First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

Poudre elementary fifth-graders prep for ECO Week

A drizzly rain didn’t dampen the excitement of Laurel Elementary fifth-graders as they searched for insects, plants and rocks while learning about ecosystems at the Poudre River.

Poudre fifth-graders doing research as part of ECO WEek.The Laurel Elementary School of Arts and Technology fifth-graders recently went on field trips to the Poudre River and to Horsetooth Mountain Park to prepare for their turn at ECO Week in October. Many fifth-graders in Poudre School District participate in the annual ECO (ecology) Week excursions to the mountains in the fall to study ecological lessons. ECO Week, which is usually held in Pingree Park or Estes Park, is a key component in helping students achieve standards in both science and social studies.

While experiences vary by participating schools, ECO Week activities may include lessons on the environment, streams, landform identification, stargazing and astronomy. Memorable group experiences, team building and hiking are often a part of the experience as well.

Reactions to SB 191 rules seem positive

The clock is ticking for the State Board of Education to adopt regulations for implementing the educator effectiveness law, and the last full public hearing on the issue drew a large crowd Wednesday.

The drafting process has been going on for months, often focused on debate over how much flexibility school districts should have in designing systems to evaluate principals and teachers. Read more in EdNews Colorado.

Middle school changes credited for DPS enrollment growth

Preliminary enrollment numbers for Denver Public Schools show that for the first time, the district is educating more than 80,000 students. The official count, done Friday, shows the DPS student census increased to 81,438, up 2,015 pupils from the year before. Read more in the Denver Post.

Math-class methods multiply in Denver schools

When Julie Selsberg’s elementary school son and daughter have math homework, Selsberg reads instructions on worksheets and learns the math before helping her kids.

“We do follow how they do it first because we don’t want to frustrate them,” Selsberg said. “But sometimes they can do it our way better.” Read more in the Denver Post.

As expected, Colorado schools fall behind on yearly progress target

Fewer Colorado schools and districts met “Adequate Yearly Progress” targets established by the No Child Left Behind law this year than last year.

The data were made public Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Education. In 2011, 46 percent of schools in Colorado met their targets, down from 62 percent in 2010. Read more in the Denver Post.

Enrollment window opens in Dougco schools

The Douglas County Board of Education has approved a change to the Open Enrollment window. It will now open Nov. 1, 2011, and close Jan. 5, 2012.

The board, acting on feedback from several departments following the first year of the Douglas County School District’s new open enrollment policy, moved the window up so the district can provide staffing guidelines to schools by mid-February.

Families who wish to open enroll their student, must complete an application, available online at www.dcsdk12.org beginning Nov. 1. Applications are accepted for the following school year on a space-available basis.

As of March 15, the New Student Choice Enrollment application is available to families who move to Douglas County during the school year and want to enroll their student into a school other than their attendance area school. These families may apply for open enrollment at the requested school during the current school year. New Student Choice Open Enrollment forms are available at all district schools and on the website. Students are not eligible to enroll if the requested school is capped or has students on the prioritized wait list for the current year.

For more information, visit the district website at www.dcsdk12.org.

Study: Most U.S. states score an ‘F’ on civil rights education

American students are increasingly ignorant of the basic history of the civil rights movement, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The study finds that the further states are from the South, and the smaller their African-American populations, the worse they fare in civil rights educational standards. The report blames states’ academic standards for public schools as a leading cause. Read more in TIME Magazine.

Lack of math emphasis in schools doesn’t add up

Is U.S. education like the weather? Everyone talks about it but no one can quite figure out how to improve it?

Education theory has changed over the years from the days when students were bolted to their seats and kept their mouths shut amid threats of being sent to the principal’s office to today’s more relaxed classrooms where students roam freely and say whatever pops into their heads. Read more at UPI.

CU-Boulder initiative promotes K-12 school diversity

A new initiative housed at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado will focus on promoting school diversity and student achievement.

The Initiative on Diversity, Equity and Learning, launched this week, is funded through a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation. The goals are to serve as a clearinghouse for ideas related to school diversity and student achievement, explain existing research and develop new research and ideas. Read more in the Daily Camera.

U.S. surpassed in education ratings

In China, students have longer school days and longer school years than their peers in the United States.

China also has more rigorous academic standards, which focus largely on math and science. China’s smartest students are pushed through the K-12 system and guaranteed spots in major universities.

That birth-to-college-graduation mentality doesn’t exist in America and it needs to change if the United States is going to compete in the 21st century global workforce, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Anthony Miller said recently at an education conference in Miami. Read more in the News-Press.

October is Head Start Awareness Month

Join Community Partnership for Child Development (CPCD) in its observance of Head Start Awareness Month through October. CPCD will be hosting community events and campaigns to spread awareness about the importance of early childhood education, both locally and nationally.

CPCD is a nonprofit organization that provides free comprehensive early childhood development and family programs for families with children, prenatal through age five, who are living in limited income homes, have special needs or experience other adverse circumstances that could challenge their readiness for kindergarten. CPCD currently serves more than 1,900 children each year in El Paso County through Early Head Start, Head Start and the Colorado Preschool Program.

Created in 1965, Head Start is the most successful, longest-running, national school readiness program in the United States, with more than 25 million alumni to date. On average, Head Start graduates rank higher in language, literacy, social conduct and physical development than their non-Head Start peers. Head Start children are also significantly more likely to complete high school and attend college than those who did not participate in the program.

CPCD’S HEAD START AWARENESS MONTH ACTIVITIES:

  • Garden of the Gods Gourmet Community Dinner benefit, Sunday, Oct. 23, 5-8 p.m., The Carter Payne
  • 2011 WHY? Community Breakfast, Thursday, Oct. 27, 7:30-8:30 a.m., DoubleTree Hotel
  • CSBJ Diversity & Inclusion Awards, Nominee, Thursday, Oct. 20, 11:30 a.m., Cheyenne Mountain Resort
  • Three unique volunteer opportunities, Saturday, Oct. 8, 15 & 22. For more information, contact Delberta Uvalle at (719) 884-1411.

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.