First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

National School Choice Week prepares for takeoff with in-flight video

Last January, tens of thousands of parents, concerned citizens, and advocates from across the political spectrum joined together for National School Choice Week, a week dedicated to promoting the right of all parents to choose the most effective learning option for their children.

The previous National School Choice Week involved supporters from more than 200 organizations, and resulted in more than 150 events all across the United States. The second annual is expected to be even bigger.

Beginning this month, NSCW supporters are presenting their school choice message to passengers on board select airline carriers as part of the in-flight video programming. Over the next three months, the video will be shown on 29,000 flights, to an audience of more than 3.8 million viewers.

Viewers will be urged to get involved in the next National School Choice Week, which is being held Jan. 22-28, 2012. The video can be seen by clicking here: Anyone interested in getting involved in the upcoming National School Choice Week can visit to find an event in their area.

Obama launches ‘Digital Promise’

The Education Department provided start-up funding for the new project, which promotes software and “digital tutors.” The White House announced Friday the launch of “Digital Promise,” a nonprofit initiative meant to bring more technology to classrooms. Read more in The Hill blog.

Vouchers, merit pay spice Dougco forum

Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers, and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together at a Highlands Ranch elementary school to field questions submitted by voters. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Latin lost in budget translation at Jeffco schools

In Laurie Lawless’ Latin class at Dakota Ridge High School, 18 eager students study the classics: works by Vergil, Ovid, Horace — and, of course, the timeless … Seuss? Read more in the Denver Post.

SAT reading scores fall to lowest level on record

SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 were the lowest on record, and combined reading and math scores fell to their lowest point since 1995. Read more in the Denver Post.

Equity Education Conference held in Aurora

The Equity Education Conference will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at Vista PEAK Preparatory 9-12, 24500 E. 6th Ave., Aurora.

This year’s topic is Culture, Community and Our Classrooms: Examining the Impact of Equity through Relevance, Rigor and Relationships. Gary R. Howard, who has 35 years of experience working with civil rights, social justice, equity, education and diversity issues, will serve as keynote speaker. Considered groundbreaking, his work regarding privilege, power and the role of white leaders in a multicultural society can be found in his most recent book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multicultural Schools.

The conference is open to all teachers, classified staff, parents, students and community members of Aurora Public Schools.

New STEM schools target underrepresented groups

Few Americans may know about the Grand Challenges for Engineering—from making solar energy affordable to ensuring access to clean water—but the students at a new school on the campus of North Carolina State University are getting to know them firsthand. Read more in EdWeek.

Poudre schools 101 event for community members

PSD’s parent District Advisory Board invites parents, community members and staff to a free “PSD 101” conference to learn how the district operates and how to make an impact in the decision-making process. The free conference will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3, at Blevins Middle School, 2101 S. Taft Hill Rd. No pre-registration is required. Spanish interpreters will be available.’

Get Into Water’ project teaches water science in Boulder Valley

Boulder High juniors and seniors are learning the basics of Colorado’s water system with the possibility of getting jobs in the water industry after they graduate or continuing in that field of study in college.

The Boulder High class is part of the “Get Into Water” project through the Boulder Valley School District’s Lifelong Learning Program, in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Section of American Water Works Association and the Colorado Workforce Development Council. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Brighton parents begin push for school district’s mill-levy ballot measure

BRIGHTON — Parents are hoping a November ballot measure will help the financially starved Brighton School District 27J, considered the most poorly funded in the Denver area.

“Something has to give soon or we’ll be up the creek without a paddle,” said Edith Kohler, the parent of a district third-grader. Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder Valley parents raised $370,000 for tutors, teacher aides

Budget cuts in the last couple of years could have endangered the jobs of some classroom aides at Boulder’s Flatirons Elementary.

But, according to Flatirons Principal Scott Boesel, the school’s parents raised enough money that he could continue to provide critical support to classroom teachers, reducing class sizes and increasing the hours for gifted advisors. Last school year, Flatirons raised $34,000 to pay for staff time. Read more in the Daily Camera.

District 6 Board of Education to hold community conversation

The District 6 Board of Education will hold a community conversation session from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, in the auxiliary gym at Franklin Middle School, 818 35th Ave. Parents, students, staff members, and community members are invited to attend and participate in the conversations.

The meeting format will feature small-group conversations at tables set up in the gym, with board members spread among the tables. District staff members will be on hand to answer questions at individual tables as needed.

Attendees will be asked to share their thoughts on a variety of educational issues. In addition, participants will be asked to discuss what programs and services they would add or strengthen in the district, should K-12 funding be improved in the future. Input gathered from table conversations will be factored into the Board’s discussions and decisions throughout the school year. The Board of Education regularly holds several community conversation sessions throughout the school year.

Notes from the table conversations will be compiled after the meeting and posted on the district website, Community members who are unable to attend the meeting can provide their comments by e-mail to [email protected].

Middle-class schools miss the mark

Middle-class public schools educate the majority of U.S. students but pay lower teacher salaries, have larger class sizes and spend less per pupil than low-income and wealthy schools, according to a report to be issued Monday. Read more in The Wall Street Journal.

Boulder Valley School District seeks input on standards curriculum

Boulder Valley School District is inviting community members to play a role in developing new curriculum to align with the new Colorado Academic Standards adopted by the Colorado State Board of Education in 2010. BVSD must revise its standards as necessary to ensure that district standards meet or exceed the statewide standards.

This curricular revision and alignment with state standards must be completed and approved by the Board of Education by Dec. 15. To meet that deadline and receive as much input as possible, the district is holding public meetings this month. Meetings will be from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the following dates:

Sept. 20 — Monarch K-8 School, 263 Campus Drive, Louisville

Sept. 22 — Southern Hills Middle School, 1500 Knox Drive, Boulder

Sept. 29 — Lafayette Elementary School, 101 N. Bermont Ave., Lafayette

Those who would like to review the curriculum documents, but cannot attend one of the above meetings, can request a copy by calling Susan Wojciechowski at 720-561-5139.

In October, district personnel will review public input and amend curriculum revisions before submitting them to the school board for review and discussion. The curriculum revision is slated as a study item at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting and final action is slated for its Dec. 13 meeting.

34 percent new principals in DPS schools

Denver Public Schools opened its doors last month to more new principals than it has in at least six years.

Denver Public Schools logoPrincipals at 46 of the district’s 134 non-charter schools – or 34 percent –  are new this year to their position, their school or both, according to district information.

Suzanne Morey, new principal at McGlone Elementary, works with a student. Photo courtesy of McGlone.

Sixteen of the new principals are moving into the position from that of assistant principal. If the 11 principals who simply moved laterally – jumping from the leadership of one Denver school to another – are not counted in the total, DPS still has 35 new principals. 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.