First Person

Voices: Is today’s high school diploma the equivalent of Weimar republic money?

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that our current requirements for high school graduation aren’t rigorous enough to ensure the highly-educated workforce we need. 

Just a few weeks ago, thousands of Colorado high school students donned black gowns, heard their names read, and proudly walked across a stage to take hold of their high school diploma.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA
Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA

But what is the value of that diploma? What did it cost in terms of time and learning? How can it be used? In many ways, the diploma is currency. However, that currency has far different value depending on what you look like and where you went to school.

On one end of the spectrum, about 20,000 Colorado students from the class of 2013 will not be able to take a community college class or enroll in the military because their literacy and/or numeracy skills are too limited. For comparison, the Pepsi Center only seats 18,000 people.

One the other end, a few thousand students will graduate from high school with college courses already completed and the skills to succeed regardless of whether they enter a trade, the military or college. Some will even have an associate’s degree — having already knocked off the first two years of college.

In Denver, where I live, more than one third of students that graduated had an ACT of 15 or lower – a score that wouldn’t meet to the minimum requirements of the military ASVAB test. (See charts below on what a particular ACT scores means and what the distribution is for DPS students),  Meanwhile, fewer than one in five students could pass credit bearing courses at CU Denver.

By granting a student a high school degree, we are implying that they are ready for the world. But are they?

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What does it take to get the degree?

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 2.41.37 PMA little over a hundred years ago, a distinguished body of university presidents and the Carnegie Foundation argued for a standardized unit of study based on a 120-hour block of time (five hours per week for 12 weeks for two semesters).   The Carnegie Unit was designed to help standardize teaching and curriculum across high schools.

These time units were used to define the metrics for high school diploma. For example, high schools would require four units (or years) of English, two units of science, etc.  The system signaled that the US was taking “high school for all” seriously, and the value we placed on having an educated public fueled much of America’s remarkable development throughout the 20th century.

The problem with this industrial model of schooling was that it was designed so that a small percentage of the population would be prepared for highly skilled jobs and college, and the rest would work in factories and fields. There were few formal means of measuring students’ knowledge or skills, and diplomas were mostly about punching the time or Carnegie clock. We now have access to all sorts of student data, but the American high school diploma is still all about punching the clock. Meanwhile, both factories and fields rely on advanced machinery, and need far fewer high school graduates.

While we’ve been coasting along, the rest of the world (or at least another 20 nations or so) realized that the key to their long-term economic development was having a highly educated workforce. They created or reformed public education systems where students have to demonstrate what they know and do before getting the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Denmark is an excellent example of a country that realized it would be left behind as many of their 20th century industries (like textiles) moved offshore.  While the Danish system still uses time to guide course development, it is the demonstration of a students’ competencies, skills and knowledge that are used for credentialing students.  Not surprisingly, many of these nations are not only educating more of their own populations to higher levels than we Americans do, but most of their citizens would find greater access to the “American Dream” than the typical American has now.

Let’s match degree requirements to what kids will need to know to succeed

The Colorado State Board of Education recently passed a set of “guidelines” requiring districts to set a minimum standard for a diploma starting in 2021.  It appears we may need to make adjustments soon to these fairly mild new requirements because both the current and new “guidelines” do not align with the Common Core.   The reason the timeline is so long — seven years! — is that districts are concerned that they do not have resources and expertise to get the current crop of middle and high school students prepared for the most basic college course.  They are afraid that many students will drop out if the standards are raised, even though there is little evidence of this in other states like Indiana and Massachusetts.

Despite the long timeline, the decades that districts have been working on “standards-based reform,” they have kept the graduation bar low. Not a single school district, school board or the groups representing teacher unions, administrators or school boards publically supported the idea of raising standards across the state. The education establishment prefers to leave it up our locally elected school boards to set the standards for what students should know and do. Unfortunately, locally elected school boards in Colorado have done nothing to raise graduation standards other than an occasional tweak of credit or time requirements and there is no reason to believe they will voluntarily decide to increase standards. After all, if fewer kids graduate or more are held back, it could be seen as a black mark on their performance.

As school boards know, the tough part isn’t raising standards, it’s redesigning our entire system to ensure kids are learning at higher rates and in a more efficient way. Having a clear bar may finally force the system to get serious rather than adding some new program band-aid that only masks some of the fundamental problems. Redesigning our education system will be difficult, but when it comes down to it, most students are bored a lot of the time. Many teachers are unhappy or bored or dissatisfied, unappreciated, and principals feel overloaded and overworked.

What about this broken system is worth saving? It’s time to have a more serious conversation about how to re-build the system as other nations have done over the last fifty years.

In the end, our education system — like all others — will be judged not on the inputs or time that students put into school, but on the legacy they leave after high school and throughout their lives. We have to keep the Colorado currency strong if we are to trade and compete on the international stage. It’s way overdue to tie our diploma to a competency standard as most industrialized nations have done for decades. We need a gold standard for our high school currency.

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.