First Person

Closing the Credibility Gap

I’ll admit it: When I hear the phrase “charter school miracle,” my antennae go up. It’s not that I think that charter schools can’t possibly be good schools, or that they cannot surpass traditional public schools in the measured achievements of their students. The evidence is pretty clear that there are many fine charter schools, just as there are many struggling charter schools.

No, it’s that I think miracles are exceedingly rare phenomena. And the current narrative about miracles in school reform relies heavily on a “great man” theory, replete with outsized personalities. Witness the contemporary stage, on the cusp of the release of Waiting for “Superman”: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, even — God help us — Bill Gates and Joel Klein being anointed as miracle-workers who, by dint of their commitments, hard work and personalities, are overcoming entrenched bureaucracies and transforming the life-chances of poor and minority children across America’s urban landscape.

It was against this backdrop that I read Caitlin Flanagan’s stirring op-ed that graced the gatefold of Sunday’s New York Daily News. Flanagan, a former prep-school teacher who now writes for The Atlantic and other publications, singles out Mike Piscal, who founded a charter management organization called the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) that now operates 15 elementary, middle and high schools in south Los Angeles. Flanagan and Piscal were colleagues, once upon a time, in the English department of the elite Harvard-Westlake School.

Flanagan’s argument goes something like this: the ICEF schools are extraordinarily high-performing; in fact, the elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap. But the educational bureaucracy is trying to close them down. These fine schools were unable to benefit from the Race to the Top funds they should have received because California’s RttT application was scuttled by a lack of teacher-union support. These teachers unions, therefore, deserve our scorn: they are single-handedly preventing inner-city children from succeeding.

The gaps in logic are breathtaking. It’s not at all obvious that ICEF charter schools would have gotten a cent if California’s RttT application had been funded. As is true of most RttT applications, California’s emphasized developing new standards and assessments, providing high-quality professional development to principals and teachers, expanding the state’s longitudinal data system and improving its lowest-performing public schools.

Basic operational support for existing schools was never the purpose of the competition. Moreover, California lost more points in the RttT judging for its failure to fully implement a longitudinal data system than for not securing the support of a broad group of stakeholders for its plan. (And teachers unions were not the only stakeholders who were lukewarm about the state’s application.)

But I was most intrigued by Flanagan’s claims about how the ICEF schools have closed the achievement gap. Time and time again, such claims have been shown to be exaggerated. We’d all like to believe the story of how great people, working hard, can overcome the powerful forces that structure inequality in American society. Can it be true?

Here’s what Flanagan wrote: “ICEF has done what we are always told is impossible. All five of its elementary schools have eliminated the achievement gap in reading for its African American students. Eliminated it. That fact alone should cause the Department of Education to send a team of researchers to ICEF this afternoon to keep them there until they learn what Mike’s doing.”

How much of this is true? Well, there are five ICEF elementary schools. Beyond that …

flanagan-fig-1I compared the average performance of students in these five schools on the 2010 statewide California Standards Tests (CST) with the average performance of white students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, expressing the gap as a fraction of a standard deviation. (I estimated the 2010 standard deviations as the average of the 2008 and 2009 standard deviations.) Figure 1 shows the data for English Language Arts for grades 2 through 5. Across the Los Angeles Unified School District, black students score about .85 to .90 standard deviations below white students, on average. A gap of this magnitude indicates that roughly 80 percent of all white students score above the typical black student.

If the achievement gap had been eliminated in the five elementary schools, then the columns expressing the gap should have no height – they’d be at zero. Clearly, that’s not the case. On average, students in ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the achievement gap in reading test performance, but that’s driven primarily by the performance of students at a single school, View Park Prep.

Second-graders at View Park Prep are outscoring the typical white student in Los Angeles, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. But if one wanted to cherry-pick results to make a point, it would be just as easy to point out that the fourth-grade students at Vista are performing 1.1 standard deviations below the typical white student in L.A. (More than 75 percent of the students at Vista are Hispanic or Latino; there aren’t even enough black students for the state to report their performance on the CST, which makes me wonder why Flanagan felt that she could say that “all five” of the ICEF elementary schools had eliminated the achievement gap in reading for African-American students.)

flanagan-fig-2The story is much the same in mathematics. Figure 2 reports the math achievement gaps for the five ICEF elementary schools. As is true in reading, the district-wide black-white achievement gap in mathematics is substantial – on the order of .9 standard deviations. The ICEF elementary schools have made some progress in closing the gap, and that’s commendable.

But no one looking at this figure would conclude that the ICEF elementary schools have come close to eliminating the achievement gap that separates the test scores of African-American and Latino children from white children in Los Angeles. Test scores are, to be sure, a very narrow representation of what children are learning in school, and I would never want to base a judgment about the quality of ICEF schools, or any other schools for that matter, solely on test scores. But Flanagan flew the achievement-gap flag, and her claims don’t hold up under scrutiny.

I like a good story as much as the next guy. But when it comes to swaying opinion on important matters of public policy, we should demand more. Perhaps Caitlin Flanagan has access to other data that provide more support for her claim that all five of the ICEF elementary schools have eliminated the black-white achievement gap in reading. But until she goes beyond a bald, unsupported assertion, she’s got a credibility gap.

This post also appeared on Eye on Education, Pallas’s column at The Hechinger Report.

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.