First Person

Week of 1/24/11: Teaching & learning tidbits

Cursive handwriting not taught at some schools

At the beginning of the current school year, Pam Bates learned that her daughter, Kaylin, would not learn how to read or write in cursive. This is the first year Stober Elementary, in Jefferson County, has not taught the flowing penmanship. Watch the 7 News report. The debate over the demise of cursive in Colorado public schools first heated up on EdNews Parent. Share your thoughts.

Special education resource fair Saturday

Aurora Public Schools will host a resource fair for people with disabilities and their parents, caregivers and educators beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Professional Learning & Conference Center, 15771 East 1st Ave. in Aurora. The event features workshops for teachers and caretakers, a special education student art show, door prizes and a raffle fundraiser. Topics include:

  • How children learn and why they struggle
  • Reducing unwanted behaviors through structure and routine
  • Understanding special education: Key things that parents need to know (Taught in Spanish with English interpretation available).

D-49 paying ‘hundreds of thousands’ to trim its ranks

The Falcon School District 49 board said in an “open letter” Thursday it was paying “several hundred thousand dollars” to end obligations to employees whose positions were being eliminated, but declined to give details. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette. This comes at the same time Falcon district officials want to see higher test scores and graduates well prepared for college and the workplace. That’s why the growing school district on Colorado Springs’ eastern edge is moving to  become an “innovation district,” which would allow it to seek exemption from some state and local rules to try new things. Read this Gazette story.

‘Obsessed’ teacher uses space to enthuse students

Fifth-grade teacher Jami Seabolt on Thursday showed her Space Club at Skyway Park Elementary School how to make paper space shuttles. Seabolt also is flying high because she recently learned that she is one of 38 teachers nationwide – including 12 from the Pikes Peak region – named to the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation’s prestigious teacher liaison program. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Colorado students outperform peers in science

Students in fourth grade and eighth grade took science tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Colorado students scored better than most of the country. Watch this 9News report.

Boulder Valley plans preschool additions

More preschool spots for low-income students soon will be available at Boulder Valley elementary schools, but adding spots at Boulder schools is proving tricky because of space issues. Read more in the Daily Camera.

CU-Boulder answering Obama’s call for more math, science teachers

In his life sciences class Wednesday, teacher William Leary devised a mock disease, and middle-school students worked to diagnose it and imagined ways to prevent an epidemic. The exercise at Boulder’s Casey Middle School fit into the unit that Leary is teaching on epidemiology. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools board to discuss “21st century learning”

The Board of Education is hosting a community meeting to discuss 21st century learning and provide input regarding values and priorities for developing successful students and graduates in the district. The event will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Thornton High School, 9351 Washington St., Thornton. For more information contact Frances Mullins at 720-972-4007.

Beattie Elementary spared by one vote

The Poudre School District Board of Education voted no Tuesday night on a motion to close Beattie Elementary School in Fort Collins after a drawn out fight by parents and community members to save the school. Watch the 9News report.

Improving the odds of turnaround success

As efforts to turn around some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools intensify, a report issued this week urges state leaders to focus on three key areas to better the chances of success. Read more in Education News Colorado.

President Obama cites Denver school

President Obama highlighted a Denver school, Bruce Randolph 6-12, as an example of  “what’s possible fromBarack Obama with thumbs up our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Randolph was on the brink of state closure in 2004-05 when Kristin Waters, then the principal of one of Denver’s highest-performing middle schools, and her teacher Chrisanne LaHue created a reform plan. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Aurora schools chief goes door-to-door for truants

Schools chief John Barry joined staff members going door-to-door on Tuesday to reach students who are chronically truant. The school district says the aim is to invite those students back to school. Watch this 9News report.

Colorado House to mull tax credits for private, home-school parents

If a Centennial lawmaker has his way, some parents who send their children to private school or home-school them could benefit from tax credits beginning next year in a plan opponents say is simply school vouchers by another name. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Boulder Valley schools boost dropout-prevention efforts

Johnny Fernandez hated seeing teens, year after year, give up on school and slip away to an uncertain future. “I feel responsible for every single kid,” said the assistant principal at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School. “You get tired of seeing kids disengage.” Read more in the Daily Camera.

Jeffco board balks at school-closure plan

The Jefferson County school board has announced  that it has decided to delay action on a five-year plan that would close several elementary schools. The plan, first proposed to the school board Jan. 6, would phase out as many as 10 elementary schools and replace or consolidate several others. Read more in the Denver Post.

Teachers catch up on technology

Crystal Courts is one of 200 people giving up their Saturday to improve their Monday through Friday. She’s attending the Jefferson County School District’s first ever Tech Share Fair. “I think kids have access to so much more. There’s so much information out there,” Courts, a third grade teacher, said. “So, I was kind of hoping to get a better idea how I could use it with my kids.” The Tech Share Fair is designed to help Courts and her colleagues learn more about cloud computing, new programs and internet applications to find the smartest ways to use their Smart Boards. Watch the report on 9News.

Students’ ingenuity changes lives

Here’s a scenario that may sound like a school teacher’s dream; a group of students are given an assignment that captivates them so much, they choose to come to school an hour before the bell rings to work on it, for four months. Lynette Havens doesn’t need to pinch herself because this is no dream, it is reality. Lynette is a teacher at Bollman Technical Education Center in Thornton. This school is part of Adams 12 Five Star School District. As part of a pre-engineering class, students are taking part in a national project which requires them to create a device for someone with a disability. Watch this 9News report.

State’s smallest district ponders future

The Agate School District boasts a top-notch facility. A $1.8 million capital construction grant from the state in 2003 paid for a sparkling new cafeteria and kitchen in the district’s one school. The gym has been updated, and spacious new locker rooms were added. There’s even a new fitness room housing state-of-the-art equipment. Read more in Education News Colorado.

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.