First Person

Voices: Reformers vs. innovators

Author Angela Engel offers a way of understanding the two dominant perspectives in the debate over how to improve the nation’s public schools.

Improving education is dependent on understanding that the current attempt at school reform is not innovation.

Reformers tend to accept the traditional methodologies and underlying assumptions of education. They commonly assume that what can be measured has the most value. The leaders include George W. Bush Jr. and No Child Left Behind; Harold McGraw III, CEO of McGraw Hill, publishers of 26 state standardized tests, Michelle Rhee, CEO of Students First, Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education with the Race to the Top initiative.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
First grade class at Polaris at Ebert. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

The fixation on measurement, tracking, sorting and reporting is understood as a function of management and efficiency. Their means are dependent on factors of competition and comparison that have very little to do with learning and children. The best way to distinguish a reformer from an innovator is whether the solution is tied to a price tag, product, sales or service. In my opinion, reformers advocate for online for-profit schools, external school management companies, virtual learning,  consultants, data systems, high-stakes testing, national curriculum (Common Core) standards, and product lines that fall somewhere in the alignment equation.

I believe that innovators, on the other hand, tend to question the purposes and underlying assumptions of education that drive the current system.

They seek answers to promoting all levels of diversity including diversity of ideas. They work to address the inequities and create equality in opportunity; they champion educator autonomy, student empowerment, and parent engagement; they promote learner-driven education. The long history of innovation includes those well-known leaders such as Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, Maria Montessori, founder of Montessori Schools; Lyndon B. Johnson led the War on Poverty and the original Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; Sir Ken Robinson, author and lecturer on creativity and innovation; Deborah Meier, who is known for her leadership in democratically run public urban schools, Howard Gardner, for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Daniel Goleman and his work on emotional intelligence .

Innovators view education not as a function of management and efficiency but as a function of culture and experience. Innovators share the philosophy that the public education system should emphasize not “what to think,” but instead nurture the innate human quality of “how we think.” Innovators respect human individuality and the differences in the way we learn and express life and learning. They define human success in terms of curiosity, creativity, initiative, collaboration and social contribution. They direct their attention to building trusting relationships, enriching experiences, shrinking inequalities, growing opportunity, personalizing practices, improving conditions, expanding resources, nurturing inspiration, prevention and intervention, factors often beyond the measurable, yet essential to learning and children.

The difference between reform and innovation

The back-to-school night at the Washington Park Early Learning Center best illustrates the difference between reform and innovation. Teacher Christina DeVarona broke parents into two groups for a pumpkin-creating activity. Group one was given prescribed instructions with common outcomes. The outline of the pumpkin was drawn and the shapes already cut. Group two was directed to a table with a variety of materials – construction paper, beads, paints, feathers, glitter, ribbons, etc.

At the end of the exercise, the pumpkins were lined up on the front wall. As she pointed to the elaborate and original pumpkins from group two, she emphasized how unique we are as individuals and how human capacity is unlimited.  She looked at the first group’s  pumpkins and pointed out the obvious – they had duplicated her pumpkin.

The parents of the preschool children learned more in that one pumpkin exercise than education reformers have learned in three decades of failed mandates – children and human beings cannot be mechanized, industrialized and standardized.

I believe that poor and minority students have been hurt most by school reform. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, poverty in the U.S. has increased by 9 percent, according to Census figures. In the decade following the War on Poverty and the Original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act poverty dropped by 6 percent.  The achievement gap between rich and poor has widened; college tuition rates have doubled, the need for remediation has grown dramatically; and many schools that have closed have been in low-income communities.

In the words of writer Jonathan Kozol, the prevailing reform paradigm has led to racial isolation and a narrowing of civic virtue. The majority of today’s high school graduates know learning in terms of what can be measured on a standardized test. Their experience of achievement is realized only in their comparisons with others and only in the context of prescribed academics. These young students are denied the opportunity to think critically, create solutions to the most challenging problems and build something worthwhile. Their education is being hijacked for purposes besides their own. Attempts from reformers to maintain and sustain power and control through all means necessary have dehumanized classrooms, fractured communities, trivialized the American education system, and corporatized the public trust.

We have two choices

In the most distilled sense, innovators stand for freedom – freedom of thought, feelings, faith, speech and freedom from fear, oppression, discrimination and exploitation. Innovators recognize that freedom is inextricably tied to equity. In Finland, where there are no private schools or colleges, the main driver of education policy has reflected the commitment to equity. Since 1980 when the Finnish addressed social inequity through their education system, Finland has emerged as a premier model in education.

Data-centered, profit-motivated reforms have done extreme damage to American education leaving traditional industrial school models near collapse. What has resulted is an opening for innovators to create learning communities truly reflective of a democratic society and invigorating examples of possibility.

Ultimately it is our money and these are our children and the future of education is still to be decided. We can continue with the current reforms of standardization and high-stakes testing, leaving students’ malleable and complacent enough to conform to the world around them. Or, we can revolutionize the education system; inviting students to question the systems and assert their rights as learners and future citizens in order to create a world we have yet to see.

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.