First Person

Promoting health also boosts students' academic performance

Sharon Murray

Sharon Murray isn’t saying that pumping money into things like health education classes or more nutritious school lunches would automatically result in higher CSAP scores. That’s too simplistic an answer to a complicated challenge.

But Murray, the president of the Rocky Mountain Center for Health Promotion and Education, does point out that states with “health-supporting policies,” – things like minimum health and physical education requirements, an emphasis on healthy nutrition standards, funding for school-based health clinics ›and other student services – those states tend to have  higher test scores and lower dropout rates than states that don’t.

“So my recommendation for action is, the first thing would be supporting health promoting policies,” Murray said Tuesday at a lecture at the University of Colorado at Denver to discuss strategies for making kids both healthier and smarter. “You know we have no requirements in Colorado for health education or for physical education.”

Next on Murray’s preferred to-do list is setting up coordinated school health systems, so that providers can come together and collaborate, can maximize their resources, to better deal with any student health issue that arises.

She would have schools use data at both the district level and the individual school level to identify the real health needs of their students. “There are some places where obesity isn’t the necessarily the No. 1 health issue,” she said, “but use of illicit drugs is.”

She would keep evaluating programs intended to address student health issues because – despite the stack of research studies linking health an academic achievement – more needs to be done in this area, she said.

And she would have Colorado rethink the school paradigm, so that providing access to a variety of health-related services simply becomes the default position. She hopes school-based health services become, like intramural sports, something about which people say “Of course we do that in school.”

Murray briefed the audience on some places that are getting it right, and what sort of results they’ve experienced.

For example, the McComb, Miss., school district – a small district of 2,900 students in seven schools, 30 percent of whom live below the poverty level and 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunch – adopted a coordinated school health program guided by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The McComb superintendent’s thinking was that only by first having their basic physical needs met could the children achieve their full potential.

Among the programs the district set in place in 1997: health education classes to help students become more knowledgeable about disease and risky behavior; 30 minutes of daily physical education for younger students and two units of PE for high school students; health clinics in each school; fitness classes and annual health checkups for staff; and community involvement through health advisory councils.

When the program started, the district had a graduation rate of 77 percent. By 2004, that had improved to 92 percent, a rate that seems to be holding steady today, Murray said. Meanwhile, suspensions dropped 40 percent and juvenile crime plummeted 60 percent. Only three percent of teen mothers who participated in a district-sponsored parenting class went on to have a second baby while in their teen years – a percentage far smaller than the national average of 20 percent. (Read an article about “McComb’s Journey to Good Health” here.)

“McComb came together as a community, and brought together families, judicial services, health services, and said ‘How do we do better?” Murray said.

Elsewhere, Washington state recently did a health survey and found that health risks and academic risks affect one another, she said. And when schools were able to take away certain health risks – such as convincing students to stop smoking – they saw an increase in academic scores. “I can’t stand here and say that by having poor grades you will engage in high risk behaviors,” she said. “But clearly a relationship exists.”

Other studies underscore how important physical fitness is to academic performance. One study found that 80 percent of students in academically high-performing schools met minimum fitness criteria, while only 40 percent of students in academically low-performing schools were deemed physically fit.

Nutrition also matters. Murray told of one study in California of low-income youth who were deemed nutritionally at risk. Six months after one school district implemented a free universal breakfast program, those same students showed great improvement in attendance, a decrease in hunger, and improvements in math scores and in behavior. “So access to good, nutritious food has impacts not just on behavior, but on academic success as well,” she said.

Hillary Fulton, a program officer with the Colorado Health Foundation, said the foundation is committed to funding a number of programs designed to improve Coloradans access not just to health care and health coverage, but also to healthy living.

“We don’t believe schools are the cause of childhood obesity,” Fulton said. “We think they’re an excellent partner in trying to make sure the whole community facilitates healthier eating and more physical activity.”

Fulton said CHF has just approved a grant to the San Luis Valley PE Academy, a collaboration of 14 rural southeast Colorado school districts, to train them in the SPARK curriculum, an evidence-based and widely-lauded physical education program. “We’ll be training principals and superintendents in how to assess the quality of the teaching taking place,” she said. She encouraged other districts to apply for similar grants, since such “PE quality improvement” is going to be a priority for the health foundation, along with funding health education and nutrition education programs.

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.