First Person

The Internet is a Language

I presented yesterday at the GooglePlex in Mountain View at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference. I was on a panel called “New Learning Designs: Scaling Innovation to Reverse the Dropout Crisis.”

My goal was to paint a picture of 339’s turnaround (so far) and the role technology has played. Keep in mind — I only had eight minutes for my remarks!

A theory I’m developing is the the modern Internet is a language. I’ll be writing more about that and further fleshing it out in the coming weeks…but for now here’s a transcript of my remarks. I’ll insert hyperlinks when I can.

In August of 2004, I became principal of IS 339, a large, public middle school in the Claremont section of the Bronx. Then we had 945 students, now we’re ‘down’ to about 820. 339 is roughly 70% Hispanic and 29% Black. About 25% of our students have IEPs and 28% are English language learners. The school building opened in 1974, and had twice been shut down and reopened by the state, in 1991 and 2000.

When I arrived 2004, 339 had learned to survive day to day by doing things like locking students down in one classroom only and sending them home if there was a problem. School safety agents routinely escalated conflicts with students, and many adults had adopted an aggressive, loud approach. It felt like a boiling pot was about to explode at any moment, and when it did, the melees were memorable. Ambulances and police cars fought school buses for parking in front.

I had pledged during my very first faculty conference to bring technology to 339. Every computer in the building was from 1999 or earlier, and there were no laptops. What few desktops we had were hoarded and rationed, in a few rooms or offices. Two people knew how to connect to the Internet. The school was off line, and it was out of line. Although there were staff members who cared deeply, they were drowned out by those who didn’t. The language of lockdowns, consequences and battle only perpetuated a prison mentality.

On staff, we were disjointed and suffering in silos. No one knew what was happening, or why. I thought I was a visionary when I installed a giant whiteboard in our main hallway for daily announcements. Problem solved! That is, until 11 AM, when someone would brush their jacket on the board, deleting half of our key information. At day’s end, our institutional memory got erased from the board. We were stagnant in too many ways.

At the end of my first year, in Spring of ’05, we received hopeful news. Chancellor Klein’s administration had tapped 339 as one of 22 middle schools for a 1-to-1 Macbook laptop program. The light at the end of the tunnel might be a laptop screen.

In year two, an influx of new and enthusiastic staff brought energy but not much stability to our school. We continued to struggle. Instruction suffered and student achievement plummeted. I’d read about Fullan’s implementation dip; I never thought we’d be sinking because of it. 9% of our students were now on grade level in math. The New York State Ed department once again designated the school as SURR (School Under Registrative Review). They sent a team of ten to conduct a grueling 3-day inspection. It was demoralizing at best. One official compared our staff to a band where no one was playing the same song. I asked her if she’d seen our whiteboard.

In June of 2006, the first wave of teacher laptops and one grade of student laptops finally arrived. In late June, after our 8th grade prom, I saw one boy scrolling through his digital camera, deciding which pictures to post to MySpace. He then started sending and receiving texts on his cell phone to multiple friends, who each had a different song playing when their messages arrived.

I realized that our students were hardwired for modern technology. Social networking spots like MySpace met a felt need for connecting, and sharing and collaborating. Yet our school ran as it had in the 90s, the 80s and the 70s. We’d rearranged some of the deck chairs, yet our 1.0 band was indeed playing many different tunes, and none that our students wanted to hear. Despite all of our fears, I was determined to get technology into the hands of staff and students. Students were fluent in the language of the 21st century Internet. We adults needed to quickly catch up.

Year three we created teacher teams who met daily for common planning. Adults received training. As Jim Collins predicted, technology became an accelerant for sharing best practices and building communication systems. Daily Notes were now posted online for staff. We migrated everyone away from the city’s email system and into Gmail. Teachers started Google groups to share lesson plans, post units of study and discuss ideas. Connecting and communicating, teacher teams started to quickly transform the work they did together and the work they did with students. We were finally sharing.

In year four we used the Internet to advance from communication to collaboration. Our faculty signed on to the Google Apps—in addition to Gmail, we integrated Google Docs and Spreadsheets into all aspects of adult work in the school. From the main office to the dean’s office to the administrative offices to the classrooms we created networked systems to share information, collaborate in real time on initiatives and to track progress. For those who haven’t had the chance to use Google Docs, they provide the ability for multiple people to co-edit documents and spreadsheets in real time on the Internet for free, so that other people who are shared in can view your changes. As teachers became comfortable with these tools, they introduced them to their classroom.

Last year—year five–we received the final laptops from the original pilot, and went fully 1-to-1 for the first time. We saw that our greatest untapped resource at 339 had been the creative imaginations of our staff and students. The lightning-quick speed of curiosity and innovation was now given voice through 21st century tools. Teachers emailed students assignments, and co-edited Google docs at the same time. Students found answers to questions within minutes, posted responses online and participated in our school’s robust Internet community. The Internet’s language was now being shared between staff and students.

While they’d once felt afraid, teachers now were proud that their practice had been modernized and streamlined. Students felt motivated, professional and respected. They were using tools to prepare them to compete in high school, access better jobs and use their talents. We were fully integrated across the board…you name it, and we migrated it to the Google Universe.

By the end of last year—our first full 1-to-1 year–we celebrated our best results yet. 62% of our students were now on grade level. Our NYC progress report grade had risen from a D to a C to a B to an A. We were removed from the state’s SURR list. And most importantly, the work we were doing in classrooms was giving students creative control over their learning.

In June, we hosted and presented a first-of-its kind Global Learning Reception called Dot-to-Dot. 100% of our teachers and students posted 21st century projects, including films and blogs, some streaming live. A student made a documentary about how to create a Times Square-like hub in the Bronx. One class Skyped with Nicholas Kristof about Darfur as part of their research about genocide. The theme for every project was “Connections.” Thousands of website hits from around the world became dots on our map, and we’d started to redefine what school could be in the 21st century. This year’s Dot-to-Dot theme is “Change”—and you’re all invited.

At 339, we don’t see laptops as toys, or even as tools. We see them as megaphones to give students and teachers global voices. The modern Internet isn’t an idea, or a place. It is a language that we need to speak at all corners of our school systems and in each one of our classrooms. It is a language that has rapidly improved our school, and can help transform struggling schools everywhere.

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.