First Person

My kingdom for a parking space. Oh, never mind

My first teaching job was in a pretty rough school. So imagine my surprise one day when one of my colleagues said, “This is a great school to work at.” I waited for him to elaborate and tried not to fall over. He added, “Because of the parking!” He was right about that. We had a small section of the street that was reserved for teachers, but there was also ample street parking. The issues at that school were too vast for me to consider staying, but I still miss the ease of parking there.

Being a perpetual early bird, I didn’t find it too difficult to park when I transferred to my current school 10 years ago, even though there was a lot less street parking that wasn’t reserved for the school. I had my placard and usually had no problems, save for the very rare occasion when there was an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I arrived later.

Much as we loved the city, my husband and I decided to buy a house and were unable to afford the city. We decided to head north, to Putnam County, where our daughter could have a yard and a small-town childhood. Since I loved teaching in the city, and still do, I didn’t look for a new job. Once I’d left Queens, I found myself leaving earlier than ever, but I wanted to make sure I could get a parking spot. And I have always relied heavily on that hour before school to get myself mentally ready for the day and set up any materials I needed. I am also neurotic about punctuality and am almost never late.

This worked well for me until last fall, when Mayor Bloomberg decided to strip most of our parking passes, citing abuse and a desire to see more people using mass transit.(I am not sure how one can abuse a Department of Education parking placard; I did once park in a Red Cross spot next to Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, and I got towed faster than you can say “parking pass.” It was my own fault because I didn’t read the sign carefully enough, but is it abuse if you’re ticketed and towed?)

After our current passes were revoked, I found myself leaving home earlier than ever, but I still had to loop around the neighborhood until I found a space. More than once, I crossed my fingers and took a questionable spot, hoping I wouldn’t find a ticket when I got out. Sometimes I was lucky, more often not.

I suppose I could have paid to park in the lot near my school, but I have a philosophical problem with paying for something that suburban teachers get for free, even though our salaries are supposedly on par with theirs. And I was already spending a lot of money on gas. On average, I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes, wasting gas, looking for a spot, but more important, I wasted time that would have been better spent in my classroom. My commute, an hour from door to door, was extended substantially by the time I spent looking for a parking space.

Each month, I’d wait hopefully for my name to be pulled out of a hat so that I could take my turn with one of the eight passes we were issued, to be shared among 30 teachers who drove. Three times since the fall of 2008, the parking placard fairy smiled upon me. During those months, I got more work done. I drove up to the school, parked, and went inside, just like I used to, with a full hour or more to grade papers, organize my classroom, or write lessons. This left about 12 months during this school year and last that I did not have parking privileges. The number of placards my complex got from the city was also way out of line with the number of spaces we estimated ourselves — it seems like there is space for 10 more cars but of course, since we don’t have enough placards, we can’t use those spaces. My UFT chapter leader told me that the city estimated 20 feet per vehicle. Since most of us don’t drive stretch limos to work, that estimation seemed a bit high.

In February, fed up with the situation, I decided to start taking the train. Though I have to be out the door at 5:30 a.m., so that I can arrive in Melrose by 7:30 a.m., there are definite benefits. Most important, I get a lot of work done during the ride. It’s less stressful than driving, especially in the winter months. I spend about half the ride home reading a book of my choosing, which helps me unwind. When I get home, I’ve done nearly everything I need to do for the next day and can devote myself to spending time with my daughter. When I was driving, I would have to bring home the work I didn’t get done because I was looking for parking, which left less time for her. Due to the train schedule and the length of the train ride, I now arrive home an hour later than I used to, but my daughter gets 100 percent of my attention from the minute I walk in the door. I usually have to do a few minor things, but there’s time after she goes to bed.

Ironically, my commute by train is shorter and easier than it was by subway. When I lived in Queens, it took an hour and 45 minutes, and involved a bus, two subways and a walk of several blocks. Now, it’s two commuter trains and a very short walk and an actual lot where I can leave my car. Living and working in the same city does not automatically equal an easy public transit commute, especially for those who have children, attend school or have other obligations.

I am grateful that the train has worked out for me. It’s not perfect, though. If my daughter gets sick during the school day and needs to be picked up early, it may pose a problem because the trains run very infrequently from my school. My first train leaves from my town and the second from White Plains, but for two weeks in a row my first train had mechanical problems, which led to me missing my train from White Plains, which led to me being late. It’s ironic that I’ve been late more often using public transit than I was when I was driving. Fortunately, I have an understanding principal.

If our parking passes were restored tomorrow (I know they won’t be; in fact, I wonder what we’re going to lose next) I would still continue to take the train, but I would be grateful for the flexibility of being able to drive if I needed or wanted to. I had to pass up a music class that I wanted to take with my daughter because the train won’t get me home in time and the class is held on the worst parking day of the week. I still feel for my colleagues who were not able to find a solution like mine. They are still spending lots of time driving around, looking for spots — time that could be better spent on other things. If the situation weren’t so frustrating to so many of us, maybe we’d laugh at the fact that parking is considered a perk and not a necessity.

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.