First Person

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

This is the latest entry in How We Got Here, a series where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see all of the stories here.

Unlike many of the other mothers I know, I’m not wringing my hands too much about where I send my children to school.

Now that our children are approaching kindergarten, women I’ve known for a long time are growing anxious. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, but our choices are limited by our finances and sometimes by school districts. Some of us also have concern for social and racial justice and how that is reflected in our schools, and want to make choices for our own children that contribute to a more just school system.

I’m an anxious person by nature, but as a teacher in the public schools in Nashville as well as a parent, I’m not nervous about where my children end up.

My surprisingly chill perspective comes mostly from a recognition of my privilege. My kids are little white boys with two married, employed, home-owning, college-educated parents. They have so much privilege. Every statistic there is says they will be just fine, no matter where they go to school. My students have very few of these advantages, and I see every day that they are people with intelligence, integrity, humor, and optimism. Accepting my students for who they are helps me to accept that my children will be OK, even if they don’t get every single advantage I had.

In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb. Actually, growing up in a less homogeneous community than I did will give them an important set of skills and dispositions that will help them in an increasingly diverse world. I hope they’ll grow up in a country where their privileges — their skin color and their parents’ status — matter less and less, while their skills and work ethic matter more and more.

Given all that, our plan is to enroll our kids in the neighborhood public schools — starting with pre-kindergarten this month for our older son. Our kids are 4 and 1, schools can change quickly, and I can’t predict the future, so I’m not promising now that my kids will eventually graduate from their zoned public schools. But I am saying that this will be our first choice, one we will only deviate from for very compelling reasons. Too many other families in Nashville and beyond don’t even give public schools this much of a chance, scared by reputation and rumors into opting for private, charter, and magnet schools before investigating the neighborhood public schools for themselves.

Sometimes during these conversations among parents, even after I say something about how my privileged kids will be OK and how diversity is good, the other moms continue their hand-wringing. Why? Sometimes it’s because their children have challenges mine do not; because they have less privilege than I do; or because they are afraid that even the privilege they have will not be enough to position their children favorably in a rapidly changing world.

These fears are understandable. But sadly, I’m also afraid that some of their anxiety is because of implicit bias that these good-hearted women don’t want to recognize within themselves. This is what’s usually buried under the surface of talk about “good schools”: so often, white parents define “good schools” as schools full of white kids.

My personal rule of thumb when assessing schools is inspired by This American Life’s 2016 episode “The Problem We All Live With,” which explored the troubling history of school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in communities like mine. When I evaluate schools for my kids, I look for them to be truly integrated — to have at least 25 percent students of color and at least 25 percent white students. In the episode, a quarter of the population seemed to be the threshold where minority students were no longer tokens, and where white parents were numerous enough to fight for the school to get the needed resources from higher up (because, sadly, school boards and districts often disregard the concerns of parents of color, while paying attention to their white constituents).

In diverse counties like mine, this 25 percent rule makes a pretty low threshold, a goal that should not be incredibly difficult to achieve. Studies show that students of color see their test scores improve in integrated classrooms, while white students fare no differently. In many ways, integration would be one of the easiest strategies for “closing the achievement gap.”

Liberal parents sometimes struggle when it feels like they have to choose between what’s best for their own kids in the short term and what’s best for the system as a whole in the long run. But I like the point that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the black journalist behind the This American Life episode, has made when discussing her own choice for her daughter’s schooling: Her child is no better or more deserving than any other child, so it’s wrong to say that a school isn’t good enough for her child, but fine for other kids. In a way, insisting on one’s own children’s right to attend “better” schools is a selfish choice if it results in the deterioration of schools that other, less fortunate children depend on. New York City teacher Jose Luis Vilson wrote a similar essay about his own family’s choices. My particular situation isn’t the same as these writers’, but I found their stories compelling and persuasive.

I wish our school system in Nashville didn’t have big pockets of de facto segregation — that might be my top wish as both a parent and a teacher, surpassing even my desire for higher teacher pay and better family policies. There are schools in our district that are over 90 percent African American that gain a reputation for being “bad schools,” even “dropout factories,” while the expensive private school down the road (not coincidentally founded soon after enforcement of Brown v. Board, the landmark school desegregation case) is over 90 percent white and has “Blue Ribbon” status.

Recently, most debates about school segregation in Nashville have been just a small part of a larger debate on charter schools, a topic that has dominated school board politics. One argument against the schools is that they intensify segregation in the district as a whole by targeting narrow populations; their defenders respond by pointing out that the racial makeup of charter schools is not significantly different from that of the other nearby zoned schools.

Meticulous number-crunching is necessary to try to adjudicate that debate. Personally, I think that whole argument is more pertinent to magnet schools, which screen students based on their skills, than to charter schools, and magnet schools certainly are not going anywhere. But the effect of any school or type of school on the district’s racial makeup seems a moot point when the fact is that the system as a whole is deeply segregated, and most individual schools reflect that.

This situation is only poised to get worse as our rapidly gentrifying city adds more expensive housing developments, potentially deepening the residential segregation that already exists (and has deep historical roots). I’m afraid that left to its own devices, the free market will intensify residential segregation and displace many longtime residents, especially people of color and the poor, with a side effect of intensifying segregation in schools. Mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods are so crucial because they make desegregated schools happen more conveniently, organically, and peacefully, without tortured debates or elaborate busing plans.

The education activist groups I’m in haven’t been talking much about desegregation and busing, though I know they care deeply about racial justice. I know and trust these people, and I feel confident that the reason this issue hasn’t come up is that we are fighting a war on multiple fronts. We’re teachers trying to protect our jobs, we’re working to elect a school board that hasn’t been bought and paid for by out-of-state special interests, we’re trying to keep charter schools from taking students away, and we’re fighting to keep standardized testing from taking over every minute of every school day. Also, I know I’m a relative newcomer to town (I moved here in 2008), and there may be a fraught history here that I’m unaware of. Desegregation is politically tricky, and it’s something we haven’t fought for. But I would love to see that change.

Mary Jo Cramb is a teacher and parent in Nashville. A version of this piece first appeared on the Nashville education blog Dad Gone Wild.

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 [email protected]

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.