care costs increasing twice as fast as the median income in the past 10 years.

In 2009, the state was the fourth least-affordable state for full-time infant care at a center and fifth-least affordable for a 4-year-old’s care. At roughly $12,000 per year, full-time care for an infant in a daycare center eats up an average of 44 percent of a single mother’s income.

Measuring the recession’s impact

The Kids Count report provides state and county-level data on 40 components that contribute to the well-being of children, including health, education and economic status.

“The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back in to schools.”

While the data is collected annually, it typically lags a year or more behind by the time the report is released. Thus, last year’s report measured data collected before the full effects of the nation’s recent financial crisis and the resulting recession took their toll.

The 2011 report gives a more accurate picture of the challenges now confronting the state.

“This has a significant impact on the state’s quality of life,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a morning press conference in the state Capitol.

“And quality of life is a significant driver in why businesses want to move here.”

Hickenlooper acknowledged the irony of receiving the report on the heels of his proposed state budget, which would cut $332 million from K-12 education funding in Colorado.

“You are held captive to your resources,” he said, noting that no other budgetary category could yield that much in cuts. “The minute the resources come back, we’ll put them back in to schools.”

Kids Count is a national state-by-state project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide data about and track the status of children in the United States. The Colorado Children’s Campaign has been producing the state report since 1993.

Some ‘advantages’ of poverty

Not all the news in Colorado is gloomy, Watney said. She pointed to a number of indicators in which Colorado is showing improvement, including a drop in the number of children who lack health insurance.

That is one of the few advantages of poverty, experts note. Families whose income in the pat was too high to qualify for public insurance now may find themselves eligible for Medicaid or other programs.

Homemade paper dolls greeted lawmakers Thursday, reminding them to focus on children.

As a result, just 12 percent of Coloradans under 18 now lack health insurance. That’s still greater than the national average of 10 percent, but it’s a significant decrease for Colorado in the past two years.

Today, 38 percent of Colorado children are enrolled in Medicaid or CHP+, a low-cost insurance program for children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid.

Also, the number of children enrolled in full-day kindergarten – as opposed to half-day – has increased 70 percent since 2007, to 41,729 children.

Benefits of full-day kindergarten include greater academic success, improved social skills and a more stable daily schedule. Full-day programs also can lessen the financial burden on a family struggling to pay for child care.

Watney steered clear of editorializing about the findings. Nowhere in the report are there recommendations for policy changes. Rather, the report is all about the data.

“What gets measured, gets changed,” she said.

Hickenlooper said he hopes the state can use the data contained in the report to spot trends and act on them.

“We should hold ourselves to a higher level of accountability,” he said. “We should be able to predict outcomes based on data like what is in the Kids Count report.”

Demographics:

  • In 2009, there were 1,242,976 children in Colorado, putting the state in the top 10 in terms of growth of the child population since 2000.
  • Colorado’s children are 30 percent Hispanic, 59 percent non-Hispanic white, 4 percent black, 3 percent Asian, 1 percent American Indian and 3 percent of mixed race.
  • Since 2000, the proportion of non-Hispanic white children in Colorado has declined by 7 percent and the proportion of Hispanics has increased 6 percent. Others have remained stable.
  • 73 percent of Coloradan under age 18 live in a household headed by a married couple, and 28 percent in a single-parent household.

Immigrants

  • The majority of children in immigrant families are long-term residents. Only 2 percent – 5,000 children – had parents who arrived in this country less than five years ago.
  • Eighty-seven percent of children in immigrant families were born in the United States.
  • The bulk of children in immigrant families – 67 percent – are Latin American. Eight percent have European parents, 14 percent have Asian parents and 4 percent have African parents.
  • Nineteen percent of school-aged children in Colorado speak a language other than English at home.

Family economics

  • The number of children in families with incomes at 250 pecent or more of the Federal Poverty Level ($55,125 for a family of four) is decreasing, going from 56 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2009. But the number of children living in extreme poverty (incomes under $11,000 for a family of four) is growing, up from 5 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2009.

Geography of poverty

  • The areas most impacted by economic changes caused by the recession are on the Western Slope.
  • The counties with the highest poverty rates are in the San Luis Valley and the urban cores.

Ethnicity of poverty

  • Black and Hispanic families have been more impacted by the recession than white families. The total increase in children living in poverty rose by 17 percent, but for non-Hispanic white children, the rate of increase was  just 12 percent. It was 27 percent for black children, and 17 percent for Hispanic children.

Child health

  • The teen birth rate has been in steady decline since 2000. In 2009, 50 percent of  babies in Colorado were born to women in their 20s, and almost 30 percent were born to women in their 30s. Only 3 percent were born to girls 17 or younger.
  • Childhood obesity continues to plague Colorado. Although the state was ranked with the second lowest rate of overweight or obese children in 2003, by 2007 it ranked tenth, with 27 percent of children above a healthy weight. One national survey puts Colorado’s rate of increase in childhood obesity as second fastest in the nation, behind Nevada.

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First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.