First Person

Voices: Motivating words from Malala – for her fellow 16-year-old girls

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., finds inspiration in the story of a Pakistani girls’ education activist, and relevance for teenagers in Denver.

malala
Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for education, addresses participants at the 1st anniversary of the UN Global Education First Initiative in New York. September 25, 2013. Credit: GPE/Sarah Beeching <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/92053708@N03/9968596084/in/photolist-gbTEjh-g9NP2D-g9g6ci-gbTREf-dj5JBq-fSRo9w-g9p9pK-fL3gvN-drFCYQ-drFur4-drFCLQ-drFCW1-ePx6mE-gbTFDw-8hEWth-8hBHm8-8hBHqg-8hBGbD-8hBH7e-8hEXsQ-8hBH5B-8hBGS8-8hBG5D-8hEWud-8hEVZd-8hBHtg-8hEWL7-8hEXWq-8hEWGQ-8hBHdH-8hEWmG-8hEY4U-8hBHDD-8hEXHd-8hBHGr-8hBHgn-8hEWrN-8hEXYS-8hBFZe-8hEXJu-8hBFL6-8hEXzG-8hEXXq-8hBHN6-8hBHop-8hEWCS-8hEXGq-8hBFWV-8hEW5o-8hBGeM-8hEWTw">via Flickr</a>.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a great speech 50 years ago that we honor and cherish.

Sixteen-year old Malala Yousafzai gave a great speech this summer that – in the same spirit as “I Have a Dream” – can motivate and inspire. Especially teenage girls like her.

If I were teaching high school this fall, I would love to spend class time asking students to read, discuss, and write about both speeches.

For sophomore and junior girls who are Malala’s age, her words will have a special power.

Martin and Malala: Both victims of assassination attempts.  Both courageous.  Both remarkably able to find hope—and, by their example, to give us hope.

Thank God Malala survived the attempt on her life.  Her family took her to England for emergency care, and for her safety.  Recovered, now back in school—at the Birmingham Edgbaston High School for Girls—she continues to speak out for the right of all girls to have an education.

As she did on July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday, at the United Nations, addressing nearly 1,000 young leaders at its first Youth Assembly. The U.N. declared it “Malala Day.”

Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing. Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for human rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goals of education, peace and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them.

So here I stand … one girl among many.

I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys.

I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard….

Through tutoring with College Track in Aurora, I have been lucky to come to know a number of students at Rangeview High School.  More than half of the students who commit to the five hours a week at College Track, after school, are girls.  One struggled last year as a freshman—at times, receiving several D’s—but when I saw her last week she was beaming. Mid-progress grades had just come out. “I have a 3.0!”  I recalled her frustration and tears during ninth grade; here she was, so happy.  “I know now I didn’t really care that much last year.  But I do now. I’m really trying.”

Visit a session of College Track between 2:45 and 7:00 p.m.  You will see 40  to 50 students –most of the time—really trying.

Dear Friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.  I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.

If we could bottle up ambition and motivation and pass it out, we would.  But it comes from within.  Wanting to learn, wanting to achieve.  Wanting to make the most of these high school years. Malala shows us that desire.  It is a thrill to see some of that desire in other 16-year-old girls, here in Colorado.

Dear sisters and brothers, we realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realised the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

The wise saying, “The pen is mightier than sword” was true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. And that is why they killed 14 innocent medical students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they killed many female teachers and polio workers in Khyber Pukhtoon Khwa and FATA. That is why they are blasting schools every day.  Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.

Equality.  The focus for MLK—and for Malala.  And a key goal for College Track.

College Track’s vision states: “In this country, there exists a persistent gap between the academic achievements of low income, predominantly African American and Latino students and their high income, white peers. … If we don’t focus on getting these students graduated from high school, with a clear pathway to higher education, this gap will widen, leaving historically underserved communities in worse shape than they are now.”

Dear sisters and brothers, now it’s time to speak up….

We call upon all governments to ensure free compulsory education for every child all over the world….

We call upon the developed nations to support the expansion of educational opportunities for girls in the developing world….

We call upon all communities to be tolerant – to reject prejudice based on cast, creed, sect, religion or gender. To ensure freedom and equality for women so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.

We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave – to embrace the strength within themselves and realise their full potential.

I often leave sessions with these high school students at College Track knocked out by “the content of their character,” to borrow a phrase.  Determined.  Kind.  Humble.  A number are immigrants, including Anicette, who grew up in the Ivory Coast; Diana, from the Ukraine; and Efrata, born in Ethiopia, who was recently featured in CT’s community newsletter.  Effie states:

Coming to America was an amazing thing, and I am just so thankful I have so many opportunities now that I am here. I think the fact that I know that I could have not come to America makes me grittier. I also have an ambition to have success in my life thanks to my parents pushing me to become that way. I thought they were being really strict when I was younger but now I am glad they were.

I have known Effie for two years; I suspect she would have made the most of her high school years without College Track.  Perhaps true for more than a dozen of CT’s students, for whom motivation—and family and peer support—are not issues.  But this is not the case for all.

And the odds still seem stacked against them.  Aurora Public Schools has among the lowest on-time graduation rates in Colorado—below 50 percent (48 percent in 2012).  The most recent data (for 2011 graduates) tells us that of those who then enroll in college, more than half (52.3 percent) require remediation classes.

College Track seeks to radically change those outcomes.  The program’s national office reports: “100 percent of our seniors graduate from high school, more than 90 percent are admitted to a four-year university, and 75 percent of our college students are currently enrolled, or have graduated from, college (whereas, nationally, the college graduation rate of low-income students is 22 percent.)

Malala would be cheering on our students—her peers.

Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education for everyone. No one can stop us. We will speak for our rights and we will bring change through our voice. We must believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the world.

Because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must not forget that millions of people are suffering from poverty, injustice and ignorance. We must not forget that millions of children are out of schools. We must not forget that our sisters and brothers are waiting for a bright peaceful future.

So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.

Education is the only solution. Education first.

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.