First Person

Editor's blog: A new way to do school

Hats off to the Colorado Legacy Foundation for beating back the acronyms and creating a compelling video to spark a debate about what constitutes quality learning – and teaching.

The foundation, which supports key initiatives of the Colorado Department of Education in the areas of teacher effectiveness, healthy schools and bullying, recently held its annual fundraising luncheon.

Expecting a dry lecture and lots of people rattling off depressing education statistics, I hunched over a very delicious chicken salad and hoped for the best. But then all 900 of us were diverted from our avocados and balsamic vinaigrette to a large-screen video. You couldn’t miss it. It was really loud.

In mid-bite, I was confronted with this question:

“Does your brain only work when your butt is in a chair?”

“Well, actually, no,” I thought to myself, chewing up the fresh greens. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we found a way to ditch office chairs and cubicles forever in favor of exercise balls and jumping jacks or hourly dance-offs?

And then this question:

“Is there an on-off switch that tells your imagination to only have ideas between 9 a.m.  and 3:15 p.m.?”

Why, actually, no. I often work in the evening hours and may even come up with my best brainstorms while out on a walk or dancing in my NIA class. Shouldn’t students have the same opportunities?

It was such a thought-provoking (albeit perhaps too long) video I wanted to find out more about it. If we were sparked to action during a fundraising luncheon, where should we – parents, students, teachers, leaders – put our energy?

ELO isn’t just a 1970s rock band

So, I asked a few questions of Legacy’s communications coordinator Joe Miller, who informed me that the video was created to highlight the work of the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative. Uh oh. Did I just put you to sleep? With an acronym like ELO, it certainly makes sense to do some rebranding lest we – of a certain generation – fall back on a certain 1970s rock band. Then again, the Electric Light Orchestra hit “Hold on Tight” begins with the words, “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Could work.

“We have high hopes for the video,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education and the Legacy Foundation board who served as chair of the ELO commission.

(Watch the video yourself at the top of this page, or click here).

“People who attended the luncheon were just enthralled with that,” Gantz Berman said. “We’re hoping it’s going to hit the big-time. We hope every superintendent sees it, every local school board sees it, every legislator sees it. It really does provide a very clear idea of what education should look like.”

The Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission met and hashed out ideas for more than a year. The goal was to redefine what education looks like within the next decade. The conversation started out focusing on after-school programs for at-risk students but quickly morphed into a much bigger, all-encompassing way of looking at education for all students, Miller said.

What the report says

As the September 2011 ELO Commission report, entitled Beyond Walls Clocks and Calendars makes clear:

“It is imperative that young people in this day and age acquire a high-quality education in order to succeed in civic and economic life, and to sustain and advance America’s economic and cultural legacies. And while the American education system has indeed adapted and improved over the past two centuries as American culture and citizenry have progressed, the high-tech and fast- paced world of today requires innovative and far-reaching approaches to ensure that all students have opportunities and tools to succeed and thrive.” Isn’t that the truth.

Desired student outcomes under ELO include:

  • Customized and relevant learning experiences resulting in more students attending and staying in school and receiving personalized support to meet their individual needs, leading to improved student outcomes.
  • Learning focused on higher level thinking skills, which address the shift in thinking patterns of digital students.
  • Student ownership and management of their learning progress and needs, resulting in students who are engaged and prepared to handle the challenges of life beyond high school.
  • Increased overall competitiveness of Colorado students, demonstrated by mastery of essential content and skills.
  • Increased connections between instruction in school and the world outside.
  • Guaranteed access for all students to the best teachers and content, through face-to-face and digital means, thereby providing quality choices to all students statewide.
  • Learning opportunities available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.

Does this sound like your son or daughter’s school?

Miller said the commission decided the best way to share the results of its work was through a slightly edgy video rather than another white paper, webinar or press release. (Thank you!) Miller said he’s gotten several requests to share it. People are encouraged to make comments on it, and a work plan is underway to put the feedback into action.

While the video doesn’t get into real-world examples, the report does.

Real life examples of innovative schools

In Aurora, for instance, the Vista Peak P-20 campus created a schedule to meet its needs rather than sticking to the district calendar.

The school schedule includes: 90 minutes of daily planning time for staff; freedom over all instructional minutes; advisories where students work on digital portfolios, developing and managing individual career and academic plans and building relationships and mentorships; and independent study where learning is socially constructed.

The ultimate goal of Vista Peak’s innovations are  to give all students customized learning opportunities, including internships, externships, college visits, credit acceleration, and credit recovery. It also offers various programs in health and wellness, creative arts and financial literacy, along with science symposiums, tutoring, intramural sports, field experiences, challenge-based learning, and language labs.

Another school on the forefront of  ELO is School of One in New York City. The full-time, in- school math program is housed at three New York City public middle schools. School of One serves 1,500 students, with 88 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch.

School of One offers a range of learning modalities, including large- and small-group instruction, small-group collaboration, one-on-one teaching, online instruction, live remote tutoring, virtual instruction and independent practice.

The school uses technology to match students with the teachers. Additionally, School of One has created a learning algorithm that collects up-to-date data about students and available materials and creates a unique schedule for every student, every day. In this way, students’ curriculum is both personalized and adaptive, ensuring they move ahead only once mastery has been demonstrated, according to Colorado’s ELO report.

And it seems to be working. Consider these statistics:

  • School of One students in the 2009 summer school pilot acquired new math skills seven times faster than peers with similar demographics and pre-test scores.
  • Students in the 2010 after-school pilot made significant gains on the norm-referenced test compared to students who did not participate, with gains being reported across achievement levels.
  • Students who participated in the in-school pilot made greater gains on the norm-referenced test than students who did not participate.

There are other promising local examples of ELO in action.

The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) is another  example of a school operating beyond walls. Technology and partnerships are essential to the school’s mission. Students are engaged in science and technology internships during school and after school hours.

DSST achieved the second-highest longitudinal growth rate in student test scores statewide, and 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted into a four-year college.

In case you were wondering, ELO approaches aren’t just for secondary students.

Fort Logan Elementary School began  operating beyond clocks when it added 72 extended school and an additional 126 hours of instructional time in 2010-11. The school uses a “second shift” of educators, including literacy staff, teachers from other area schools and community partners. Based on preliminary plans, the school anticipates totaling nearly 300 extended days and an additional 540 hours over the next few years.

Now is your butt tired?

Hmmmm. My butt’s getting tired now. How ‘bout yours? Before you get up and move, what creative ideas do you have to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Colorado? Share your ideas, and I’ll make sure they get to the right people. And remember: Hold on tight to your dreams.

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.