First Person

Why I'm torn over Prop. 103

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I am a nerd about voting. I love elections. I am very passionate about engaging in what I believe is the most important civic duty we are expected to perform as Americans. I usually can’t wait to get my ballot in the mail (I like the convenience of the mail ballot system, but I do miss the old process of going to the polls), tear open the envelope, fill in the lines, and bring it to a polling place (I also always hand deliver my ballot; I don’t trust putting it in the mail).

It is election season again and this time, however, I am not as excited as usual. It’s not that there aren’t any interesting items on the ballot. There’s an important school board election in Denver, and I have the opportunity to vote for the at-large and District 5 seats. Denver also has an important question that directly impacts the competitive marketplace for businesses in the city. What I am not excited about is the state question, Proposition 103. It’s not that I don’t think it is a critical question on a crucial issue. I am not excited because I am honestly torn as to what answer I am going to choose.

As we all know by now, Proposition 103 is a citizen initiated ballot question that raises state income and sales taxes for five years with the additional revenues earmarked for K-12 and higher education. Coming from a household where all current and future wages come either directly or indirectly from public education, one would think that voting yes would be no-brainer. But while the question seems straight forward enough, the reality is that the question – and its meaning – is far from straight forward. And that’s why I can’t decide.

Proposition 103 comes at a time of a sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment in Colorado, coupled with significant and massive state-level cuts to education funding. Looking at the former, we are in a time when the vast majority of us are strained to make ends meet on a daily basis, and I am not sure that there is the stomach in the electorate to pass new taxes. I do have to interject here that coming from NY and DC, our overall tax rates in Colorado are laughingly low (and subsidized through outrageous fees), so an increase in taxes makes sense to me. But I don’t know if right now is the time for an across the board income and sales tax increase, especially when those taxes disproportionally impact Coloradoans that can least afford it.

Colorado’s inadequate support for K-12 and higher education

But this is an education blog, so let’s spend a little more time on the latter. Colorado does not adequately fund public education. The notion that public education has grown fat with funding since the mid-1970s with little to show in terms of results is a red herring. That may be somewhat true in the aggregate, but it doesn’t take fully into account the layers of mandates and requirements that have forced increased investments along with the fact that we actually assess the performance of every kid these days, as opposed to previously when huge numbers of kids slipped through the cracks.

Additionally, when you disaggregate to Colorado, we have not kept pace with national numbers and are way down on the list in terms of total funding. We have recently drastically defunded already extremely lean K-12 and postsecondary public education systems in Colorado over the past few years. In K-12, the last few years of cuts put us approximately $800 million under where we are “supposed” to be according to Amendment 23. And the impact on the ground of those cuts was brought home this week at the PEBC sponsored Superintendents Forum in Denver. It hurts to hear directly from metro area superintendents about what is being sacrificed due to the cuts, especially since I have two boys who will be in the public K-12 system in a few years.

I want to keep this post focused on K-12, but I would be remiss if I don’t mention higher education. As a former national higher education policy analyst, I am both appalled and embarrassed when I compare Colorado’s higher education funding to the rest of the nation. We’ve been lucky that Colorado is a great place to live and that we have been able to import large numbers of highly educated people (the so-called “Colorado Paradox”). I truly fear that our continual defunding of higher education in favor of placing the funding burden squarely on the backs of our kids and families will not only put a degree out of reach for many Coloradoans at a time when a postsecondary credential is essential, but will also drive or keep away many of our imports to states that hold a vibrant public postsecondary system in a higher regard.

So why not fully support Proposition 103? It provides a new revenue stream for education. But I have trouble fully supporting 103 because it is – and is being sold as – a mere five-year bandage to just “stop the bleeding”. There is no plan on how to use the new revenues that Proposition 103 would bring in, other than that it has to go to public education (statutorily, by the way, and statute can be amended). And I believe that the lack of a plan and long term thinking is a major deficiency.

Some like to say that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and I agree. Our current education funding crisis should be driving serious actions (I don’t say “conversations” because there are too many of those with no results) on addressing our fiscal house and funding systems.

Big challenges don’t lend themselves to small solutions

Our state is handcuffed by dueling constitutional provisions that ratchet down revenues and virtually prevent the intake of more revenue while at the same time requiring annual increases in revenue expenditures for education that we don’t have. All the while under the requirement that we pass – or at least appear to pass – an annual balanced budget.

Meanwhile, our education finance act has not seen a major restructuring since 1994; before standardized testing, charter schools, the SPF system, the growth model, CAP4K, teacher effectiveness, and a myriad other major reforms both enacted and being proposed. Combine that with the gradual, but steady, decrease in local share that puts more strain on state coffers.

And let’s not forget the impending judicial decision on a major school finance case that can potentially have major ramifications for the system. We also have extensive federal mandates and rules to contend with. Finally, this is all plays out under Article IX, Section 15 of the state constitution that requires “local control” of education – i.e. the convoluted provision co-opted by everyone at some time or another to justify individual agendas – that is arguably in direct conflict with Section 2 of the same article that calls for “the maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”

What we are left with is an education policy landscape full of overlapping and disjointed layers of laws and regulations and a funding system that is chock full of inequities and inefficiencies at both the state and local levels with competing groups playing the winners and losers game to protect their interests. Meanwhile, our system chugs along as it has for a century, and it’s our kids who stand to lose. What we should be doing during this time of financial crisis is reevaluating where we are, where we want to get to, and figuring out a better way to fund it. For me, this means a fundamental shift in the entire system and delivery of public education in Colorado that is capable of evolving to meet the needs of the kids it serves.

I highly recommend a little-celebrated recent book from Rick Hess, “Education Unbound”, that talks about the promise and practice of “greenfield schooling” as a place to start that conversation. A reformation of the system is possible, if we are willing to get serious about it.

I am not naive. Scrapping the current system for something new and all-encompassing that focuses on individual students and not districts or even schools takes incredible political will and seems next to impossible in our current environment. But it is what we must do. Instead, we are offered a Band-Aid when this patient needs major reconstructive surgery. We are asked to kick the can down the road five more years when a large number of our current crop of state and local policymakers are term limited for a new group of policymakers to grapple with. And that is a shame.

So I am torn. It feels like a cop-out to support a revenue increase without a plan to get smarter about our public education system in Colorado. I will likely vote in favor, however, mostly as a statement that we as a state have be able to raise more revenue and fund our current and future system better. But I am not happy about it.

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.