First Person

Ask an Expert: Too many worksheets

Educator and mom Kathleen Luttenegger preps a parent for tough conversations with her son’s teacher about an abundance of daily worksheets and concerns about the education he’s getting.

Q. My son’s first-grade teacher uses lots of math and literacy worksheets in her class. Sometimes 5 to 10 come home each day. The weekly homework packet is also made up of worksheets. With parent-teacher conferences coming up, what’s the best way to bring up the fact that I think she relies too heavily on worksheets and my son finds this kind of work boring?

A. First, let me say that children – especially young boys – need active and engaging learning environments. Sometimes worksheets are unavoidable and are necessary to provide practice in mastering skills. But, 10 worksheets a day is overkill.

Why worksheets?

There are so many factors that may be contributing to this teacher’s overuse of worksheets. I think it is important to understand some of the factors that may influence how you respond to this problem. With schools focusing primarily on student test scores, many teachers are under enormous pressure – even first and second grade teachers – to get students prepared for TCAP testing.  Unfortunately, this often means worksheets.

BigStock.com

Some schools have adopted strict guidelines requiring teachers to use specific curriculum in specific ways. Teachers in these schools may have very little say in how many and what kinds of worksheets they are required to use with their students. In these schools, every first-grader would likely have the same homework every night.

Another contributing factor may be increased class sizes. With school budgets stagnant or even decreased over the past several years, class sizes have risen in many Colorado schools. A teacher with 30 kids in the class may resort to using worksheets with students – other kinds of approaches may be more difficult with larger numbers of students.

Is this a school issue or a teacher issue?

If your son attends a school that has a great deal of pressure to raise test scores or that has been impacted by larger class sizes, the worksheet problem may be school-wide.  Have you spoken to other parents? Is this a problem that they see as well? Is this a problem at all grade levels? If so, the best chances for change include getting involved with the school and expressing your concerns to the administration. My guess is that one parent complaining about too many worksheets will not impact school-wide change.  However, if there are many parents expressing this same concern, you might be able to influence school policies in some ways.

If this is a school-wide problem, you may want to consider if this school is the right match for your son. Not every school is a good fit for every child. You still have time to look around and see if there is another school in your area that provides a more active and engaging environment for all students. For example, many districts now have STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet schools. These types of schools often provide more hands-on types of activities that may suit the learning style and interests of your child. There may be charter schools in your area that are better suited to your son (e.g., expeditionary learning, Montessori, etc.). Even a different neighborhood elementary school in your area may provide a learning environment better suited to your son’s learning style.

Choosing to change schools is not easy. However, if it seems like this is a school-wide issue, it is not likely to change quickly. You and your son may both be happier in a different setting.

How should I approach the teacher?

It can be very challenging to address concerns with a teacher. Since you mentioned parent-teacher conferences, this is a good time to prepare your thoughts and be ready to discuss your concerns in a positive, proactive manner.

I would begin the conference by letting the teacher know that you are excited to hear about how your son is doing in school. Also let the teacher know that you have a few specific questions that you would like to ask, so to please leave a few minutes of time for these questions at the end. Be sure your body language and tone of voice show engagement and interest. You don’t want to put his teacher on the defensive.

Listen to what the teacher has to say about your son. Is he doing well in school? Is he making progress? Does she talk about him getting into trouble (mischief) at school?

After you have listened closely to the teacher, I would suggest sharing some positives about how your son learns best. Have there been any examples of activities this year (or even in the past) that have really engaged him in his learning? If so, share these with the teacher. Some examples might be:

  • I have noticed that my son learns best when he is able to move around a lot. He loved the game in math when students got to hop as they were working on math facts.
  • I have noticed that my son really enjoys working with partners or small groups at school. He couldn’t stop talking about sharing his writing with his friends in class.
  • My son talked a lot about the science experiment that you did in class with the students last month. He really seemed to enjoy the hands-on nature of the activity.
  • We really enjoyed the research project we worked on as a family last semester – it gave us time to look at books closely together.  And, he really enjoyed using the computer to create his poster.

After you have shared some examples of how he learns best, you can ask: “I am wondering what other opportunities my son will have to engage in more of these types of activities?” This will allow his teacher to highlight any similar kinds of activities planned for the upcoming weeks. If the teacher said that your son sometimes gets into trouble at school, you can use this opportunity to say that you notice he tends to be more on-task when he is really engaged in his learning. It is not uncommon for kids to make trouble when they aren’t really engaged at school.

Another approach you might take is to talk about homework. You can ask if there are there other ways he can show mastery of learning. For example, if he is working on basic math facts, could he practice them through computer/iPad games?  You could say: “I’ve noticed that my son has a worksheet each night practicing math facts. He seems to learn math facts more quickly using interactive games. Could we do 15 minutes of math games in place of the math facts worksheet?”

When is it time to talk with the principal?

I hope that your son’s teacher is open and willing to discuss your concerns. Some teachers will respond positively to this type of conversation and some won’t. I would suggest that if you try working with the teacher and nothing changes, you may want to set up a time to meet with the principal. Let the principal know your concerns, again focusing on the needs of your child. And, I would really focus on making sure that your child is placed in an active and engaging classroom for second grade that better meets his needs. By focusing on your child and his future needs, you will maintain a positive working relationship with the school, which is important if you expect to be there long-term.

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.