First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Budget, budget, budget

Jeffco schools

The budget problems for students in Jefferson County have gotten worse. Last month Jeffco Public Schools estimated they would lose $37 million with the cuts to education announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Now the district says it will lose nearly $40 million in funding. On Tuesday night parents and teachers were at a meeting in Lakewood where business and political leaders addressed the economic and educational realities for Jefferson County. Watch this CBS4 report.

Adams 12 Five Star

budget cuts/scissors and dollar billSurveys of parents, teachers and community members in the Adams 12 Five Star District show distinct differences in support for raising local and state taxes to offset $30 million in budget cuts in 2011-12. But all three groups were more favorable on a local tax increase than a statewide hike.

Among more than 4,400 community members – mostly parents – surveyed in the state’s fifth-largest school district, 54 percent said they would support a local increase compared to 48 percent for a statewide increase. A survey of more than 600 parents alone put their support at 46 percent for a local increase, though another 26 percent said they would “somewhat” support it.

Those numbers spike when the question is put to more than 1,500 certified staff members, mostly teachers – 85 percent would support a local tax increase and 77 percent would support a statewide hike. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Greeley Schools

Parents, students, district staff members, and the community at large are invited to ask questions and gather information regarding the district’s revenues, expenditures, and budget plans for 2011-12 during a series of Wednesday afternoon open houses.

These discussion sessions will be 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon at the District 6 Administration Building, 1025 Ninth Ave., beginning March 16 and continuing through April 27. Community members are welcome to attend any or all of the open houses.

The sessions will have a casual format, with no formal presentations or agenda. Community members will be able to have conversations with the district’s key financial staff members. Questions or comments regarding the district’s revenues and expenditures will be welcome, as will suggestions for balancing the district’s 2011-12 budget.

Community members also can access a variety of financial information on the district’s website,, in the “Money Matters” section. Further discussion and questions also are welcome in the “Budget for 2011-12” discussion thread at

Cherry Creek

The Cherry Creek School District recently released estimated budget cuts for the upcoming school year, and as expected, the news is not particularly good.

The school district, the fourth largest in the state, is expecting a $21 million shortfall in the 2011-12 operating budget. Much of the proposed cuts are a direct result of decreased funding at the state level, according to officials. Read more in Your Hub.

Students hone CSAP skills

With the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, testing dates fast approaching, PSD schools are finding new ways to get students motivated and prepared. For the PSD Online Academy, this will be the second year students will take CSAP. Jordan Wheeler, a freshman at the online academy, took the CSAP at Liberty Common School last year. He said preparing for the tests is the same no matter the venue. Read more in the Coloradoan.

How Colorado builds a “Whatever it Takes” community

Participate in the culminating event of the P-20 Speaker Series whose year-long theme has been wrap-around services that can optimize education experiences for students. Panelists will discuss their own education experiences in the context of their professional connections to the education system in Colorado. They will also discuss the multitude of factors that are necessary to make a child’s educational experience in P-12 and higher education successful. Audience members will have the opportunity to dialogue about how we move the Colorado education system forward keeping in mind the myriad of factors that must be considered to support each child.

Panelists Include: Nate Easley, PhD, deputy director, Denver Scholarship Foundation; Maria Guajardo, PhD, executive director, Mayor’s Office of Education and Children;  and Miguel In Suk Lovato, grants program officer, Daniels Fund. It will take place from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 15, at the Lawrence Street Center, in the second floor atrium, 1380 Lawrence Street, Denver.

The event is free and open to the public.

Extraordinary gains, little investigation

A USA Today analysis of state test scores raises questions about extraordinary gains at nearly 70 schools between 2003 and 2009, but Colorado education officials do little to investigate such steep increases. That may change as the state prepares to link growth in test scores to teacher and principal evaluations. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Most schools could face ‘failing’ label under No Child Left Behind, Duncan says

More than three-quarters of the nation’s public schools could soon be labeled “failing” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration said Wednesday as it increased efforts to revamp the signature education initiative of President George W. Bush. Read more in the Washington Post.

Justice High School thrives in Lafayette

When area high school and middle school counselors call Justice High School co-principal Jeremy Jimenez to ask if he has

Justice High School mascotroom for “another knucklehead,” he never declines. Read more in the Daily Camera.

New private school focuses on Asperger’s

Bridge Schools leaders knew the school needed a new focus, with enrollment declines making it impossible to keep the private Boulder middle and high school going. Read more in the Daily Camera.

CDE launches new educator effectiveness website

The Educator Effectiveness Office at CDE has launched a website devoted to the state’s efforts to attract, prepare and support effective educators. The new site provides information and resources designed to support educators throughout their career.

The site includes information regarding the state’s recruitment, preparation, licensure, induction, evaluation and professional development activities. Information on statewide councils and commissions is also available.

Of particular interest, the Evaluation and Support page provides the latest information on implementation of the state’s new educator evaluation system pursuant to Senate Bill 10-191. A companion to this web page, the State Council for Educator Effectiveness page contains current information on the state council’s meetings and working documents.

APS Online High School gets financial boost from feds

An Aurora Public Schools program that offers online learning tools for at-risk high school students will receive extra funding from the Federal Communications Commission next year.

The Aurora Public Schools Online High School is one of 20 schools and libraries nationwide that will get about $9 million in funding for the 2011-12 school year through the FCC’s “Learning On-The-Go” initiative. The initiative rewards programs that use innovative tools and models to connect students with online learning. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

State denies Lotus charter school

The Colorado Board of Education on Wednesday upheld the St. Vrain Valley School District’s denial of a charter for Lotus School of Excellence.

Organizers of the Lotus School, which has a kindergarten-through-11th-grade school in Aurora, wanted to open a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school in Longmont. Citing an unrealistic budget and a lack of community support, the St. Vrain Board of Education unanimously denied the request Dec. 8. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

DPS touts decline in dropout rate

DPS logoAs celebrations go, it was low-key. Denver Public Schools chose an intimate setting Tuesday to trumpet its success in reducing the district’s grade 7-through-12 dropout rate, which declined in 2009-2010 to 6.4 percent.

The previous year, it stood at 7.4 percent. The district is also touting its 42 percent decrease in dropout rate over the past five years. In the 2005-06 school year, the dropout rate stood at a discouraging 11.1 percent. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Elizabeth charter school students go digital with iPad2

Legacy Academy in Elizabeth will become Colorado’s first iSchool. Under the Apple based program, every student at the K-8 charter school will be provided an iPad2 and more wireless bandwidth than the whole town of Castle Rock. Watch this KWGN report.

Dougco voucher vote expected Tuesday

Douglas County school board members appear poised next week to approve the state’s first district-driven voucher program, which would launch this fall with up to 500 students. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

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.