First Person

How Student Work Can Illuminate Teaching

Teaching is an honorable profession with a dash of folly. What sane person would take it on, knowing what it entails? Not only does the work often take over one’s evenings, weekends, and vacations, but one can rarely take pride in a job well done. Each lesson has imperfections, some of them painful; a teacher sees the flaws of her presentation as she speaks, or has to stop repeatedly to deal with chattering students. Then there are other tasks, such as database maintenance, phone calls, and data analysis, some of which enhance the work, some of which distract. On top of this, the teaching profession does not enjoy much respect in society, to put it mildly. What, then, beyond a sense of duty and the need for a job, explains a teacher’s decision to persist in the classroom day after day? For me, it is the intense joy of conveying a subject to students and receiving their thoughts and questions. Sometimes, after a discouraging week, I sit down to correct homework and am enlightened, intrigued, and moved by what I read.

For this reason, the opportunity to showcase and discuss my students’ work comes as a great treat. I teach philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the 10th-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the 11th-graders, political philosophy. (I have written about these courses here and here.) I have selected three pieces to discuss; each one, in a different way, has enriched my thinking and the courses I teach. They are all first and sole drafts (with minor edits in the latter two cases); in a future article, I might examine a piece as it progresses from first to final draft.

I will begin with a piece that a 10th-grader wrote for the first assignment of the year:


To get a sense of my students’ ideas and writing, I asked them to write about a situation involving an ethical dilemma, either in their own lives or in a work of literature. I rarely give assignments on personal topics, but this proved instructive; I was overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness of the responses. Among all of them, this one stood out for its philosophical thinking and play. It begins:

While I was about to start this assignment, I spent about twenty minutes stressing over the fact that I couldn’t think of anything that made me question ethics. I complained to my mother that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I then asked her whether I should ask Professor Senechal whether I could make it up. Mom raised her eyebrow. “Is that ethical?” she asked.

This student (who requested anonymity) clearly took the assignment seriously and treated it with respect. His initial thought was not exactly to lie, but to ask me whether he might make something up. Then came the delightful detail of his mother raising her eyebrow, and the question, “Is that ethical?” which the student realized was an ethical dilemma right there. Thus, he ingeniously turns his dilemma about the assignment into the very topic of the assignment.

In the second paragraph, he examines philosophical positions on lying: Kant’s argument that any lying results in loss of dignity; utilitarian arguments that lying may be acceptable if it is used to a good end; and more. He concludes that he is somewhere between Kant and utilitarians. Implicit in the discussion is his decision, for this particular occasion, not to lie. I learned from his piece, first of all, that this was going to be a good year; and second, that real-life applications of philosophy need not be shallow, if the philosophical thought is strong.

The latter point has affected the way I plan lessons. Early on in my teaching, I resisted the overemphasis (in many schools) on real-life learning, where students talk and write about their lives without reading much of substance. I was determined to have my students tackle interesting and lasting books. I keep that determination but recognize that we are all finding our way through our lives, and that the books can help, directly or indirectly. So, I explore with my students why these books matter, as well as what they contain.

The second piece was written by Khadijah McCarthy, also a 10th-grader, for a test that the students took in late October:


Students had to choose one of two open-book essay questions (and were allowed to use their books and notes). Khadijah chose to compare the ideas of Immanuel Kant regarding value and dignity with those of Martin Buber regarding “It” and “You.” (The students had read substantial excerpts of Kant’s “” and Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.”) This was an especially challenging question, because their ideas appear similar at first glance.

Both Kant and Buber are concerned with human dignity and how it is upheld or demeaned. According to Kant, each of us has value and dignity; our value is that which can be measured and replaced (our job skills, for instance), whereas dignity allows of no measurement or replacement. In Buber’s view, humans have a dual attitude toward the world: an “I-It” attitude, which involves treating others (humans, animals, trees, things) as objects, and an “I-You” attitude, which is a full relation, an acknowledgement of the entirety of the other. Like Kant’s “value,” “It” can be described, experienced, and contained; “You,” like Kant’s “dignity,” has no limits. Khadijah, who has shown exceptional perseverance and keenness in working with complex texts, was able to find a difference between the ideas of Kant and Buber:

Kant offers a solution that is everlasting; as long as you have dignity, then you can never be matched, and because dignity has an intrinsic origin, you will have it for as long as you live. With Buber, you can only remain in the “You” realm for so long; as Buber states, “It [the “You” realm] lacks duration, for it vanishes even when you try to cling to it.” If this “You” realm has the ability to vanish at any given point, and there is nothing that you can do to prevent that, then this may not always be a tangible, realistic alternative or solution.

I was fascinated by Khadijah’s idea that Kant’s solution is more “realistic” than Buber’s (if his can be called a solution). I asked myself: is this so? One might also argue that Buber’s is more realistic, because it acknowledges the extreme rareness of relating to others in their fullness — and the greatness of such relation. Also, alhough Buber’s “You”-encounter vanishes, it can affect the rest of a person’s life, and thus has a kind of eternity. At the same time, Kant’s idea of dignity does seem unshakeable, intrinsic to humans, and thus more practicable than Buber’s “You.” Khadijah’s interpretation of the texts challenged my own thoughts and helped me form questions for future class discussion.

I conclude with an 11th-grader’s parody of Plato:

In the fall, the 11th-graders delved into ancient political philosophy and discussed the benefits and pitfalls of different forms of government. After we finished Book VIII of the “Republic” (where Socrates explains one form of government decays into the next, until tyranny is reached), I asked students to write a continuation in which Socrates and Glaucon explore how tyranny devolves into something else. Through this assignment they could demonstrate their understanding of the reading, their grasp of Plato’s logic, and their political imagination. As I collected the students’ work, I started reading Christian (“Kit”) McArthur’s piece and stifled my cachinnation. I looked over at Kit, who looked back with a mischievous twinkle. The piece begins (with Glaucon speaking first):

Well, I am still unsatisfied. Socrates, could tyranny devolve further into something else?

Possibly.

We’ve already established that an aristocracy devolves into a timocracy, which devolves into an oligarchy, which further devolves into a democracy, which even further devolves into tyranny.

Absolutely.

Therefore, according to logic, the tyranny would have to devolve further.

Of course.

Kit grasped that much of the dialogue in Book VIII isn’t dialogue at all; most of the time, Socrates speaks and someone else agrees. (Elsewhere in the “Republic,” there are substantial exceptions to this pattern.) Kit’s piece turns the tables, making Glaucon lead the way, yet it’s clear that Socrates remains in charge (or does he?). The piece becomes increasingly sophisticated as it progresses, with a combination of wit, insight, and parody. Such qualities in combination cannot be conjured at will, but I want to do more to make room for them.

Grading homework does not always bring delight; often, when working through stacks of papers, I realize that I am not offering my students the detailed comments they deserve. (Or the grammatical errors start to endanger my hair.) Everything from the ideas to the spelling needs attention, yet I must work fast in order to get the grading done. Then a piece comes my way that makes me stop and marvel. I sink briefly into thought, then shake myself and move on. Still, the piece doesn’t go away. It finds its way into a lesson or question; it comes back to mind months or years later. Often I am overwhelmed not by all the work I have to do, nor by the distractions and disruptions, but by the gifts.

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.