First Person

Teenagers And Teachers In The Front Office

One major problem behind the Teacher Data Reports and other forms of test-based teacher evaluations is that they put all of the onus of student performance on teachers.In reality, struggles in school are most often the result of domestic tumult or of any number of poverty-related woes — poor nutrition, unstable housing, or lack of family support. Trouble at home is trouble at home, and it will bring your grades down whether you’re living in the ghetto or the wealthy suburbs. But there’s another universal issue high schools must deal with that is mentioned even less often when education reformers talk about teacher evaluation: Adolescents.

Teenagers are freethinking citizens of the United States who are discovering their growing ability to argue, to think for themselves. If they are not given the opportunity to face the consequences of their own choices, these citizens will not grow up to be the responsible adults we need them to be. Unfortunately, sometimes the consequences include low scores.

I recently witnessed a scene in my school’s main office that reminded me how powerful and necessary it is for the adults in a young person’s life to put the burden of academic responsibility on his shoulders. This scene needs to be shared as badly as any TDR data, lest the notion of the teacher who doesn’t check in with parents — not to mention the stereotype of the parent who doesn’t check on his child — go unchallenged in our city.

As a public school, Kurt Hahn lacks the personnel and after-school hours (let alone the legal prerogative) to truly require anything from parents beyond an emergency contact card. Yet our parents know they are welcome in our doors at any time, and I’ve seen teachers repeatedly drop their prep materials to have the essential conversation with students and parents that puts everyone on the same page about academic progress. This is how I witnessed a student’s freshman year forever change — for better or for worse, of course, is still up to him.

The student — let’s call him Daquane Andrews — had come in with his mother to meet with his math teacher about his low grades in her class. Ms. Andrews repeatedly emphasized how difficult it was to take off work and get to East Flatbush. She was concerned that football practice was taking away from Dequane’s energy level and was becoming an excuse for him to not get his homework done. While she was waiting for his math teacher to arrive, the ninth-grade history teacher, Ms. Blain — who was typing a lesson at one of the office computers and didn’t notice Ms. Andrews — asked Daquane to explain his disruptive behavior in class the day before. The mother picked up on this and inquired for details. When Ms. Blain realized who Ms. Andrews was and that she and Daquane were in the office for an academic conference, she set her work aside and joined them in conversation. The arrival of the math teacher turned the conversation into a dialogue about the student’s general lack of focus and tendency to, as his mother put it, “play middle school games.”

Both teachers heartily refuted reports the boy had given his mother that he was never assigned homework. They supported her suspicion that the behaviors he was exhibiting now would lead not only to irritation from future teachers but failure to prepare adequately for his state exams and for college. The mother asked her son, in front of these teachers and the entire office, if they were going to need to reinstate the homework signature sheet she’d made for his teachers in middle school. She asked him how he could get up at 5 a.m. for football practice but not get his math homework done each night. She told him that if he doesn’t start bringing homework home from math and history every night, she’d make assignments for him herself. Her son listened silently, experiencing not just the gravity and humiliation of the situation but the concern of these three women all talking to him together in an open, familiar room. (Of course, if he’s a healthily egotistical teenager, he was probably too miserable at the idea of losing football to appreciate his luck.)

Which is why the final straw was the entrance of a burly man with a backpack swinging his way to the other side of the counter.  The boy’s eyes lit up momentarily, then went dark with mortified fear. “Oh,” the mother pounced immediately. “This must be your football coach.” She proceeded to repeat each of her threats so that the coach would hear them. Her son was officially caught in a stifling wraparound web that would make it quite difficult for him to double-cross these particular adults again. The attendance secretary, who acts as a surrogate grandmother for most students, sat in the corner cluck-clucking about how “these foolish kids don’t know how lucky they are.” She’s right.

I spoke to Ms. Blain later in the week about how striking that scene had been to me. She reported that, sadly, Dequane had still shown up without his homework the next day. Despite her fervor in the office, Ms. Andrews is not home in the afternoons and evenings to reinforce her orders. Daquane’s scores won’t improve just because his mother and teachers have breathed down his neck. They shouldn’t. He is becoming an adult, and perhaps he needs to experience the consequences of his own failure — the loss of opportunity, low scores on state exams, the surpassing performance of his classmates — in order to grow. It’s a teacher’s day (and night) job to teach, but it’s a student’s lifelong job to learn.

Don’t get me wrong—teachers should be evaluated on our progress and held to consistent and high standards. But when the core of our work is growing people who will also one day be held to professional standards, society can’t afford to rest a teacher’s career on student performance. We must find a way to convey the responsibility both teacher and student have in creating a successful education system. We need to harness parent energy in whatever form — at whatever time of day — we can get it. We need to fight the symptoms of poverty that distract so many of our bright young students from their schoolwork. And we need to address — head on and without fear of political finger-pointing — the healthy stubbornness of a confident young adolescent whose leadership and confidence we will need once his math, writing, and reasoning skills are strong enough to give voice to those qualities.

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.