First Person

Are We Failing Gym Or Is Gym Failing Us?

Travis Dove and Juliana Zaloom are students at CSI High School for International Studies. They reported and wrote this piece for their journalism class.

Physical education. The term conjures up images of running, basketball, volleyball, and stretching — and, for many students at CSI High School for International Studies, overcrowding, minimal curriculum, and disorganization. As CSI fills to the ceiling of its capacity, the question of what to do with gym class looms over everyone’s heads.

Originally, because classes lasted up to 55 minutes per day, the school offered gym at 1.35 credits for students (as well as all other classes). This allowed students to finish the required four credits in three semesters. However, after a Department of Education audit found this practice to be against regulations, gym was reduced to one credit per class. After two years, another audit revealed that gym is meant to be worth .58 credits and offered for a minimum of seven semesters. Because of this sudden change, some seniors’ graduation was in doubt, and zero block gym was created in September 2011. The class would be worth one credit to allow seniors to finish in time to graduate.

In addition to being offered to seniors behind in gym credits, some juniors behind in credits (due to taking extra music or art classes) were also placed in zero block. In some cases, students were scheduled for gym more than one period a day so they could make up missed credits.

After a semester of zero block and a period of gym, most seniors and some juniors caught up with the minimum number of credits required to be on track for graduation. But at the beginning of the second semester, these students were left in gym class because scheduling had not been completed. As the school has a 30-day grace period at the start of a semester to sort out any irregularities or incorrect schedules, the students were going to be taken out of zero block by the end of February, but by request this process was sped up.

Being taken out of the class one week into the semester angered some juniors, as they would now have to take gym for the rest of the year and all of next year instead of finishing this year.

“It got me mad that I never failed a class and CSI didn’t put me in what I needed. The least they could have done was keep me in the class so I could make up time they made me waste sophomore year in music class when I didn’t need it three semesters in a row,” said junior Yurany Salazar.

But the zero period block violated state rules. According to the New York State Education Department, unless student are deficient in credits, they may not double up or accelerate in gym to finish their four credits early, though they may use extra gym classes to earn elective credits. Since the juniors were caught up, if they were left in the class and another audit revealed this, they could have been taken out sometime during the semester or even have the gym credit removed from their transcript a year after they took the class.

CSI is also offering another special gym class, after-school freshmen gym on Wednesdays. This class was created to alleviate overcrowding in other gym classes (the maximum ratio for a gym class is 50 students to one certified teacher). The Wednesday class is 135 minutes long.

But the minimum amount of gym per week is 180 minutes, according to the New York City Department of Education. In addition, gym may only be scheduled daily, or three days per week in one semester and two in another. On top of this, gym may be substituted for extra class or out-of-school times, but only for grades 10-12.

What does this information tell us? According to the city, the freshmen gym class is in violation of the Chancellor’s Regulations about physical education. The State Education Department states that gym must be a minimum of 120 minutes weekly per semester, leaving the freshmen gym in the clear. But the state also requires gym for eight semesters instead of New York City’s seven, so in cases like this the city’s regulations might take precedence.

The physical education scheduling conflicts could be due to mistakes by school administration and faculty. Regrettably, Principal Joseph Canale, guidance counselor Marie Pastena, and gym teacher Carmela Pepe declined to comment for this story.

But the city Department of Education can also be blamed for its unclear handling of physical education. As it does not monitor schools’ physical education programs, some have not even been aware that there are requirements at all.

Organizing information about gym is just as difficult as regulating the class, as there are multiple differences between the state’s and the city’s requirements, like the minimum time required (120 vs. 180 minutes per week, and seven vs. eight semesters required).

“The 180-minute-per-week program is a special allowance for NYCDOE and allows students to earn all of their physical education credit in seven semesters as opposed to 8 which is the standard NYS graduation requirement,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the NYCDOE.

While the differences between the city’s and state’s websites make the entire process confusing for students and parents interested in learning about physical education requirements, the labyrinth-like sites make it difficult to locate even that information. The rule about double gym is in an FAQ not directly linked to on NYSED’s website; instead, it can only be found through a direct search for key words. If one doesn’t know what the answer is, he or she is unlikely to find it online. The same holds true for the minimum time requirements for the state, and the 180-minute requirement from the city is found in a document in the Department of School Wellness and not the section for physical education.

So perhaps the reason that CSI has a dizzying gym standard and schedule and that other schools are not even aware of gym requirements is that they are nearly impossible to find. If all information were compiled on a single page that could be found upon searching for gym requirements, New York State’s and City’s physical education regulations would be easily enforced. For the first time this year, the city compiled a 40-page guide collecting all of the disparate graduation requirements in all subjects, but even that is not sufficiently user-friendly for students and schools.

The final problem with physical education at CSI and in the city and state is the curriculum. In fact, what is the curriculum? The NYCDOE’s website,, does not have a curriculum; instead, it links to NYSED’s, which is actually a set of broad guidelines for gym, broken into three standards. The first standard is titled personal health and fitness, the second  is  a safe and healthy environment, and the last is resource management. In short, the state wants us to perform basic motor skills, have correct social behavior and be aware of unsafe conditions, and learn about gyms outside of school and possible careers in physical education.

Michael Morrissey, a communications associate in the city chancellor’s office, explained that the city endorses a “health-related fitness education curriculum” called Physical Best but that principals are responsible for choosing the physical education curricula for their schools.

Physical Best “focuses on aerobic activity, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and body composition,” Morrisy said. “This curriculum differs from ‘traditional’ physical education, in that, rather than learn sport skills without the context or rationale for participating in physical activity, Physical Best enables students to learn why activity is important, and how it benefits them today and for a lifetime.”

How do these standards translate into the sports we play, such as volleyball and basketball? When our teachers attempt to create organized lessons about bumping and shooting, they are usually drowned out by the sheer overpopulation of the relatively small gym and the rowdy middle school and high school that share our building. In fact, sometimes our classes are composed of students sitting in bleachers watching other schools play. The auxiliary gyms upstairs allow us to escape the noise that the divider doesn’t alleviate, but they mostly reduce any activities to simple exercises and stretching and sometimes watching movies, such as “Coach Carter,” that can contain some themes that are inappropriate for high school students.

There are ways to steer clear of conflicting gym schedules between schools; middle schoolers need only 90 minutes of gym per week and can take it for either two or three days a week in each semester. High schools also have the option of offering gym for two or three days a week, and the only difference would be that gym would be required for eight semesters instead of seven. The four schools in the Jerome Parker Campus could coordinate specific days and times for their physical education classes so on some days a class may have the entire gym to itself.

The city and state could also look to other districts in the country; Chicago requires only one year of physical education for graduation, and that can be substituted with health, ROTC, and even driver’s education. This would allow students more time to take classes that interest them or perhaps get their permit and learn to drive without having to attend after-school or weekend classes. Los Angeles requires two years of gym that can be substituted entirely with team sports, athletics, or dance, as well as one semester of health. Yes, New York is trying to cut the obesity rate among children. But is 45 minutes a day of minimal activity really helping the problem? Do we need almost four years of gym?

Whatever the excuse may be, physical education standards in the city and state are, in short, puzzling, and it should be a priority to create the best gym program possible to help both students and administrators in the future.

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.