First Person

“Sharp Focus” On Teacher Prep Programs Falls Flat

Last week, the New York City Department of Education issued its first-ever Teacher Preparation Program Reports. The department was judicious in not describing the reports as an evaluation of the quality or effectiveness of the dozen teacher-preparation programs in the New York City area that collectively produce more than 50 percent of the 10,000 traditional-pathway teachers hired by the city over the past five years.

Others were not so careful. Writing in The New York Times, Javier Hernandez described the PowerPoint slides comparing the 12 programs as “scorecards,” and stated that these ed schools were being “evaluated,” a term repeated in his article’s headline. Politico also used the term “scorecard.” The Wall Street Journal described the data as “rankings,” although teacher-preparation programs were not ranked. The Associated Press described the data as “grading” the colleges and universities, and looked for “winners or losers.” The New York Post and the New York Daily News both referred to “grading” the programs. Even my own institution, Teachers College, which appears in the data, fell into this trap: the headline on the college’s webpage reads, “TC Rated in City Evaluation of Teacher Prep Programs.”

What’s the big deal? Report, description, analysis, comparison, ratings, rankings, evaluation — aren’t these all pretty much the same thing?

No, they are not, for several reasons.

First of all, we cannot view the descriptive information about New York City teachers emerging from each program as an evaluation of the program, because we have no idea if the teachers who start their careers in the Big Apple are typical or representative of all of the new teachers produced by each program. Do NYC schools attract the best or the worst of each program’s graduates? We have no idea.

Michael Jordan (Photo courtesy of Steve Lipofski,

If you will forgive a sports analogy  —drawn from basketball, in honor of our Hoopster-in-Chief, Arne Duncan — consider the players from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’ve entered the National Basketball Association over the past three decades. Would it be fair to evaluate UNC’s performance as a training-ground for the NBA based only on how its players perform for the Los Angeles Lakers? What about that Michael Jordan fellow, who played only for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards? Should his performance be ignored? When a preparation program sends its graduates to many different destinations, we cannot evaluate its quality based on how those graduates perform in just a single destination.

Now, when Michael Jordan entered the NBA, he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls — after the Houston Rockets picked Hakeem Olajuwon and the Portland Trail Blazers chose Sam Bowie. The nature of the NBA draft is that these teams had exclusive rights to these players, who couldn’t choose to sign with any NBA team, even if they thought that other teams had more talented players, or had a better coach, or would pay them more money. Does playing on a stable team with experienced teammates and an excellent coach improve a player’s performance? It’s hard to know, for most of the time we only see how a player performs with the team that drafted him.

Public education doesn’t use a “draft” to match new teachers with schools, but in both teaching and basketball, there’s a labor market with a supply of, and demand for, new talent. Where teachers wind up and how they perform on the job aren’t entirely up to them; a teacher with specialized training and credentials may only be interviewed and hired by a school seeking a teacher with such specialized expertise. Conversely, one can scarcely fault a teacher for choosing among multiple job offers on the basis of the one that pays the best, or that has the best facilities, or that is in a desirable location. As Kata Mihaly and her colleagues and Bruce Baker of Rutgers have demonstrated, when labor markets result in a non-random distribution of teachers across schools and districts, it’s very difficult to disentangle the effects of the teacher-preparation program on teaching outcomes from the effects of school context.

For this reason, the descriptions of how the graduates of the dozen metro-area teacher-preparation programs are distributed throughout the system are hard to interpret. It’s interesting to see that the graduates of a particular program are more likely to teach in what the Department of Education refers to as highest-need schools, or that the teachers from a particular program are more likely to leave the district than those from other programs, but what do such things mean?

In fact, the comparisons across programs revealed far more similarities than differences, which very likely is reassuring to the education department, which inevitably must rely on diverse providers to supply the teachers it hires each year.

The data receiving the most attention were the ratings that graduates of the 12 programs received via the New York Student Growth Percentiles methodology developed by the State Education Department for the Annual Professional Performance Reviews. The 2011-12 methodology unfairly penalized some teachers and rewarded others, in my professional opinion, and the ratings were only assigned to the 15 percent of educators teaching either English Language Arts or mathematics in grades four through eight — scarcely a representative subset of the teachers prepared in any of the dozen programs. (And then there’s the pesky question of whether the state’s tests in 2011 and 2012 were good indicators of the most important things we want students to learn.) But some observers continue to view them as the most “objective” sources of information about teacher performance. Duncan, for example, said that the project “puts the record of preparation programs — including their impact on student learning — into sharp focus.”

The distribution of performance among teachers in New York City looks a lot like that across the state: 7 percent of teachers rated highly effective, and 6 percent rated ineffective, with the vast majority rated effective, based on the Student Growth Percentiles. And, although the Department of Education didn’t come out and say this, the distributions look very similar across the 12 teacher-preparation programs as well. A simple measure of association known as the chi-square test indicates that we cannot rule out the possibility that the teacher ratings are the same from one program to the next.

If the numbers in these Teacher Preparation Program Reports lead to deeper inquiries into what the data mean, and constructive conversations among the Department of Education and the leadership of the teacher-preparation programs, I’ll be pleased.

But let’s not mistake this for an evaluation. Or sharp focus.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

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.