First Person

The Buck Stops Elsewhere

I grew up in Long Island, and I’ll never forget the construction of a local park, named for a spectacularly corrupt local politician. For years, we rode our bicycles past the park, watched piles of dirt move from one side to the other, and nothing of consequence happened. As long as they kept shuffling back and forth, it gave the appearance of progress. When I hear talk of “reform” from Tweed, I always think of those ever-shifting dirt piles.

For example, snow is falling, and that can only mean it’s school-closing time again in New York City. According to Tweed, these schools are failing and must be replaced ASAP. It’s not their fault the schools are failing, because nothing is their fault, and anyway, it’s not their job to fix schools.  What is their job? Nobody really knows. And anyway, why should they bother fixing schools when they can simply rename them, fill them with different kids, and pretend the old ones never existed?

If schools they started specifically to replace closed schools don’t pass muster, that’s not their fault either. The folks at Tweed are ready and willing to close the schools they opened, and take no responsibility whatsoever. The important thing is they’re going to open even newer ones, and whether they end up closing is not their problem. It isn’t Tweed’s fault, it isn’t Chancellor Klein’s fault and it isn’t Mayor Bloomberg’s fault either. Here in New York City, that’s called “accountability.”

Chancellor Klein defends his decision to close Queens schools, saying there will be new ones. Yet even if you rely on a highly enthusiastic article about new Queens construction, you can only conclude the city’s plans are woefully inadequate. For example, it mentions a $71-million project that will provide 150 seats. But it’s clearly not going to make the slightest dent in the 33,000 seats needed for Queens high schools.

This same article suggests another $181 million will be spent, but gives no clue as to how many seats it will buy. Given the apparent cost per pupil, it’s highly doubtful Queens will see more than 500 seats total. There’s also a Catholic school in there bound for conversion, but I’m going to wildly speculate it will accommodate far fewer than the 32,000-plus we’re looking for. And here’s the kicker — not all the newly planned seats are for high schools anyway.

Tweed lucks out when articles don’t mention how many seats will be created, let alone how many are needed. It’s unlikely readers who rely on such reporting will have any idea how much the already unconscionable overcrowding will remain unaddressed.

In fact, it’s entirely possible, under the new plans, that overcrowding will be exacerbated. For example, Chancellor Klein plans to close Jamaica High School. Yet he doesn’t plan to devote the building entirely to high school students, opting to admit kids as young as sixth grade. Thus, there will be actually be fewer high school seats in a high school building under his proposed scenario.

Those of us who work with teenagers are acutely aware when change is needed. For example, if Tommy Hilfiger is deemed not as cool as Abercrombie and Fitch, your t-shirt needs to be replaced immediately. Teenagers need change, and passing trends must be respected. As the parent of a teenager, in charge of buying whatever new cool thing has suddenly become absolutely necessary, I understand exactly how this works. The DOE, though, not only buys into teenage-style trends, but seems willing to replace the t-shirt with a pair of socks, thereby making things even worse.

The main problem for which Tweed bears no responsibility is its chronic and utter unwillingness to repair, let alone acknowledge, what may be broken. On December 16, like a mantra, the DOE’s Debra Kurshan repeated that funding follows kids, that what schools they attended wouldn’t affect that, and that all kids got exactly the same resources in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. You’d think that it made no difference whatsoever where kids went to school, and wonder why, therefore, any school anywhere would be closed for any reason. Nonetheless, they were closing this one. That Jamaica would be a neighborhood without a neighborhood school was of no consequence whatsoever, nor did it merit lip service from Ms. Kurshan.

Despite the claims about equal funding, speaker after speaker got up and compared the conditions in Jamaica to those at Queens Collegiate, the small school located in the same building. Why do they, with 163 students, have 20 Smartboards, while Jamaica, with 10 times that number, has only two? Why does Jamaica pay 25% more for teachers? Why haven’t Jamaica kids got regular teachers three months into the school year?

The big question, of course, repeated in various manifestations was this: Why couldn’t they fix Jamaica instead of closing it? Ms. Kurshan stated studies showed closing schools was more effective than fixing them, but didn’t bother to cite any sources. This indicated clearly, though, that they hadn’t bothered sending a team of experts to try improving the 116-year-old landmark school. Have they even got a team of experts capable of doing so?

Rather than fix struggling schools, what the DOE actually does is shoehorn small schools or charter schools into every available space. In the case of Queens Collegiate, they managed to prove the Jamaica building was not as scary or dangerous as people thought, and that with proper attention and resources, kids would come. Queens Collegiate is publicly touted as “developed in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.” Is there anyone who actually believes that doesn’t entail funding above and beyond that which Jamaica receives? Don’t hold your breath waiting for Tweed to extend that experiment to neighborhood schools.

In the case of my school, Francis Lewis, they saw we did well, so they shoveled hundreds of additional kids in year after year. Though we tried many, many things to alleviate the overcrowding, the only response from Tweed, for years, was to continue filling every available space with every available kid. If we faltered as a result, does anyone believe they’d have hesitated one moment before closing us too?

Really, why should they? Doing so might mean they’d have to foot the bill for real improvements, like decent conditions or reasonable class sizes. It’s far easier to shuffle and hide problems, like so many piles of dirt, loudly scapegoat teachers and unions, and hope nobody notices.

So far, it’s worked like a charm.

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

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.