First Person

Garrulous Mr. Gates

It’s been a busy week for Bill Gates. While the NEA featured brilliant Diane Ravitch as its most prominent guest, AFT President Randi Weingarten and company chose Gates, who’s done many remarkable things.

I’m not an education expert like Gates, so I’ll comment only on a TED talk he gave last year that’s available online. My experience is limited to teaching 25 years in New York City. Still, several of Gates’ comments did not sit well with me.

How does that [KIPP charter school] compare to a normal school? Well, in a normal school teachers aren’t told how good they are. The data isn’t gathered. In the teacher’s contract, it will limit the number of times the principal can come into the classroom — sometimes to once per year. And they need advanced notice to do that.

My principal can and does visit my classroom whenever he golly goshdarn feels like it. He offers no advanced notice, and walks around the building visiting my colleagues in exactly the same fashion. Gates’s version of what happens in a “normal school” sounds more like a crass stereotype than any contract I’ve ever heard of.

So imagine running a factory where you’ve got these workers, some of them just making crap and the management is told, “Hey, you can only come down here once a year, but you need to let us know, because we might actually fool you, and try and do a good job in that one brief moment.”

I’m having trouble imagining a teacher who lights up only once every year. If you can’t teach, you don’t give a sterling lesson on command. If you hate kids, you don’t instantly learn to love them when the principal walks in.

Gates claims a top quartile teacher will increase the test scores of students by over 10 percent in a single year. Thus, he reasons, if all students had this teacher, we’d be doing fabulously. I don’t know if I’m in the top quartile, but I raise scores when I have to. Yet when I do, I’m not as effective a teacher.

I try to inspire kids. I try to trick them, for example, into loving any book I teach, with high hopes they’ll love not only that book, but another, and then another. Will those kids get higher test scores? Maybe. But isn’t it possible a love of reading might pay off in some as-yet undetermined future? Isn’t it possible they might make career choices, pivotal decisions, based on something gleaned in my classroom?

Gates suggests teachers lack motivation, perhaps because we’re not getting merit pay, or because too few administrators tell us how wonderful we are. Why, then, do we write glowing recommendations for kids, pushing for them to be admitted to universities, special programs, or new careers?

Teachers have intrinsic motivation Gates can neither measure nor (apparently) conceive of.  I appreciate money, and I’ll say thanks to praise from almost anyone. But I especially treasure it from kids. Last month I told my class I’d miss them. They shouted, “We’ll miss you too!” They asked me if I’d teach them next year. I was honored, far more than by anything Gates could do or say.

But Gates proves things with charts, one of which says:

Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not improve thereafter.

That’s preposterous. Many societies value wisdom and experience, but if they don’t drive test scores, Gates’s charts are unaffected.

But charts don’t face 34 teenagers at a time. I do. You never know what can, what will happen next. Live kids do unimaginable things, things that constantly perplexed me in year three. Even now, I steal any trick, any tip, anything from anyone if it sounds practical.  My bag of tricks is considerably larger now than it was 22 years ago, and I learn new things every day.

Says Gates’s chart:

A master’s degree doesn’t raise scores.

But if I hadn’t studied bilingualism, language acquisition, and the structures of English (that we all know instinctively but have likely as not never thought about), I’d be unqualified to teach ESL. I’d also never have passed the grueling Board of Examiners test the city required back in the day.

For my kid (and yours), I want a teacher with the deepest possible subject knowledge. Teachers compete with cell phones, iPods, and Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 (on which teenagers play some of the most sordid and vulgar war games I’ve ever seen), and need all the help they can get.

Maybe you don’t need a master’s to move kids from 55 on one test to 65 on the next test. A more worthy challenge is developing a kid who derives joy from class, one who eagerly participates and will continue studying it even when force is not involved. I will give that kid a better grade than test scores indicate, even if charts disapprove.

Anybody who has access to a DVD player could have the very best teachers.

That’s because he wants to film what he considers to be good teachers, and amass a video library. But doing that would mean only that anyone with a DVD player would be able to watch the best teachers.

There’d be no interaction, and certainly no assessment of the kid’s work by these best teachers. It’s not the same as having someone in your face. Gates seems to know that when it suits his purposes. When he describes his experiences at KIPP, he becomes giddy with excitement:

The teacher was running around, and the energy level is high … and the teacher was constantly scanning to see which kids weren’t paying attention, which kids were bored and calling on kids rapidly, putting things up on the board …

… keeping people engaged and setting the tone that everyone in the classroom needs to pay attention.

Here, I agree with Gates. But in my school, these things happen every day. And of course everyone needs to pay attention. Were someone to make a statement like that to my 14-year-old, it would merit an unhesitating, “Well, DUH!”

96 percent of KIPP’s high school graduates go to four year colleges.

That may be true. Or it may not. KIPP hasn’t been around that long, and mostly runs junior high schools, so KIPP students in college represent a very small sample. More to the point, the 96 percent figure, if true on any level, doesn’t include kids who don’t finish the program — which at some schools could run to more than half. Who teaches the kids who fail KIPP, and who does Gates blame for that? (I’m thinking me.)

Why not give the high schools the kids attend after KIPP some credit? Are they the “normal” public schools, the schools in which Gates claims administrators are contractually forbidden to observe teachers? Maybe Gates should sponsor that contract.

Charts don’t show underlying problems with poor performers. What if the kid has interrupted formal education, shuffled back and forth from one country to another, and by high school cannot read or write? What if there is abuse, neglect, or who knows what waiting for the kid at home? Gates seems to think if only we could raise that kid’s test score by 10 percent, all would be well.

Gates’s employees can’t be bothered with rudimentary fact-checking, nor can American print reporters. They’re all too busy fawning over him.

It broke my heart to see 3,400 teachers in Seattle doing precisely the same thing.

Thanks to Caroline Grannan for her sage counsel and invaluable advice.

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.