First Person

Looking Back On Student Journalism At Bronx Science

The student press, at least legally, is not a free press. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school newspapers are legally subject to administrative review. As many — including the comic book character Spiderman — have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and indeed, we usually count on the good faith of school administrators in these matters of content regulation.

At the Bronx High School of Science, however, whether administrators acted in good faith on these matters is not clear. Last year, I was one of two editors of the Editorial page on the school’s newspaper, the Science Survey. While disputes between teachers and administration have received a high profile in media coverage, here is a side of the story you probably have not heard before.

Trouble In The Math Department

At the end of April 2010, the union complaint the math teachers had earlier filed through the city union was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Principal Valerie Reidy’s side anyway and more or less ignored the arbitrator’s findings. (In December, an arbitrator ruled that Lamphere’s low rating should be discarded.)

At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and next year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in several city newspapers), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue.

Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously.

A pre-publication proof of the paper had to be sent to the principal and English department head about a week before publication. They would then take their time combing through our proof pages, ferreting out grammatical errors, but more importantly, criticism. Articles on rather banal school activities had sentences scrubbed because they could be interpreted as critical of the administration, or, heaven forbid, Department of Education policy.

So as we crafted the editorial, we decided right away to not even attempt to take a stand on the merits of the arbitration complaint — we knew that even a straight news article, let alone an opinion piece on the substance of the decision, would be instantly shot down. Instead, we went for a much softer message that school administrators should probably level with students in the event that a faculty dispute makes citywide news. We emailed the principal our intentions, and Seán and I had a cordial meeting in her office to get her side of the situation. I can say that she is more polite in person than press accounts have indicated. We even encouraged the principal to write her own response to our editorial, which we would run unedited, next to our already milquetoast piece.

A week of email correspondence ensued, when we tweaked and shifted the piece on advice of our faculty adviser, the outgoing editors, and rather terse responses from the principal. We were all pleasantly surprised and thought that we actually would be able to run the piece. By the end of the week, we were ready to publish and emailed her for approval. It was “not the editorial we discussed,” she replied.

And so our last issue of the year instead featured a short rant on chairs, the typical senior reflection, and a rather large picture of a folding chair on the opinion page.

More Troubles At The Survey

When the editing staff returned from summer to run the paper full time, we had come to accept the content restrictions and work around them. We became rather good at the practice of self-censorship, for example barely hinting at the teacher turmoil in a “the 2000s at Bronx Science” retrospective we had run the previous year. When the (actual) police were called to respond to an incident at the school during the traditional start-of-year senior event, we were not allowed to mention their calling in our story. We decided to preserve our credibility by not running a piece that omitted the one aspect of the incident most of the students remembered. Opinion pieces on “controversial” issues (the bulk of the disagreement came from the administration on these sorts of things) had to be run as “pro/con” pieces, with a student writing a piece parroting the administration’s position, to create the impression of disagreement among the student body. Examples of this at work include an opinion piece one of our staff did criticizing the increased use of an online grading system. It was widely disliked by students, but one wouldn’t get that impression from the equal billing we had to give both sides.

The biggest dispute over the paper, and the only one that became a big enough issue to leak out as a series of rumors to the rest of the student body, was the controversy last year over the annual April satire issue. In previous years, the administration had typically loosened the grip here, allowing us to run content that actually satirized the administration (one of my favorite covers from the year before I joined the paper stylized the school as a sort of Soviet totalitarian state) and toed the limit of propriety (the cover article on the joke issue our junior year was on a certain well endowed graduate coming to speak at our graduation).

When A Joke Is funny, And Then Isn’t

So no one batted an eye when some of the staff on the paper decided to run a mock “March Madness” bracket in the satire issue. The idea was that a bunch of teachers at the school were written as competing in a series of one-on-one basketball games. The piece seemed to have passed muster with the administrators, as we were allowed to publish.

Nay, how we were mistaken. In the piece, which took up the whole bottom fold of the back page, several portions raised complaint. A male teacher was referred to have lost a game against a female teacher because he was “too focused” on her “body movement.” Later in the piece, two female teachers were noted to have “showed their exquisite ball handling skills, while riding all the way to the final four.” Another male teacher was then noted to have won the tournament, however, by “finishing on top.”

Two of the teachers mentioned — one of them the “focused” male teacher — complained to the administration about the content of the issue, and suddenly, it seemed as if there was an oversight in the content editing process. On our end, of course. The assistant principal of the English department sat in on our traditional end-of-issue debrief, and our faculty adviser seemed to continually hint at what sort of process “improvements” we could make in her moderating of the conversation. The next day, Reidy herself made an appearance at the Survey room to essentially lecture us on our lack of propriety. She made a concerted effort to tell us she was not visiting to “intimidate” us, which as you can imagine at the time rang particularly hollow. We didn’t hear much on the subject after that; rumors swirled that the principal had ordered all copies of the paper still in the school trashed, and our stacks of excess issues suddenly were missing the satire issue.

It is unclear what happened regarding that issue, but I can say that the Survey currently has a different faculty adviser. I do not know whether this had anything to do with the above-mentioned dispute. In my rather non-objective view, she was a capable manager of the paper and excellent teacher, but such is how things go.

Postscript

When I was contacted by GothamSchools to adapt a post from my blog into this piece, I was asked to include quotes from current staffers at the Survey. I spoke to several students currently on the paper, and all declined to comment, citing the fact that they were still at the school. I can say with certainty myself that exactly one year ago, as this controversy was looming over us as we prepared the final issue, I would not have put my name to this story either.

Abraham Moussako is a 2011 graduate of Bronx High School of Science, where he was an editor of the Science Survey student newspaper. He is currently a student at McGill University in Montreal. This piece is adapted from a post on his blog, Another Note in the Cacophony.

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.