Testing kids' personalities

Project seeks to measure students’ non-academic skills

Mockup of what a Project: BeReady student evaluation might look like.

The riddle of 21st century skills — the broad term often used to describe a set of abilities like critical thinking and collaboration — has always has been about how to measure them. But now an alliance of education groups think they have a way to do that.

The groups this week unveiled Project: BeReady, an online survey designed to indicate students’ abilities in such non-academic areas as professionalism, entrepreneurial skills, personal traits and civic awareness.

“We’re all looking at these 21st century skills, but there’s no tool to measure them,” said Kathryn Harris, a development officer for Generation Schools Network, an education management non-profit.

Michael Simpson, CEO of Pairin, said of the new tool, “This is really about whole student development.” Pairin is a Denver talent and personnel evaluation company that is teaming with Generation Schools, which in Colorado operates a school at Denver’s West High School and is working in the Englewood district.

He said his company got involved in the project because it decided “the biggest impact we could make is to fill that [job] pipeline with qualified applicants.”

Harris, Simpson and others spoke to about 125 invited guests at a Tuesday event in Denver intended to describe the project’s pilot phase, launch a two-year second phase intended to involve 10,000 students and make a subtle fundraising pitch.

The Project: BeReady survey is an online test that allows a user to build a description of herself by selecting whether words and phrases accurately describe them or not. Simpson said it’s based on psychological research dating back to the late 1940s. Developers came up with a detailed list of skills the survey is supposed to test for (see full list at bottom of story). Learn more on the project’s website.

During field testing earlier this year in Colorado, adults took about 12 minutes to finish the survey, and students took about 22 minutes, Simpson said. The current version of the survey is designed for students in 8th grade and above, although promoters hope to eventually develop a version for younger students.

Project: BeReady also is developing tools to help teachers learn how to use the test and a dashboard that will allow teachers and administrators to view and analyze both individual student and aggregated data.

Testing, privacy concerns raised

Project backers acknowledged public concerns about testing and student data privacy in their remarks.

“Project: BeReady is not about just another test,” said Generation Schools executive Mary Cipollone, stressing it’s about giving students, parents and teachers information they don’t have now. “It is not about more data.”

Asked about the ill-fated inBloom data project, Simpson said, “The biggest problem inBloom has was lack of communication, or lack of effective communication. … There were a lot of misconceptions that weren’t addressed until it was too late.”

He added, “I think we know how to communicate in a way that won’t give people the wrong impression.”

Simpson also said the project has strict privacy controls. (See privacy policy here, and the project’s Student Bill of Rights here.)

In an effort to differentiate itself, the project’s website also has a detailed “Is/Is not” section.

What’s next

Generation Schools and Pairin, using about $875,000 of their own money, earlier this year developed the survey and related tools and gave the survey to about 5,900 students in 3,500 adults in Colorado.

Starting in September, the project plans to start a two-year pilot project involving 10,000 students around the country.

“We’re looking to scale this across Colorado and, we think, across the nation,” Harris said.

And, backers are hoping to raise $320,000 to help schools and youth development groups pay for participating and an additional $623,000 to support further development of the tools and professional development for teachers and administrators in using the system and analyzing data.

The project’s business plan envisions charging $10,000 per site and $10 per student a year for the service, which Simpson termed “really, really affordable.”

Who’s involved

The idea originated with Generation Schools and Pairin, but the project’s steering committee also includes representatives from the Colorado Education Initiative (formerly the Colorado Legacy Foundation), Department of Education, Colorado Community College System, Accenture Foundation, Gill Foundation, Donnell Kay Foundation, Get Smart Schools, Colorado Succeeds and Academy School District.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.