First Person

Week of 12/13/10: Teaching & learning tidbits

Oregon will allow use of spell check on state writing tests in 2011

The Oregonian newspaper reports on one state allowing spell check in schools.

Do you have to be good at spelling to be a good writer? Not necessarily, at least not in Oregon public schools. As middle and high school kids begin taking state writing tests next month, they’ll have a new tool at their fingertips: spell check. For the first time, Oregon is allowing students – those taking online and paper tests – to use a spell check button on a computer to check their work before submitting answers to the writing test prompts.

New award for Colorado’s top teachers

Stand for Children, an nonprofit education advocacy organization, with support from the Daniel’s Fund, has launched a new contest to acknowledge outstanding Colorado teachers. This contest, called Our Heroes, was inspired by the film “Waiting for Superman.” Stand for Children is asking people to nominate outstanding teachers to receive awards of $1,000 to use for classroom supplies or professional development. The panel of judges (including current and former teachers) will review nominations and select up to 10 winners, to be announced Jan. 17. Contest rules and the nomination can be found here.

Top Colorado districts, schools honored

Three outgoing state leaders recently thanked educators in Colorado’s highest-performing districts and in its high-poverty but high-growth schools, while warning of tough challenges ahead. Read the story and watch the video at Education News Colorado.

Are 9th graders smarter than everyone else?

9News reports on an odd phenomenon that even has educators flummoxed.

In every public high school across Colorado, there is a mystery that’s baffling state leaders. Students who are in 9th grade now have been scoring higher on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests than their peers in other grades.

“It’s like an intellectual tsunami,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner of education in charge of assessment.

Aurora Public Schools’ niche pathways hailed by Ritter, biz leaders

The Aurora Sentinel reports on an innovative program Aurora Public Schools is embracing to engage students who have very clear interests.

Autumn Page-Tinsley and Dominic Wegner spent four days in July simulating rocket launches and mingling with a former NASA astronaut. But before the 13-year-old students from Columbia Middle School in Aurora could pack their bags for Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., they underwent a rigorous application process. The trip, sponsored by a grant from Northrop Grumman, was only one part of a specialized kind of instruction at the school, a new, “pathways” oriented approach that’s being implemented across the Aurora Public Schools district.

Douglas County school board votes to research voucher program

The Denver Post reports on the voucher flap that has people in well-heeled Dougco and beyond talking. The

School voucher meeting in Douglas County
Former Douglas County school board member Emily Hansen spoke against vouchers at a recent meeting.

Douglas County school board recently took another step toward a voucher program, with the board president saying he would like a pilot program for the 2011-12 school year. The unanimous vote came after an hour of public comments that were about equally split on whether the district should pursue such a program.

Study backs ‘value-added’ analysis of teacher effectiveness

The Los Angeles Times reports on one study showing that value-added assessments of teachers work. The story concludes that teachers’ effectiveness can be reliably estimated by gauging their students’ progress on standardized tests, according to the preliminary findings of a large-scale study released recently by leading education researchers.

Backlog could force good Colorado teachers out of classrooms

7NEWS explores a growing backlog at the Colorado Department of Education that has background checks and licensing for teachers in Colorado backed up by as much as eight months. The delays could force good teachers out of the classroom temporarily until their license is renewed. The backlog could also force districts to retain bad teachers until new teacher applications are processed.

Study: States must move faster to close achievement gaps

Education Week reports on a study that finds if states continue their current pace of progress in narrowing achievement gaps between students of different races, ethnic groups, and income levels, it could take decades for lagging student groups in some states to catch up to their better-performing peers.

At California school, parents force an overhaul

Ever wonder if parents can really make a difference? Here’s an example of the power parents can have when they get organized. Read this New York Times story.

COMPTON, Calif. — By Marlene Romero’s count, her son has had just one effective teacher in his five years at McKinley Elementary School here. Most of the time, she said, he has merely shuffled through classrooms, struggling in math without ever getting extra help.

Poll: Most want easier way to fire bad teachers

The Associated Press reports on a study it conducted with Stanford University researchers that found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while most also believe that teachers aren’t paid enough.

Race to the Top: States that lost school money face reform dilemmas

9News reports on how districts are moving forward on reform plans without the federal money they sought.

It’s like buying a fancy dress but having no date to the prom – dozens of states that crafted new education policies to compete for a share of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” school reform grant prizes were shut out. Now, as the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia set about spending their awards, the losing states (including Colorado) are left wondering what to do with ambitious reform plans they planned to fund with the money.

Bleak prospects for future K-12 support

Not that you need bad news this time of year, but education funding in Colorado is just one of those perpetually grinch-like topics. Read this Education News Colorado for the latest budget update.

Sixty-five Colorado teachers gain National Board Certification

Sixty-five Colorado teachers achieved National Board Certification in 2010, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. That gain represents a 13.5 percent increase in the total number of teachers holding National Board Certifications in just one year. Like board-certified medical doctors, National Board Certified Teachers have met high standards through intensive study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review. Colorado ranks 25th among all states in the number of teachers achieving board certification this year and ranks 26th in the total number of teachers (545) who have earned National Board Certification.

The state’s top five school districts in terms of the cumulative total of teachers (based on where teachers currently work) are:

  • Denver Public Schools – 78
  • Boulder Valley School District – 77
  • Cherry Creek School District – 76
  • Douglas County School District – 49
  • Mesa Valley County School District 51 – 40

Broomfield High program lets students become the teachers

The Daily Camera writes about an innovative Broomfield program that turns the tables on teachers and students.

At first, when Savannah Peters, 17, saw the level of work involved in teaching, she didn’t think it was the career for her. But working with kids at Emerald Elementary School through the Teacher Cadet program showed her how important teachers are, particularly if a student doesn’t have a support system at home. She said she has found the experience extremely rewarding.

Denver embraces charter schools in hard-to-serve neighborhoods

Building on some of the key principles of its 2010 Denver Plan, the Denver Public Schools has created a groundbreaking District-Charter Compact built on the core value that excellent educational opportunities “must be available to all students in all parts of the city, and our students’ access to them must not be limited in any way by socioeconomics, language, citizenship status, or special needs of students.”

DPS recently hosted a national conference with the Gates Foundation and the leadership from eight other big-city school districts that have adopted similar compacts around Denver’s framework of equity of opportunity, access and responsibility, and accountability for all public schools, district-run and charter.

Read the story in Education News Colorado.

Special ed funding ignores need as well as numbers

Face the State analyzes what’s happened to special education funding in Colorado. It turns out the state’s approach to funding special education is flawed in more ways than one. Not only does the state formula risk shorting school districts whose special-ed enrollment is on the rise while rewarding those with declining numbers – but it also fails to recognize the severity of a district’s special-ed needs.

Study: Most students fail to meet common-standards bar

Education Week reports on a study showing that most students have far to go before they master the skills and knowledge outlined in the new common standards that have been adopted by all but seven states.

Demographics behind enrollment in Denver Public Schools

Education News Colorado has taken data from the October student count to populate a new database showing enrollment numbers, poverty and minority rates, and numbers of English language learners and students with special needs for all 169 schools and programs in Denver Public Schools. Click on the link to search.

Poll: Education backed, but not new school taxes

MSNBC reports on a recent poll showing that Americans don’t support new taxes for schools – despite their belief that the better the quality of education in this country, the stronger the U.S. economy will be.

Eighty-eight percent say a country’s education system has a major effect on its economic health. Nearly as many — 79 percent — say the U.S. economy would improve if all Americans had at least a two-year college degree, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.

Pueblo principals say they are improving schools

The Pueblo Chieftain writes that progress is being made in turning around six low-performing schools.

“As we have begun the process, clearly we are getting on the ground and beginning to truly understand what’s working well and what are the needs and the challenges,” said Manny Rivera of Global Partnership Schools.

GPS is a New York-based consultant working with the district officials on developing and implementing school improvement plans for six schools that have deemed turnaround or transformation by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Parents fighting to save schools

The Coloradoan newspaper covers a story about parents fighting school closures in the Poudre School District.

Poudre School District administrators have asked five schools, Irish, Putnam, Lopez and Beattie elementary schools along with Lincoln Middle School, to develop plans for possible closure and consolidation. PSD is pursing the plan to address underutilization of its facilities. Eleven other schools have submitted innovation/ efficiency plans as part of the process.

New guidelines make teacher tenure less automatic in New York City

The New York Times reports on changes to the tenure system in one of the nation’s largest, most complicated school districts. In most schools across the country, tenure is not something to be gained, but something to be lost. Virtually every new teacher earns it, including in New York City, where all a principal has had to do to give a teacher guaranteed lifetime employment is to check a box on a computer program.

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

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.