First Person

Ravitch Reveals All

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” It is, frankly, a revelation, and anyone interested in education, particularly New York City education, needs to read it right now.

For anyone who’s wondered where on earth Joel Klein dreamed up his “reforms,” look no further. A substantial source of inspiration appears to be a three-stage process — a New York City experiment that gave a false impression of success, a San Diego experiment that eluded success altogether, and a stubborn determination to replicate both in overdrive.

As both Bloomberg and Klein were business experts using business models, they used a “corporate model of tightly centralized, hierarchal, top-down control, with all decisions made at Tweed and strict supervision of every classroom to make sure the orders flowing from headquarters were precisely implemented,” Ravitch writes. It appears they didn’t squander their valuable time on troublesome input from teachers, parents, or any contradictory voices whatsoever. In fact, Ravitch points out that though the mayor had promised increased parental involvement, it was actually reduced. Parent coordinators were hired, but in fact, they actually “worked for the principal, not for parents.”

Ravitch calls New York City the “testing ground for market-based reforms.” She states Mayor Bloomberg wanted “full control of the schools, with no meddlesome board to second guess him.” The San Diego experiment of utterly disregarding teacher and parent input resulted in a community-selected Board of Education that eventually rejected the program altogether — but Mayor Bloomberg made sure his new board would be patently incapable of disagreeing about anything whatsoever. And indeed, Mayor Bloomberg has fired members of his board rather than allowing them to vote their consciences. Ravitch touts the NYC Public School Parents blog. But Mayor Bloomberg not only disregards their opinions, but sees fit to dictate which topics on which they’re permitted to have opinions at all.

Tweed’s philosophy may well be this — if NYC parents knew anything worth knowing, they’d be as rich as Mayor Bloomberg and his pals. Ravitch points out that the way things are going, the education of our children will be entirely dictated by billionaires — Eli Broad, Bill Gates, and the Wal-Mart heirs, the Walton family, to name the most prominent. She says the Walton family clearly wishes to “create, sustain, and promote alternatives to public education.” They encourage privatization and invest heavily in non-union charter schools. Ravitch concludes the Walton family is committed to “an unfettered market, which by its nature has no loyalties and disregards Main Street, traditional values, long-established communities, and neighborhood schools.” To those of us in New York, that has a very familiar ring.

Ravitch, with meticulous research, demonstrates how virtually every achievement of the so-called “reformers” entails selecting high-performing kids and extracting high-performance from them. This is hardly remarkable, and worse, hardly covered by the ever-incurious American press. Are charter schools miraculous? Are small schools a magic bullet? Are public schools as abysmal as they’re routinely made out to be in the New York Post?

Well, if you look at the coming films glorifying Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP, you will certainly get the impression, as did Roger Ebert, that teacher unions are largely responsible for all the world’s ills. Ebert says he knows little about math, a mindset which might explain why he bothered to question nothing whatsoever in this so-called documentary (“Tenured teachers have a job for life”). It’s my fond but dim hope that Ravitch’s publisher sends Ebert a copy of her book, and that he actually takes the time to read it.

Ravitch states, “Once Tweed embraced charter schools, they received priority treatment. The Chancellor placed many charter schools into regular public school buildings, taking classrooms and facilities away from the host schools and igniting bitter fights with the regular schools’ parent associations.” Given the disparate treatment of neighborhood and charter schools, it’s hardly surprising some of them do well. The only surprise is how many do not. Ravitch provides chapter and verse.

I’ve no doubt, for example, that Geoffrey Canada’s kids do well, but I’ve also no doubt, with his annual budget, the city’s willingness to create space for his kids while ignoring ours, his activist approach to early childhood, and his ability to dismiss entire grades if they don’t meet expectations, many public schools could produce similar, if not better results. Of course, Chancellor Klein does not provide troubled schools with additional resources. He just closes them, and if the data on which he bases his statistics are utterly false, well, that’s just too bad. After all, why bother to re-examine anything? Under mayoral control, he and Mayor Bloomberg are always right.

Teachers of literature will be touched by the story of Mrs. Ratliff, who inspired Ravitch to love literature, to write with precision and clarity, and to respect the rules of written English. Doubtless today Mrs. Ratliff would be in the rubber room for insubordination. She’d be patently unable to wade through the rubrics of jargon and standards-based nonsense with which we train our children to pencil in circles nowadays.

Ravitch demonstrates how obsessed we’ve become with test prep, often to the exclusion of all else. This hits home with me, at least. I often teach ESL kids how to pass the English Regents, as most of my colleagues are too smart to volunteer for such a thankless task. I drill the kids to death, largely neglecting the grammar and usage they so sorely need, preferring to make sure they minimally answer questions so they can pass. After all, if they don’t pass, they don’t graduate.

As I read Ravitch’s descriptions of the test-prep factories we’ve allowed our schools to become, I realize that I’ve become yet another facet of the problem. She describes a phenomenon I’d been part of, with no notion it was so widespread. Kids learn from me how to pass one single test. They don’t learn how to write, and they don’t learn to love reading either (in that class, at least). Like many teachers, I haven’t got time for such frivolities when my kids need to pass that test. And since they really do need to pass that test, I’d do it again. In her conclusion, Ravitch makes numerous worthy suggestions about how we can address this issue.

Ravitch bemoans the preposterous demands of NCLB, which has asked that we make every child proficient by 2014. She points out how states can simply lower the bar year by year, and give the appearance of progress. That’s the essence of “reform,” as far as I can tell.

My only quibble would be Ravitch’s description of Green Dot as a union school. While Green Dot teachers are ostensibly unionized, they enjoy neither tenure nor seniority rights. Without tenure, like many of my colleagues, I’d have been fired years ago for reasons having nothing to do with my ability to teach (or lack thereof). Green Dot has a “just cause” clause to protect its teachers, but with neither tenure nor seniority rights, it appears to me that Green Dot teachers can be fired “just cause” their bosses feel like it.

Most of my views on education come from experience. I haven’t got any gift for analyzing data or reading endless reports. I’m always impressed by people like Ravitch, who can plow through papers and reports I’d read only if forced, and not only make sense of them, but also take the time to explain them to people like me, with extensive documentation for those who wish to double-check. She must be a great teacher, and from me, that’s high praise indeed.

Working teachers have come to many conclusions similar to Ravitch’s, drawn from just instinct and experience. It’s gratifying to see how many of our conclusions match those of Ravitch, and how strongly they’re borne out by hard data. And here they are, for all the world to see, in one convenient place.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. If you’re motivated enough to bother reading GothamSchools, you really owe it to yourself to read this book.

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.