First Person

Jury Nullification

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s selection of Hearst Magazines chairman Cathie Black as chancellor of the New York City public schools has hastened a crisis over how to assess expertise in a complex educational system. Does Black have the expertise necessary to assume leadership of a school system with a budget of $23 billion, 135,000 employees, and 1.1 million students? The mayor certainly thinks so. He has described the job as being able to “solve complex problems in the face of controversy, motivate staff, communicate with and bring together diverse constituents, manage labor relations, use data in decision making, and sustain a culture of change and excellence.” Black’s experience in publishing, he has argued, has demonstrated her bold vision, capacity to make tough financial decisions, skills in negotiation and building support among constituents, and knowledge of state and federal laws. In the eyes of the mayor, these skills — none specific to the field of public education — constitute the expertise required to do the job.

The state of New York has a different conception of the expertise needed to be a school district superintendent. State law specifies that to obtain a professional school district leader certification, school district leaders (i.e., superintendents) must have completed a School District Leader program authorized by the state; accumulated a minimum of 60 semester hours in graduate courses approved by the state commissioner of education; and have at least three years of teaching experience. The certification also includes a full-time, 15-week clinical component of school-building leadership experience or its equivalent, and requires passing two written School District Leader assessments.

The content of the School District Leader assessments provides some purchase on the kinds of expertise that the state views as necessary to successful practice. The standards expressed in these assessments include applying knowledge of skills for engaging building leaders, board members, community members, parents/guardians, students and school staff in an ongoing dialogue regarding core values, goals, policies, practices and achievements; demonstrating knowledge of the New York State Code of Ethics for Educators and the role of values and ethics in district leadership; demonstrating knowledge of factors to consider in comprehensive, long-range planning, including the importance of involving all key stakeholders in planning processes; analyzing concepts, principles and best-practice applications of developmental and learning theories, curriculum development, instructional delivery, and classroom organization and practices with regard to the diverse needs of all students (e.g., special-education students, English-language learners, gifted and talented students); analyzing strategies for developing staff capability through the supervision and evaluation of teachers and building leaders, effective staff assignments, and systems of mentoring, support, and development; and demonstrating knowledge of processes of collective bargaining and contract management that support and extend the educational vision, to name just a few.

If the various requirements of the School District Leader certification are indicators of the expertise that New York state requires of school superintendents, and Cathie Black has not met those requirements, how are we to judge if she has the requisite expertise? Mayor Bloomberg sought a waiver to the requirements, which provides an alternative route to the credential. State regulations allow the state commissioner of education to issue a professional certification to exceptionally qualified individuals “whose exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent of such requirements and qualify such persons for duties of a superintendent of schools.” State Commissioner David Steiner convened a screening committee of eight education professionals to advise him on whether to grant the waiver. To the surprise of many, the screening committee did not recommend granting a waiver to Black. Four of the eight members voted no; two voted yes; and two voted “not now.”

In inviting the screening committee to consider the option “not now,” Commissioner Steiner paved the way for the education version of “jury nullification.” Jury nullification is the term used to describe when a jury reaches a verdict that is contrary to the facts in evidence, typically because of a belief that the law is immoral or improperly applied to a defendant. Cathie Black is not, of course, on trial, although many may feel that she is, by virtue of the high-handed way in which she was selected from Mayor Bloomberg’s mental Rolodex to be chancellor without any signs of a search. Steiner has now brokered a compromise in which an insider to the New York City public school system, Shael Suransky-Polakow, will be appointed Senior Deputy Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer. Press reports indicate that with this proviso, Steiner is now prepared to grant the waiver to Black.

I describe this as a form of jury nullification because Commissioner Steiner’s willingness to grant Cathie Black the professional certification needed to be appointed school superintendent is based on criteria other than those specified by the state’s education code. Steiner has already determined that, on the merits of her application, Black was not qualified for the position. In suggesting that Black would be acceptable if accompanied by a chief academic officer, he is saying, as have Mayor Bloomberg, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and others, that the rules should be ignored, mainly because New York City is a special case.

In my view, Commissioner Steiner’s decision should be independent of the context of New York City. The state’s requirements for school district leaders do not state that there’s one set of rules for New York City, because it’s so big and complicated, and another set of rules for the 700 other districts in the state. If the state wanted to create a different set of qualifications for the New York City schools chancellor, it could have done so.

It has not.

Therefore, it’s hard to see how Steiner should take account of the exceptionality of New York City’s educational system. He has found a political solution that further undermines the view held by most professional educators — and, I dare say, the overwhelming majority of school superintendents in New York state — that there is a body of expertise they apply to their daily work that cannot be picked up overnight.

In the long run, trying to assess the expertise necessary to be a school district leader without taking local context into account may be shortsighted. The compromise brokered by Steiner proposes that Black’s lack of experience in public schooling can be offset by the fact that she will be joined by a chief academic officer, and there will be others in the new chancellor’s “cabinet” who have specialized knowledge of educational issues in general and the New York City school system in particular. And if we take seriously the shift in leadership studies from “great man” theories that emphasize the distinctive charisma and personality traits of individuals in positions of formal authority to a view that focuses on the interactions among leaders, followers, resources and context, we’d want to pay close attention to these features in assessing the qualifications of Cathie Black to lead the New York City schools.

But doing so raises some tough questions. Once we acknowledge the notion that expertise is distributed among individuals in a setting, why would we rely on credentials that emphasize individual accomplishment? Why would we seek to isolate the contributions of individual teachers to students’ learning when teaching is an activity distributed among the educators in a particular school? Why would we even assess students’ learning via methods that preclude students from using tools in concert with other students? If, as Mayor Bloomberg has asserted, Cathie Black’s appointment is justified because she’ll be learning in concert with others, why don’t schools assess students’ preparedness to do just this? In the spirit of the season, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

This post also appears at Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report column.

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.