First Person

All Families (Without The Dependent Clause)

This piece first appeared this morning on the website of Harlem Link Charter School, where Steven Evangelista is the founding co-principal.

The scene: a community board meeting in New York City, circa 2005. A charismatic executive was speaking to the crowd about a new charter school network that was in the offing. The executive emphasized that the school didn’t need community board approval but felt it was important to have the blessing of these community leaders. After a few perfunctory comments about school design and achievement gaps, the executive uttered a carefully crafted statement I have been thinking about ever since:

“We will work with any family that will work with us.”

On the surface it sounds great, even noble. Who wouldn’t admire such openness, even magnanimity? A typical public school educator would probably shrug and say, “I do that every day.” But a reformer with a cape coming down from the elite to work with the little people promises to work with them all!

A close parsing of the dependent clause of that sentence, however, reveals another side of the hero story and raises questions that get to the heart of a core issue about school reform and school design that our board of trustees will debate tonight at its public meeting. Who exactly are we serving? What is the real cost of serving everyone? And who, exactly, wants to work with us?

An alternative — and, I would say, more noble — statement would be: “We will work with any family.”

The question of whether or not to include the dependent clause boils down to this: Are so-called high-performing schools of choice on one level just great sorting factories? Are the “families that will work with us” just another way of identifying the same families that researchers like economist James Heckman would find already imbue in their kids the “soft skills” required to persist and be successful in school, college and life?

If so, what happens to those other kids? The ones whose parents are intimidated by the prospect of charter school rigor, or by the demands of keeping up with the schedule and the requirements of having a child in a charter school, or who won’t agree or feel they can’t agree that it’s important to get their kids to school on time and in uniform every day?

Creaming and Counseling Out

According to defenders of the status quo, the charter answer to this predicament is to ignore the problem so it will go away for someone else to solve. Charters allegedly use intimidating, even hostile techniques such as harassment both to prevent parents who are less engaged and equipped to support their child’s education from signing up (so-called “creaming” or “skimming” the best students and families) and, if they do sign up, to push out those less engaged parents once they show their stripes (“counseling out”). This issue has long been Criticism Number 1 of charter schools, and charter folks like me have spent years denying that our own schools engage in such practices, even as we know, and admit, that it happens elsewhere to varying degrees. (As an aside, I know that this practice occurs at district schools as well, increasingly as school choice has proliferated; I know because I’m curious and parents with firsthand knowledge and an atypically blunt principal have told me so.)

I also argue that de facto counseling out occurs as a result of high expectations. If I demand that a child come to school on time every day — and then have our school social workers and parent coordinator work with that student’s family if the child is repeatedly tardy or absent — some families will choose the path of least resistance and transfer their children to a school down the street that won’t bother dealing with attendance concerns. In these cases (which are rare) I don’t see an alternative for preventing that family from leaving our school other than lowering our standards — and that’s not an option.

Charter Choices

To the extent that there is counseling out, are charters making conscious choices to push out or exclude families that require greater resources or refuse to get on board? Or do some parents self-select out simply as a result of the rigor or perceived rigor of school policies? How aware are charter operators of the enrollment and attrition implications of their policies?

I believe that by failing to answer these questions explicitly, comprehensively and publicly, charter schools are wasting the opportunity to contribute to long-lasting, meaningful reform. As a charter school founder and mentor of mine told me recently, “In 25 years no one will care about this school’s or that school’s test scores. A rigorous analysis will be longitudinal, and start with all the students in a school’s original cohort. If you’re only reporting on the ones who stay, you’re not doing rigorous research. And no one should care.”

There are some charter schools confronting these questions, but I’m not entirely satisfied with their answers. KIPP, among the largest and most respected charter schools, publishes its own annual report card that asks questions such as: “Are we serving the children who need us?” and “Are our students staying with us?” The report contains statistical answers on how many students stay in the program and the demographic composition of students — more transparency than you will typically find in a public school district — but no analysis of how a “no excuses” policy impacts those statistics.

Is Harlem Link Intentional?

At our school, we have always believed that having high expectations can lead to an inclusive and still high-performing school, if all families are required to meet the same standards but support is provided to ensure that those who need help get it. We have continually raised expectations — for everyone about everything — and have seen that the strain of meeting these expectations has exposed some disagreement over the standards by some families.

Examples of our policies include:

  • If a child comes to school out of uniform, we require that to change and are unyielding about it, but if acquiring a uniform is a demonstrable financial burden, we will provide a uniform.
  • We have hired multiple support personnel to hear the concerns of and provide support to parents — including two full-time social workers and one parent coordinator for our small student body of 300 students. (There was one counselor and no parent coordinator at my first public school, which had an enrollment of 1,700.)
  • If a child comes to school late multiple times, several different members of our staff will contact the child’s parent or parents to offer support and remind them of the importance of being on time. If we ask for a meeting and a parent misses the meeting, we will ask to reschedule.
  • When seats open up in the upper grades, we continue to enroll new students to fill those seats. We plan our budget accordingly, knowing the burden it places on all of us at the school to acclimate new families and students to our expectations and support new students who, on average, enter far behind the typical academic performance of our current student body.
  • We have three full-time Academic Intervention Services teachers to help with remediation for students who are behind academically. (That’s one for every 100 students, compared to one for every 350 or so at my first school and probably most schools nationally.)
  • We have continued to support the independence of our parent association, which has since our opening year elected its own leadership, even though in some years in the past the parent willing to make the most noise and get elected president was a disgruntled one who used the office to grind an ax rather than make productive change for children.

Behind each of these policies is a conscious decision that has a discernible impact on the composition of our student body, on whether the children of parents who are uninformed about, feel powerless to control or simply disagree with our society’s norms about the basics of school readiness continue to attend our school.

Tonight, as we begin the process of building our next five-year strategic plan (2014-2019), we will debate whether we should continue these policies and others like them and we will take a stab at uncovering their true costs.

My presumption entering the debate is that if we are to take the stance that we are here to serve “all families” (without the dependent clause) we need more resources than we have now. Two social workers and one parent coordinator aren’t enough — simply because instruction needs my full-time attention and that of our other instructional leaders.

Right now, we’re half an instructional team. Half our attention seems to be occupied with issues like those described above. (I’ll bet the ratio is even higher for many district school principals.)

What if we had not only two but a full team of social workers, who would work not in the school but in needy families’ homes? What if we supplied everyone with a uniform? What if we had intervention teachers who only worked with individual students who were new to the school in the upper grades and need remediation?

Well, you might say, why don’t you do all those things already? Why don’t you spend your money more wisely to meet your mission? You won’t typically find me saying, “Schools need more resources.” That’s because I know that the money that is currently allocated to district schools in high-poverty neighborhoods is typically not well-spent to begin with.

In addition to having a strong curriculum, faculty and school ethos, I hope I have demonstrated that our school has already devoted significant time and money to providing support to families that need it and ensuring we attract and retain students of all varieties. What I’m saying is, if we are to serve “any family” and not just “any family that will work with us,” we need a parallel school, one for the soft skills that in high achieving communities are taken for granted.

You don’t have to look far down the street from our school — Geoffrey Canada and Harlem Children’s Zone are basically trying to do these very same things (except, they were a social service agency that started a school rather than the other way around). Our questions are different: What can one school do? What can each school do? What does each school need to do? And tonight at our board meeting, what ought we do?

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.