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Take 5: Elected board controversy, more on testing and learning time

January 26, 2015 - 10:10am

One of the most divisive issues that came up at Saturday’s mayoral forum was the elected school board proposal. Voters in 37 wards will get the chance to vote on a non-binding resolution asking whether they want an elected school board instead of a mayoral-appointed board. (Here’s a quick take on the history behind the current selection process.)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is against the measure, suggested that it’s a moot point given that new Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t in favor of the idea, while a bill to change how  board members are chosen hasn’t gained much traction in the Legislature. “I don't think we should actually convince (or) trick people by having a political campaign issue as a way to fixing our schools,” Emanuel said, according to a Tribune story.

The mayor’s challengers all support an elected board. During the forum in the Loop, hosted by the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said an elected school board would bring needed accountability, while Ald. Bob Fioretti said conflict-of-interest issues were “running amok” within the current board. "We all ought to be embarrassed by what we see at CPS at this point,” the alderman said.

2. Major caveats on closing success: Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell resigned his $180,000 position, effective Friday, in order to become the state’s Central Management Services director, according to the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. A former Marine colonel, Tyrrell was hired in spring of 2012 to oversee the closing of 50-some elementary schools--the largest mass closure of schools ever. His job was not only to move the children, but to also move massive amounts of furniture and to try to sell off the buildings.  

District officials have declared success. However, only one-third of students enrolled in the new schools designated for them, far less than the 80 percent Tyrell predicted. Also, the district wound up spending $30 million to move materials from the schools and secure the buildings, three times the $8.9 million initial contract. Only one shuttered school building has been sold.

3. Social media law: CPS won’t compel students to give officials their passwords to Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram and any other social media platform, according to an article in DNAinfo. A new state law gives school districts the right to design their own cyber-bullying policies, which could include allowing school administrators to force students to provide their passwords. CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said that CPS’ policy calls on staff to monitor public items on social media, but not to try to access private pages. The district’s policy, she said, takes bullying of any type seriously.

But a downstate Belleville school district already used the new law and forced some students to give up passwords, which has led to numerous inquiries to the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois chapter spokesman Edwin Yohnka told DNAinfo. Yohnka said the ACLU is troubled by the new law and believes compelling students to give up their passwords crosses the line. In fact, Yohnka said that the ACLU is against any policy that give schools power to punish students for activity outside of school and would rather see that left to parents.

4. Testing, testing: The use--or overuse, in critic’s eyes--of standardized tests has become arguably the biggest controversy in education these days. Testing is one thing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refuses to budge on, despite a growing national backlash: Annual standardized tests should remain mandatory under any rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz breaks down why many teachers feel testing has distorted the learning process and what states and schools could do instead to assess learning. Kamenetz is the author of a recent book “The Test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing--but you don’t have to be.”

5. More on learning time:  Children in high-poverty public schools don’t have access to the extra learning time that students in wealthier schools routinely take advantage of. The latest issue of Voices in Urban Education from The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tackles learning time from this perspective of equity.

A national cross-section of authors write about using learning time in new ways in schools in poor neighborhoods. Among the programs noted are the TIME Collaborative of the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation, through which 39 schools are each adding 300 hours of time to the school year for all students (the equivalent of 50 days for a 6-hour school day).

The authors of one article make a critical point: Children in poor neighborhoods often experience considerable stress in their family life--unstable housing, lack of medical and dental care, community violence and so on--that impacts learning time by making it more likely they will miss class and more difficult for them to concentrate on academics.

In Illinois, education officials have asked for an additional $5 million in fiscal year 2016 for extended learning time activities. This year, the Illinois State Board of Education received 141 applications for learning time grants but only had money for 51 projects. The additional funds would allow ISBE to serve approximately 50 more sites--though sadly, given the state’s fiscal problems, the funds aren’t likely to materialize. Typically these programs are funded with federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers monies; last December programs in Chicago got about half of the state’s share of some $34 million in these federal funds.

The Center on Education Policy also came out with a report on expanded learning time last week.

Comings & Goings: Foley, Hilsabeck, DeClemente, Shah, Papineau

January 23, 2015 - 3:08pm

Karen G. Foley has been appointed president and CEO of Juvenile Protective Association. JPA, founded in 1901 by Jane Addams, works with and on behalf of children and families in some of Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods. Prior to joining JPA, Karen served as president and CEO for The Hope Institute, president of Chicago Scholars, and executive vice president and head of global marketing at CNA.

Alison Hilsabeck has been named provost of National Louis University with responsibility for the National College of Education and the college of professional studies and advancement, as well as all departments that support students’ academic, professional and personal goals. She previously served at NLU’s college of education as associate dean, dean, and executive dean, and was vice provost for academic programs.

CPS has created four manager positions for the Office of Student Health and Wellness. Tarrah DeClemente is the new manager of student wellness, Sujata Shah will serve as manager of student health, and Kenneth Papineau will be the manager of vision and screening. The manager of PE and health education position is yet to be filled.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones: vjones@catalyst-chicago.org

After closings, 1 in 5 children land at top-rated schools: report

January 22, 2015 - 12:36pm

More than 90 percent of students displaced by the mass school closings in 2013 went to higher-rated schools, but less than one-fifth went to the top-rated schools, according to a Consortium on Chicago School Research report released today.

The distinction between the two categories--better performing and top performing--is important. The Consortium’s much-cited 2009 study on past school closings found that only those students who landed at top schools after a closing experienced substantial academic improvement. Students who went to schools that were only somewhat better didn't improve much academically.

The new study is the first major report on the historic closings of some 50 schools, an action that displaced more than 11,000 students. The authors call the fact that few students went to top-performing schools "problematic." However, Consortium researcher Marisa de la Torre said that nothing will really be known about how the closings affected the performance of individual students until future studies are done.

CPS officials promised that schools designated to take in displaced children would be better than those that were shuttered. However, as has been reported, some of the designated schools were only marginally better, and many of the children went to other schools: Only one-third of students actually enrolled in their welcoming school.

The researchers judged schools based on their ratings under a district system that uses multiple factors, including attendance and test score improvement. The year after the closings, some of the schools saw a significant drop in their district ratings and performance on standardized tests.

For the 2009 study, however, researchers judged schools based only on test scores. De la Torre said that researchers decided to use the district ratings for the new study because that is the system CPS uses.

The new report found that if all students had gone to their designated welcoming school, more children—27 percent compared to 20 percent--would have landed at top schools and fewer at the worst schools. Surprisingly, children assigned to low-rated welcoming schools were more likely to attend them, compared to children assigned to highly-rated schools.

To determine why, the Consortium interviewed parents from closed schools about their priorities when choosing a new school. “What we found is that all parents really want the same thing,” said researcher Molly Gordon.

The answer researchers got echoed what parents said repeatedly at the public hearings on the closings: The No. 1 factor in school choice was proximity.

West Side activist Dwayne Truss said that the decisions involve matters beyond just convenience. He noted that in North Lawndale, in particular, many of the welcoming schools didn’t make sense for parents because they were far away or in areas that parents considered different neighborhoods.

Safety was also found to be a consideration. Parents did consider the quality of the school, but researchers found that parents' definition differed from the district's. For example, the parents looked for small class sizes, good communication and things like after-school programs.

The study will be discussed at an event Thursday evening at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.  The event will include a screening of a documentary on the closings.

Take 5: LEARN charter opposed, displaced students, NYC centralizing power

January 22, 2015 - 7:22am

More than a thousand people have signed a petition to keep a LEARN Charter School branch from opening in south suburban Chicago Heights, where the network has proposed to open a K-8 elementary school this September. It would be LEARN’s ninth campus, and its second suburban location. The Chicago-based network first expanded to North Chicago, a low-income suburb of Waukegan, in 2012.

“Until charter schools have a proven track record of being successful, I am not willing to support them,” commented one petitioner. LEARN’s website does boast higher ISAT scores than its peers. As you will remember, LEARN is the charter network that started in North Lawndale and, in 2010, won $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. The network is hoping for a victory after its bid to open a school in Waukegan was rejected earlier this month.

Opening in Chicago Heights would contribute to a national and statewide trend of charters expanding into suburban areas. Today Illinois is home to 148 charter schools, but the vast majority, 134, are in Chicago.

2. Speaking of charters.... An op-ed in Forbes magazine written by an economist for Moody Analytics argues that the prevalent narrative about charter schools is wrong. Adam Ozimek correctly says that most people summarize the studies on charter schools by saying that they are no better and no worse than nearby schools. Instead, he says the conventional wisdom should be that “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students.” Ozimek cites the 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study that says: “Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts. This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty.”

The debate isn't likely to die, however. Charter school critics question whether there are other factors that separate poor black students at charter schools from those in traditional schools, such as family involvement and ability to get them into the charter school. Further, they point out that many charter schools have highly disciplined environments that often push students out and perhaps leave those who are better performing.

3. More on displaced students… The Consortium on Chicago School Research’s big study on students displaced by last year's closings doesn’t say much that has not already been said about closings. Still, the study is a major deal because Mayor Emanuel is defending the closings as he runs to keep his job. Also, the decision is a defining part of his legacy and Chicago’s history. The Chicago Tribune dealt with it through an editorial. They note that as they interview aldermanic candidates for potential endorsements, many of them are still angry about the closings, something the editorial says is understandable. But according to their assessment, the study shows the results were mixed if not good. The best thing, according to the Tribune, is that one-fifth of students made it to top-rated schools--a "glass half-full" view. Yet they note one of the biggest problems pointed out by the study: Parents did not feel like they had enough time to do research and find the best school for their children.

Though the story is more nuanced, the Sun Times headline is a coup for Emanuel: “Most CPS students whose schools closed switched to better schools: report." In it, Todd Babbitz, one of the architects of the closings, said the findings were affirming “that we succeeded in sending the vast, vast majority of those students to schools that were more highly rated.”

Declaring success or failure based just on this study is premature, though. The Consortium has not had a chance to study how students fared once they got to their new schools. One early indication of problems is that six welcoming schools would have had their ratings plummet had CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not used her authority to grant them higher ratings. One of them, Leland in Austin, would have gone from a top-rated schools to one of the lowest-rated in the district.

4. Retaking power in NYC… New York City Chancellor Carmen Farina is getting ready to re-establish the power of the central office, according to a New York Times story. By doing so, she will be reversing moves made by former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sought to give principals more freedom and make the central office more of a service center for schools. According to the article, studies on Klein’s network system showed that it cut spending in central office by 22 percent, but also that some networks were less effective than others.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio and Farina say they believe this system left the struggling schools with too little supervision. Also, because all schools were doing their own thing, it was hard to get a quick answer to questions about schools.

Of course, under Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett, CPS’ power structure is fashioned more like Klein’s and Bloomberg’s. However, Chicago principals complain that they have little autonomy. As the New York Times article describes, New York, like other big urban school districts, has tried many structures as the pendulum of power swings from being centralized to being nested in the schools.

5. Student privacy concerns … Apart from remarking on improved high school graduation rates and test scores, President Barack Obama largely stayed away from issues related to K-12 education during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He did, however, reiterate an earlier call for legislation to protect students’ online information in order to ensure it’s not sold to schools or used for targeted ads. The issue has been gaining importance as school districts across the country -- including Chicago -- increasingly turn to online learning tools to supplement classroom learning.

In a story about how local parents and educators are dealing with student privacy concerns, the Chicago Tribune explains that because some of these tools require “teachers or students to enter all sorts of data — from names to grades to personality traits — thus raising questions that educators had not faced before: Will information a teacher or child shares stay available in cyberspace with the potential to be brought up years later by college admissions officers or employers?”

Education Week wrote about other educational issues touched on by the president, including  his proposals for free community college and tripling an existing $1,000 per child care tax credit for working families -- and the reaction from key lawmakers. Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, “noted the lack of attention to ‘fixing No Child Left Behind’ in the speech, and said that most of the education proposals had no chance of becoming law.”

 




State board wants $730 million more for education, tackles CPS testing

January 21, 2015 - 6:10pm

Illinois State Board of Education officials expressed annoyance on Wednesday with the Chicago Public Schools decision to administer the state’s controversial new standardized test at just a small group of schools -- but didn’t offer any solutions for getting the district to comply.

During their first meeting of the year, board members also voted to send legislators their fiscal year 2016 budget recommendations that include a $730 million increase in general fund appropriations.

The 20-minute discussion about last week’s news that CPS will only administer the PARCC exam--the new test aligned to the Common Core Standards and developed by a group of some 40 states -- to just 10 percent of schools, ended with no definitive conclusions. Instead, newly appointed chairman James Meeks said he and other ISBE leaders planned to “work vigorously with Chicago people to absolutely figure out what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen.”

If no agreement with CPS has been reached by Feb. 11, the date of the next ISBE meeting, “then we have to make a decision as it relates to how we will respond to their response,” Meek said. “For sure, we’re not going to wait until we find out what’s going to happen. We’ll be the aggressors. We’ll go to meetings. We’ll sit with them and try to get it all worked out.”

ISBE wants to reach some definitive conclusion about the matter before March, when districts are supposed to begin administering the first round of the exam. Parents and activists had been lobbying against the PARCC and echoing a growing backlash against the exam in other states.

State schools Supt. Christopher Koch said Illinois faces potentially huge consequences for Chicago’s actions  – “ranging from something as light as a stern letter to something as egregious as losing all of our funds.”

“It would immediately put us out of compliance as a state, given that we’re required to have 95 percent participation,” he said. “It’s the state the federal government would sanction in the event  thresholds are not met.” Without full participation by Chicago, Illinois has no way to meet the federal mandate.

But Koch also warned that Chicago could be penalized for defying the state mandates – and even lose its recognized status as a school district, although ISBE has only taken this action once in its history.

In addition to the potential loss of federal dollars, ISBE officials said the state can’t recoup the money it’s already spent to administer the assessment at all schools. “If they’re not used we still have to pay for,” Koch said. “The district not using them is costing us more money.”

It’s unclear how much that will cost the state, although Koch mentioned a $1 per test fee.

$7.5 billion budget a “smart investment”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first presided over by Meeks, a former state senator and pastor from Chicago who was recently appointed to the job by Gov. Bruce Rauner. He replaces Gery Chico.

Meeks and other board members voted to approve Koch’s recommended 2016 budget, which asks the Legislature to appropriate $7.5 billion in general fund dollars toward education. That would be a nearly 11-percent increase when compared to the current fiscal year.

Education promises to be a key but contentious issue in the coming months as Rauner and the Legislature wrangle over how to solve the state’s predicted multibillion deficit.

Rauner has said he wants to spend more money on public education, although he has not yet laid out plans for how to do so. Meanwhile, state legislators are updating a proposal from last year to overhaul how the state calculates education funding. That plan, sponsored by State Sen. Andy Manaar, a Democrat, passed in the state Senate but not in the House.

Manaar told The Associated Press this week that one major change in the new proposed funding formula would be to account for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher.

ISBE officials said they recognized the financial challenges ahead for Rauner and legislators but called education the smartest investment the state could make for its economic future.

“Most of these districts have already made significant staff and programming cuts as local revenue sources shrink,” said the board’s finance committee chairman Jim Baumann in a statement. “Providing the financial support obligated by state law is the very least we can do to help ease the burden and prevent further reductions from hindering the important work taking place in classrooms to prepare our students for college and careers.”

Under their proposal, ISBE officials want the bulk of the extra money to go toward fully funding the so-called “foundation level,” the per-pupil funding that the state should provide for a basic education. The foundation level is now $6,119 per student. In recent years, Illinois has only funded 89 percent of the foundation level.

Other proposed increases include $50 million for early childhood education, which state officials already promised the federal government in order to get a four-year, $80 million grant to expand preschool; about $49 million to restore transportation funding for regular and vocational programs to previous levels; and $5 million to give high schools the option of administering two different versions of the PARCC.

Take 5: Aldermanic endorsements, extended learning time, GED pass rates

January 20, 2015 - 10:30am

The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to endorse another batch of aldermanic candidates at last week’s meeting -- but not without a little bit of soul-searching first. Union officials have kept mum about what exactly happened -- as George Schmidt wrote last week in Substance News -- but a number of delegates gave Catalyst Chicago the rundown.

Delegates voted down one candidate who had been recommended by the union’s political action and legislative committee -- Patrick Daley-Thompson (11th Ward), a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, with many questioning why the union would want to be linked with a name synonymous with Chicago machine politics. Instead, delegates proposed and voted to endorse one of Daley’s opponents, Maureen Sullivan. Some frustrated delagates compared the process to the November endorsement of Jesus "Chuy" Garcia for mayor, a last-minute decision that came after CTU President Karen Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumor, effectively ending her own political aspirations.

The House did approve a number of other recommended candidates, including Matt O'Shea (19th); Michael Zalewski (23rd); Rafael Yañez (15th); Chuks Onyezia (18th); and Frank Bass (24th).

Finally, delegates proposed and voted on two additional candidates for endorsement: Ed Hershey (25th), a teacher at Lindblom, and Zerlina Smith (29th), a community activist who helped lead last year’s opt-out movement at Saucedo. (See our story on teachers running for office in our fall In Depth. There was apparently some debate about whether to endorse Hershey because of another progressive, education-focused candidate in that race -- Byron Sigcho. While not a CTU member himself, Sigcho has been a CTU ally with strong community support in Pilsen. Hershey, Sigcho and others -- including a socialist candidate, Jorge Mujica -- are vying to unseat incumbent Danny Solis.

Since November, the CTU has endorsed four other teachers running for aldermanic seats, including Sue Sadlowski-Garza (10th), Tim Meegan (37th), Tara Stamps (27th) and Dianne Daleiden (40th), in addition to others. The CTU’s political arm has contributed $10,000 to the campaigns of Garza, Meegan and Stamps, according to financial reports filed with the state this month.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) also endorsed another batch of aldermanic candidates. These include incumbents Patrick O’Conner (40th), Howard Brookins (21st) and Walter Burnett (27th), as well as candidates Elise Doody-Jones (32nd) and James Dukes (17th).

“Our children’s education future is at stake in this election in every ward and neighborhood of this city,” Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, DFER-IL state director, said in a statement. “We are committed to bringing parents, students and teachers together to rally around candidates who will fight to ensure that Chicago can deliver a world-class education to our kids.”

DFER-IL previously endorsed incumbent aldermen Will Burns (4th), Michelle Harris (8th), JoAnn Thompson (16th), and Emma Mitts (37th), in addition to Michael Diaz, a candidate in the 45th Ward. So far, the group has only reported a $500 contribution to Burns.

2. Fixing funding at last?....State School News Service’s Jim Broadway writes that Senate Bill 16, the overhaul of the school funding formula that was percolating last year, has re-emerged, but this time as Senate Bill 1. Senate Bill 1 is still just a title and the details of what state Sen. Andy Manar will propose has yet to be laid out. But last year’s bill sought to address the disparity in school funding by combining nearly all of the state education department’s grant money into the General State Aid formula, a move that ends up increasing state funding for property-poor school districts and cutting the amount for wealthy areas.  

Broadway notes that the only way to prevent well-heeled areas from losing substantial state funding would be to greatly increase the overall money in the GSA pot. “That shouldn't be so difficult in a state as wealthy as ours, especially since Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged as a candidate last year to "restore" the $1 billion he said the schools lost while Gov. Pat Quinn was in office,” writes Broadway. Though Broadway acknowledges the state budget problems will make it hard for Rauner to keep his promise.

Despite those problems, though, the Chicago Tribune tells Rauner to make good on his promise to deliver more money for education. The solution proposed, however, is a little different than Manar’s. In an editorial, the Tribune writes that a lot of money is already flowing into education, but that bureaucracy is bloated. They advocate consolidating school districts and regional offices.

3. Rise in low-income students … We already knew that, for the first time ever, just over half of Illinois students in public schools were considered low-income. It now looks like that’s also true across the country.

Researchers at the Southern Education Foundation found that 51 percent of public school children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2013, a big jump from 38 percent in 2000.

This article in the New York Times -- which includes a telling map of poverty across the country -- clarifies that children who are eligible for these lunches don’t necessarily live in poverty. “Subsidized lunches are available to children from families that earn up to $43,568 for a family of four, which is about 185 percent of the federal poverty level,” Mokoto Rich writes. In addition, the numbers have likely increased because the federal government “now allows schools with a majority of low-income students to offer free lunches to all students, regardless of whether they qualify on an individual basis or not.”

This year, CPS signed onto the program and meals at all schools -- including “well-off” schools -- are free. “Entirely free meals reduce the labor of cash collection and tracking which students have to pay full and reduced prices for their food,” WBEZ reported last fall. “This tiered system (with incentives for schools reporting higher poverty levels) led to fraud among CPS employees in the past.”

4. Extended learning time provides boost… Increasing time spent in the classroom can have a serious effect on achievement for low-performing schools, according to a new report out from the Center for Education Policy. Looking at 17 schools in four states, the report compared different approaches to federal grants that provide incentives for longer school days. Results varied, but most suggested that extended learning time can boost schools in more ways than one. The principal of one school in Oregon, for example, said “everyone is benefiting” from a 30-minute extension to teachers’ workday. A handful of other schools, in Colorado, saw bumps in their graduation rates after extending school hours into the late afternoon.

Still, the report notes, extended learning time brings up some challenges. Most notably, rigid teacher contracts will often become a snag in district efforts to increase classroom time. This was the case in Chicago in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union dug its feet in opposition to the added work hours that came alongside Mayor Emanuel’s extended school day initiative. The union ended up agreeing to a deal in which hours were added to the school day but required time for staff meetings was cut, meaning that teachers would more or less work the same total number of hours.  

5. Higher bar to pass the GED… In 2014, the number of people who took and passed the GED plummeted as the test changed, reportedly to make it more in line with employers' expectations, according to a National Public Radio story. The new test is taken via computer, is more expensive and more difficult. Designers of the new test are hoping that it will carry more weight now that it is harder. But critics are worried that it will take away the second chance that many people desperately need to earn high school credentials

The early numbers show that less than 60,000 passed the GED (the numbers do not include those in prison who took the test). Typically hundreds of thousands take and pass the test, and in 2013, as people rushed to take it before the change, more than 500,000 got the equivalency degree. More than 20,000 people passed the test in Illinois in 2013. The GED Testing Service has yet to post the 2014 annual statistical report.

Defying state, CPS will test just 10 percent of schools

January 16, 2015 - 8:39pm

CPS officials say that the district will go against the state's testing plans and refuse to give all students the controversial new PARCC exam. Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Friday evening that district leaders plan to have only 10 percent of schools take the PARCC, the new state-mandated test that is geared to the Common Core standards. McCaffrey called it an expanded pilot and said that the schools taking the PARCC will be representative of the entire district.

He said he was not immediately certain of the possible consequences for CPS. State officials, who have insisted that all school districts in Illinois administer the PARCC to all students, said they will continue to work with Chicago.

New Governor Bruce Rauner has not taken a stand on the PARCC or whether the state should go forward with full implementation. Several states that originally said they were going to administer the PARCC have pulled out and now only 11 states are still committed, according to PARCC's website.

“It is a big victory for right now,” said Raise Your Hand’s Wendy Katten. Katten’s group, More than A Score, and other active parents fought diligently against the PARCC. They gathered more than 4,000 signatures on a petition and met with more than 20 legislators.

The parent groups argued that the PARCC is not yet ready to be rolled out, asserting that the test questions are confusing and the test is too long. In general, the groups also are against high-stakes standardized testing.

While the delay is something to celebrate now, Katten said it could be short-lived if the PARCC isn’t improved and the state insists on keeping it for next school year. Katten said her group will continue to push for a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. As it is now, students must refuse the tests themselves. 

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Elementary who helped lead a testing boycott last year, said she thinks CPS made the decision because they were afraid that large numbers of parents would have their children opt out.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Teachers Union approved a resolution encouraging teachers to talk to parents about their option to opt their children out of taking the PARCC. Last year, CPS officials threatened teachers who participated in the boycott with disciplinary action, although according to Chambers, none was ever taken.

In October, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett publically announced that she wanted a delay of the PARCC. In the letter, she said that CPS’ pilot of the PARCC last year had “yielded generally positive results.”

The main reason why Byrd-Bennett wrote that she didn’t want to implement the PARCC is that the district planned to continue giving elementary school students the NWEA and high school students the ACT. As they have been for the past few years, the NWEA and the ACT were to be used for district accountability purposes, such as school ratings and promotion.

“The testing demands on students and the burdens on teachers and principals with the addition of the PARCC will be overwhelming,” she wrote in her letter to ISBE.

 However, she had already been told by the state that the district will not be granted a waiver.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch has insisted that the PARCC has been vetted enough. Further, he said the state could face sanctions or other consequences if it does not administer the PARCC. Federal law requires that states administer a test aligned with standards to students. State law requires that students take the PARCC by this school year.

In his weekly message from the first week of January, Koch included a letter from the federal government outlining the consequences that the state could face for not having every district give the same standardized test. The consequences ranged from a letter to financial sanctions.

Still, it is unclear what if anything the state or federal government will do to CPS, considering it is so large. Last year, the state of California took a “snow” year on standardized testing and it was not sanctioned.

Melissa Sanchez contributed to this story.

Take 5: Education assemblies, middle grades to college, Duncan's pro-testing stance

January 15, 2015 - 8:11am

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers and educational activists came together on Wednesday evening to plan what they are calling "education assemblies." Details are still being worked out, but the idea is to hold two assemblies a year and use a democratic process to develop a progressive education platform. Smaller groups would push the agenda between assemblies. They hope to have the first assembly in late spring.

Anton Miglietta, who is co-director of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Task Force, told the group of about 75 people at Wells High School that other progressive movements, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, used the same process to determine an agenda and advocate for it. Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia came to the planning meeting for a short time. Other familiar faces were Raise Your Hands’ Wendy Katten, More than a Score’s Cassie Caswell and Ross Floyd, a Jones College Prep student who helped launch the Chicago Students Union. Along with Miglietta, Morrill Principal Michael Beyer and University of Illinois Professor David Stovall are organizers.

Most of the ideas that they talked about were not new. For example, they discussed an elected school board with a voting student, eliminating high stakes testing and no new charter schools.

2. Texting to the rescue… Chicago will launch a 311 texting service this fall sending tips and information to the city’s parents, according to a recent press release from the mayor’s office. The service, called “Connect4Tots,” will give advice to parents on issues from immunization and nutrition to literacy and social services. The city will collaborate with child advocacy group EverThrive Illinois to roll out the service. Connect4Tots will “provide a central place for Chicago parents to receive maternal and child health as well as early childhood education information, in a quick, easy to use, and free manner,” said Janine Lewis, executive director of EverThrive. The messages will come from experts at public institutions  like the Chicago Department of Public Health as well as private groups like Ounce of Prevention and Everthrive.

The service will be modeled on Text4Baby, a nationwide texting network launched in 2010 that now reaches more than 500,000 pregnant women and new mothers with maternity tips.  Services like Text4Baby have been gaining popularity in recent years, and they’re backed by some pretty substantial research. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study last year that found a similar texting service gave a substantial boost to the literacy scores of the children whose families it reached. Also owing to the success of texting services is their extremely low cost: According to the New York Times, they typically cost less than $1 per child, where home visiting programs can run up to $10,000 per household.

3. Hard transitions… Following up on an earlier report, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research  published two briefs last week examining indicators of college readiness in middle school and high school. Among the findings: Middle school attendance is critical to determining whether students are on-track to graduate in high school. Small variations in eighth-grade attendance, the middle school report found, lead to drastic differences in high school on-track records. Students with 96 percent attendance had a 77 percent likelihood of being on track for college by ninth grade, for example, but when attendance drops to 90 percent, that likelihood falls to 44 percent.

Another major takeaway from the study is that the transition from middle school to high school takes a toll on nearly all students: Across the board, attendance drops significantly between those two years. What’s more, the majority of off-track high school students had shown few signs of struggling before they arrived in high school. According to the most recent numbers, 79 percent of high schoolers at-risk of being off-track boasted attendance rates of at least 95 percent in middle school.

4. Ogden anti-Semitic bullying … The bullying of a Jewish student at Ogden Elementary school is in the top 10 of the worst anti-Semitic incidents in the Midwest last year, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish watchdog group. The Chicago Tribune article on the situation said that a group of boys told the student that “he should wear striped pajamas” and that he could be put into an oven. The school talked to the boys and suspended them for a day.

However, the student’s mother told the Tribune that she didn’t think it was enough of a punishment for tormenting her son for an extended period of time. The school also held parent forums on anti-semitism. The Wiesenthal group notes that CPS did not take a strong stand against until the mother went to the media.

5. Duncan wants testing… U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to replace No Child Left Behind, but keep its hallmark policy: yearly, mandatory high-stakes testing. In an unveiling of the White House’s 2015 education agenda, Duncan gave an urgent defense of standardized testing, saying “parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year toward college and career readiness.” Instead, he harped on NCLB’s punitive treatment of underperforming schools, saying the 2002 law’s replacement should “recognize that schools need more support, more money, more resources than they have today.” The announcement rattled Republican lawmakers as well as teachers unions, who by and large warn that yearly high-stakes testing put too much pressure on students and stifle school curriculums.

Duncan also called for a $2.7 billion increase in federal spending on education, including a $1 billion boost in Title I funding, which is directed at the country’s poorest students. The federal government currently spends about $79 billion annually on education, including $14.4 billion for Title I programs. Duncan said he hopes to join a bipartisan effort to reform national education law, but it’s unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress, with an eye toward scaling back federal intervention, will approve the spending boost. At the same time, Republican efforts to gut yearly standardized testing--beginning with a familiar plan recently proposed by a former GOP education secretary--are likely to die at President Obama’s desk.  






Take 5: Meeks to head state board, college credit classes, principal autonomy

January 12, 2015 - 9:51am

In his first statements after being named chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, Rev. James Meeks said he is open to charters and vouchers, anything that successfully closes the achievement gap. Of course, as chairman of the board of education, he won’t have any real role in passing legislation to get more vouchers or charters.

But if the litmus test is whether they close the achievement gap, that will be hard to prove. Studies have generally shown that students who go to private schools using vouchers show no greater improvement than students who stay in public schools. Charter school results are equally inconclusive with about a third of schools doing better than traditional public schools, a third doing worse and a third doing about the same. As a state senator, Meeks tried, but failed, to get a voucher bill passed. Soon after, a private school run by his church closed its doors.

Of course, Gov. Bruce Rauner supports charter schools and vouchers so that might be a bigger factor than whether they actually close the achievement gap. With Meeks, it also will be interesting to see if he is as strident an advocate for more school funding as he has been in the past. Remember that in 2008 he kept more than 1,000 Chicago students out of school on the first day and took them on a bus to try to enroll them in New Trier High School. That school spends about $30,000 on each student, double what CPS has to spend. Meeks only sent the students back to school when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn’t meet on the subject until the students went back to school.

2. Lucrative connections? Speaking of Rauner, the Sun-Times digs deep into the business dealings of one member of the new governor’s transition team: former Chicago Public Schools CEO Rob Huberman. Reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes that a company started by Huberman has gotten $200,000 from charter operators he helped before leaving government four years ago.

Huberman launched the company, TeacherMatch LLC, which provides software to help schools screen job applicants, in 2011, and two years later got a boost of nearly $1.9 million from investors, including a private equity firm where he’s also a top executive.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools and United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools -- both clients of TeacherMatch -- had previously benefitted from Huberman’s tenure as CEO, getting permission to enroll more students at three campuses and approval for new sites. A third charter group that has paid TeacherMatch is Distinctive Schools, which manages some of the Chicago International Charter schools, and whose chairman is involved in a separate business venture with Huberman.

3. Worth the money? The Chicago Tribune raises serious questions about the effectiveness of a state program aimed at developing minority teachers. Illinois has spent more than $20 million in the past decade for the Grow Your Own Teacher program -- which so far has produced only about 80 teachers of color. Another 140 are in the pipeline. When the program was originally funded, state legislatures projected it would graduate about 1,000 teachers by 2016.

Advocates say programs like Grow Your Own Teacher are important, considering that minorities make up more than half of students across Illinois but just 16 percent of teachers. But some critics, like state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, call it “an example of politics still trumping merit, in terms of whether a program warrants continued funding."

One important reason why many recruited candidates never became teachers is a failure to pass the assessment previously known as the Basic Skills Test that’s needed to get into colleges of education. Across all races, passing rates have dropped significantly since the test was revamped in 2010. (The test is blamed in part for the decrease in enrollment in colleges of education.) But white teacher candidates are still twice as likely to pass than their black and Latino counterparts, according to recent data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

4. Dual-enrollment vs AP…. A day after saying that in his second term he wanted to increase the number of high school students taking dual enrollment classes at City Colleges, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he has found private funding for it. GE Transportation, a Chicago-based division of General Electric Company, is offering up a $500,000 investment for the program. City leaders hope to enroll 6,100 CPS students in the program by the 2016-2017 school year, up from 2,481 students enrolled this year and nearly eight times more than when Emanuel took office.

“We have to rethink what senior year of high school is all about,” Emanuel said at a Friday press conference. “It’s got to be a period of preparing kids for their next step in education, whether that means summer internships, or enrolling in a two-year degree program, or applying for college.”

Of course, the big push over the past decade was for students to earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement classes. The number of students taking AP classes went from about 4,000 in 2000 to more than 16,000 in 2013--the last year CPS data is available. But the chronic problem with AP classes is that they are too hard for most students to pass. To earn credit from an AP class students must get a three or above on a test developed by the College Board. Only about a third of CPS students got college credit for their AP classes in 2013.

Dual enrollment classes are basically city college classes and students simply have to meet the requirements to pass that class. According to CPS, about 90 percent of students who take dual enrollment classes pass them. 

Through the years when reporters questioned CPS officials about having so many students take AP classes only to fail them, we were assured that students benefitted from the rigor of the courses, even if they didn’t earn college credit. No one is saying that dual enrollment classes will replace AP classes, but that would seem to be the natural consequence for some students. The question then becomes: Is an easier route to college credit better?

5. Autonomy reality check… As would be expected, the day after Emanuel touted his first-term education performance and laid out what he wants to do in the second term, rivals and critics attacked his rosy picture and questioned his plans. Interestingly, one of the plans taking the most heat is the one to give high-performing principals freedom from district mandates to run their schools.

First off, on a video posted to Mayoral Candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s website, principal activist Troy LaRaviere said that in a survey of principals, 85 percent feel as though they have less autonomy under Emanuel. He said that principals were especially disturbed with regular mandates being handed down by central and network offices. On the survey, one principal said that CPS administration should stop using the term “autonomy” because it is an “illusion.”

“In the end Emanuel’s public comments are a stark contrast to reality,” LaRaviere said on the video.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett insisted that this proposed program was different the previous initiative that ended in 2011 called AMPS or Autonomous Management and Performance Schools. However, she did not give details.

In its critique of Emanuel, the CTU noted that with per-pupil budgeting, principals were supposed to get more autonomy--though their budgets were cut at the same time. Further, they say it is a bad idea to use autonomy as a reward. They note black students made up 18 percent of students in AMPS schools and white students made up 40 percent, yet 40 percent of CPS’ student population is black and 9 percent are white.



 



 

 

 




Emanuel makes big promises for schools in second term

January 8, 2015 - 4:13pm

If elected to a second term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises that within three years the graduation rate will go up by 15 points to 85 percent, the number of preschool classrooms will triple to 300 and the senior year of high school will be redesigned to include internships and 6,000 students taking City College classes to earn college credit.

Emanuel also plans to bring back Freshman Connection, a program that was designed to help incoming ninth-graders acclimate to high school; and give principals at good schools freedom from some district mandates. Both these ideas were in place under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Emanuel, who spoke to an invitation-only group of educators, parents and others on Thursday, said he will be leaning on private funders to pay for Freshman Connection, the same approach he took to offer principals merit pay. When that $5 million runs out this year, the principal bonuses may end. 

After Emanuel’s speech, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that instead of merit pay, principals will get more independence. “This is what they want,” she said.

In Emanuel’s speech laying out his prospective second-term education agenda at the Chicago Cultural Center, he did not address any of the more controversial issues that have been part of his first-term agenda. Both of Emanuel’s chief rivals, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, have said they will continue the moratorium on closing schools and will put a halt on opening more charter schools.

Emanuel told the crowd, which included advocates from organizations such as Stand for Illinois, that closing schools was something he did not want to do, but that he needed to get students out of failing schools. Further, he said the debate should not be between charters and neighborhood schools, but rather between quality and lack of quality in any school. He did not say whether or how many charter schools he will open in the next term, nor did he say whether he will close more schools. He instead focused on his plans to continue investing in neighborhood high schools by making sure each student lives within three miles of a school with a specialty, such as International Baccalaureate curriculum; a science, technology, engineering and mathematics program; or career and technical education.

Fioretti noted that CPS recently put out a Request for Proposals for new schools. He said Emanuel does not understand that CPS already has enough choice.

"Everything is good"

As far as paying for his ambitious plan, Emanuel is expecting Springfield to come through with more money--though the state is in dire financial straits--and said he has a better argument for doing so than his predecessors, who had to convince lawmakers that a low-achieving school district needed more resources. Emanuel said he will be able to say that Chicago is going up on every measure, despite not being supported financially.

“We are not falling short anymore,” he said. In recent years, the graduation rate has increased to 69 percent, ACT scores rose and more than double the number of students came to kindergarten ready to learn, according to a random sample of kindergarteners given a readiness test.

When Emanuel was young his parents put his and his brothers’ report cards on the refrigerator, the mayor recalled. “We can post the city’s education report card on the civic refrigerator,” he said.

Not only does Emanuel think Springfield should provide schools more money given that Illinois has one of the worst track records for funding education, but he also rallied against the current pension funding system. Currently, Chicagoans pay for the Chicago teachers’ pension through the property tax and then pay for the pensions of all teachers in the state through the income tax. “The inequity must end,” he said.

Fioretti took issue with Emanuel’s numbers, saying the mayor was massaging the numbers and that they don’t ring true with people when he goes out to the community. Fioretti especially said that schools that took in students from closed schools remain in bad shape. Calls to Garcia’s campaign and Willie Wilson’s campaign were not immediately returned.

Take 5: Rahm's early childhood non-news and competing PARCC letters

January 8, 2015 - 7:58am

Seven weeks ahead of Chicago’s mayoral election -- and about a week after his campaign started airing commercials touting his record on early childhood education -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference Tuesday to announce federal funding for the city’s Head Start programs. But it was hard to find the news: Yes, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did send the city a check for the preschool program, but it has done that every year and for more than a decade the funding has been pretty stable. Also, the city knew it was getting the funding for weeks.

The difference this time, the mayor’s office says, is that Chicago is promised $600 million over five years and will no longer have to compete every year for it. The mayor’s office even provided a glowing letter from HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell addressed to Emanuel. But again, HHS is shifting to five year cycles for every grantee, except for the most troubled of operators.

Either way, the mayor said the funding would be a crucial step forward in his goal to provide “universal” preschool for 4-year-olds citywide -- though it’s questionable how universal the goal really is. “The role model [for early childcare] will no longer be expensive babysitting--it’ll be a strong foundation of public education across the city,” he said during the press conference, after playing Bingo with a group of toddlers.

As an added political bonus, Ounce of Prevention Fund president and incoming Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner spoke at the presser, at Emanuel’s invitation. Rauner said the pursuit of expanded early childhood education would rely on “innovative public-private relationships” and strong collaboration between Springfield and City Hall.

Not to be left out, a group of community organizations and unions will hold their own press conference today to set the record straight on the federal dollars and Emanuel’s record on early childhood education. They’ll point out that enrollment in school-based preschool has actually fallen over the past two years following changes in the application process and new requirements regarding income reporting.

2. New community college operator… Loyola University Chicago will establish a special two-year college program for the city’s poorest students, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. An effort to buoy the city’s meager college graduation rates, Arrupe College will accommodate 400 students on the university’s Water Tower campus, Loyola's President Rev. Michael Garanzini said in his September State of the University address. The plan is for students to commute to campus and take classes on a work-study basis, leading them to a diploma within two years without incurring student debt. Supporters hope the project will be a step toward Chicago Public Schools’ goal of a 60 percent college graduation rate by 2025.

Time will tell if Loyola, a private Jesuit school that boasts a 70 percent graduation rate, can create an option preferable to the City Colleges of Chicago, whose graduation rates range from 6 to 22 percent. About 15 percent of CPS grads enrolled in a City College campus in 2013.

3. The battle of the PARCC letters… Right before Christmas, a group of seven lawmakers, including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and State Senator Heather Steans, wrote to State Superintendent Christopher Koch to ask him to make a formal request to the U.S. Department of Education to delay the PARCC.

As you will remember, parent activists in Chicago and some superintendents have been waging a battle to get the state to put off the implementation of the PARCC, which is a new state assessment that is aligned with the Common Core standards. Some worry that the PARCC, which is shifting away from multiple choice and includes more complicated questions, is not ready to be rolled out and that too many school districts lack the technology to implement a computer-based test.

The lawmakers wrote they are concerned that the PARCC is too long, that it has not been sufficiently field tested and that it will interfere with AP and ACT exams in high schools.

But, in his weekly message dated January 6, Koch includes a letter from the Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle laying out the consequences if the state does not have every student take an assessment this year to comply with federal accountability laws. She says that the state could allow school districts to implement a variety of tests, but that they would each have to meet a high bar of showing that they meet the state’s standards and are comparable. Also, she warns that if the state fails to give an assessment to students it could face multiple consequences, including increased monitoring or a cease and desist order.

Note, Delisle does not mention the PARCC because federal law does not specify what test states must give to students. However, Illinois is committed to giving the PARCC because a state law requires that Illinois give a Common Core test by the 2014-2015 school year.

4. Testing the Congress… The hot debate over the PARCC in Illinois is similar to what is playing out in states across the country. Because of the push to lessen the number of standardized tests given to students, national education experts are expecting Congress to finally make some headway on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, according to Education Week. It is ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind, that requires states to test students every year from third grade on and also implements harsh punishments, like turnovers and closures, for schools not meeting benchmarks. However, it is unclear if Congress can create a bipartisan bill that will be acceptable to President Barack Obama.

Education Week also predicts that the next Congress, now controlled by Republicans, will try to pass a bill to increase access to charter schools and will try to rewrite the rewrite the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which governs the largest federal program for high schools.

On a related note, NPR says the biggest education story of 2015 will be continued scrutiny on testing and the implementation of the Common Core standards. Also, they predict the other big stories will be teacher evaluation and scrutiny on school police as part of the Ferguson fallout.

5. Superintendent pay-out…. The Chicago Tribune looks into how some suburban school districts have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to hire close to a half-dozen different superintendents since 2001. In one extreme case, the Bellwood School District 88 hired the same superintendent three times for the job, even after she’d successfully sued and gotten a $75,000 settlement.

Tribune reporter Angela Caputo, who makes her debut on the newspaper’s investigative team after leaving our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, writes that the revolving door to the superintendent’s office “undermines a district's stability and pulls away resources from students. Or as one expert aptly sums up, "If the board is paying their salary and the new superintendent and maybe even a previous superintendent, that's a big hit. How many teachers could have been paid? How many school books could have been bought?"

For its part, Chicago is on its fifth chief executive officer since 2001, but now CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has been at the helm for more than two years.

 

 



Take 5: Catching up on the news

January 5, 2015 - 9:00am

CPS leaders are open to handing over the education of the district’s most troubled, vulnerable students to private entities, putting out a Request for Proposals last week that asked for vendors to apply to serve students considered at risk of dropping out who are as young as 6th grade.

“We have been struggling with this population and we are looking for experienced providers to help us,” said Jack Esley, chief of the Office of Incubation and Innovation, in a press call last week.

That the district is looking to open what are essentially alternative schools for middle-grades students is likely to raise some eyebrows. Esley says district leaders have no idea if there is a private company that has been successful with this age group. “That is what the RFP is for,” he said.

But as many as 9,000 middle grades students are in such academic trouble that CPS officials think they need early dropout prevention. About 900 of them—and this might be first time CPS has identified middle school dropouts--are labeled “transfer within district” or “unable to locate” and they never reenroll. The rest are basically failing with less than a 1.0 GPA and attendance of less than 80 percent.

The district also wants to explore creating some new third-party programs for the 2,000-some students forced to enter high school without graduating from eighth grade. Ever since the district established a strict promotion policy in the late 1990s, it has been confronted with the problem of students who didn’t meet the criteria to graduate eighth grade but are over 15 and therefore must leave elementary school.

At first, CPS had small schools for these students, then a special program within high schools. Both had mixed results. For the past few years, there has been no program and the students were just sent to high school.

Esley said district officials had a lot of discussion about lessons they can learn from failed attempts at serving these students.

2. Expanding private operators… CPS also is asking for proposals for new charter/contract schools, Dyett High School and for current providers to expand. This year, the general new school RFP is for schools to fill what CPS calls “under represented programmatic designs.” These are identified as dual language, arts integration, humanities focused and something called Next Generation models, which incorporate “personalized, blended learning.”

CPS also would like more schools to serve the 27,000 students who are either short of credits needed to graduate on time--what are called young and far or old and far--or have dropped out, but only need a few credits to get a diploma. Under CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, there has been a major expansion of these schools, but CPS still only has 11,584 seats for available. These schools could either be charter schools, contract schools or run as Alternative Opportunities Programs.

Existing charter and contract schools only have to submit business plans and not full proposals.As has happened in the past, Neighborhood Advisory Councils will be formed to recommend new schools, though board members have final say and have in the past ignored the direction of community councils.

Public hearings will be held in August and the board will vote on recommended proposals at their October 2015 meeting. Approved new schools will open in the Fall of 2016. CPS leaders had already announced that no new schools would be approved this year for Fall 2015.

3. Pricey school for rich kids?… Disputed cost overruns with a politically connected contractor could drive the final price tag for  Jones College Prep to $127 million -- that is, $13 million more than expected. The Sun-Times reports that the city is bracing for a court fight with Walsh Construction, which submitted the extra bills related to the steel structure and accelerated construction over the summer. The Public Building Commission of Chicago rejected the claims and set aside money for legal fees in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

Jones College Prep -- a selective enrollment school in the South Loop -- is already the most expensive public high school ever built in the city, the Sun-Times notes. Construction for the new school was financed with the always-controversial tax-increment financing.

Also, last week, cpsobsessed.org published data showing that 44 percent of the students admitted to Jones this year were from the highest income of the four tiers that make up the framework of the selective admissions process. Students from the highest income tier can claim more seats by claiming a large number of the 30 percent awarded solely through rank order of test scores (which remain strongly tied to income).

The selective enrollment high schools on the South and West sides of the city--Brooks, King, Westinghouse and Lindblom--tend to have a disproportionate number of students from the second to the highest income tier or tier 3.

4. Quazzo investigation… Right before Christmas, the Chicago Sun-Times published an investigation that showed that in the mere year and a half since Deborah Quazzo was appointed to the School Board, companies in which she is a major investor have tripled their business with CPS, raking in an additional $2.9 million. Some of the companies, the Sun-Times notes, are selling programs to schools for just $1 under the $25,000 threshold that would require board approval. Soon after the revelation, the Sun Times called for her resignation and the inspector general has opened an investigation.

Quazzo is big investor in what are called EdTech firms, which provide individual schools with ACT prep or online instruction in reading writing or math. The EdTech industry is reportedly exploding.

While it is not clear whether Quazzo has done anything wrong (and she insists she hasn’t), Morrill Principal Michael Beyer writes in an opinion piece in the Huffington Post that it is the type of company she promotes that is problematic. “I have yet to find independent scientific research proving any software is equal to or better than other non-digital teaching strategies,” writes Beyer. What’s more, many of these companies promise “personalized learning” with one even telling a group of educators that the software is “Montessori on steriods.” “I thought at the time, `Why not just do Montessori? Why do we need steroids?’” Beyer writes.

5. Recouping money… Not letting up on its earlier investigation into CPS’s risky bond deals, the Chicago Tribune reported on other bodies that have succeeded in “clawing back losses, with banks repaying millions of dollars to governments that issued the same kind of problematic auction-rate debt Chicago’s school system did.” The story notes that many governments’ claims are still in progress, including cities ranging from Houston and Reno, Nev., to a Florida school district. "If we had not pursued it, we would have never gotten anything," RoseMarie Reno, the outgoing treasurer of a California hospital district, told the Tribune. That hospital district secured a $4.5 million settlement to help cover its losses on auction-rate securities last year.

CPS told the Tribune it’s reviewing the litigation in other parts of the country “to determine if other options are available,” while noting that it had previously reviewed the transaction “and determined there is no avenue for arbitration.”

In another story, the Trib also wrote about a new federally mandated test for advisors who guide government borrowers -- and whether it’ll actually be enough to tests advisors’ ability to evaluate “the burdensome derivative deals that helped Congress to set the standards in the first place.”

 

 

 





Inspector Gen'l. report: Major financial fraud, abuse of selective admissions

January 5, 2015 - 5:00am

Over the past five years, a CPS employee who worked at two struggling high schools milked them of almost $900,000 in a large, multi-faceted purchasing and reimbursement scam, according to today’s release of the Inspector General’s annual report.

Also, the inspector general report details incidents in which parents falsified their addresses to make it easier for their children to get into selective high schools; and cases in which two high schools mis-categorized dropouts to improve their graduation rates.

The employee accused of the fraud scheme resigned from CPS under investigation and is designated as "Do Not Hire." The inspector general’s office has been working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, but no arrests have been made yet.

The report does not name the schools involved, but sources have identified them to Catalyst as Gage Park and Michele Clark.

While this is one of the largest, if not the largest single scheme in the district's recent history, just two years ago, Lakeview High School’s technology coordinator was found dead after being accused carrying out a similiar scheme. In both cases, the employees worked with associates to funnel money to companies for goods and services that the schools never received, and the scheme was carried for years without being noticed.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says that CPS “continues to evaluate its procurement processes to increase safeguards and adopt best practices to prevent these occurrences.”

But for several years, the inspector general’s office has been encouraging CPS to provide more resources the internal audit and the inspector general’s office, noting that CPS contracts are lucrative and thousands of people in schools have the authority to request and approve payments to vendors.

This case was flagged during a financial audit, which led to the Inspector General’s report.

In the report, IG Nicholas Schuler notes that his office was able to investigate only 20 percent of the complaints received. The office is limited because it is often investigating big, complex issues and has a small staff of only 13 investigators, plus Schuler and his deputy, to scrutinize the $6 billion school district with 41,000-some employees.

By contrast, Houston Independent has 20 professionals to investigate a school district that is half the size of CPS. In 2011, the IG report noted that Chicago has one inspector for every 2,300 employees, while Cook County has one inspector for every 1,100 employees and the city's municipal government has an inspector for every 455 workers.

“The inability to investigate more complaints creates a substantial risk that instances of fraud and employee misconduct go undetected,” he writes.

In an interview, Schuler added: “We are undersized and understaffed compared to other IGs in the area.”

Fraud at two high schools

Employee records show that the administrator who orchestrated the fraud in question worked at Gage Park High from 2002 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

Gage Park High School has seen its enrollment drop by more than 70 percent in the past five years. This summer, when teachers got wind of the investigation, they were outraged.

“We are sinking and nobody cares,” Susan Steinmiller, a 23-year veteran teacher and a representative on the local school council, said this summer. “We have no newspaper, no library, no band, why would anyone want to be here?... I am just really upset because we really need the money.”

In September, however, Gage Park’s principal abruptly retired and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett hand-picked the principal’s replacement. Byrd- Bennett has said she is personally invested in the revitalization of the school.

According to the IG’s report, the principals of the two high schools did not seem aware of the scheme. But they did put a lot of trust in this one particular employee and one of them gave him their password to the district's IT system, which helped facilitate the fraud.
Still, questions remain about how so much money could be paid for such an extended period of time without coming to attention of school or district leadership.

The employee used a variety of methods to siphon money to himself. But the majority of the scheme was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The Inspector General’s report confirms that the CPS employee in question received at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals and indicates that the office suspects he received much more.

“In addition to the large cut that Business Owner 4 was keeping, the OIG could not eliminate the possibility that Business Owner 3 or Business Owner 4 kicked back portions of the $581,947 to Employee A, who made over $122,000 in cash deposits—usually round amounts—during this scheme,” according to the inspector general report.

The employee also steered false reimbursements to three of his CPS colleagues and, in at least one case, had the bulk of money given back to him in cash.

The employee also participated in "stringing," meaning that purchases were distributed to several companies in order to avoid the non-competitive purchasing limits of $10,000.

Beyond the Gage Park case, several incidents of stringing were identified in the Inspector General report and it has been a consistent problem noted in previous reports. At another high school, the school operations manager strung together purchases for office supplies among four businesses and got kickbacks from the companies. The employee was laid off and is designated as Do Not hire.

In two other situations, companies tried to promote "stringing" to schools by getting multiple vendor numbers and advertising the fact that they have them to schools.

Schuler says CPS needs to do a better job of informing operations managers and clerks about stringing and the fact that it is illegal. Also, he acknowledges that some stringing may be done to avoid paperwork or to speed up purchasing.

The report also points to several individual incidents of fraud or ethics violations. One of them, in which two teachers also work as police officers, is not a violation. The IG is recommending that CPS look into making it one.

Dropouts, selective admissions

The inspector also honed in on two high schools, linked by a common administrator, that wrongly labeled a few hundred students as transfers to GED programs or verified transfers, but without confirming them. The report concludes that these students should have been labeled as dropouts or “unable to locate.”

It is unclear whether correctly labeling these students, which as far as the IG knows never happened, would have lowered CPS’ graduation rate—which, at 69 percent, is regularly touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a major accomplishment. Also, many more schools may be miscoding students, as the IG only focused on the two high schools where there were complaints.

None of the three school administrators in this case have been disciplined as recommended by the Inspector General, and one of them has been promoted.

Meanwhile, parents, including some who are CPS employees, got themselves into trouble this past year for falsifying their addresses in order to give their children an edge in getting into selective enrollment high schools--confirming suspicions  that parents would try to game the admissions system that now relies on neighborhood and family socioeconomic characteristics rather than primarily on race, as under the former desegregation decree.

According to CPS, last year, 16,000 students applied for 3,200 selective enrollment seats.

Schuler says his office has looked into individual cases of abuses in the past, but wanted to take a hard look at it this year.

“Everyone in the city is trying to get these seats,” he says. “They are highly sought after and we want to make sure the process is fair and honest.”

McCaffrey says that parents should be aware that district leaders are taking misrepresentation seriously and working to try to prevent it. “This may include future audits of students in selective enrollment schools,” he says.

Schuler's office found12 cases in which parents provided false addresses that would put them in a better position to land a seat; and, in half of those cases, the parents worked for CPS. Schuler says that this is by no means the full scope of the problem, but that his office looked for particular “red flags” and this was the result of that review. In addition, he says the fact that CPS employees tried to cheat the system is particularly egregious.

In two of the cases, the students would have gotten into the selective enrollment high school even if their parents had used their true address. Those students were allowed to continue attending the school and the parents weren’t subjected to any discipline.

However, eight students were dis-enrolled, one student withdrew on their own and another one was allowed to stay because she was going into her senior year. Four of the employees were either fired or resigned.

Inspector Gen'l. report: Major financial fraud, abuse of selective admissions

January 2, 2015 - 4:30pm

Over the past five years, a CPS employee who worked at two struggling high schools milked them of almost $900,000 in a large, multi-faceted purchasing and reimbursement scam, according to today’s release of the Inspector General’s annual report.

Also, the inspector general report details incidents in which parents falsified their addresses to make it easier for their children to get into selective high schools; and cases in which two high schools mis-categorized dropouts to improve their graduation rates.

The employee accused of the fraud scheme resigned from CPS under investigation and is designated as "Do Not Hire." The inspector general’s office has been working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, but no arrests have been made yet.

The report does not name the schools involved, but sources have identified them to Catalyst as Gage Park and Michele Clark.

While this is one of the largest, if not the largest single scheme in the district's recent history, just two years ago, Lakeview High School’s technology coordinator was found dead after being accused carrying out a similiar scheme. In both cases, the employees worked with associates to funnel money to companies for goods and services that the schools never received, and the scheme was carried for years without being noticed.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says that CPS “continues to evaluate its procurement processes to increase safeguards and adopt best practices to prevent these occurrences.”

But for several years, the inspector general’s office has been encouraging CPS to provide more resources the internal audit and the inspector general’s office, noting that CPS contracts are lucrative and thousands of people in schools have the authority to request and approve payments to vendors.

This case was flagged during a financial audit, which led to the Inspector General’s report.

In the report, IG Nicholas Schuler notes that his office was able to investigate only 20 percent of the complaints received. The office is limited because it is often investigating big, complex issues and has a small staff of only 13 investigators, plus Schuler and his deputy, to scrutinize the $6 billion school district with 41,000-some employees.

By contrast, Houston Independent has 20 professionals to investigate a school district that is half the size of CPS. In 2011, the IG report noted that Chicago has one inspector for every 2,300 employees, while Cook County has one inspector for every 1,100 employees and the city's municipal government has an inspector for every 455 workers.

“The inability to investigate more complaints creates a substantial risk that instances of fraud and employee misconduct go undetected,” he writes.

In an interview, Schuler added: “We are undersized and understaffed compared to other IGs in the area.”

Fraud at two high schools

Employee records show that the administrator who orchestrated the fraud in question worked at Gage Park High from 2002 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

Gage Park High School has seen its enrollment drop by more than 70 percent in the past five years. This summer, when teachers got wind of the investigation, they were outraged.

“We are sinking and nobody cares,” Susan Steinmiller, a 23-year veteran teacher and a representative on the local school council, said this summer. “We have no newspaper, no library, no band, why would anyone want to be here?... I am just really upset because we really need the money.”

In September, however, Gage Park’s principal abruptly retired and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett hand-picked the principal’s replacement. Byrd- Bennett has said she is personally invested in the revitalization of the school.

According to the IG’s report, the principals of the two high schools did not seem aware of the scheme. But they did put a lot of trust in this one particular employee and one of them gave him their password to the district's IT system, which helped facilitate the fraud.
Still, questions remain about how so much money could be paid for such an extended period of time without coming to attention of school or district leadership.

The employee used a variety of methods to siphon money to himself. But the majority of the scheme was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The Inspector General’s report confirms that the CPS employee in question received at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals and indicates that the office suspects he received much more.

“In addition to the large cut that Business Owner 4 was keeping, the OIG could not eliminate the possibility that Business Owner 3 or Business Owner 4 kicked back portions of the $581,947 to Employee A, who made over $122,000 in cash deposits—usually round amounts—during this scheme,” according to the inspector general report.

The employee also steered false reimbursements to three of his CPS colleagues and, in at least one case, had the bulk of money given back to him in cash.

The employee also participated in "stringing," meaning that purchases were distributed to several companies in order to avoid the non-competitive purchasing limits of $10,000.

Beyond the Gage Park case, several incidents of stringing were identified in the Inspector General report and it has been a consistent problem noted in previous reports. At another high school, the school operations manager strung together purchases for office supplies among four businesses and got kickbacks from the companies. The employee was laid off and is designated as Do Not hire.

In two other situations, companies tried to promote "stringing" to schools by getting multiple vendor numbers and advertising the fact that they have them to schools.

Schuler says CPS needs to do a better job of informing operations managers and clerks about stringing and the fact that it is illegal. Also, he acknowledges that some stringing may be done to avoid paperwork or to speed up purchasing.

The report also points to several individual incidents of fraud or ethics violations. One of them, in which two teachers also work as police officers, is not a violation. The IG is recommending that CPS look into making it one.

Dropouts, selective admissions

The inspector also honed in on two high schools, linked by a common administrator, that wrongly labeled a few hundred students as transfers, but without confirming them. The report concludes that these students should have been labeled as dropouts or “unable to locate.”

It is unclear whether correctly labeling these students, which as far as the IG knows never happened, would have lowered CPS’ graduation rate—which, at 69 percent, is regularly touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a major accomplishment. Also, many more schools may be miscoding students, as the IG only focused on the two high schools where there were complaints.

None of the three school administrators in this case have been disciplined as recommended by the Inspector General, and one of them has been promoted.

Meanwhile, parents, including some who are CPS employees, got themselves into trouble this past year for falsifying their addresses in order to give their children an edge in getting into selective enrollment high schools--confirming suspicions  that parents would try to game the admissions system that now relies on neighborhood and family socioeconomic characteristics rather than primarily on race, as under the former desegregation decree.

According to CPS, last year, 16,000 students applied for 3,200 selective enrollment seats.

Schuler says his office has looked into individual cases of abuses in the past, but wanted to take a hard look at it this year.

“Everyone in the city is trying to get these seats,” he says. “They are highly sought after and we want to make sure the process is fair and honest.”

McCaffrey says that parents should be aware that district leaders are taking misrepresentation seriously and working to try to prevent it. “This may include future audits of students in selective enrollment schools,” he says.

His office found12 cases in which parents provided false addresses that would put them in a better position to land a seat; and, in half of those cases, the parents worked for CPS. Schuler says that this is by no means the full scope of the problem, but that his office looked for particular “red flags” and this was the result of that review. In addition, he says the fact that CPS employees tried to cheat the system is particularly egregious.

In two of the cases, the students would have gotten into the selective enrollment high school even if their parents had used their true address. Those students were allowed to continue attending the school and the parents weren’t subjected to any discipline.

However, eight students were dis-enrolled, one student withdrew on their own and another one was allowed to stay because she was going into her senior year. Four of the employees were either fired or resigned.

Gone for the holidays

December 19, 2014 - 12:09pm

The crew at Catalyst is taking a break to celebrate with friends and family. We will return to work on Jan. 5.

In the meantime, our reporters will remain on alert and post briefs about any major news on Facebook and Twitter.  (If you haven’t already liked us on Facebook, now would be a great time to do that.)

Again, happy holidays to you all and the very best of wishes for 2015.

(And, yes, we are still accepting donations for 2014. We would love to see your name among them. Support from our readers is important for Catalyst’s health and well-being!)

CPS school ratings system doesn’t help parents

December 19, 2014 - 12:01pm

Earlier this month, Chicago Public Schools released its annual school ratings after several weeks delay.  The postponement has been chalked up to CPS refining a new system to determine scores, which includes more rating levels, a new formula to compute school performance data, and the ability for the CEO to change schools’ rating at her discretion.  Both the delay in publishing the scores and the controversy surrounding the new system point to a major problem with CPS’s approach: what the district needs to assess about schools is very different than what families want to know about their schools.

All school districts, especially large, complex ones like CPS, need sophisticated systems to evaluate school performance, and these systems need to be continually improved.  Yet, paradoxically, research over the past 20 years clearly shows that school systems undermine the public trust when they publicly emphasize these ratings as a way to inform parents.  This is because an individual school’s local reputation is far more influential on parents than district ratings.

This gap is made even wider when a school’s annual score fluctuates greatly year to year and when the formula used to calculate that score is too complicated and technical to be explained simply.  For instance, Wendell Phillips Academy High School earned the lowest possible rating this year after having earned the highest possible rating last year.  In the absence of clear reasons about how a school could go from top to bottom in one year, families grow increasingly skeptical about the district’s scoring system. 

Further, the CEO’s new power to change ratings at her discretion will only heighten suspicion about the ratings, not as a reflection on the CEO personally, but because it makes scores harder to explain and predict.

Yet evaluating schools is vital and should draw on the district’s specialized knowledge about schools, local politics, accountability policies, and data analysis.  Moreover, all the details of a rating system, from raw data to algorithms to final scores, should be published prominently on the CPS website for the public explore.

But what we especially need is to separate that work from what parents want to know about schools.  Families engage with the school system on the level of specific schools and individual teachers.  Parents seek for their children the most supportive, safe, and effective learning environments possible, with other complicating factors, such as the length of a daily commute to school, mixed in.  A better approach for CPS would be to publish annual school guides each spring, when families are most actively exploring their children’s options.  These guides should be short, easy to understand, and organized by grade level so that parents can better anticipate the year ahead.  Crucially, these guides should also link to online forums where parents and school staff can comment, exchange information, and discuss issues about the school.

By presenting meaningful information that speaks to families’ experiences and embracing public conversation about those data, CPS can begin to rebuild trust with its communities.  The necessary work of evaluating and rating schools should be separate and distinct because it speaks to the needs of administrators and policy makers, not families.

Charles Tocci is a clinical assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. He works closely with CPS through the university's partnerships with neighborhood schools. His research focuses on teacher grading and school data use.

Take 5: Dyett supporters ask for RFP to be halted; school ratings by race and TFA problems

December 18, 2014 - 9:30am

Several members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School demanded Wednesday that board members adopt their plan for the school and reopen it in Fall of 2015, rather than follow the steps CPS officials already laid out: issue a Request for Proposals, pick an operator or a proposal, and then reopen in 2016.

Community activists who had been fighting to save Washington Park’s Dyett ever since its phase out was announced four years ago hailed the announcement by officials that it was going to be saved. But they do not like the idea that outside, private entities can bid to run it as a contract school. Nor do they like that it will sit dormant for a year.  

“Anytime black children have a need, it is sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeanette Taylor, who serves on the LSC of Mollison Elementary, which is near Dyett. She worries that Dyett might become a selective enrollment and that her autistic son won’t qualify for enrollment. She wants the reopened school to be able to serve him.

The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett wants the school to be reopened as a neighborhood school with a focus on “global leadership and green technology.” They said they do not understand why -- and feel it is disrespectful for -- the board to consider other proposals.

Veteran civil rights leader and historian Timuel Black, now 96 years old, told the board that he thinks schools do much better when they have community support. Joy Clendenning, who serves on the Kenwood LSC, said that people in the area ask her often what is happening with Dyett. “It is such a great building and location,” she said. She called the community’s plan “terrific.”

Board members did not respond to the coalition’s speakers.

The RFP for Dyett, as well as for other new schools to open in Fall 2016, is supposed to be released some time this month. CPS officials said that this year they are not considering proposals to open any new schools in Fall 2015, a move that many assume is political given that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is running for re-election and new schools are controversial.  

However, two charter schools were given conditional approval last year for openings in Fall 2015. One of them, a new entity called Moving Everest Charter School, was given final approval on Wednesday.

2. CPS’ new (old) inspector general… CPS finally has a new, permanent inspector general and, not surprisingly, it is the same guy who has been holding down the job for the five months since the last inspector general resigned. Wonder why it took so long to make him permanent? Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the official appointment of Nicholas J. Schuler earlier this month, and on Wednesday the Board of Education confirmed him in a procedural vote.

Schuler has been deputy CPS inspector general since 2010. Schuler is a former police officer and the son of a police officer. After getting a law degree and working in a private law firm, he went to work for the city’s inspector general’s office. He tells the Sun Times that he saw the move to CPS as a promotion.  

The news of his official appointment comes just as the office is about to release its annual report. In the past, the annual report has detailed relatively low-level corruption, including misuse of credit cards by school board presidents, clout admissions into selective enrollment schools and principals who fraudulently identified their children as qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

3. More on ratings… When CPS Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced school ratings earlier this month, she said she was surprised that quality schools were spread out throughout the city. Catalyst mapped the schools and, while we found this is true, it is also the case that the best schools are much more concentrated on the North and Northwest sides of the city. Forty percent of the top rated schools are on the North Side or centrally located, compared to 20 percent on the South Side and 15 percent on the West Side.

What’s more, of the lowest rated schools, 60 percent of them are on the South Side, though only 50 percent of all schools are on the South Side. The West Side is home to 22 percent of all schools, but 32 percent of the lowest rated schools.

Catalyst’s analysis also confirms that white students are most likely to attend the district’s Level 1-plus schools, the highest rating. Nearly all the schools with significant white populations are rated either 1-plus or 1. Meanwhile, all of the lowest rated schools, except for Kelvyn Park High School, which has a mostly Latino population, are more than two-thirds black.  To see maps of ratings by race click here.

4. Fewer recruits for TFA … As CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey noted during Wednesday’s board meeting, a recent Washington Post article pointed out that studies show that morale among teachers is super low. Teaching just isn’t as attractive as it used to be because of the “polarized public conversation around education” and districts’ shaky budgets, according to a note written by Teach For America leaders to the organization’s partner organizations and obtained by Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss.The article was about the trouble that the controversial teacher training organization is having trouble recruiting new candidates. 

As a result in the drop in recruits, TFA expects to “fall short” of its partners’ needs by 25 percent. Also, TFA leaders closed a training site in New York because of the decline, as reported by Chalkbeat last week.

The waning interest in teaching hasn’t only affected alternative educator prep programs like TFA. At traditional university teacher prep programs, enrollment fell by about 10 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to a recent story in Education Week. The numbers are even worse in Illinois, as Catalyst reported earlier this year. Enrollment at traditional undergraduate teaching programs dropped by about 23 percent in the decade leading up to 2012.

5. In other school news … Ald. John Arena of the 45th Ward asked the board Wednesday to prioritize hiring more full-time nurses at schools that cater to students with special needs. He shared concerns from teachers and staff at one such school, Beard Elementary, who have to administer medications to students. "They have concerns about the health of the child -- if they were to miss a dose or mistime the doses -- because the demands on them are more each day," Arena told the Tribune. Just 450 nurses serve the district’s 683 schools, according to the story. That adds up to a ratio of about one nurse for every 880 students in CPS. The district is currently seeking proposals from outside groups to deliver some $33 million in school nursing and health management services next school year.

Also, parents who want to see the implementation of the PARCC test delayed asked the board to adopt a policy allowing parents to opt their children out of the test. Rules around opting out became an issue last year when hundreds of parents, if not thousands, opted their children out of the ISAT, which was then a state-mandated test but one that CPS was not using for any accountability purposes. At the time, some schools followed the rule that they hand every student a test but then allow the student to refuse to take it. Parent Jennifer Biggs told the board that she had no problem opting her children out at their school but wants to make sure that in the future children aren't put in a position of having to refuse the test. 

Finally, it looks like progress has been made on choosing a site for the city’s new selective-enrollment high school that was initially going to be named after President Barack Obama. Ald. Walter Burnett of the 27th Ward says he favors a vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted near Goose Island because it has room for parking, no conflicts with nearby schools or parks and won’t take away land needed for replacement public housing, according to a Sun-Times story. (A previous site in the middle of Stanton Park was scrapped because of concerns from Near North Side residents about lack of parking and the loss of park space.) Residents will also have an opportunity to weigh in on the new site.

Passing the PARCC test is the wrong goal

December 16, 2014 - 11:00am

In reading the recent guest essay that the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows wrote about the soon-to-debut PARCC test, I was flabbergasted to see their opening paragraph end with the absurd statement that by participating in the test roll-out this year, “students in Chicago will be able to do something amazing: They have the opportunity to pilot the PARCC without the fear of failure.” 

I did not enter the profession of education to inspire my students to be great test-takers.  I hope no teacher did.  The notion that piloting a standardized test for which the publishing giant Pearson received a multi-million dollar no bid contract would be an amazing opportunity for our students is down right inflammatory. Instead of letting our students be guinea pigs for testing companies, I hope we as a profession are driven to create the opportunities that change our student’s hearts and minds for the overall betterment of society.

For example, I was astonished a few years ago when some of my students put in numerous hours after school to raise money for earthquake survivors in Haiti even though their own families were barely making ends meet. I was surprised to learn last year that two of my senior students had already started their own business, trying to develop insulin patches instead of using needles.  I get goose bumps thinking back when an incredibly shy student volunteered to explain her mathematical thinking at the board for the first time and her classmates give her the biggest high-fives as she walked back to her seat after nailing it. As I recall the amazing things students have done over the years, I never recall their performance on standardized tests.        

I hope that all my students will go on to be a part of a new generation that accomplishes amazing things by finally solving social issues such as child hunger, rampant drug addiction, stubbornly persistent segregated housing, economic volatility and global warming. In order to creatively problem-solve such issues, and the many others that face our world today, our students will need a set of skills that no standardized test can accurately assess. 

They will have to use technological advancements that have not yet been invented.  They will have to unite people from across the political spectrum, interact with citizens from across the globe, and navigate ever-changing geopolitical conflicts.  Most importantly, our students will have to figure out how to challenge unjust practices in our own country, just as generations before them challenged slavery and Jim Crow. The fight for marriage equality has been almost fully won across the nation, but as the recent protests against police brutality have underlined, racial equality is still something that eludes our country.

Fighting against unjust policies is where we teachers can lead by example and teach our students “real-life” lessons.  In their essay, the Teach Plus Fellows agree that teachers should not have to teach to a test, yet they seem to conclude that we are helpless in changing the policies that mandate such tests.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  We can and must challenge harmful educational practices.

In a recent report, the American Statistical Association (ASA), the largest organization representing professionals in the field of statistics and one of the nation’s leading scholarly organizations, deconstructed a central feature of the Obama’s administration “Race to the Top” initiative: tying school rankings and teacher evaluations to student test scores. The ASA issued a short but stinging statement that strongly warned against the misuse of value-added models (VAMs) for education assessment. 

The report notes that VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.  It goes on to say that VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.  Furthermore, the report says that most VAM studies have found that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in system-level conditions. The report explicitly asserts that ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

This means that at best, teachers have no control over 86% of what students score on standardized tests, and, at worst 99% of student standardized tests scores are out of the teacher’s control. Coming from the foremost organization on statistics, we should immediately stop any school closings or teacher evaluations based on test scores and further study what purpose, if any, standardized tests serve.  The educational justice movement here in Chicago and across the country has been demanding this for the past few years, but unfortunately, very little has changed. Yet.   

That brings me back to how teachers can truly educate their students and lead by example.  We must challenge and protest unjust policies like VAM that stigmatize our urban students, teachers and school systems as “failing”.  Last year, thousands of students opted out of standardized tests, and some teachers took the bold move of boycotting the test altogether.  This is the creative resistance that is necessary to turn the tide against the harmful practice of using VAMs to evaluate teachers and schools.  Let’s seize this opportunity to PARK the PARCC in a low-stakes environment before CPS and other school districts across the country have the opportunity to turn it into a high-stakes test.  Not only will we stand on the right side of history, we also will challenge our students to think about what actions they can take to change the world they live in.   

Anthony Cappetta is a math teacher at Lindbom Math and Science Academy, an active member of the CORE caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a member of the Catalyst Editorial Advisory Board, as is a former Teach Plus fellow.

When 'universal preschool' is not universal

December 15, 2014 - 11:00am

Hellen Juarez was excited when she heard Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce that the city would introduce universal preschool.

“Universal means there will be open slots for those who need it,” said Juarez, a single mother of three whose youngest, a 3-year-old, is not yet in school.

But that isn’t how things have turned out. Emanuel’s plan adds only about 1,500 seats, for low-income families only. Juarez’s local Chicago Public Schools program has a three-month wait to get in, and it provides only two and a half hours of instruction a day.

“It’s not universal,” said Juarez, who decided not to try to take advantage of the city program after realizing how much it would cost her in train fare and lost work time.

Juarez’s experience is not unusual as more school districts and states expand access to early childhood education in an attempt to add learning time at a crucial point in children’s development. Politicians and advocates alike have seized on research that says starting school young offers lasting dividends — as well as on the political expediency of promising a benefit to every voter. As they have, the meaning of “universal” preschool has become, well, not so universal.

“People end up using ‘universal’ to cover the notion that they want to serve more than just poor kids and maybe they want to open it up to all kids,” said Steve Barnett, the director of National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to serve everybody.”

In many places, including Chicago, promises of universal programs extend only to low-income families, but other cities have branded “universal” preschool as being accessible to families of all income levels. Some districts are picking up the full tab for preschool classes, but others, such as Denver, call their programs universal but don’t promise to cover all costs. And many other programs that are billed as universal fall far short of serving every student, at least right now. For example, West Virginia passed a universal preschool bill this year while emphasizing that not all children would be served for at least a decade.

Only a very few districts have attempted to do what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done: provide free, full-day early childhood education for every child in the city whose family wants it, regardless of their income. (De Blasio’s program builds off of a decades-old city program, also called “universal,” that served only a fraction of eligible families.) And even there, where universal preschool is limited to prekindergarten, the city isn’t planning to be able to accommodate all families until next year.

That parents like Juarez can wind up perplexed about what “universal” means comes with the territory when securing preschool funding is a political feat, Barnett said.

“It’s undoubtedly confusing,” said Barnett. “If [politicians] started out trying to create a universal program and came up short, they don’t want to stop calling it universal.”

The confusion around the term doesn’t just stem from politicians and district leaders. In Denver, most news reports refer to the city’s program as “universal” preschool and many advocacy organizations have praised the city’s “universal” approach. But the word rarely appears in city-published materials, which instead say the program makes preschool “possible for all 4-year-olds.”

That may be because cities and states are still in the midst of figuring out what’s possible to do, right now. When it’s used, the term “universal” is often aspirational.

For example, in Denver, city officials gained support from more affluent voters by presenting a program that helps to cover at least a portion of every family’s preschool tuition, rather than fully subsidizing the poorest families.

“I could never have afforded it,” said Samantha Ruiz, a single parent in Denver whose 4-year-old daughter started preschool last spring. Without aid, she would have had to pay over $1,000 a month for her local preschool. Instead, she cobbles together state aid, federal Head Start funds, and money from the Denver Preschool Program to bring down the cost to just over $100 a month.

De Blasio in New York City largely repurposed what providers were already doing by funding them to extend their half-day programs to a full day. In Chicago, the mayor’s plan is intended to fill in the gaps between what the state and federal government already provide.

“In an ideal world, we’d have universal access for every child and family who needed or wanted services,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the national policy director for Ounce of Prevention, which advocates for early learning initiatives. “That said, we are in a time of limited public dollars. The way that ‘universal’ has played out is individual communities are looking at what feasible steps are.”

But sticking to what is feasible has left some families disappointed — and unable to secure the early education that might change their children’s lives.

“My family is not the only one that needs it,” Juarez said. “When they said universal, it’s not what I thought.”

Because each state defines “universal” preschool in its own way, it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of states that currently have or are working toward “universal pre-K” or “preschool for all.” Chalkbeat attempted to create that list by researching cities and states, and speaking with the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Steven Barnett. If you see a city or state missing, let us know.

This story was produced as a collaboration among the seven news outlets participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project supported by the Ford Foundation.

Take 5: Secret recalculations, education platforms and chicken nuggets

December 15, 2014 - 6:53am

Activist principal Troy LaRaviere might have discovered at least one of the “smoking guns” when it comes to the vexing question of why the district delayed releasing the school ratings for so long. Turns out, district accountability officials secretly recalculated some of the all-important growth scores that 25 percent of the ratings were based on. The odd thing is, this change, like the other changes made by officials after the new accountability system was put in place, did not seem to make a huge overall difference or change the narrative all that much. However, individual schools might feel like it is a better representation of their performance.

You may remember that this summer LaRaviere did an analysis that showed that traditional CPS schools performed better than charter schools on the growth in students’ scores on the NWEA test. Tipped off by LaRaviere, the Sun Times also did a story.

At the time, in Take 5, Catalyst noted that there was reason to be cautious about comparing growth scores from one type of school to another. Growth, as defined by CPS policy, measures the difference between the average Spring 2013 NWEA scores at a school and the average of the test taken in Spring 2014; it then looks at how the school did in comparison to a national average of growth for similar schools. This results in a complicated, mysterious formula.

Because charter schools contracts, at this point, require them to administer only the old state standardized test, the ISAT, many of the historically high performing charter schools, such as Namaste and LEARN charters, did not provide any scores for the NWEA and, therefore, were not rated this year.  Of the 58 charter schools that provided some NWEA scores, 35 did so only for Spring 2014, but not for Spring 2013. Some provided test scores for Fall 2014. CPS officials told Catalyst that they used a statistical model to come up with a growth percentile that could be used for comparison for these charter schools.

Now, LaRaviere has discovered that district officials quietly changed the growth scores, posting a new spreadsheet with altered “National Growth Score Percentiles” without letting folks know that they were making changes. At the very least, they could have indicated that the file was “updated.” According to LaRaviere, CPS officials told him that the changes were due to a rethinking of the statistical model, the formula and the realization that some charters were taking a different version of the NWEA. The result is that 20 percent of traditional schools had slightly different growth scores, while nearly all charter schools did.  

The confounding thing is that if CPS officials did this to help charter schools as LaRaviere intimates, then they failed. Thirty-one charters saw their scores drop, and 24 saw them increase. According to the Sun Times story on LaRaviere’s analysis, seven charters got better ratings because of the changes, while nine had worse ratings.

What’s more, when viewed as a whole, traditional schools still did better. Catalyst’s analysis of the ratings show that, proportinately, more traditional schools got the highest rating of 1-plus than did charter schools and fewer got the lowest rating of 3.

2. It's all about education… Underscoring the importance of education in the next mayoral election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s two main challengers, Ald. Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, outlined their platforms last week. Garcia’s presser was Thursday at Dyett High School, which community activists have been fighting to keep open ever since its phase-out plan was announced three years ago. CPS recently agreed to keep the school open but did not adopt a community-generated plan for the building, deciding instead to consider other proposals as well.

This set the stage for Garcia to lay out his argument for small, community-based schools, like the one he fought for in Little Village. Garcia also said he will open a dual language school in every community and lower class sizes.

Both Garcia and Fioretti are fighting against each other to win the progressive base. Both say they will at least put a pause on closing traditional schools and opening charter schools. They also vow to end over testing, with Garcia saying he will not require any more tests than are required by law.

Fioretti and Garcia also both support the movement to have an elected school board rather than one appointed and controlled by the mayor. Getting an elected school board will take time as state law will have to be changed. Emanuel opposes an elected school board.

Of course, if either Garcia or Fioretti gets their wish of an elected school board, their education platforms will be rendered nil as they will cede control over CPS.

On a related note, Gery Chico, who ran against Emanuel in his first election and now heads the state board of education, is throwing his support behind the incumbent.

3. The see saw of grade retention ... A new University of Minnesota study finds that the number of students being held back across the nation has fallen from 3 percent to about 1.5 percent. Chicago likely is helping to drive this trend. CPS once had one of the strictest grade retention policies in the nation; in 1997, it held back 15 percent of students in grades 3rd, 6th and 8th. In 2012, the last data readily available, only 2.4 percent of students in those benchmark grades were  retained, and only 1.2 percent of all elementary school students were held back.  

An NPR story says that experts can’t exactly account for this trend. Stringent accountability measures and No Child Left Behind whould seem to have the opposite effect with more students --  not fewer -- getting held back, the experts say.

There are three theories for the drop in retention, according to the NPR story. One is that retaining students is expensive, especially as thousands of students are being forced to go to summer school and students bunch up in grades. The other is that, even as school districts have been under pressure to raise test scores, they also need to raise graduation rates. Studies have shown that when students are held back, they are way more likely to drop out, making retention problematic.

The more optimistic theory is that students are being identified as having learning issues earlier and therefore fewer of them fail to meet promotion criteria. This might be somewhat true in Chicago, but the promotion criteria alsy have been relaxed over the years. Even as CPS is moving toward more challenging standardized tests, the district this year lowered the test scores needed to advance to the next grade without going to summer school. The result: way fewer students had to go to summer school.

4. More for early ed … Last week’s announcement that the State of Illinois won $80 million in federal funding over the next four years to expand full-day preschool options wasn’t the only good news on the education front.The City of Chicago separately won nearly $15 million to fund an additional 1,100 seats for infants and toddlers through a new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The new awards were informally announced during a major summit last week on early childhood education at the White House. City officials say the award will “help expand programs for our youngest learners by 18 percent through center-based and family child care home programs.” Elsewhere in the state, programs in Joliet, Maywood and Rockford also got extra funding from the new  $500 million federal program that links child care with Early Head Start programs.

Under the new grant program, child-care centers or family providers that partner with the grantee agree to adhere to the same, tougher federal rules that Early Head Start centers already follow.

5. Chicken nuggets... Remember when CPS told WBEZ that the ingredients in chicken nuggets were chicken nuggets. Well this time the BGA had more luck in getting the nutritional details of what children are being fed in CPS schools.  The BGA was still forced to file a Freedom of Information Act request for what should be publicly available information.  

But when they did, they found CPS appears to be operating within the latest U.S. requirements for calories, fat and salt. The current nutritional guidelines for school lunches, approved in 2010, are an improvement, though the BGA notes they still allow a high amount of salt in school meals.

CPS has an $80 million contract with Aramark to provide lunches.  

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