First Person

Fear And Self-Loathing In The Classroom

Earlier this month, my ninth-graders read the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Whenever I teach Shakespeare, I like to have my students do some acting. When I teach the balcony scene, I push the students to take this process very seriously. I look for enthusiastic volunteers who can read the lines with aplomb. This is, after all, one of the great scenes in world literature.

In case you’ve forgotten, teenagers are extraordinarily self-conscious. A few of them put their hands up right away, ready to stroll up to the front of the room and try on some Elizabethan English, but they’re a small minority. When I ask for readers, most students aren’t even thinking about Shakespeare’s language; they’re worrying about the pimple on their nose or their changing voice. So when I ask for volunteers, it’s never surprising that many students simply slump down in their chairs and try to hide.

I teach in Brooklyn now, but my hunch is that this response, this hiding, is universal. Some years ago, I taught at a private school in Ann Arbor, Mich.; my students there used to hide too. What are these kids hiding from? What are they so afraid of?

It’s clear to me that they are afraid of failure. In many cases, they’re absolutely convinced that they will fail. Day after day, dejected students tell me that they can’t do things. They can’t write a paragraph; they can’t draw a tree; they can’t multiply fractions. Very often, our job as teachers is simply to push students to engage in tasks that they already know how to complete. It might not sound like hard work, but many of our students are so demoralized, it’s a wonder they even get out of bed in the morning.

Here’s the thing: They’re not just being moody teenagers. These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year: our students hear the same message: that they are failures.

The 2010 film “Waiting for Superman,” which played like an informercial for charter schools, exemplified this message. It’s subtitle was “How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools,” and a widely aired preview made a point of telling the audience that American students lag far behind their international counterparts in every significant area but one — confidence. In other words, not only are our students failing, but they’re too dumb to realize it.

Granted, this little dig said more about the filmmaker’s attitudes than any educational reality, but these attitudes have been embraced and repeated for years. President Obama has said our students are failing; President Bush said they were failing. How many times do our students have to hear they’re no good before they start believing it? (Both presidents and pretty much every other prominent education reformer ignore the fact that when you control for poverty, our students are keeping pace with their international counterparts.)

Despite assertions to the contrary, academic overconfidence is not a big problem, at least not in the four schools I’ve worked in over the past 13 years. Fear and self-loathing most certainly are. I’ve counseled a weeping ninth-grader who couldn’t bear to be in the classroom because she felt like she wasn’t smart enough for high school. I’ve watched a student shake so violently that she could not complete the recitation of a 14-line poem. I’ve proctored a high-stakes trigonometry test where a student became physically ill because she was so terrified of failure. (She had to be excused which meant that she failed the exam.)

Which brings me to my next point: On top of all the nasty rhetoric about our students, our educational leadership has actually created a system designed to make our students fearful. I’m writing, specifically, about the fear induced by years of repetitive, stressful, high-stakes testing. In a system designed almost entirely around these tests, how could all but the few who excel on these tests feel good about themselves? The fearfulness we teachers encounter on a daily basis is a predictable consequence of this system, not some surprising side effect.

And this brings me to my final point: The fear is not only predictable, but is in fact desirable for a small number of people. Specifically, fear is very useful for the people who will employ our students, if those students are lucky enough to make it through high school. A frightened, malleable workforce, desperate for approval, is far more agreeable to some of these employers than a confident workforce that demands its worth be recognized.

Sound too conspiratorial? It’s exactly how our schools treat their workers. From allowing unreliable Teacher Data Reports to be published to leveling vicious anti-teacher rhetoric, the city and state have worked hard to create a climate of fear.

Earlier this month, the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher was published, and its findings suggested that fear is the dominant trend in American schools today. According to the survey, fear of all kinds — from teacher fears about job security to student fears about family finances — pervade American schools. In an excellent analysis of the survey, teacher Dan Brown writes, “Pessimism and worry are pervasive in American schools. Contending with elimination of services, suffocating poverty, more layoffs, larger classes, and an accountability regime at odds with genuine teaching and learning, America’s teachers are freaked out.”

This type of fear has no benefit for our students; it certainly has no benefit for our teachers. As long as a submissive workforce is a priority, we’ll all keep suffering in the classroom — and our Shakespeare performances will suffer too.

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.