First Person

Ask an Expert: Internet safety tips for parents

Q. June is Internet Safety Month. Can you give us some tips to keep our children safe online?

A. In this age of technology, our children truly are the digital natives while many adults, including myself,  are digital immigrants. But as parents and school personnel, we still need to educate ourselves about the benefits and challenges for our kids in a digital world.

The internet’s good side

Yes, the benefits cannot be denied.  Technology helps us and our kids have quick access to the latest information.  A study conducted by the Pew Research Institute published in 2010 found that 62 percent of teens get their news about current events and politics online. Forty-eight percent bought things online with 31 percent getting health, diet or physical fitness information from the internet.  Seventeen percent say they get information on health topics that are hard to discuss from sites online.

But most teens will tell you that the most important function of the internet for them is the ability to stay connected to their world.

boy on laptop computerThe Kaiser Foundation 2010 study Generation M2 , reports that because of the multi-tasking our youth do using more than one form of media at a time, they average a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into the daily 7.5 hours they spend with media.  This puts them in danger from the challenges that media creates, including cyberbullying, sexting and other forms of sexual solicitation, revealing private information to potential predators and exposing computers to viruses and other risks.

A commercial medium

With children as young as 2 ½ being exposed to the internet either directly or by watching parents or older siblings on the computer, we need to remember that the internet is a highly commercialized medium. Even online games for younger children vary widely in the quality, educational value and developmental match with children’s abilities.

The study entitled Like Taking Candy from a Baby: How Young Children Interact with Online Environments by W. Buckleitner in May 2008 found the online games PBS KIDS & Sesame Street had the highest educational value; NOGGIN’s games were some of the best designed; and Club Penguin and Webkinz delivered the best overall experience. Parents need to be watchful as websites frequently tantalize children with enticing options or even threats that their online creations will become inaccessible unless a purchase is made.

Social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster or Xanga allow children to create their own websites and share their personal information with anyone anywhere.  According to the Kaiser M2 study of 2010, 74 percent of all seventh- to to 12th-graders say they have a profile on a social networking site.

Younger kids getting on Facebook

Note to parents: Facebook’s terms of service require users to be at least 13 years old yet a Consumer Reports’ study released in May 2011 reports 7.5 MILLION Facebook users are under the age of 13.  Some parents have discovered their children have multiple social networking sites – one they show their parents and one or more that they show the rest of the world.

So what is a parent to do?  Basic rules apply to internet safety, too.  First, tell your kids not to talk to strangers, especially about sex. Role play with them what to do if contacted by a stranger especially with inappropriate content. Children fear their parents will limit or deny their computer access if they report these contacts.  Talk to your children about what you will and won’t do when they let you know about this kind of communication.

Second, talk to your children about going into certain virtual neighborhoods – 25 percent of youth had one or more unwanted exposure to sexual pictures while online with 73 percent happening because of their own online surfing, according to a 2006 study on teen internet safety.

More recommendations for parents

  • Education yourself – and this includes letting your child help to educate you.
  • Talk to your children about internet use and, specifically, safety.  These conversations need to be routinely repeated and adapted to the developmental level of your child.
  • Teach your child that once something is uploaded onto the internet it can never be retrieved.
  • Keep an eye on the screen – computers in bedrooms are not recommended.
  • Consider whether or not you want your child’s phone in his or her bedroom after lights out. One study found 24 percent of teen couples were talking every hour between midnight and 5 a.m.
  • Be suspicious of free offers and teach your children to be wary also and remind kids to read before they click.
  • Help kids steer clear of gossiping and bullying and teach them how to handle it if it happens to them or a friend.
  • Set search engine preferences – Google’s default is “moderate.”  To change the setting, go to the “tools” icon (a gear) in the right hand corner of the Google home screen and choose “search settings.”  When the menu opens scroll down to “safe search filtering” and you can reset the preference.
  • Encourage a balance between online and face-to-face time.
  • Consider a contract with your child about phone and computer use.
  • As always, promote self confidence and high self esteem and open lines of communication between you and your children.

Technology is here to stay.  We are the ones that need to continue to educate ourselves and protect our children.  Enjoy the summer and safe surfing!

For more information and safety tips, please visit the Colorado School Safety Resource Center’s website at: and scroll down to “Internet Safety.”

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.