First Person

Neuroses Of A Privileged White Educator

Some of our students have asthma. Some of them don’t. Some of their parents have marital problems or have histories of abuse. Some of them don’t. Some of them get in fights at school; some of them have had their siblings arrested, some of them have been arrested themselves, and, well … some of them just haven’t experienced any of these things.

It’s interesting to see how teaching in a Title 1 school in the South Bronx both does and doesn’t live up to the expectations that movies gave me. Some professors advised me to teach in a private school, with a mostly white population. “It’ll be easier,” they said. “Those Bronx kids will tear you apart.” My parents said it would be more financially viable, and that I’d have greater job security. “It’s not safe,” one relative said. “I read a review on the Google. I went to New York in the ’70s. I know what it’s like there. Trust me.” And movies: I’ve seen clips from all the cliché urban biopics. Try “Blackboard Jungle,” or “Stand and Deliver,” or “Dangerous Minds,” or “Freedom Writers.” (These “success” stories have been expertly debunked by Colleen Gillard and Gary Rubinstein, respectively.)

Where can we bridge the gap between fiction and reality? Why is it so gripping — I would almost say transfixing — to watch movies about privileged white people helping underprivileged racial minorities? Teju Cole, in speaking about “KONY 2012,” controversially coined a term he calls “the white savior industrial complex.” He uses this term to describe when white people expend “big emotions” in helping racial minorities so that they can “validate” their own economic privilege.

I can’t help but ask: Does this apply to me?

I’m white and Jewish. I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb outside of Chicago and went to an enormous school, one of the best in the state. I took 12 Advanced Placement classes, saving up enough credit to take a year off of college, spend a year abroad, and save up money afterwards by taking on part-time jobs and internships instead of registering for classes. I am one of the lucky ones. I was born in the right place, went to the right schools, and in college, I made the right choices. The fact that I had choices to begin with was what set me up for success. So many students that we teach don’t feel like they have any.

In being accepted to Blue Engine, I couldn’t help but berate myself, believing I had fallen into Cole’s “white savior” dialectic. I’m just another wide-eyed kid from an elite private school thinking he can go into a Title 1 school — predominantly filled with racial minorities — and subsequently “save” them. What naivety, what presumption! These kids, I thought, are going to chew me up and spit me out.

Ironically, I was afraid of being judged by the color of my skin. I was afraid that I would be unable to relate to my students, unable to break the bubble of my privileged, suburban, mostly white upbringing. “I won’t be able to reach out to them,” I thought. These were my neuroses and mine alone.

A month later, I have found something I definitely didn’t expect. My school staff and my fellow BETAs come from a wide variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. But when we work, all the differences in our upbringing — who had privilege and who didn’t — don’t interfere with our ability to teach or relate to our students. In fact, each of us has something different—a skill, a character trait, a finesse — that helps us to connect with each kid differently. As a team, we are strengthened by our differences as much as our similarities. We become united in a common goal: we are all working to raise the stakes for these students and get them somewhere despite the odds. And they look up to each of us, because they know we all equally believe that, no matter where our great-grandparents came from.

Like them, I was a student, and not very long ago at that. When they complain about their upcoming essay next week, I tell them how in college I wrote six-eight papers per quarter. When they stress about the 10 pages of reading per night, I tell them about how in high school I once read a book overnight to study for an exam the next day. Like I used to (and probably still do, more than I’d like to admit), they worry nonstop about what other people think of them. They write paragraphs at the beginning of each class about their phones and iPads and Jay-Z concerts and One Direction music videos. They discuss the clothes they bought over the weekend, the “high school parties” they went to, their skirmishes with the law, the fights with their parents, and the passing of their loved ones. Some of these things surprised me — I didn’t expect these kids to have iPhones, to be going shopping some weekends, to have the simple luxuries of life that I have (even on a BETA budget!). I didn’t expect their high school experience to, in many ways, seem so similar to mine.

Some of them, in lieu of homework, stay up long nights messaging with friends until 2 a.m. through texting or Facebook chat. I did that too, once — back then we used AOL Instant Messenger, but the idea was still the same, and the procrastination just as ever-so-sweet. Our skin colors might be different, our parents’ wallets might be different sizes, and there might be almost a decade between us. But, in some cases, we share the same gossip, the same social pressures, and similar academic experiences.

I do not feel I am trying to “save” these kids. But I am trying to help them. And for some of our students, I can help prepare them to be successful in college. It’s not about me, not about satisfying some “complex,” as Cole would suggest. I’m here to increase the chances that my students find the support that they need. Because in a school with large classes it can be easy for at-risk students to fall through the cracks.

I have already built some strong connections and I can see myself building even stronger ones as the year goes on. They ask about my years in college; they ask what I will be for Halloween; they ask if I will be around after school so that they can come by and say hi. No, I don’t think I look like Harry Potter, I say. Yes, those are silly bands I’m wearing. And yes, I went to college.

Yes, college was amazing. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I had to study — and do my homework. Yes, yes, yes. And you should, too. You can, too. You can too, just like me. Even though we don’t look alike; even though we grew up in different places.

They are silent for a few still seconds. Possibly for the first time all class. But I know they’re listening.

This post originally appeared on the Blue Engine blog.

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.