First Person

Why I Joined Educators 4 Excellence

This post is long overdue, and I want to apologize for that, or any appearance that I was hiding my involvement with Educators 4 Excellence. The truth is, I work with E4E because I believe in what the group is doing. And I don’t believe what I believe just because I work with E4E.

Until recently, I didn’t know anything about E4E. I had read GothamSchools’ profile last April and joined their Facebook group, but that was the extent of my “membership.” Right after my (heavily edited) column on teacher data reports appeared in the New York Post, several commenters mentioned E4E, assuming I had some deeper affiliation. I didn’t, but ironically, these comments stoked my curiosity in the organization.

A week or so later, I attended an education policy panel featuring Diane Ravitch, then-Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky and … Education 4 Excellence’s co-founder Evan Stone. When the panel was over, I introduced myself to Evan and E4E’s outreach coordinator, Ryan Black. Soon after I sat down with Ryan, Evan and E4E’s cofounder, Sydney Morris, to talk about how I could be a part of the group.

But I realize how I got involved with E4E is much less important than why I got involved. The truth is since I started teaching, I have looked for ways to connect with other teachers who were not only passionate about our work as educators, but viewed it as part of a broader fight for social justice.

My closest peers in teaching were those who shared my passion for education and my belief that our work was inextricable from the larger conversation developing on education reform. We constantly shared challenges in our classrooms and our school, and we often discussed how that work was affected by local and federal policies. We also talked about how we might do things differently, or what we might say if we ever had the chance to talk to Chancellor Klein or Mayor Bloomberg.

At its core, this is what E4E represents. It is a group of teachers who believe in the importance of their work, who believe that education can and must be better, and believe that they have an important voice to lend to the discussion of how to make this change occur. If you read E4E’s declaration of principles there are definitely points that would draw fire from some teachers. E4E is not meant to represent all teachers, but the principles are generally intended to invite as broad a spectrum of educators as possible.

There is a lot of room for discussion within those principles. How to create a “holistic and equitable system” for evaluating teachers is a debate I’m a part of as a member of E4E’s Teacher Evaluation Policy Team. Over the past month and a half that the team has worked on developing an evaluation system, there has been plenty of disagreement. This has only made our work stronger. However within this diverse group of 16 educators, there’s a unity of opinion that the current evaluation system is inadequate, and a better one must be created.

If you believe that the current satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating system is best for teachers and values their work, you will probably disagree with E4E’s platform. If you believe that “last in, first out” hiring rules make the best policy for teachers and students, that three years of service is a reasonable amount of time to earn tenure, or that the current pay structure is fair, you’ll disagree with E4E’s platform.

You’re free to disagree with these points, or any others included in the E4E declaration of principles. But to discount E4E’s members as puppets, or to base arguments on vitriol instead of facts, does a disservice to our profession. The more teachers that take an active role in the education debate, the better, because whatever our differences, we all share a common commitment to our 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. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.