First Person

This week's teaching & learning tidbits

In search of black teachers in Denver

Lucas Nkwelle, a black chemistry teacher at Montbello High SchoolDENVER — When Malcinia Conley attended Montbello High School in the early ‘80s, she was inspired by the black teachers she saw at the front of her classrooms.

Lucas Nkwelle teaches chemistry at Montbello High School, where 29 percent of students are African-American compared to 12 percent of teachers and 31 percent of total staff.

“It was a feeling of, here is someone with an understanding of the cultural things that I am experiencing, so I believed they were someone who could help me to get through them,” said Conley.

“I’d look at them, and believe, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I could follow in their footsteps.”

Conley did just that. Today, she is one of 233 African-American teachers in Denver Public Schools. She’s back at her alma mater, where classes she teaches include Intro to Urban Education, a DPS program geared toward encouraging students to pursue teaching. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Ed commissioner search ends

Robert Hammond, who’s been serving as commissioner of education since December, is the sole finalist for the permanent job and is expected to be formally hired by the State Board of Education next week. During a brief teleconference Monday afternoon, the board voted 7-0 to name Hammond sole finalist, choosing him over Aurora Superintendent John Barry. The board had voted 7-0 on April 21 to name the two as finalists. Read more at Education News Colorado.

Feedback welcome on proposed teacher effectiveness rules

One year after the passage of Senate Bill 10-191 calling for a new statewide approach to measuring educator effectiveness, the Colorado State Board of Education has announced a timeline and process for public input prior to formal adoption of rules, currently anticipated for November.

As a first step in the process, the state board will begin in May to explore in further detail the recommendations from the State Council on Educator Effectiveness.

The discussion will begin on May 11, when the department will provide a follow-up to the April 13 presentation from the council. This meeting is designed to address those areas where the council did not make a specific recommendation and to ask whether the state board agrees with particular recommendations. From 10 a.m. to noon May 12 the board will hold a study session to further explore the recommendations from the council.

For those wishing to provide testimony at the state board meeting on May 12, a sign-up sheet will be provided.

Throughout this process, the draft rules along with recommended changes will be posted on the state board website. As suggestions come in, the department will post the recommended changes. Written comments on the report or recommendations to the state board on the draft rules may be sent by e-mail to state.board@cde.state.co.us, or by mail to: State Board Office, 201 E. Colfax Ave., Room 506, Denver, CO 80203-1087.

After gathering input from the state board, the department will begin drafting proposed rules, which will be provided to the board June 8.

Two Colo. teachers honored in math/science

WASHINGTON – President Obama named 85 mathematics and science teachers as recipients of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Thursday. Two of them are from Colorado. The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is awarded annually to outstanding K-12 science and mathematics teachers from across the country. Each winner was selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians,and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level.

Susan Parsons of Boulder (math) and Patricia Astler of Castle Rock (science), are the recipients for the state of Colorado. Learn more on 9NEWS.

Mixed reaction to teacher evaluation plans

It wasn’t as if teachers and principals around Colorado were holding their collective breath, awaiting the release of the report from the state Council on Educator Effectiveness with its recommendations on how they ought to be evaluated in their jobs. No, it was more like, “Reform proposals? Take a number and get in line.” Read more in Education News Colorado.

Garcia highlights education priorities

The top education goals of the Hickenlooper administration are implementation of the educator effectiveness law, improving third-grade reading scores and raising college completion rates, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said Thursday. Garcia spoke to reporters and a large group of state employees and education lobbyists in his first major public talk since Senate confirmation this week as director of the Department of Higher Education.

In addition to that job and being lieutenant governor, Garcia is the head of the yet-to-be-convened Education Leadership Council. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Bill GatesGates to help schools adopt common core standards

The Gates Foundation is announcing on Wednesday that it will be investing $20 million in game-based learning and other tools to help the new national education standards into the classroom. Read more in the Seattle Times.

Aurora schools tout tech to female students

Ryan Handy gave the group of about 20 middle school girls free reign to be as destructive as they wanted to be. Gathered around old computer towers at the Aurora Public Schools Professional Learning and Conference Center on Tuesday, the sixth-graders held screwdrivers and wrenches as they waited for his cue. Read more in the Aurora Sentinel.

Overland H.S. principal accused of plagiarism

AURORA – At first, there were the stories about the student newspaper being shut down over a story related to the death of a student wrestler when the season ended this winter.  Now, Overland High School Principal Leon Lundie is under the microscope yet again.

This time bloggers on the Huffington Post say Lundie, who is in his first year as principal at Overland High, plagiarized portions of his monthly Message to the Community. Check out Fox 31.

High school classes may be ‘advanced’ in name only

More students are taking ambitious courses. According to a recent Department of Education study, the percentage of high school graduates who signed up for rigorous-sounding classes nearly tripled over the past two decades. Read more in the New York Times.

Public comment sought on federal “Title” fund priorities

Each year, School District 6 receives federal funding for specific “Title” programs that assist with various needs. These programs include:

  • Title I – Reading and math support for schools serving large numbers of students who have significant socio-economic needs.
  • Title II – Support for hiring and retaining highly qualified staff.
  • Title III – English Language Acquisition.

District 6 is currently seeking recommendations from the community on how these programs can be best used to improve student achievement during the 2011-12 school year. Comments and recommendations should be sent to Kathi VanSoest, director of federal programs and grants, at 348-6260 or kvansoest@greeleyschools.org.

English fluency grows in St. Vrain Valley School District

LONGMONT – More English-language learners in the St. Vrain Valley School District are becoming fluent than ever before, according to assessment data from the Colorado Department of Education. Read more in the Longmont Times-Call.

Colorado could ditch more school tests

DENVER – Opponents of standardized tests for schoolchildren have a fresh weapon this year in Colorado — the high price tag of exams. Colorado lawmakers are expected to consider joining other states in dropping statewide testing requirements beyond those required by the federal government. Check out the story on 9NEWS.

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.