First Person

Driving Teachers Away

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

The quality of teaching varied at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, but no single teacher ever stood out as a superstar and rarely was there a teacher who everyone agreed was incompetent. I can honestly say the vast majority of teachers who I worked with over my four years worked hard, meant well, and could have achieved greater success if they’d been better supported. Unfortunately, our administration, out of either design or neglect, left teachers to sink or swim on our own before they made decisions about our future at the school. In my third year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, administrators appeared to target four or five teachers (out of about 20) who they deemed as insufficient classroom managers for unsatisfactory ratings. Though I was not one of these teachers, I shared the stress and anxiety of my singled-out colleagues.

The stories of two teachers paint a picture of what happened that year. Mr. J was a math teacher who served on our staff for two years. He was a tall and mild-mannered guy who had a calming effect on those around him. In his first year, he was observed only once by the principal, and this observation was informal and undocumented. Mr. J reports that the principal had little constructive feedback about the content of the lesson, but instead advised him to make his room “sexier” and to make his aim and do-now “pop” more off the white board.

Ms. S was originally hired as a long-term substitute for an English teacher on maternity leave, but then kept on board for the rest of the year as a global history Regents-prep teacher. She was a chipper teacher who had a deep love of English literature and film. The next year, when she joined the staff as a full-time ninth-grade English teacher, she never had an official observation. At the end of that year, though, she was given a U-rating. According to Ms. S, the administration attributed the rating to frequent tardiness. But she told me she suspects that “the real reason … was to encourage me to find placement elsewhere. Along with several other teachers, I was told simply, that I was not a good fit. I had the ability to be a good teacher, with the ‘right students.'”

In Mr. J’s second year, he was observed once informally during the second semester. The principal noted his use of technology and the new assistant principal gave him a lot of constructive feedback. She told him that, had the lesson been formal, he would have received a U-rating because he was too passive in addressing student misbehavior. Mr. J took her advice seriously and asserted himself more in the classroom, but consequently felt like he was spending too much time reprimanding students and not enough focusing on content.

He was observed again in the spring, this time by the newest assistant principal. The observation was informal, but documented. The AP did not discuss his observation with Mr. J, but rather emailed him his report, which consisted of a list of student-behavioral infractions, including a number of students who arrived late to class, three students who used cell phones, and one student who wore a hat. According to Mr. J, “the observation did not discuss the content of the lesson nor how students were grasping that content. However, the report did conclude that my class was lacking academic rigor without any further explanation.”

After this observation, Mr. J started having conversations with the principal and AP about what they wanted to see in his classroom. They advised him to be more authoritative by directly and consistently reprimanding students for arriving late or violating other school policies. He followed their advice and felt that he effectively demonstrated improvement when he was observed again at the end of April. The AP said he appreciated the progress Mr. J had made but still gave the lesson a U-rating.  In the debriefing session with the principal and AP, Mr. J. said, “it was made very clear that I would be given a U-rating for the year if I chose to stay at [the Brooklyn Arts Academy] and an S if I were to leave. This was, of course, not explicitly said but the point was made abundantly clear in an indirect fashion.”

Ms. S, meanwhile, had been unable to find another school to work at and so had returned. The following year, though, she was not given her own classroom, and was instead shuffled around to wherever there was room and given a schedule that included senior English tutoring, a 10th-grade film elective, test prep, and even being used as a substitute teacher at times. She notes that she “felt embarrassed and devalued as a teacher.” A low point came when she was observed by the new AP and given a U-rating because students had earphones and hats on. “It was at this point, that I saw the futility in what I was doing,” she told me. “I had been pushed to the fringes, and then had to listen to meaningless criticism from a detached administrator.” She informed the APs that she would not return the following year, and was thereafter spared the humiliation of continued scrutiny. Her subsequent observations were positive and given satisfactory ratings.

In addition to Mr. J and Ms. S, other teachers, such as the science teacher on my grade-level team, shared similar experiences. But all teachers felt the effects. For one, none of us felt safe from similar treatment as we all had, to some degree or another, the same struggles with lateness, hats, and headphones. It seemed unfair that some teachers were grilled about this when others, including myself, were not. (Indeed, this issue would not even have mattered so much if the school had clearer policies and protocols for us all to follow). More to the point, the teachers who were encouraged to leave were not lazy or incompetent teachers. They were earnest but inexperienced ones. They were also my friends. It was gut-wrenching to hear their stories.

Mr. J. found a job at a different small public school in Queens. He notes that, in contrast to his last months at the Brooklyn Arts Academy when he “could just feel the stress upsetting my stomach as I walked into the building,” this year has been very positive: “Having an administration that I respect and that I know supports me has made a huge difference.” Ms. S, meanwhile, left the profession. Of course, many other teachers left at the end of that year as well. I, too, pondered whether I wanted to commit to another year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I had another option.

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.