First Person

Week of 1/17/11: Teaching & learning tidbits


Parent response to “Race to Nowhere” documentary film reviewed

The Boulder County-based Parent Engagement Network (PEN) is sponsoring a facilitated conversation from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb l, at Fairview High School, 1515 Greenbriar Blvd., to discuss the implications/insights presented in the “Race to Nowhere” movie.  The film will be screened at Jan. 25 at Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School, 101 E. Baseline Road, Lafayette.

The purpose of this event will be to frame a positive, strength-based response, and showcase how PEN can be utilized to further community conversation and action. PEN events are open to anyone from any Colorado district.

Colorado Legacy Schools seeks $250,000 from Pepsi Refresh

Colorado Legacy Schools is partnering with the National Math and Science Initiative’s Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program to significantly increase the number and diversity of students enrolling in and passing math, science and English AP exams across Colorado. The program combines financial incentives for students and teachers with extensive resources, training and additional time on task.


  • Raise AP exam scores among 2,000 students in 2011
  • Expand college access for underserved students
  • Close minority and gender achievement gaps in math and science
  • Invest in teacher skills aligned to student outcomes
  • Prepare more students for careers in science, technology and math

To support the push, you must register your e-mail address one time. Click “Join Refresh Everything. Input your e-mail address and choose a password. Once registered, you can go straight to the Colorado Legacy Schools page each day. Then, vote online every day. Vote daily by text: text the message “104883” to Pepsi (73774) every day.

Share your thoughts on Colorado’s next Commissioner of Education

A public online survey has been posted by the Colorado State Board of Education that provides an opportunity for all Coloradans to assist in the selection process for the next commissioner of education.

The survey is available here. Respondents are asked to select the five areas (out of a list of 20 suggested topics) that they believe are the most important for the next commissioner to emphasize in his or her work. The online form also provides an opportunity to submit other suggestions on areas that may be of importance. The survey will be posted through Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Online scholarship application goes live

Denver Public Schools seniors and recent graduates could be eligible for thousands of dollars in college scholarships from the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which has launched its online application for the 2011-12 school year. Scholarships are available to qualifying low- and middle-income Denver Public Schools graduates who enroll in one of 39 participating colleges and universities in Colorado.


Denver unveils new and improved School Finder

Based on feedback from parents and community members, Denver Public Schools has upgraded the School Finder feature on the DPS website. This feature lets you use a home address to locate a student’s neighborhood school as well as identify other nearby school options.

New features:

  • Enter a home address to see a student’s current neighborhood school, as well as his/her neighborhood school for next school year.
  • Download and print a view of a student’s boundary school for each grade (requires pop-ups to be enabled in the Web browser).
  • Receive an error message if the address you type in does not match DPS records.
  • Link directly to school-level, printable PDFs showing detailed boundaries.

Features that are still available:

  • Access information on all schools in the district, including links to school Web sites.
  • Find nearby schools and program/service information.
  • Identify a student’s boundary (neighborhood) school.

Learn more by clicking on School Finder.

Teacher training, taught by students

Syidah O’Bryant scribbled notes in a composition book, trying to keep up with a lesson about why teenagers are so sleepy in the morning.

Usually Ms. O’Bryant, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, is the one talking. But on a recent Tuesday, it was her student, Kare Spencer, 14.

Read more in the New York Times.

D-2 floats plan to hold back third graders who can’t read

Third graders in Harrison School District 2  who can’t read would not be promoted to fourth grade under a draft plan unveiled last week.

The idea, controversial but gaining interest as education experts across the country focus on remaking public education, is part of a five-year plan discussed Tuesday at a board retreat at the Cheyenne Mountain conference center.

Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

APS board delays decision on changing grad requirements

The Aurora Public Schools Board of Education voted last week to delay a decision on changing the district’s graduation requirements, following more than an hour of testimony from teachers, parents and students. The new guidelines have drawn criticism from some parents and teachers in APS, specifically because they would eliminate the current requirement that high school freshman take health and physical education classes.

Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Boulder Valley teachers learning online techniques

boy on laptop computerA small group of Boulder Valley high school teachers is taking classes on how to use online learning techniques in their brick and mortar classrooms to better engage students.

The six-week online college classes to train the teachers are provided by an outside group, the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and paid for through a $200,000 state grant awarded jointly to the Boulder Valley and Thompson school districts. Along with classes, the grant pays for principal training, some equipment and an online repository system for lessons created by teachers.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

Colorado receives mixed reviews in new Quality Counts report

Education Week released its Quality Counts 2011 report last week, which evaluates state education systems and the challenges many states face in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The report also gives scores and grades to states on several education indicators.  Overall, Colorado ranked 39th nationally (out of 50 states and DC) and was given a C grade, with a cumulative score of 73.7, below the national average of 76.3.

Colorado received low grades for its standing on several indicators, including school finance, K-12 achievement, standards, college readiness and the teaching profession.  The state did, however, receive high marks for its school accountability and student assessments, among other indicators.  Click here to access the full Quality Counts report. You will have to pay for it.

DPS proposes $10 million increase in school budgets

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced that, despite an anticipated state funding cut of $15-20 million—the third straight year of funding cuts, the district is proposing a 2011-12 budget that would pump an additional $10 million into school-based budgets for next year—a roughly 2.3 percent increase to individual school budgets. The increases will benefit all students, with additional money targeted for students in poverty, preschoolers and kindergartners, and students in the district’s gifted-and-talented program.

School district considers cutting bus service

A Colorado school district is looking for ways to cut the cost of its school-bus operation, including the possibility of eliminating the service. The Falcon School District board voted Thursday to eliminate bus service next fall unless a less expensive option is found.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Fort Collins parents fight planned school closing

Parents in Fort Collins say they will lobby hard in the next few days to keep the doors open at an elementary school targeted for closure in a cost-saving measure.

Beattie Elementary, with an enrollment of 277, was singled out by Poudre School District Superintendent Jerry Wilson to be mothballed. In his recent recommendation, Wilson said closing Beattie could save the 51-school district $363,391 per year.

Read more in the Denver Post.

Boulder middle school links special needs students with peer tutors

C.J. Lough encourages Zack Stern to draw pictures if he needs help settling during class at Southern Hills Middle School.

C.J. also helps Zack, who is in the school’s special education program, if he has trouble with a word and encourages him to listen if he gets distracted while the teacher is talking. Since the two started working together, Zack has been more willing to participate in the science labs and more open to working with his classmates.

Read more in the Daily Camera.

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.