First Person

Voices: A call for conversation around closing schools

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., lays out his thoughts around the pros and cons of closing schools, and calls for more conversation.

Smiley Middle School, which is in the process of being phased out.
Smiley Middle School, which is in the process of being phased out.

Those of us who can sound high and mighty about the need for the closure of low-performing schools often appear deaf to the response of the community in and around these troubled schools.  It is critical we stay attentive to all the factors that make a school closure hard and painful.

I try here to capture a few of these factors and concerns; by sharing this on EdNews, I hope to hear other comments that will shed more light on this issue.

I am one of those who believes that after giving a chronically low-performing school sufficient time and support, when the results stay—tragically, stubbornly—much the same, we serve students best by closing the schools while simultaneously making sure they have a better alternative for the following school year.  I am not alone; this belief is supported, at least as I understand it, by the bipartisan Senate Bill 163 of 2009 on Accountability, which has begun to put dozens of schools on notice that the state could take “dramatic intervention” by 2015 or so, and one of those steps could call for closure.

Many of us also realize it is a controversial idea.  We know that closing schools has been and likely will be mishandled at times (after all, “to err is human”), whether in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C.—or Denver (see Manual High).  Stories in Education Week (“Protesters Decry School Closings in Nation’s Cities,” 2/6/13, and “Study: Cities Face Growing Stock of Shuttered Schools,” 2/20/13) raise important questions about civil rights and closures that “disproportionately” affect poor and minority students.  That latter article stated that a study by Pew Charitable Trusts “says the impact of large-scale public school closures reverberate for years after the buildings themselves are shut down.”

Let me be clear, though, about a critical distinction: my focus here is about closing schools for academic reasons or charters for financial or operational failures. That’s quite a different matter from shutting down a school due to low enrollment and thereby creating a vacant building.  Closure as I discuss it here is not about leaving the building empty.

Many of us are eager to better understand how closing a chronically low-performing school is perceived.  What are the legitimate reasons folks of good-will — who want the best for the students – might insist there is another way than closure?  We know we have much to learn if we are to make good decisions about our lowest-performing schools.

So here’s a rough draft, capturing some of the concerns.  I hope several of you will improve on it.

  • That it hurts parents to be told the school where they send their child is so bad it should be closed, as if parents are somehow to blame for making a poor choice in sending their child to this school.   That it can feel like a slap in the face, as if the parents purchased a defective toy or ill-fitting clothes — and didn’t care about letting their son or daughter down.
  • That it hurts those administrators, teachers, and staff who are keenly aware of the challenges their students face and who give so much of themselves to meet their students’ needs, to then be told the school is performing so poorly it should be closed.  That it hurts to invest so much of yourself in a place and then be told: not good enough.
  • That it hurts the community around the school who know the men and women who work hard in that building, who have earned so much trust and respect over the years, who are now being told the job they do is unsatisfactory, and that the school they have committed themselves to will no longer be allowed to operate—at least not in its current form, not with its current leadership and faculty.
  • That it becomes personal when folks in the community have friends and family working in that school, have personal ties to those who will lose their jobs — those who, members of the community insist, try every day to do their best by the kids.
  • That it angers a community to feel the decision is made by those with little understanding of the context: the issues of poverty, race, immigration, the number of English language learners, etc., often significant factors in the school’s low-performance.
  • That it can feel like one more example of robbing a low-income community of its voice in local affairs, another case of “downtown” or “those people” imposing on the wishes of the families who live and work in that neighborhood.
  • That it can seem small-minded of those in authority to use test scores as a key factor in the decision on closure. That even when the district or state use comprehensive evaluation tools, such as Denver’s Strategic Schools Support Framework, which includes a look at leadership, community support, school climate, community support, and provides for school visits by a team of educators which allows real people to look at the intangibles–in spite of all that, that even such a “broad picture” is mistrusted because somewhere in that long list of metrics is the only one the community believes will really matter: test scores.
  • That it can confuse parents who hear so much talk about the importance of “parent choice,” and then they’re told that they are wrong (or worse) to choose to send their child to a low-performing school, especially one where the men and women in the building are so caring and respectful.  For some parents, that is almost enough to make them want to rally behind the school and keep it alive—whatever the test scores.  But now they’re told this can’t be an option anymore.  Where’s the “parent choice” in that?
  • That it angers parents and a community to feel closure is on the table when other quality choices for their kids are not available (again, see Manual) — or require a dangerous walk to and from that “better” school.
  • That when your school is put “on the clock” (SB 163), or to be more bloody about it, is said to be headed for “the chopping block,” it can damage morale enough to send the school on a downward spiral; it can lead the staff to feel the obstacles to proving sufficient progress over the next year or two are overwhelming, to feel that the district or state is eager to shut it down regardless of any slight improvement it can make….  Thus almost making the “warning” about possible closure a self-fulfilling prophecy: as soon as you tell us we’re a chronically low-performing school, we’ll prove it again this coming year. And how. (See the phase out of Montbello or Rachel Noel).

I am sure I have missed much.  Your corrections and additions are welcome.


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.