First Person

Are our schools learning organizations?

Is your school a learning organization? What a silly question, we’re a school for crying out loud. We teach, our students learn, hence we are a learning organization. But students are not the only agents of learning in schools. We forget that teachers need to grow and learn as well, just as it is in any profession.

This might explain why schools and teachers are constantly inundated with initiatives from outside of their school organization. Most of the initiatives confronting schools, like Common Core Academic Standards, Standards-Based Grading, and Professional Learning Communities are well-researched and grounded in strong theory. Yet, for the most part, these initiatives came from outside of the school, with little if any support from educators. Why? It’s because most schools are not learning organizations.

In the 1990’s Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline, in which he argued that organizations are continually faced with shifting technology, customer preferences, and intensifying competition. To combat this shifting scenario, organizations need more than a clear vision and strong leadership. They need to be a learning organization. Learning organizations garnered much attention within the private sector, but not as much within the public school arena. If schools were set up as true learning organizations we would have employees (educators) who were skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. Knowledge that would transform our schools into true learning organizations and promote high academic achievement.

In their article “Is Yours a Learning Organization” (Harvard Business Review), authors Gravin, Edmondson, and Gino, offer up a quick assessment tool to see where your company (school) stands as an organization that “fosters knowledge sharing, idea development, learning from mistakes, and holistic thinking.” They also offer three building blocks to a learning organization: 1) A supportive learning environment, 2) concrete learning processes and practices, and 3) leadership that reinforce learning. While the tool was set up for businesses all you need to do to apply it to schools is replace unit (as in a company unit) with school, and manager with principal.

Psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas and time for reflection make up the first building block. We need our schools to be safe places for teachers to engage in collaborative thinking that allows for constructive conflict. Schools where the culture demands tight compliance to edicts from on high, without debate, are not safe. When people are overstressed and do not have the time to reflect they become “less able to diagnose problems and learn from their experiences. Supportive learning environments allow time for a pause in the action and encourage thoughtful review of the [school’s] processes.” When is the last time you saw a teacher with the opportunity, during the school year, to do this?

Building block two focusses on the processes by which organizations generate, collect, interpret, and disseminate information. For educators this entails the social science practice of action research. It promotes experimentation to develop new strategies, time to gather data and analyze the results, as well as opportunities to educate and train their colleagues. For educators time is the key resource necessary to complete this work. Collaboration among educators takes dedicated time away from the act of teaching and funnels it into strategic time spent working with colleagues. We already know that the top international schools’ teachers spend less time “on stage” with students, about 30% less, than do American teachers. If this was taking place in our schools we would see a shift from top-down, fix-it, and one-size-fits-all professional development to a more growth-driven, inquiry-based, collaborative, and tailor-made type of professional development.

The third building block advocated by the authors, focusses on building leadership that reinforces learning. Principals, who invite input from others, recognize their own limitations with regards to knowledge, information, and expertise, who provide time, resources, and venues for identifying problems and recognizing challenges encourage teachers to learn. Teachers in this environment feel empowered to offer new ideas and options. This type of learning environment requires a leader who is comfortable and even encourages professional discourse that is not seen in most schools today.

We know that teachers enter the profession needing time and space to learn. Regardless of what teacher preparation program a teacher comes from, there is no way for that new teacher to have the necessary skills to be successful on day one. We also know that the practice of teaching is not a fixed skill. Teaching, like all professions, relies on a workforce that is adept at making the necessary changes to fit a changing society and its students. In other words, we need a teaching profession that learns as it engages in its daily practice, a profession that demands precision in what it does, while at the same time looking for new ways to innovate and respond to a shifting and changing student body. It is time for us to look at schools as places of learning for students and educators.

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. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.