First Person

Week of Nov. 1: Teaching & learning tidbits

Tech grants available to schools

The Qwest Foundation and Public Education & Business Coalition (PEBC), a sponsor of EdNews Parent, announce the fifth year of the Qwest Teachers & Technology Grant Program.

The Qwest Teachers & Technology Grant Program is a unique opportunity for educators to find innovative ways to bring technology into the classroom and better prepare students to succeed in academics.

PEBC logo Qwest is providing $150,000 in grants for the 2011-2012 school year to be awarded to individual teachers in Colorado schools and charter schools to help fund innovative technology projects so that Colorado teachers can improve education in the classroom. By the end of this year’s program, more than $700,000 will have been granted and more than 27,000 students across Colorado will have been impacted.

The grants will be awarded to teachers through a competitive process that will be administered by Public Education & Business Coalition. Educators or parents who want to help them can obtain the application through Qwest. The grant application deadline is Jan. 10, 2011.

Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission tour continues

It may not have the allure of a rock concert, but the newly-formed Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) Commission wants you to participate and is coming to a town near you. Next stops are in Limon, Loveland and Sheridan.

The tour will continue the following week with a stop in Pueblo. Meeting locations and times are below.

The commission, launched by Commissioner of Education Dwight D. Jones, is working to expand the vision for the entire learning experience in ways that transcend the traditional school day and traditional classroom models. The goal is to create a vision for student learning that incorporates a blend of traditional and online learning, expands the school day and standard yearly calendar and re-thinks the traditional school experience.

Citizens and community members who plan to attend the meetings in person are asked to RSVP to Vanessa Roman at at the Colorado Department of Education. Those who cannot attend the meetings may provide feedback via an online survey. Written comments may also be sent to Vanessa Roman.

Meeting locations and times:

  • Limon 4-6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, East Central BOCES office, 820 Second St.
  • Loveland 4-6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, The Ranch, 
5280 Arena Circle, Suite 100
  • Sheridan 4:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 11, Sheridan School District high school, 3201 West Oxford Ave.
  • Pueblo 4-6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15, the Cottonwood Room at the Occhiato University Center on the CSU-Pueblo campus, 2200 Bonforte Blvd.

Douglas County schools consider vouchers

The Denver Post chronicles a voucher discussion brewing in Dougco.

“The Douglas County School District is examining starting a voucher program to give students state money to attend private or religious schools.

The school board this summer hired a Colorado Springs lawyer to develop a plan for a voucher system that would give parents 75 percent of state per-pupil funds to attend “nonpublic schools,” which could include religious schools.

No other Colorado school district has a voucher program.

A 2003 state law created a voucher pilot program for poor students but was ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court the next year. That 4-3 ruling said the voucher program unconstitutionally stripped school boards of their local control authority.

Douglas County’s Option Certificate Program “fulfills the local control principle” of the Colorado Constitution, according to a draft policy developed for a School Choice Task Force, a community group developing school-choice options.

Push for math, science education stumbles

The Kansas City Star reports on efforts to boost the teaching of math and science nationwide.

“Five years ago, alarms sounded over America’s rapidly falling stature in STEM education.

That’s science, technology, engineering and math — the keys to our nation’s prosperity. But U.S. schools weren’t keeping up in the fast-changing fields.

Governors dispatched task forces. New programs were launched. Foundations poured in funding. And schools started to make gains.

Now, however, signs are emerging that the momentum of the mid-2000s is slipping away, even as students’ needs continue to grow.”

Parting words from Michelle Rhee

Michelle RheeLightning rod ex-DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee and outgoing Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty share their thoughts in the Wall Street Journal about efforts to reform DC’s schools. Rhee played a starring role in the much talked about documentary film on the state of public education in the United States, Waiting for Superman.

It begins: “Our time in office and in charge of the school system of Washington, D.C., is quickly drawing to an end. Monday is Michelle’s last day as schools chancellor, and Mayor Fenty failed to win the Democratic primary last month. A new mayor will be elected next week.

During our nearly four years in office we pressed forward an aggressive educational reform agenda. We were determined to turn around D.C.’s public schools and to put children above the political fray, no matter what the ramifications might be for ourselves or other public officials. As both of us embark on the next stages of our careers, we believe it is important to explain what we did in Washington, to share the lessons of our experience, and to offer some thoughts on what the rest of the country might learn from our successes and our mistakes.”

Colorado’s Board of Ed considers adding social studies to statewide tests

The state board this week heard a request from social studies teachers and community members who urged the board to include social studies in the new state assessment system.

“Until social studies is recognized as an academic subject on equal footing with reading, writing, mathematics and science, our state and nation will continue to struggle to produce students who possess the knowledge, skills and civic values necessary to participate in our state and our nation’s democracy and in an increasingly interdependent world,” said a resolution submitted by the board of directors of the Colorado Historical Society. “The domestic and international issues facing us are so complex and pressing that, to preserve democracy as we know it, citizens must have some depth of historical, political and cultural understanding.”

A companion memo to the state board was signed by 18 groups including Junior Achievement, the Colorado Council for Social Studies, the Center for Teaching International Relations and the School of Business, Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Several members of the state board, including Elaine Gantz Berman and Marcia Neal, encouraged further consideration of the idea.

At its Dec. 6 meeting, the board is scheduled to approve the “attributes” it desires in the new assessment system.  A new state assessment system is being developed in wake of the ongoing implementation of new academic standards.

Boasberg happy with DPS progress but concerned about reading

The Denver Post reports on the superintendent’s state-of-the-schools address.

“Things are getting better, but Denver Public Schools has a long way to go before declaring reform efforts a success, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Thursday.

Boasberg, who has been superintendent for nearly two years, presented mostly a rosy picture of the district in his speech to the A-Plus Denver group of community members that advises the district.

Enrollment is increasing, more students are taking college-level courses, graduation rates are rising, and student growth on assessments outpaces the state.

But there are other, more sobering, details.

The DPS graduation rate is still below the state average — below 60 percent; the achievement gap between minorities and their white or Asian peers is cavernous and stagnant; and only half of third-graders are reading at grade level — an indicator of future academic success.”

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.