First Person

From reducing suspensions to engaging families, 17 things superintendents can do to combat racism

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For school system leaders, the summer should be a time of reflection and planning for the upcoming school year. This summer, that reflection and planning must include strategizing about how to work against racism in our society.

I believe system leaders, especially superintendents, need to confront head on the violence being perpetrated on black Americans by public employees who are supposed to protect citizens, and increasing attacks against students and others who are Muslim, LGBT, immigrants, or just simply not white.

For 10 years I was a superintendent of two very diverse school systems: Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md. Superintendents lead public institutions and therefore have the responsibility to confront institutional racism if we are to move towards truly living up to our potential and ideals as Americans. Educators are the keepers of that potential, but today’s times call for new actions.

Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular priority order, about what superintendents must do. Full disclosure: I succeeded at doing some of these, failed at others, and never got to a few. This is an aspirational list, as well as what I hope can become a new conditional list of requirements for superintendents. People who are not prepared to take on these issues do not deserve to be educators.

The list is incomplete, and I hope others add to it.

1. Read. Go out of your comfort zone and then share what you’re reading with your internal and external communities. Use it as an opportunity for collective learning. Start with James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” and move on to Gloria Ladson Billings’ 2008 AERA speech on the “education debt“; Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Freire/Horton, We Make the Road by Walking; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me; anything by Jeff Duncan-Andrade or Pedro Noguera; recent blogs by Sabrina Joy Stevens, Jose Vilson, Jessie Hagopian and others in the #educolor movement.

2. Look at policies. Ensure your district has equity and curriculum policies that are clear about what students should know and be able to do and that all students must have access to an instructional environment that promotes that knowledge and skills and necessary supports if they need it. If such policies don’t exist, start working with your board to develop them.

3. Clarify your message. Be clear and relentless about your core values and those of your district. Be clear and relentless about what adults need to do in service of children. Be clear and relentless that all children deserve to feel valued, loved, and safe, and that as educators, we have a special responsibility to our kids of color.

4. Review content. Ask your curriculum and instruction team to review all content for cultural competence and take steps to ensure that curriculum and materials are respectful and inclusive of multiple cultures. Engage teachers and leaders of color in this initiative and be public about it. Crowdsource it, as there are more culturally proficient materials out there than some might imagine or are on the state-approved publisher contract lists (see American Reading Company materials for a good example).

5. Review employee turnover data and flag patterns where there’s disproportionality. Talk to educators of color about their experiences. Ensure there are exit interviews so that employees who leave (including non-certified staff such as para-educators) can give honest perspectives about the climate within the school. Make sure that your principal evaluation procedures can take into account climate and turnover issues; if it doesn’t, put that into your next negotiations.

6. Reduce suspensions of students. Now. Send a clear message to principals that sending students out of the building to fix themselves after they’ve committed a transgression will not help them change that behavior. Students don’t miraculously change behaviors by being pushed away; the opposite is true, they change behaviors when pulled in and held close. Coordinate the moral imperative of suspension reduction with a commensurate effort to train staff in restorative justice and similar programs. Be very attentive to the messages that are being sent to the public about the need to reduce suspensions and explain why we need to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

7. Analyze your budget to see if resources are allocated according to student need. Make sure your budget reflects your district’s values and policies and that the children who need the most are getting the most. Yes, politics are a factor here, as the most vocal parents are typically the most entitled, but be clear, consistent, comprehensive and fact-based in designing and communicating a budget that reflects students’ needs. Look at your Title I funds too, as you can be more creative than you might think.

8. Engage with community leaders and families, and not just the usual suspects. Summon your best active listening skills and reach out to faith-based leaders, community leaders (formal and informal), and key communicators. Don’t rely on the same structures that have always existed, although they need to be engaged as well, they don’t usually comprise the non-entitled. Model this for others.

9. Elevate student voice, listen to their stories, talk to them individually and in large and small groups. Be sure to really listen. Answer their questions respectfully and honestly. Model this for others and tell everyone what you’ve heard. Be sure to talk to students who might not be formal leaders, or who have been in trouble, or are just plain old average. Be sure to engage with English language learners and special education students too.

10. Engage teachers, support professionals and leaders, listen to their voices. Try to understand their underlying fears and concerns while also being non-negotiable about your expectations. It’s really hard to learn new approaches and many white educators especially don’t know how to confront their privilege. Teach them by being a partner in the learning process.

11. Negotiate equity, social-emotional learning, and cultural competency into formal evaluation systems. Work with your bargaining units to create appropriate language. Use National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers language as models, as both have taken stands on institutional racism.

12. Be absolutely unequivocal in the message that relationships matter and learning doesn’t happen without love. Yes, outcomes matter, yes, academics are important. But teaching is a social enterprise, and if children — especially children of color — don’t feel valued, respected, and loved in classrooms, they won’t meet our expectations.

13. Analyze your data to determine whether non-academic needs are getting in the way of student achievement. If students are hungry, feed them; if they need support beyond the school day, work with community agencies to get it for them. Develop or purchase an early-warning-indicator system to identify kids that are in danger of dropping out and use the results at the school, district, and community level to organize wrap-around supports for kids and families. Look at disproportionality in special education students and English language learners in identification and suspensions.

14. If students are being tracked, stop it. The public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society. This has done immeasurable harm to generations of children. Look at district policies and procedures for identifying gifted and talented students, academic levels, magnet/choice programs, etc. Review the data, make it public, convene the right people to start dismantling it, consult with lawyers if necessary and Just. Do. It.

15. Measure engagement, hope and well-being, mainly of students, but also of employees. People need to be happy and engaged in their work in order to produce their best. They need to know that hard work will lead to improvement; that’s the basis of hope.

16. Never forget that you’re learning too. The superintendency can be a brutal job, but a wonderful privilege. No one will ever fully understand what you go through and why you had to make the decisions you did, and everyone expects that you have the answer to everything. Don’t become too enamored of your own expertise and past success; learn from and with others about how to lead from a social justice stance.

17. Don’t be afraid to get fired for standing up for what you believe in.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too. 

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.