First Person

Success Academy teachers don’t plan their lessons, and other teachers shouldn’t either

I have taught English at the same school in the city’s public school system for the last six years. I interviewed for a teaching position with Success Academy this summer. While I didn’t accept the offer, seeing the charter network’s approach to curriculum made me think about what it would look like if my school—and others—tried its approach.

At Success, teachers do not spend time crafting the plans and materials for every class—a core expectation of teachers at most schools. When this was first explained, I couldn’t help checking that I’d heard correctly: “So you’re saying teachers don’t lesson plan?” My interviewer’s response was prompt and confident: “Lesson plan? Our teachers don’t have time for lesson planning.”

I was stunned, but I shouldn’t have been. They realized it worked better to dedicate a team of qualified people to developing lessons, who give the lessons to teachers with the expectation that they will be modified. (My interviewer even emphasized the poor results of teachers who simply delivered the lessons without taking ownership of them.)

In short, Success sees the foolishness of having teachers, on a daily basis, reinventing the wheel when there are people within the school who understand how things should work. It’s time traditional public schools admit the same.

I certainly understand the resistance that many teachers feel at the idea of being given lessons. They understandably fear being “forced” to teach lessons that are uninspiring or poorly planned. Many resist using someone else’s lessons out of fear the lessons won’t cohere with the expectations of their school or with the needs of their students (or following experiences with pre-packaged curriculum materials that failed to do so).

It’s also rare to see lessons that are comprehensive enough to be useful. For example, it is easy to find teaching guides for particular novels or plays, but quite rare to find actual lessons. It is also hard to find assessments—and I don’t mean a multiple-choice test or a description of a project. I mean the handout describing the assessment, the assessment’s rubric, the graphic organizers that break down steps, and a completed sample assessment. Teachers have a lot of well-founded doubts about how useful and complete someone else’s lessons are going to be.

Perhaps most of all, teachers don’t want lessons based on someone else’s passions. As an English teacher, I know how difficult it can be to teach a text that I don’t love.

But at the end of the day, when I think of all the time I spend creating and modifying lessons, I know I would give up lesson planning if I could. In fact, I get nearly giddy at the thought of having more time for the other demands (and joys) of my profession: talking to students, giving students feedback (both so time-consuming and so important, particularly at the high-school level), communicating with parents, organizing and leading clubs. With so much time no longer devoted to planning, I could also focus on the delivery of lessons—on becoming a master presenter and facilitator.

Of course, I wouldn’t give up my planning for just any old lessons. They would have to be

  • Developed by teachers or former teachers from the school
  • Tested and found to be successful with similar populations of students
  • Common-Core aligned
  • Easy to follow and detailed
  • Challenging, engaging and differentiated for students with different needs when necessary
  • Student-centered, with opportunities for students to take ownership of their own learning
  • Comprehensive, with supplements like accompanying handouts and rubrics included (ideally in modifiable, digital form)

In other words, what each school needs is what Success has: a team of people whose primary job is to create a high-quality curriculum for their own school.

I could have so much more confidence in lessons developed by a team of people who know my school, rather than just by me, myself and I. I don’t mean to say my own lessons are terrible. Some are very strong, but—let’s be honest—some were made in a terrible, anxious rush. If I taught from a team-made curriculum, there would be no need for lessons made the day before (or, dare I admit it, the day of) a class. I would have quality lessons every day.

Additionally, I would have a clear road map. I would know today what I would be teaching in three weeks—not just that we’ll be finishing “The Crucible,” but that we’ll be focusing on Scene X and doing a Socratic seminar on Y. I could rest assured that by the end of the year, my students will have had repeated practice with all the standards.

It is true that such a team would be costly, both in terms of money and time. The team would need to be made up of teachers with reduced teaching loads or teachers who are focused solely on curriculum, not the outgrowth of one more meeting in some teachers’ already over-filled days. I can think someone who would be perfect for this position: A phenomenal teacher who relishes planning, but often finds herself frustrated in the classroom. Her lessons and projects are complex, creative, and well thought-out. Eventually, a team made up of people like her would need to spend less time creating and could spend more time tweaking.

The new union contract already mandates more time for professional development than ever before. Why not use this time for curriculum teams to work? (Again, the key would be not staffing them with teachers who already have full teaching loads.) A school like mine could start small, with one team focused on just one subject or grade level.

It is clear to me that the achievement of charter schools like the Success Academy schools is in large part due to their recognition of the importance of letting people do the things at which they are best. Let’s follow their example. Let’s free more teachers from the burden of planning, and see what happens when they can focus on their most important job: teaching and connecting with students.

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.