First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

California to require gay history in schools

LOS ANGELES – California will become the first state to require public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. Read more in the New York Times.

Sixth and Ninth Grade academies jump start student success

DENVER –  Thousands of Denver students are getting a head start on middle and high school this summer through the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Sixth Grade Academy and Ninth Grade Academy programs.  The programs combine learning, leadership development and team-building activities to give students the confidence to achieve academic success throughout their middle and high school years. Read more from the Denver Public Schools.

Crayons to Calculators school supply drive underway

Crayons to Calculators, a school-supply drive created to ensure students in the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts head back to school with the supplies they need to succeed will be collecting supplies through July 29. Read more in the Broomfield Enterprise.

Sen. Bennet sits down with CBS4 over education reform

Sen. Michael BennettDENVER (CBS4) – Few members of Congress are as passionate about improving education as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. As a former superintendent, Bennet knows the problems first hand. CBS4 political specialist Shaun Boyd sat down and talked to him about what he’s doing to change the system.

When making his case for education reform, Bennet loves to talk about the rally that no one would show for. Check out this CBS4 report.

Mogul John Malone to donate $7 million to DSST

Liberty Media chairman John Malone said Tuesday that he will donate $7 million to the Denver School of Science and Technology — the charter school’s largest donation ever.

Malone will give $4 million to the school this year and an additional $3 million to match funds raised by DSST through 2013. Read more in the Denver Post.

Douglas County School District to create faux charter school

CASTLE ROCK – There will be no classrooms full of students. There will be no staff of teachers. The sign outside indicates that the location is the school district headquarters. Yet, this will be the location of Douglas County’s newest charter school. Watch this 9NEWS report.

Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County’s district accountability committee, questioned staff about the Choice Scholarship School.

The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Jeffco employees agree: It’s a good place to work

The results of a recent district-wide employee survey show most of Jeffco’s 12,000 employees expressed pride in their jobs saying their work is important and has a direct impact on student learning.

Every two years, Jeffco Public Schools uses the survey to measure employee satisfaction and find areas needing improvement.  Over 8,000 employees finished the 2010 survey; a 77.6 percent response rate with most of the survey questions receiving a positive rating and very few responses falling into the negative range.

Survey results show that employees rated their sense of personal responsibility, accountability and feeling respected very high.  Staff said the strength of Jeffco Schools is found in the district’s supervision, effectiveness, diversity and values, by giving them high marks.

“This survey is one of the silver linings from a difficult year because it shows that even though we have had some difficult challenges with K-12 budget cuts, our employees continue to say that Jeffco is a wonderful place to work and learn,” said superintendent Dr. Cindy Stevenson.

Stevenson adds that it’s no surprise that many employees expressed concern over their increased workload.  “Our staff is doing more with less time and fewer resources,” she said.

Study finds key early skills for later math learning

Psychologists at the University of Missouri have identified the beginning of first grade math skills that teachers and parents should target to effectively improve children’s later math learning. Learn more from the Science Blog.

41 Colorado school districts line up for evaluation pilot program

Colorado school districts have overwhelmed the state Department of Education with their interest in participating in a state pilot program this fall for evaulating new teachers and principals.

“We thought we would be lucky to get 10 districts who were interested,” said Ulcca Joshi Hansen, the department’s associate director of educator effectiveness. Read more in the Denver Post.

Dist. 6 takes advantage of technology with new online learning program

The Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education had to find $6 million to cut from its 2011-12 budget, but it also had to find ways to be creative and move the district forward.

Board members think they’ve done just that with a new online-learning option that begins this fall. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Official: Investigation into possible test cheating expands

WASHINGTON — Investigators from the U.S. Department of Education have joined local investigators looking into possibly widespread test cheating by District of Columbia public schools educators, a D.C. official said Friday. The scope of what has been a limited probe has greatly expanded. Read more in USA Today.

Boulder students have more access to AP classes than students statewide

Analysis of new federal data backs up assertions by Boulder Valley School District leaders that they’ve made strides in increasing access to advanced classes.

But there are still some disparities among schools, with slightly higher percentages of students taking advanced placement classes at schools with the fewest low-income students. Read more in the Daily Camera.

DPS shows off latest purchase for future charter schools

DENVER (CBS4) – The Denver Public Schools is showing off its latest purchase — the future home of two charter schools.

The school district bought Denver Lutheran High School with bond money. The new campus in southwest Denver will house a new West Denver Prep High School. Watch this CBS4 report.

Summer internship has Denver students help with bond projects

Itzel Salazar, 17, walked through a K-8 school in Denver last month, looking for imperfections in the site’s bond project.

An aspiring architect, she noticed two places where the carpet was sticking up — a potential hazard for students. “It just didn’t look right,” she said. Read more in Your Hub.

Denver Head Start program lagging in funds

Some agencies that provide the Head Start program in Denver are facing budget cuts and a reduction in the number of slots they requested this year.

The Head Start program, which earlier this year faced potentially deep federal budget cuts, provides preschool and health-related services to low-income families. Read more in Your Hub.

Loveland students learn to tell the tale

Loveland storyteller Vivian Dubrovin asked the 50-plus children circled around her Tuesday morning to say “boo,” giving voice to the marionette she manipulated in the media center at Monroe Elementary School.

Dubrovin told “The Little Ghost” from “Storytelling Discoveries: Favorite Activities for Young Tellers,” that she co-authored with her daughter Barbara Dubrovin.

With a few props on hand, Dubrovin gave the students in Camp Monroe – a five-week summer camp for students entering kindergarten through fourth grade – a lesson on storytelling. Read more in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

New standards focused on post-grad performance

New state academic standards will begin to take effect in the upcoming school year in an effort to revolutionize and streamline Colorado education.

“Our mantra was fewer, clearer, higher standards; fewer areas that students will focus on to a much higher depth and greater rigor,” said Melissa Colsman, director of teaching and learning for the Colorado Department of Education, who is responsible for standards implementation throughout the state. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Poudre schools ready to implement new standards

Teachers at the Poudre School District are gearing up for a year of change.

With the new Colorado Academic Standards taking effect for the 2011-12 school year, principals across the district have prepared their teachers to give students an experience- and goal-based education. Read more in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

DPS bond savings fund additional school projects

DENVER – This summer, Denver Public Schools is busy working on major construction projects that are part of the 2008 voter-approved General Obligation Bond, including dozens that were not part of the original scope of bond projects but were made possible thanks to $90 million in savings from strong cost management and favorable market conditions.  Read more en Español or in English and find out when ribbon cuttings are planned.

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.