First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Dropout prevention summit to be held Friday

The Colorado Department of Education’s Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement and ScholarCentric will co-sponsor a Dropout Prevention and Student Engagement Summit on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. The summit will bring together more than 200 Colorado school district education leaders to discuss strategies to keep students in school and on-track toward graduation. The summit will be held from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, 1500 E. 128th Ave., in Thornton. For a complete agenda or for more details about the summit, contact Peter Fritz, 303-866-6601 or fritz_p@cde.state.co.us

Denver mayoral candidates on education

They’re not eager to take over Denver Public Schools and they give mixed marks to recent DPS reforms, such as the turnaround plan in Far Northeast Denver. But with one eloquent exception, they raise a thumbs-up to Senate Bill 191, the educator effectiveness law that will link student achievement to teacher and principal evaluations. Watch the video at Education News Colorado.

K-12 would take $332 million hit

State support of school districts would drop $332 million compared to current levels under a 2011-12 budget proposal announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday afternoon. Funding of state colleges and universities would drop to only $519 million, compared to the $555 million originally requested for next year. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Teachers, school leaders from all over U.S. meet in Denver

A first-of-its-kind summit among teachers and their bosses — school board members and administrators — kicks off in Denver Tuesday. The Obama administration calls it a watershed moment in collaboration for school improvement. Read this KDVR report.

1-year-old high school’s senior class

It is a state-of-the-art learning facility. When Mead High School opened a year ago, brand new classrooms and athletic facilities greeted students. Because they opened with only a freshman and sophomore class, and this year added juniors, they are a school without a senior class. But in the hallways of this new school, you do see the faces of seniors. Watch this 9News report.

Bond savings fund new laptops for thousands of Denver teachers

Thanks to savings from the voter-approved 2008 Bond Program, thousands of Denver Public Schools teachers will receive new laptops as part of the DPS Teacher Laptop Project, which aims to provide teachers with the tools they need to better implement data driven instruction and to more effectively incorporate technology-based instructional resources into their classrooms.

Cherry Creek looking for right balance to teach special needs students

Special education teachers in the Cherry Creek School District have to create a constant balance between independent learning and individual attention for students, district staff said Monday. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Researchers fault L.A. Times methods in analysis of California teachers

University of Colorado researchers reported Monday that there were potential weaknesses in methods the Los Angeles Times used last year to rate elementary school teachers for a series that stoked national debate in a key arena of education reform. Read more in the Washington Post.

“Race to Nowhere” parent meeting rescheduled for Feb. 28

A networking event open to the public will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28, at Fairview High School, 1515 Greenbriar Blvd. in Boulder, withRace to Nowhere poster further discussion from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.  The event is sponsored by the Parent Engagement Network in Boulder Valley schools. The movie will not be shown. Participants will engage in an interactive format designed to allow each person to be heard. Adults and youth are invited. Register on-line.

Increasingly, male teachers found at head of elementary class

Each weekday, students filing into Denver’s Ashley Elementary School come face to face with a relatively rare educational experience. Read more in the Denver Post.

HB 11-1055 would give charter schools access to district facilities

A bill in the Colorado House would give charter schools the right to request access to unused facilities from their schools districts.  The districts would not be required to give the the facility to the charter school, but would have 30 days to come up with a response to the request. Read more in the Examiner.

Aurora Public Schools considers cuts for projected $25 million shortfall

Aurora Public Schools is considering furlough days, pay cuts and larger class sizes to help offset a projected budget shortfall of at least $25 million for the 2011-12 school year. Read more in the Denver Post.

Teacher tenure bill fails in Wyo. Senate

The first of several bills aimed to increase education accountability in Wyoming died in the Senate. Senate File 52, known as the “Teacher tenure” bill, failed to pass the Senate 12-18, during its third reading. Read more in the Casper Star-Tribune.

Denver preschool program scores well in evaluation

Assessments measuring the effectiveness of the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition credits to families and grants to qualifying preschools, show a majority of kids leaving ready for kindergarten. Read more in the Denver Post.

Does a district need a superintendent?

A school district east of Colorado Springs is poised to test the reaches of the state’s Innovation Schools Act, which allows waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements. School board members in the Falcon 49 School District are buying out the contracts of their top four district administrators – including the superintendent, a job that would be eliminated – as they scrap a traditional governance structure for something completely different. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Cherry Creek schools yield high return on instruction investment

The Cherry Creek School District is among the highest ranked in Colorado for effective use of funds for academic achievement, according to a study. Read more in the Denver Post.

Paying more for bottles could bring green to Colorado’s schools

That water bottle or bottle of beer you drink every day may soon cost you five more cents. But you could get the nickel back if you recycled the bottles. Check out this 9News report.

Boulder Valley makes small gains in minority teachers

The Boulder Valley School District is seeing small gains in the percentage of teachers of color after several years of concerted effort, but it still isn’t close to matching its student demographics. Read more in the Daily Camera.

At-risk high school students get glimpse of college

Not too long ago, Greg McCoy went to school at Montbello High School with no thoughts about the future. He says a lot kids are like that.

“I was definitely one of those students where I was just like, ‘Well, I’m in high school. I’m going to have fun. I’m just going to hang with friends,'” McCoy said. Watch this 9News report.

Rhee faces renewed scrutiny over depiction of student progress when she taught

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, known for her crusade to use standardized test scores to help evaluate teachers, is facing renewed scrutiny over her depiction of progress that her students made years ago when she was a schoolteacher. Read more in the Washington Post.

Colorado Legacy Foundation to recognize Dougco schools

Douglas County School District’s Alternative Licensure Program is the recipient of the Excellence in Educator Preparation Award. Read more in the Highlands Ranch Herald.

Colorado district evolves school bus advertising to offset operation costs

Colorado school districts have been allowed to pursue external school bus advertising campaigns as potential revenue streams to fight budget cuts since the early 1990s. A system 45 miles north of Denver tried it once before with disappointing results but is giving the program another shot. Read more in School Transportation News.

Superintendent: Waiver best for small district

A tiny Eastern Plains school district is seeking a waiver from one education reform law by invoking the terms of a different reform statute. The 109-student Kit Carson district wants to be declared an innovation district, allowed under a 2008 law, and as part of that move basically wants to be exempted from the 2010 educator effectiveness law. Read more in Education News Colorado.

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 cburke@chalkbeat.org

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.