First Person

Wellness policies not working in rural Colo. schools

School district wellness policies have resulted in few substantive changes in the nutritional quality of meals served in rural lunchrooms, researchers have found.

Local Wellness Policies – required of all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program as a way to boost opportunities for physical activity and healthy eating – appear to have had very little impact on either, a recent study of Colorado schools shows.

The reason – the policies are often vaguely worded, use terms such as “are encouraged to” rather than “required” and, once written, tend to be stuffed in notebooks never to be seen again. School officials focus on those mandates for which they are held accountable – raising test scores – rather than on those for which results are neither measured nor rewarded.

And many view their choices as “either/or” instead of “both/and,” failing to see how concentrating on improving a school’s physical and nutritional environment will positively impact academic performance, researchers say.

“I was surprised,” said Elaine Belansky, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and associate director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center, who was the principal investigator for the study.

And not just surprised at the lack of results.

“I was surprised by how much pressure schools and superintendents are facing,” she said. “How the expectations keep piling on them with very few getting removed from their plate, and I’m surprised that the federal government makes unfunded mandates and puts schools in a position where they may not look good because they don’t have the resources attached to the mandate.”

Low-income rural schools were surveyed

The researchers surveyed principals and food service managers in 45 low-income rural Colorado elementary schools before and after the Local Wellness Policies were implemented in 2006. They found that very little had changed between 2005 and 2007.

While P.E. class time went up an extra 14 minutes per week, in accordance with wellness-policy language, recess time actually decreased by 19 minutes, for a net loss of 5 minutes of physical activity.

As one rural superintendent told researchers, “What we continue to hear is ‘No Child Left Behind.’ I haven’t heard ‘Don’t leave fat kids behind.’ It’s about keeping kids academically fit. That’s foremost on our minds.”

And some recommended nutritional changes – banning sales of sodas or junk food from vending machines, increasing the number of daily fresh vegetable options in the lunchroom, offering a salad bar – simply didn’t happen, despite wellness policy goals.

The study found that some things did improve. More schools prohibited offering sugary or fatty treats during classroom parties and they increased the average number of daily fresh fruit offerings at lunch. More schools began serving skinless poultry at lunch. But researchers concluded that these positive changes had nothing to do with the Local Wellness Policies.

“The reason they made those improvements was because of site visits from the Colorado Department of Education,” Belansky said. “The food service managers talked quite positively about those site visits, and they felt they had gotten great ideas from the department’s nutrition staff.”

The most recent study findings were reported in the November issues of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Earlier findings were reported last year in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

Officials go for “low-hanging fruit,” not meaningful change

Belansky lauded the schools for the improvements they did make, but bemoaned the fact that more substantive changes didn’t result.

“Having policies in place about the food that can be served in classroom parties is a good change, but it’s not the kind of change that gives you a big bang for the buck when addressing childhood obesity,” she said. “It doesn’t affect a child’s daily food consumption.”

Belansky concluded that rural schools need assistance from universities, from the state department of education and from other organizations to determine the best evidence-based practices and to focus on those changes that will yield the most results.

“We need to help schools who are so overwhelmed, who have so few resources, and really guide them in a process where they’re taking on not just the low-hanging fruit,” she said, “but doing things that will really address the childhood obesity epidemic.”

Weakly worded sample policy gets watered down

Unfortunately, she said, most rural school districts – when squeezed by federal demands that they devise a Local Wellness Policy – simply used a template supplied to them by the Colorado Association of School Boards. That template was already weakly worded.

“Then the districts took that template and made the wording even weaker,” she said. “So I wonder if we couldn’t work with CASB to start with a stronger template next time, knowing that schools will tone it down.”

Occasionally, however, the wellness policies became “living” documents rather than unheeded and unread policies. That happened only when a “champion” emerged to constantly remind school staff about the policy and ensure that it was followed.

CASB spokesman Brad Stauffer said the wellness policy template the organization supplied to school districts was intentionally weak, but that CASB expected local districts to have their own discussions about what policy language best meets their own needs and circumstances.

“When we use words like ‘encourage,’ it is intentional and appropriate,” he said. “School districts care about good nutrition for students and are working toward offering better choices. However, many of the nutritional strategies, such as serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, are costly and additional funding is not presently available.”

Geoff Gerk, superintendent of Fremont County school district RE3 – which serves 225 students in Cotopaxi – acknowledged using the CASB LWP template, tweaking it only slightly to reflect the fact that the district is on a four-day week. And in Cotopaxi, they don’t worry about kids loading up on sweets at a nearby convenience store. There aren’t any.

“I guess we’re paying more attention to (the policy) as time progresses,” said Gerk. “But it hasn’t changed a whole lot of what we were doing prior to having it.”

Gerk said nutrition in Cotopaxi schools is much better than it was five years ago, but that he nevertheless feels frustrated by trying to fulfill extra requirements without extra resources.

“I think every agency, every person involved in education has wonderful plans, wonderful ideas, and always the best interests of the students at heart. But when you get multiple agencies, legislators, more and more federal regulations all tied to the Title (federal grant) programs, it does seem like there’s a constant barrage of things we have to do. And when we get down to it, we have to ask ‘How does this affect the kids in the classroom?’”

Making clear the link between wellness, academic performance

Belansky said the questions Gerk raises are typical of those she heard voiced by rural educators across the state.

“One of the things I’m struck by is how many principals – and superintendents and board members too – don’t know about the very good studies that show the positive relationship between physical activity and academic achievement,” she said.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for reform leaders in Colorado to help them make that link. They say they took away recess because they were worried about how time away from classroom instruction would impact CSAP scores. But studies show that when you increase physical activity, it has no negative impact on tests such as CSAP.”

Belansky said that despite the disappointing findings, she doesn’t believe the creation of Local Wellness Policies was wasted effort.

“It started a conversation at high levels of school administration,” she said. “It gave voice to those champions in the school district who wanted to address nutrition and physical activity. It gave them a reason why school officials had to have a meeting with them about this. So it was a good first step.”

But she acknowledges that meaningful changes cost money. P.E. classes can’t be extended without money to pay for staff, and the quality of P.E. classes won’t improve without money to provide continuing education to the teachers. And schools can’t provide better meals with money to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Lessons for urban schools as well

This study focused on rural low-income districts, but Belansky believes many of its findings are applicable across the state. She said interviews with urban school principals also found widespread unfamiliarity with district wellness policy, and a lack of authority to control what happens in the lunchroom.

Quantity of P.E. is substantially lower in Denver than in rural districts, Belansky found, but the quality is much higher. “That’s because they have fabulous professional development in Denver, which they just don’t get in rural schools,” she said.

Belansky and her colleagues will continue to collect information about what’s going on in regards to nutrition and physical activity in Colorado schools, thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Their first goal was to understand the impact of the Local Wellness Policies. Now they’ll move on to the next: identifying the key school environments and policies that really do impact healthy eating and physical activity. She expects that work to consume most of 2011, and hopes to submit findings for publication toward the end of next year.

For more information

Read the study findings related to physical activity in this report, “Early Impact of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on Physical Activity in Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools in Colorado.”

Read an abstract of nutrition-related findings of the study, “Early Effects of the Federally Mandated Local Wellness Policy on School Nutrition Environments Appear Modest in Colorado’s Rural, Low-Income Elementary Schools.” Downloading the full article may require a subscription or a one-time fee.

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.