First Person

Voices: On Election Day, pondering education's purpose

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned education consultant, argues schools need to prepare students for life – not just jobs. 

Lately we have been told again and again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War – Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books

Of course it matters who wins tonight, but no matter who our next president is, I intend to ask him and other leaders one question over the next four years. It is no small matter – just the purpose of education.

Each candidate was granted a page in a recent Time, pertaining to the cover story, “Reinventing College.” Like most politicians today, and I fear too many others setting the agenda for our country, both Obama and Romney draw a direct line from education to the economy.

OBAMA: “In the 21st century economy, higher education cannot be a luxury; it is an economic necessity every family should be able to afford….We can give 2 million workers the chance to attend their local community college and arm themselves with the skills that will lead directly to a job.”

ROMNEY: “Our economy is demanding more advanced skills and more varied skills every day. Our higher education system must be responsive to these demands if it is to offer students an attractive return on their investment, prepare them for successful careers, and help America compete in the global marketplace.”

The election has focused on “jobs jobs jobs,” and candidates have outdone themselves to tie everything else (including foreign policy) back to this concern.  But what Obama and Romney articulate is becoming the conventional wisdom: that the economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace ought to be the goal of schools and colleges.

I believe this is foolish and dangerous.

“Tomorrow’s workers are in school today”

This quote by Marlene Seltzer is telling. It is an especially relevant topic this week as Denver will benefit Friday from presentations and discussions led by Jobs for the Future President Marlene Seltzer and Program Director Lili Allen (Hot Lunch, Donnell-Kay Foundation). The good work JFF is doing across the country, especially for at-risk youth and entry-level workers, might encourage similar efforts here in Colorado. I applaud two of JFF’s key goals: to see high school students graduate college ready and to focus on college success for students.

But I have questions for Seltzer. She often speaks “on systemic reforms in secondary and postsecondary education and the ability of the labor market to serve low-income workers, employers, and local and state economies.” I am curious to know where she finds the right balance between these two worlds. How does JFF distinguish between education and training?

An old teacher like me recalls the vocational education programs of the 1970’s and how they tended to limit – rather than expand – the possibilities for too many high school students. We read that JFF’s new Pathways to Prosperity Project in six states aims to ensure “that many more young people complete high school (and) attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market.” Can we be sure that the Prosperity Project is not just old wine in new bottles?

But JFF is surely doing much good, so it is the least of my worries. Bigger forces are altering the balance between education and the economy, so that the classroom becomes subservient to the marketplace.

Consider the quote, “Education is the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox,” by Colorado House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino.

Ferrandino was a co-sponsor of the Skills for Jobs Act (HB 12-1061) signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last April. It directed “the Department of Labor – which collects data on job openings – to share that information with colleges, vocational schools and workforce training programs. Education News Colorado reported that House Democrats “touted it as part of their economic development package.”

The Bell Policy Center’s Frank Waterous testified for the bill, applauding how responsive it was “because it directly addresses industry’s need to fill positions in occupations and specializations critical to business growth and success. It is also responsive to the post-secondary education and workforce development communities’ desire to provide high-quality training that meets industry requirements.”

A Denver Post article found Metro State President Stephen Jordan to be a supporter, saying “the bill could prompt schools like his to tweak existing programs to better match the job market  – or to develop new programs entirely …” Jordan said he envisions adding minors or certificates that prepare students for the niches in their areas of interest that most need workers.

I would never argue that the workplace should have nothing to do with K-12 education. At the same time, leaders in government and business must know that when they speak to educators of our second-, fifth-, or eighth-graders as future workers who must learn certain skills to join the middle class – we feel they’re asking us to redefine the very purpose of education and of why we teach.

(And oh, by the way, does anyone recall the standards movement?)

Training kids for jobs here in Colorado

Over a year ago, Gov. Hickenlooper addressed the first gathering of the Education Leadership Council.

“In education there’s not a lot of mystery about what we need to do. We are not training kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them… How do we begin to address that?”

My answer: do all we can to remember that a good education is not about training kids for those jobs. Two different matters. I doubt that, when Hickenlooper was himself a student, his teachers thought they were training him to be geologist-brewmaster-restaurant owner-philanthropist-mayor-governor! His example reminds us – we cannot predict what jobs will be there, or the jobs that we create for ourselves. All the more reason not to train for jobs, but to educate for life.

This is not the space to make the counterargument for the liberal arts. I simply offer a concise statement from St. John’s College, where I earned my master’s degree. The Great Books Program – by many standards, the most impractical degree imaginable. Not to me.

The best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow, for the jobs that have yet to be created, is a liberal education – the kind of education most especially found at the small residential liberal arts colleges across the country…. Graduates of the nation’s many fine liberal arts institutions are prepared not only for a diverse range of careers but for all of life’s challenges and opportunities… This education provides a fitting foundation for all pursuits in life. It is of life-long value.

In less highfalutin language, as we celebrate Election Day – civics education anyone?

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.