First Person

My neighbors told the New York Times that going to our local school is ‘malpractice.’ We picked it anyway

PHOTO: Mia Simring
An integration debate in District 3 has put schools like West Prep in the spotlight. Teachers and school leaders say their low test scores hide the progress many students make once they enroll there.

This is the third entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

I knew schooling would be a sticky issue for my husband and me. He was raised by two public school teachers, opted out of his zoned school to go to a less well resourced one, and saw active engagement in the public school system as a duty of citizenship.

Meanwhile, I had been raised by striving parents and sent to the infamously elite Horace Mann School, where I was decidedly not in with the in-crowd — and I loved it. I loved that if I could dream it, I could write up a proposal and get a budget for it. I loved that I found my home in the out crowd, the goths and punks and nerds and theater kids. But I don’t think Horace Mann ensured my or my classmates’ success later in life.

So when we realized late last year that my daughter, born in the last week of 2012, could be entering kindergarten in 2017, I tried to keep an open mind, unclouded by the terrible things my mother had always said about public school. The fact was, my husband and I shared the primary goal of finding an educational setting that would first and foremost support our daughter’s social and emotional development. We realized this might have been different from our (and especially my) parents’ goals. We decided to first look at public schools, since we figured we would have the option of starting her a year later if she went to private school.

We started with P.S. 145, the school across the street from our apartment in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood of the Upper West Side. We see into the classrooms from our windows, and occasionally hear music classes in the morning. I didn’t expect to like it, not because of anything I had observed, but simply because no one I knew liked it. Anyway, the test scores were abysmal, some of the lowest in the district. I figured we would do our due diligence, then send her to private school next year or push for a spot at the progressive and beloved Manhattan School for Children, a public school that accepts students from across our district. That’s what so many other families like ours do, including our neighbors whom the New York Times profiled recently in a story about the complexity of school choice.

When we went to P.S. 145, I was stunned. Where were the disciplinarian teachers yelling at the kids? The overcrowded classrooms? The sheer lack?

The fact is, I was charmed by the abundance and diversity of student artwork, not only in classrooms but throughout the common spaces. I was impressed that each student has art, music, and dance each week, and that the goal is to build kids’ confidence not only as artists, but as people. The Studio in a School art teacher explained how they do an art school-style critique at the end, where students are encouraged to make observations about their classmates’ work. She also told us that they displayed not only works the students were most proud of, but also pieces they might feel ambivalent about, to show that all kinds of artistic expression can be appreciated. There was a new TV studio with a dedicated and very enthusiastic educator, Mr. Hunter, who would help teachers and students integrate video projects into their academic work. There were two dual language tracks. The teachers seemed happy and kind, and the students did, too.

But there were a few things that irked me. First, there was the giant “Merry Christmas” banner that greeted me in the lobby. Yes, there were some nods to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa throughout the school, but as a religious Jew, I was uncomfortable with how Christmassy it all was.  Second, because of timing, we hadn’t seen a lot of actual classroom instruction. Moreover, there was a typo in an assignment posted on the wall. I’m nitpicky like that.

Still, the arts programming and the overall positive environment attracted me for our daughter. People had warned us that P.S. 145 was the bottom of the barrel — so I was excited to move on to the higher-tier public schools!

Manhattan School for Children was next on our list. It was recommended by parents that we love and respect as friends and mentors. The parent volunteers spoke my language: “progressive education,” “constructivist philosophy,” “integrated curriculum.” I was swooning.

But, by and large, I did not see it borne out in the instruction. Yes, the school was lovely (oh, that greenhouse!), but I didn’t see the progressive instruction I was craving. I saw frontal instruction over and over again. And while the parent volunteers talked about process-over-product oriented arts, the integrated curriculum meant that the arts (at least what we saw) were in service of the academics. Instead of seeing students given materials and challenged to create, we saw assignments that asked them to, for example, make a cloud out of cotton balls or build papier mache globes. And the classes were so big — 27 kids per classroom, as compared to the 18 kids in P.S. 145 classrooms. My daughter tends to get lost in the crowd — and lost in her inner thoughts — so opportunities for an adult to make eye contact with her were important to me.

Then, my husband pointed out that of 27 kindergarteners, only two were kids of color. I wondered how that could be, given the school’s blind admissions lottery and the demographics of the people we see in the neighborhood every day. Again, the school was fine, but after all the hype, I wondered: Is this really what we wanted?

My mom used to say, “People in New York always talk about real estate and schools.” This year was the year of the latter for me. I talked to everyone I could. On the street, a friend introduces me to an Manhattan School for Children parent: “They are really trying to reduce the amount of homework they were giving, because studies show homework doesn’t really help elementary school kids.” Hey, I said to my friend, who still has a few years before this applies to her, P.S. 145 also doesn’t emphasize homework for that very reason! She shakes her head. “So it’s all art and no work?”

At kiddush (the post synagogue social-hour), I overhear a parent talking about P.S. 145 positively. I am thrilled. As we talk, though, it turns out she is only considering the pre-K. “I would never send her there for elementary school.”

While out sledding, my daughter befriends a Upper West Success Academy student. Her dad tells me that he’s concerned about the amount of homework at the charter school, but they didn’t want to send her to a school with no homework, and while there were some OK public schools in Harlem, where they lived, he didn’t want his daughter to be the only white kid. “Why not?” I ask. I really want to know — after all, that might well be the situation for my daughter — and when choosing a school, I thought all questions were on the table. All of a sudden though, it got cold and everyone decided to go their separate ways without addressing the question. I had killed the conversation.

After more and more school visits, my husband and I narrowed down our options to P.S. 145 and Beit Rabban, a progressive, private Jewish school that we also fell in love with. Of course, as a Jewish school, Beit Rabban had limited diversity, but it offered an outstanding Jewish and general education. We knew everyone there. And yet.

A rabbinic colleague of mine suggested sending my daughter to public school — there was no loss for us if it didn’t work for our family and we switched to Beit Rabban further along, which was what happened (at a different Jewish school) for her family. She had also felt strongly about public education, but it wasn’t right for her son. That sounded sensible enough, but before committing, I wanted to meet P.S. 145’s principal, Dr. Russo, who hadn’t been on the tour.

My husband and I arrived and sat at a large table in her office. I noted a sign reading, “I’m silently judging your grammar.” Snarky meme though it may have been, it spoke to me.  I mentioned that I liked it to break the ice. “Me too,” she said. “Most people don’t, though.”

We sat awkwardly looking at each other. She seemed so much younger and more serious than I was expecting.  Also, she didn’t seem to have a pitch. “So … what brings you here?” she asked. “We are prospective parents, and we wanted to know whether this school would be a good fit for our daughter,” I prompted her. “What would you like to know?” she asked. I was panicking. This was bad. At this point, we had seen so many eager-to-please-and-run-to-their-next-meeting principals that this was a stark contrast. My husband started with some softball questions, then I got more detailed. Soon enough, she took the lead, and laid out an impressive vision for a school that could meet the needs of children from all economic backgrounds, including those in temporary housing. She talked about how class sizes were intentionally kept small, and how she used a discretionary budget to have a long term substitute as a second teacher in the already small classrooms. She talked about continuing education for teachers. She said all the teachers knew all the students. On top of that, there was time every Tuesday for parents to meet with their children’s teachers. I was impressed that she had planned and implemented so many positive initiatives.

We enrolled my daughter in the public school across the street. I am not going to pretend to know I have made the right decision. No one making a match for a four-year-old should have the hubris to believe they know for sure. And I recognize that I hold a tremendous amount of privilege to have the certainty of a private school Plan B if anything, including supplementary Jewish education, isn’t working right for our child.

One thing I am pretty confident about? I’ve spent more time inside P.S. 145 than the finance lawyer who was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel like it would almost be malpractice to send my kids to school” there.

And as I saw a group of kids and teachers make their way from the school into Silver Moon Bakery for a kitchen tour, it seemed the loveliest thing to imagine my daughter joining them and exploring the world around her.

Mia Simring is a rabbi living in her native New York City, where she and her husband are raising two fourth-generation New Yorkers.

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.