First Person

Teacher Education in New York State: A skoolboy’s-Eye View

Monday afternoon, I had the opportunity to respond to Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, and David Steiner, the New York State Commissioner of Education, as they talked about the future of P-16 education in New York State at the Phyllis L. Kossoff Policy Lecture at Teachers College, Columbia University.  I wasn’t sure what they’d say, so prepared some remarks responding to the proposals regarding teacher education in New York State that the Commissioner presented to the Board of Regents a few weeks ago.  For the handful of readers who might be interested, here’s what I wrote.  (Due to time constraints, I didn’t say all of this at the event.)  Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner Steiner were quite willing to hear and engage with the critiques that my colleague Lin Goodwin and I offered, and I look forward to continuing this conversation with them.

It’s no surprise that the State Education Department and the Board of Regents have taken up the cause of ensuring an equitable distribution of highly-qualified teachers across New York State.  The key justification for such a goal is the fact that the K-12 education system is shortchanging our children.  Although some students are highly successful, many more are not, and the problems are concentrated in urban school systems serving large numbers of poor children of color. 

If that’s the problem, is improving the education of teachers the solution?  It’s certainly part of the solution, given what we know about the centrality of teaching to student learning.  But it’s by no means the entire solution, as a great many other forces shape student outcomes.  For example, a great teacher can’t compensate for a child coming to school hungry, and great teaching of an out-of-date curriculum only results in great mastery of out-of-date knowledge.  I trust that Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner Steiner are not seduced by claims that the single most important determinant of a child’s achievement is the quality of his or her teachers, because that’s simply not true.  Family background continues to be the dominant factor.  But the quality of teachers is, at least in theory, something that is manipulable via education policy initiatives, and it’s a lot more tractable than addressing the fact that one in five children under the age of 18 in New York State live below the poverty line.

So if we redefine the problem as too few students in New York State are taught by highly qualified teachers, then what’s the solution?  The recent proposal brought by the State Education Department to the Board of Regents offers five recommendations.  In some ways, this package of proposals is a straightforward extension of trends that have shaped the course of public education in the U.S. over the past two decades:  a heightened concern for holding school systems, schools and teachers accountable for student outcomes, with more oversight by the federal government and the state;  an expansion of the role of markets in the operation of public schooling, coupled with the belief that market forces will reward successful enterprises, and drive the unsuccessful out of business;  and a targeted deregulation that allows some institutions to strike a bargain for increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability to the state.

There’s not a whole lot of evidence that these kinds of policy reforms have led to better educational outcomes for children in the U.S.  It’s challenging to show that accountability systems such as No Child Left Behind or state-level initiatives have led to substantially higher achievement;  and the charter schools spawned by the expansion of markets have, by most accounts, included some great successes and some abject failures, with little overall impact on student performance across the country.  So I am not optimistic that the proposed reforms will result in sharp improvements in teaching and learning in public schools in New York State. 

As is often the case with public policy, the devil is in the details, and I’d like to take a couple of minutes to mention two things that I’m worried about.  The first is the heightened attention to classroom effectiveness in both performance-based assessments for teacher certification, and in the assessment of the institutions which offer teacher preparation programs.  I worry that the State Education Department and the Board of Regents will be obliged to rely on an overly-narrow set of measures of classroom effectiveness, due to the constraints of time, money, and technology. 

Portfolio assessments, including lesson plans, videotapes of teaching practice, collections of student work, and candidate self-assessments are a promising direction, and there are some existing models that may be useful to guide the design of such assessments.  I’d be happier if there were more evidence that the implementation of portfolio assessments resulted in better teaching and learning, and if there were a more explicit theory of how having assessments produces better teaching. 

But it’s striking that the recommendations single out value-added student assessment data as components of both the portfolios of candidates for professional certification and of the profiles of certifying institutions.  Simply put, the technology for using value-added student assessment data for these purposes is not ready for prime time, and likely will not be for many years to come.

One major obstacle is the lack of reliable and valid measures of student performance that can serve as the basis for value-added assessments of teacher effectiveness.  When the 2009 New York State results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released last month, they showed a flat level of performance at odds with the sharp growth observed on the New York State exams at every grade level in English Language Arts and mathematics over the past several years.  Commissioner Steiner and Chancellor Tisch have both expressed concern that the state’s testing system is not telling us what we need to know about the academic performance of New York State’s children and youth.  The tests and test items have become predictable over time, and some grade-level standards have never appeared on the exams.  There are, for example, 48 eighth-grade math standards.  This year, just seven standards made up 50% of the points on the eighth-grade exam. 

The state assessment system is broken, and it can’t be fixed overnight.  I strongly urge the Commissioner and Chancellor to take the time to develop a new assessment system that more accurately measures students’ mastery of school subjects, and that is designed to measure changes in students’ learning over time.  And, if the objective is to use the assessment system to evaluate teachers, schools, school districts, and institutions of higher education, it’s important to build that objective into the design of the assessments, rather than using them for a purpose for which they were never designed in the first place. 

The technology for test design is surprisingly complex and fragile, and we do ourselves no favors by assuming that we can just whip up a test overnight. 

The Regents exams, which I assume would be central to measures of value-added effectiveness at the secondary level, are problematic in their own right.  I don’t understand why the State Education Department has high school students’ Regents exams scored by the teachers at their own schools.  One big idea that the Freakonomics school probably has right is that people respond to incentives.  And there are powerful incentives for schools to maximize students’ scores on Regents exams in ways that compromise the validity of those scores.  We see the fruits of this when students go off to college and find that they are unprepared for college-level work.

So in essence, I’m saying to Commissioner Steiner and Chancellor Tisch, “Clean up the state assessment system — and take the time to do it right.  Then we can talk about value-added assessment.”

But beyond the many questions about value-added effects on students’ test scores, we should be asking, how do we assess a teacher’s contributions to other learning outcomes?  Surely we care about more than test scores.  What are good measures of a teacher’s contributions to preparing students to be competent citizens in our democracy?  How much are the Board of Regents and the State Education Department willing to invest in creating measures that will capture how well teachers teach students to think, question and act?

A brief vignette may reveal the challenge.  It’s January, and Ms. Bilsky, a fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx, is teaching a math lesson.  The subject is geometry, and the lesson is about how to classify angles as either acute or obtuse.  The topic is a standard from the state’s math core curriculum.  In the middle of the lesson, Rashid, a boy in the class, audibly aims a racial slur at his classmate Javier.  Ms. Bilsky hears it, but she chooses to ignore it, instead plowing ahead with the lesson.  At the end of the year, the students in Ms. Bilsky’s class did a bit better on the state math assessment than the students in other fourth-grade classrooms in the Bronx.

Now, is that good teaching? 

The value-added assessment will tell us that it is good teaching.  

And a teacher preparation program sending a cohort of Ms. Bilsky’s out into the field might look pretty good too.  But I think we should demand more of our teachers and our teacher preparation programs than simply raising students’ test scores.  And I think we should demand more of the New York State Education Department in developing measures that can capture a broader array of outcomes of good teaching.  I do not doubt that it will be difficult to do so;  important things often are.        

The second issue I want to discuss is the proposal to pilot a new teacher certification model that would enable providers other than institutions of higher education to offer teacher preparation programs, with the Board of Regents awarding Master’s degrees to the candidates who complete these programs.  I am deeply troubled by this prospect, because it seems to be a serious threat to the very nature of graduate education.  Currently, state regulations require that most graduate-level courses in certification programs be offered by full-time faculty holding terminal degrees, with the assumption that these faculty are scholars of the subjects they teach.  Now, we all know that there are schools of education, and other professional schools, around the state, where the quality of research may not be very high, and the contribution to a body of knowledge about real-world practice may not be very great.  But the explicit decoupling of the production of knowledge from the preparation of practitioners is, in my view, a very bad idea.  And one might wonder whether other occupations regulated by the state will be far behind.  Will health clinics be authorized to prepare physicians?  Will mental health facilities train psychologists? 

Moreover, I suspect that a proposal such as this might tax the capacity of the State Education Department to offer appropriate oversight.  Would the Department have to devote staff to ensure that these pilot programs met existing criteria for preparation — libraries, facilities and physical space, qualified faculty, relationships with local schools and field placements, curricula and syllabi, and so on?  Or would these pilot programs not have to meet the state’s existing standards?

I think what’s most baffling in this proposal is the awarding of a Master’s degree by the Board of Regents.  Why is it necessary for the state’s recognition of completion of a teacher preparation program to be coupled with a Master’s degree?  Neither No Child Left Behind nor the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that a highly-qualified teacher have a master’s degree, and there are plenty of undergraduate education programs around the state of New York that lead to teacher certification.  Having the Board of Regents award degrees that are widely understood to be the province of accredited institutions of higher education in a sense turns the State Education Department into a giant ed school.  Doesn’t the Department have enough problems, without tarring it with that particular brush?

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.