First Person

Once Central, City’s Progressive Educators Now Outnumbered But Still Fighting

Appearing before about 600 educators at a recent conference on progressive education, Deborah Meier threw away her prepared speech. In an inspired request, the MacArthur Genius Award winner and prominent advocate for progressive education asked attendees who started teaching in the 1960s to stand up. Then she called on educators who began their careers in the 1970s. She continued decade by decade to the present until a good part of the audience was standing.

Meier’s gesture made visible the long history — into the present — of progressive education in New York City’s schools. But it also raised the question: Where — in an era of high-stakes tests and number crunching — is progressive education?

Most progressive educators trace their roots to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century philosopher who wrote extensively about the connection between education and democracy and proposed an educational model that was intellectual, pragmatic and applied. Over the past 25 years, the term has come to describe interdisciplinary instruction; alternative ways of gauging student learning, like performance-based assessment; project-based learning; advisory or guidance groups as part of the school day; small classes sizes; a full measure of art and music classes; and time set aside for teachers to plan and work together. For progressive educators, a shared vision of the purpose of education and how students should be taught unites all of these features.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, New York City was a center of progressive education. And it wasn’t just in the two schools that Meier founded and ran, the Central Park East elementary and secondary schools. From 1983 to 1997, Stephen Phillips served as the superintendent of alternative schools. Largely unknown outside of New York City education circles, Phillips oversaw 62 schools and programs that enrolled more than 120,000 students when he retired. He received a lifetime achievement award from Meier at the progressive education conference, along with the late Theodore Sizer, one of her intellectual mentors and later a colleague in the Coalition for Essential Schools, the umbrella organization for progressive schools.

Yet in the current era of standardized test-based accountability, progressive education has fallen off the radar in New York and nationally. High-stakes tests are being used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools, and charter schools — a lightly regulated alternative to traditional public schools — are seen as a panacea. Through its Race to the Top competition, the federal government is rewarding states that promote these policies with large gobs of money.

Ann Cook is the founding principal of the progressive Urban Academy High School and the head of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 schools whose students do not have to take Regents exams but instead demonstrate proficiency through portfolios and presentations. Cook takes no prisoners when describing the current moment in education policy.

“A lot of people who make policy provide a certain education for their children but don’t think other people’s children can benefit from it,” she said, pointing to wealthy suburban school districts and private schools such as Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., which President Obama’s daughters attend.

“They all have small classes, electives, take trips, do project-based work, try to get kids involved in a discussion, present the students with multiple perspectives — those are all hallmarks of progressive education,” Cook said. “There’s no time for these things in regular public schools. It’s all about how they do on the test.”

And yet a small contingent of educators, many who attended the conference, continues to try to apply progressive education principles in the face of mandates and constraints from the city and federal education departments.

Brady Smith is the founding principal of Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, which incorporates expeditionary learning, where students are given experiences out of the classroom to help them learn and develop personally. Ninth-graders travel to Harriman State Park to explore and learn from the environment, and tenth-graders work closer to home on a long-term project planning how to use a vacant lot next to the school. They have to come up with their own vision for the use of the land, do the calculations and schematics, and make a proposal to the Port Authority, which owns the land.

“We use data quite a bit,” Smith told me. “But we have a broad definition of data. We look at student work quite a lot. My stance is — what does student performance look like? There are ways to measure it authentically … more than any one test.”

Smith says he hopes eventually to have his school accepted into the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the group Cook runs. The purpose of joining would not be just to get his students out of having to take Regents exams, Smith told me, but because the consortium offers extensive professional development to its member schools and provides a rigorous peer review process to make sure students get challenging alternate assessments.

Smith said he developed his educational philosophy while teaching in both traditional and progressive schools in Portland, Ore., and Seattle before moving to New York. For the younger teachers in his school, without the range of experiences, developing their own perspective on education can be harder, which is why Smith said he brought them to the conference.

“Many of my staff members don’t have a sense of history,” he said. “It was valuable for them to see they are part of a larger movement.”

One young teacher who attended the conference graduated from both of Meier’s Central Park East schools before beginning her teaching career. Alexis Carrero came to Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after teaching for five years at MS 37 in the Bronx, where she experienced a shift in what administrators valued.

“It all became focused on testing,” she said. “It was all about the numbers and they didn’t pay attention to the social and emotional needs of the students.”

At Lyons, Carrero and her colleagues create thematic units and focus on field studies, taking students out of the classroom, for example, to museums to learn. But they also have worked together and made changes in the school based on what they see as student needs. After some problems of aggression between boys, they rearranged the schedule and established a boys’ group and a girls’ group to talk about their own issues. (Carrero runs the girls’ group and a dean runs the boys’ group.)

“I think we’re doing great things at our school but still our test scores aren’t great,” she said. “We have to find a middle ground. We’re not teaching to the test. We’re trying to teach them skills on how to take tests. We’re still working on it. We’re a work in progress.”

Whether Carrero and her colleagues at Lyons will have a chance to figure things out remains to be seen. Although the city is encouraging principals and schools to innovate, it eschews practices that don’t center solely on improving standardized test scores.

“Good gardeners know they have to set up borders around flowerbeds in order to help them grow,” Phillips said at the conference. “If progressive education is going to be a factor in education, it has to be protected in a zone where it is safe to try things.”

Jessica Siegel, assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College, taught in the city’s public schools for 12 years. She is the subject of Small Victories by Samuel Freedman (HarperCollins, 1990).

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.