First Person

Just How Gullible is Anderson Cooper?

What is it about the Harlem Children’s Zone that causes pundits and reporters to suspend disbelief?  Perhaps it’s the deep desire for evidence that the large and persistent racial gap in educational achievement can be overcome.  The enduring racial inequalities in educational and social outcomes in the U.S. are a blight on our society, and evidence that these inequalities can be eliminated, however, tenuous, can be elevated into the feel-good story of the year.

Last night, Anderson Cooper reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone for the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes.  “For years, educators have tried and failed to get poor kids from the inner city to do just as well in school as kids from America’s more affluent suburbs,” he began. “Black kids still routinely score well below white kids on national standardized tests. But a man named Geoffrey Canada may have figured out a way to close that racial achievement gap.”  Cooper asked Canada, “So you’re trying to level the playing field between kids here in Harlem and middle class kids in a suburb?”  “That’s exactly what we have to do,” Canada replied.

As is customary, Cooper spoke with Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who has analyzed the achievement of students attending the HCZ Promise Academy charter schools.  Fryer said, “At the elementary school level, he closed the achievement gap in both subjects, math and reading.”   

“Actually eliminating the gap in elementary school?” Cooper asked.

“We’ve never seen anything like that. Absolutely eliminating the gap. The gap is gone, and that is absolutely incredible,” Fryer said.

I suppose that one can look selectively at the most recent achievement data available—the 2009 state assessments in English Language Arts and math—to draw this conclusion, but boy, is it a stretch.  The figure below shows the 2009 English Language Arts and mathematics achievement of students at the HCZ Promise Academy and HCZ Promise Academy II, for grades three, four, five and eight.  This achievement is contrasted with New York City citywide averages for Asian and white students.  The group differences are represented in standard deviation units, using the citywide standard deviation for the scale scores on the respective tests.


In grade 3, HCZ students score higher than the citywide average for white students in both ELA and math, a remarkable accomplishment.  They also outperform Asian students in ELA, but are about a quarter of a standard deviation below the citywide Asian average on the math assessment.  Were we to limit our attention solely to third grade, one could, without too much hyperbole, claim that HCZ had eliminated the racial achievement gap within New York City.

But there are other elementary and middle school grades on which to compare HCZ and white and Asian students across New York City, and the story is quite different for these other grades.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score consistently about .6 standard deviations below white and Asian New York City students on the state ELA exam.  The gaps are also large in mathematics, although the eighth-grade gap is considerably smaller than those in fourth and fifth grades.  In fifth grade, HCZ students score .9 standard deviations below white students citywide, and 1.1 standard deviations below Asian students.

Taking all of these data together, there is virtually no basis for claiming that the Harlem Children’s Zone has eliminated the racial achievement gap in elementary and middle school.

The data that I’ve presented compare HCZ students with New York City students.  But recall that Geoff Canada’s objective is to level the playing field relative to middle-class suburban kids, who may be higher-achieving than the white and Asian students attending NYC public schools, as a good fraction of the most affluent children and youth in New York City attend private schools.  How do things look if we compare HCZ students with students in Scarsdale, the economist’s suburb of choice for claims about closing the achievement gap?

As the figure below indicates, the math gaps look about the same, since Scarsdale students score in the same ballpark as white and Asian students in New York City.  Thus, HCZ third-graders outperform even Scarsdale third-graders, but there are large gaps in grades four and five, and then a smaller, but still substantial, shortfall in grade eight, with Scarsdale students scoring .36 standard deviations higher than HCZ students.  However, the gaps in English Language Arts are much larger at every grade level, because Scarsdale students score considerably higher on the state ELA exam than do white and Asian students in NYC at every grade level.  In grades four, five and eight, HCZ students score from .97 to 1.22 standard deviations lower on the state ELA exam than do Scarsdale students, a huge gap.  Score differences of this magnitude indicate that the typical HCZ student might score at the 15th percentile of the Scarsdale distribution of performance in these grades.  


In the 60 Minutes segment, Roland Fryer used a football analogy to describe the accomplishments of HCZ.  “We’re ten touchdowns down in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We kick a field goal and everyone celebrates, right? That’s kind of useless. We’re still 67 points down … What Geoff Canada has shown is that we can actually win the game.”

But here’s the problem.  We’re not in the fourth quarter.  We’re in the first quarter, and most of the game still lies ahead.  The Harlem Children’s Zone is not a mature intervention.  No child has gone through his entire childhood and youth exposed to the intervention, and we don’t know what the outcomes will look like until that occurs.  I am hard-pressed to conclude, based on the most recent data available, that the results are, in Cooper’s terms, “nothing short of stunning,” or that the gap is gone for good.  The 2009 results for third-graders are terrific;  those for students in grades four, five and eight are not.  These latter grades show large and persistent gaps within New York City in both English Language Arts and mathematics, and even larger gaps with the affluent students in Scarsdale, particularly in English Language Arts.  If the third-grade pattern were to persist through the end of high school—on assessments we can trust—that would truly be nothing short of stunning, and well worth celebrating.  But it’s still too early to declare victory.

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

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.