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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.  

Take 5: New discipline data; DFER to endorse aldermen and computer science classes

December 11, 2014 - 7:53am

1. Suspending black girls ... When it comes to suspensions and expulsions, much of the attention is on black boys. But a New York Times article points out that black girls also are disproportionately subjected to harsh disciplinary tactics. According to the latest U.S. Department of Civil Rights data, 12 percent of black girls were suspended, compared to only 2 percent of white girls. The New York Times highlights a case where two girls committed the exact same offense, but black girls received the harsher discipline.

CPS, which quietly posted new suspension and expulsion data for the 2013-2014 school year, does not provide a breakdown by race and gender. However, Illinois State Board of Education 2012-2013 data show that 30 percent of CPS students who were suspended at least once are black girls, though they make up only about 20 percent of CPS students. Interestingly, the number of black girls suspended at least once in high school is about the same as the number of black boys. Black male students, however, are way more likely to be suspended repeatedly, according to ISBE data.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said she is committed to reducing the number of suspensions and also tackling the racial disparities. The new CPS data from the 2013-2014 school year show that in one year the number of out-school suspensions was reduced by nearly 30 percent, while the expulsions were reduced by 11 percent.

2. A counterbalance to the CTU … As promised, the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform Illinois (DFER) is gearing up to spend money on aldermanic races. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that the group expects to make its first endorsements -- and donations -- in about a week. "One of our goals is to make sure the CTU does not have a monopoly on the schools debate," says the group’s spokesman, Owen Kilmer. DFER Illinois, which received $100,000 in political spending money from DFER national last week, has been been eyeing races in the 16th, 37th and 45th Wards. CTU members Guadalupe Rivera and Tara Stamps are vying for seats in the 16th and 35th Wards.

Catalyst wrote about Rivera, Stamps and six other CTU members who are running for aldermanic seats for our latest issue of Catalyst In Depth.  All eight of the educator candidates filed in time to be on the ballot.

3. Learning to code … CPS is one of about 50 school districts that pledged this week to make introductory computer science classes a standard offering to all their students.

Within three years, Crain’s Chicago Business reports, every high school in the city will offer a basic computer class and, within five years, at least half will offer a new AP computer course. CPS officials say that as an incentive for students to enroll, computer science courses will now count toward graduation instead of as elective offerings.

The changes come with the help of $2 million worth of curriculum, teacher training and stipends from Code.org, a Silicon Valley trade group.

The goal is to train students how to think creatively about computers, write code or operating instructions or use computers as design tools. "We want to teach them how to create using a computer, rather than (just) how to use a computer,” says Pat Yongpradit, the group’s director of education.

On a related note, WBEZ has a story this week on an event at Wells Community Academy High School tied to the global “Hour of Code” that used video games to teach students about coding.


4. Classroom diversity … In an effort to get more educators of color in CPS science classrooms, the National Science Foundation will provide a $3 million grant to train a new crop of African-American and Latino science teachers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The demographic makeup of teachers in CPS -- and especially those in the sciences -- has long been disproportionately white, compared to the students they serve. “We're perpetuating the cycle unless students see black and brown professionals succeeding” as teachers in the so-called STEM fields, Carole Mitchener, associate dean of academic affairs in the UIC College of Education, said in a statement.

The six-year program will pay for 30 students with bachelor’s degrees in the sciences to study at UIC's master's program in science education for free. In addition, they’ll get a $10,000 stipend during both the master's program and the next four years if they become CPS teachers. The new funding will also pay for 10 current CPS teachers who already hold master’s degrees to pursue doctorates in science education and help train the younger group of teachers. In exchange for stipends and tuition waivers, these “master fellows” will commit to continuing to teach in CPS for five years.

Earlier this month,Catalyst wrote about a larger effort to bring more teachers into the STEM fields at CPS and urban school districts. 

5. Non-profit in name onlyProPublica has a story about how some not-for-profit charter schools send all their funds to for-profit companies in what are called “sweeps” contracts. These for-profit companies have no obligations to taxpayers and often make a “tidy” amount from these deals. The charter school not-for-profit boards sometimes have no idea what is happening with the money or how the operation is run. What’s more, regulators often have trouble figuring out how much money is being spent on students.

According to the story, no one keeps tabs on how many of these “sweeps” contracts exist. By law, all of the charter school operators in Chicago are not-for-profits and some have contracted with for-profit organizations for specific services. It would be interesting to know whether any has a “sweeps” deal.





 



Illinois gets second largest preschool grant

December 10, 2014 - 2:15pm

Recognizing Illinois’ existing work in early childhood education, the U.S. Department of Education announced today that the state will receive an additional $20 million in annual federal funding to further expand preschool services for 4-year-olds.

Illinois was one of 18 states selected today to share in a new $226 million, four-year federal grant program to develop and expand preschool access to high-quality, full-day programming for children from high-needs communities. The federal government also announced several other new early childhood investments totaling more than $1 billion, about a third of which comes in the form of new public-private partnerships.

For Illinois, the preschool expansion grant money -- combined with a massive commitment of new state dollars -- should allow the state to reach its goal of creating some 14,000 full-day preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by 2018.

“Providing high-quality early childhood education is a game changer for our economy,” said Governor Pat Quinn in a statement. “While Illinois currently leads the nation in the number of three-year-olds in preschool, we have much more work to do. This major investment in Illinois’ littlest will have a big impact in many of our communities. Every child, no matter where they live, deserves the opportunity to succeed in life.”

After New York State, which received nearly $25 million for Year One, Illinois got the largest share of the funding.

In a call with reporters on Tuesday, U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the program will help “give our babies the best start possible” to the rest of their lives. The program is being jointly administered by the departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Illinois and 12 of the other winning states that already serve 10 percent or more of 4-year-olds, or that have received a federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, are getting what’s called a “preschool expansion grant.”

“These states are leading the way in expanding access to children in high-need communities,” Duncan said.

Another five states with more limited preschool offerings are getting “development grants” to create the infrastructure for and implement high-quality preschool programs.

In its ambitious application to the federal government, Illinois committed to increasing its own spending on early childhood education programs by $250 million annually by 2020 and substantially improve on and expand its existing early education programs from birth to age 5.

It’s unclear how the state will fund this commitment.  Illinois currently serves about 70,000 3- and 4-year-olds in its Preschool For All program, a number that has fallen in recent years due to cuts in state funding. 

Other announcements in early childhood ed

At a summit on early childhood education at the White House today, officials will also announce a $500 million expansion of the federal Early Head Start and child care programs -- money expected to reach more than 30,000 infants and toddlers in 40 states including Illinois. The winning providers have not been announced.

During Tuesday’s press call, Cecilia Muñoz, who directs the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that altogether the new federal funding will reach some 63,000 children across the country. Other federal actions to be announced today include new investments in so-called social impact bonds, which essentially function as a loan that gets paid back only if certain positive outcomes are met.

According to materials provided by the White House, the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Social Innovation Fund and the Institute for Child Success will make new funding available for states and communities to develop such financing tools for early childhood education. Under such a program in Chicago, J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation and other investors who will get repaid only if fewer children need expensive special education services.

Finally, dozens of private corporations and foundations today are committing an additional $330 million to pay for programing, research and other initiatives in early childhood education. The so-called “Invest in US” initiative is organized by the First Five Years Fund and includes commitments from the Walt Disney Company, LEGO Foundation and J.B. and M.K. Pritzker foundation. A portion of the newly committed $25 million from the Pritzkers will go toward social impact bond funded programs.

“There’s still too many children in America that enter school not ready to learn, including more than half of disadvantaged children,” Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, said in a statement. “That’s why government at all levels, business leaders, philanthropy and the early childhood community must come together and continue to make investments that give all kids a strong start.”

Losing students, neighborhood high schools caught in downward spiral

December 9, 2014 - 10:08am

New data show neighborhood high schools have reached a troubling milestone: Most these schools now enroll only one-fourth of the students living in their attendance area. District officials have begun to focus on the daunting task of trying to come up with a comprehensive plan to revitalizing these schools that for years have been losing students.

In 2006-2007, half of public high school students attended their neighborhood school and it was unheard-of for even the worst schools to attract just a quarter of the teens in their area. Now, 27 of 46 neighborhood high schools, or nearly two-thirds, enroll fewer than that number. (The district’s other 80+ high schools require applications and admit students based on a lottery, test scores or some other requirement.)

Some neighborhood schools, with too few students overall, are in an especially precarious situation. Ten majority-black high schools in poor neighborhoods on the south and west sides have less than 400 students, and only about one in 10 teens in the community opt to attend them. Englewood on the South Side and Garfield Park area on the West Side each have a nexus of three or four schools in this state.

As schools lose students, they receive less money and must cut back the very features that could help attract and keep students-- counselors, honors classes, elective courses and extracurricular programs--and become a shell of what they once were.

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett decided that high schools would not be among the schools shuttered during massive school closings. But with so many high schools languishing, some observers question whether it is good to let students attend high schools that can’t offer a variety of classes, activities and opportunities.

Chicago, which has lost students overall, is not the only city facing this dilemma. Across the country, the role of neighborhood schools in an era of choice has been hotly debated. The problem prompted 21 grassroots organizations, including organizations in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Minnesota, to forge a national alliance called Journey for Justice to fight against the closing of neighborhood schools in poor communities of color.

 

New York University Professor Pedro Noguera says that lots of cities have struggling neighborhood schools.

“The kids that wind up in neighborhood schools are often the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised,” he says. “We have got to look at capacity and make sure the schools have the capacity to serve them.”

Generation All seeks answers

Not all educators believe neighborhood high schools are important. Noble Street Charter founder and president Michael Milkie points out that high school students are mobile and so are able to travel to a school of their choosing.

In New York City, for example, every student must apply to high school and then are given an offer at one school. Those who are not offered a spot at any of their choices must attend a fair for schools that still have seats. For years, such a system has been discussed in Chicago.

Yet Byrd-Bennett does not seem ready to do away with neighborhood high schools altogether. Their fate has become such a pressing issue that she and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis agreed to work on the problem together. The commitment sparked an initiative at the Chicago Community Trust, Generation All, in which teachers, principals, parents and community members are coming together to make recommendations about how to jump-start schools.

Generation All plans to tackle major questions such as what it means to have equity in education, how neighborhood high schools are defined and how they can be revitalized, says Beatriz Ponce de León, who is directing Generation All.

"Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Lewis agree that given the landscape, there is a place for strong neighborhood schools,” Ponce de León says.  “These schools are community anchors."

Ponce de León points to schools such as Senn in Edgewater and Juarez in Pilsen, schools that communities are rallying around. Half of the students in Juarez’s attendance area go to the school and its enrollment is stable. Senn this year has 119 more students compared to last year.

"They are starting to become a draw because they have improved instruction, created a positive school climate and engaged the community," Ponce de Leon says.

But then there’s Manley, a West Side school that was on the upswing but is now struggling. Manley only has 356 students enrolled this year, and only 9 percent of area students attend the school.

Working in tandem with Generation All, CPS Chief of Staff Aarti Dhupelia says district officials want to make sure that there is “equity and access” among high schools. That means that students should be able to take various classes or programs, such as International Baccalaureate courses or career and technical education classes, without having to travel far from home.

Plus, all schools should have certain resources, Dhupelia says, such as an acceptable student-to-counselor ratio.

While it may take more than a year before CPS or Generation All is ready to issue recommendations, Dhupelia says that the district could act as early as this year to ensure more equity in resources.

How schools cope

Ponce de Leon says that once a high school has less than 500 students, it is difficult to offer a good range of programs, classes and activities.

One such school is Robeson in Englewood. Principal Gerald Morrow is working to attract more students through marketing, but is skeptical that his efforts will be successful and has accepted that the school will most likely remain small. When Morrow started at Robeson almost a decade ago, some 1,500 students attended the school.

In the past four years, the school declined even further, from 776 students to 295 now. Morrow has had to lay off an assistant principal, 38 teachers and five security guards. However, he kept four employees who work to provide students with support, including a college coach and a social worker.

With Robeson now a fifth the size it once was, Morrow points out how the school has changed. Robeson at one time had a strong sports program that regularly sent football players to Division 1 schools. In the 1980s, it was the last school from the public league to win a state championship.

Robeson still has sports programs, but they are smaller, as are the athletes with prospective college athletes choosing other schools.

Each year, Morrow has to figure out how to make do with less.

His office is now on the same floor as all the classes. “Every time I walk out I can see the students. I love it,” he says. “It makes this job very hands-on. I get to see the students every day…. I have had to figure out, how do I build the best small school model? I can’t go around saying ‘We had this and we had that.’ As a leader I have to make it the best that I can.”

 “I have had to reinvent myself every year,” Morrow adds. “I have to reach into my toolkit and see, what do I have right now? What do I need to do?”

On the Southwest Side, Gage Park High School is a majestic, block-long school that could enroll 1,200 students and was at capacity just four years ago, with some 90 teachers. This year, less than 500 students enrolled (about 13 percent of the students in the area) and the school has only 40 teachers.

Principal Brian Metcalf, who just arrived in late September after an abrupt retirement by the principal, is hopeful he can turn the school around. One of the first things he did when he came to Gage Park was to survey the students to see what they wanted. He then asked teachers what club or sport they might volunteer to take over. Metcalf admits that it may be hard to launch full-fledged competitive teams, but he is looking at offering intermural programs.

For three or four years, Gage Park had no dances or other activities that teenagers expect in high school—no homecoming, no pep rallies. So one of Metcalf’s first actions was to schedule a homecoming dance--that went off without a hitch.

“The students came in their suits and ties and skirts and there was not an incident,” he says. “The adults were surprised.” He now plans to hold a winter dance.

“There is quality here”

Hard hit high schools have been dealt simultaneous blows: a loss of students, the opening of charters and other new schools, poor reputations and dangerous surrounding neighborhoods. 

Morrow says he is not against competition from other schools. But like many principals of neighborhood high schools, he feels as though he is starting from a disadvantage.

“People do not have a problem with Robeson,” he says. “They have a problem with 69th Street.”

Robeson’s test scores are low, Morrow concedes. But he points out that the school’s rate of improvement is not that bad. This year, Robeson moved from the lowest rated school up a level. He says low performing students can make as much or more progress at Robeson than at Johnson College Prep, a Noble Street Charter campus with 819 students that is less than a mile away. (According to CPS, Johnson’s growth on standardized tests is “average,” while Robeson’s is “below average.”)

“We want to say to people, look at these schools,” Morrow says. “There is quality here.” 

Though Metcalf has been on the job for less than two months, he has already started going out to local elementary schools and taken parents of eighth-graders on tours of the school. He also convinced Morrill Elementary Principal Michael Beyer to let him host eighth-graders on the school’s annual high school application night.

While Metcalf says some parents seemed impressed, Beyer notes that some students did not attend because their parents viewed the school as too dangerous for their child to go to for the activity.

Tonya Hammaker, principal of Farragut, says the school also suffers, like Robeson and Gage Park, from a bad reputation. Farragut, however, is not among the lowest- performing schools: Under the last principal, it earned a Level 2 rating and got off academic probation.

Farragut also is a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate school, and has programs in ROTC, auto mechanics and law.

Yet it is still losing students and is down to 980 from 1,100 last year. A decade ago, it had 2,500 students. 

Hammaker says the biggest problems with reputation sometimes stem from alumni who are now parents and remember the rough Farragut of the 1990s. Other times it is the product of the area around the school, which many see as dangerous.

“When we talk to students at our feeder schools they say, ‘My parents won’t let me go to Farragut,’ ” she says. “We have been fighting that reputation for so many years.”

One of Hammaker’s strategies is to invite parents to come spend a day at Farragut and to see what is happening in the halls. “They will see that it is not scary,” she says. 

She also has started putting out a community newsletter, which she drops off at businesses in the community.

“That way people can see there are so many great things going on at this school,” she says. “The perception of a neighborhood school is a struggle. I don’t know what can be done about that. I don’t know how to fix it.”

 

 

More CPS grads are getting college diplomas, though racial gaps persist

December 9, 2014 - 8:16am

Back in 2006, Chicago researchers released a startling report on the post-secondary success of CPS students. The study ultimately concluded that just eight of every 100 high school freshmen would end up getting a college degree.

The numbers were worse for black and Hispanic boys. Only 4 percent obtained a degree.

Today, more CPS students are getting college degrees – 14 percent -- but the results are still unequal across race and gender, according to a new study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. The difference is most stark when comparing the outcomes of boys of color: While the rate of degree attainment remains in the single digits for black boys, at 6 percent, the rate nearly tripled among Hispanic boys to 11 percent.

“These young black men have been failed by their parents, their communities, their teachers, their elected officials,” says Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago group that seeks to eliminate the racial academic achievement gap.  “We can’t hold the colleges responsible without holding the high schools and the elementary schools and the entire community responsible.”

The Consortium’s report does not address why the rate of degree attainment grew at such different levels between different demographics groups. But senior research analyst Kaleen Healey says there are two key pieces to consider when looking at whether you’ll graduate from college: your high school GPA and the college you attend. Black students tend to have lower GPAs, which affects the type of college they have access to – often those with lower overall graduation rates, she said.

Across racial groups, females continue to have higher degree attainment rates than their male counterparts. And Hispanic girls have now surpassed black girls.

“Significant progress” driven by graduation rates

The Consortium’s so-called “degree attainment index” of 14 percent was calculated by multiplying the most recent CPS high school graduation rate, college enrollment rate and college graduation rate. Together, those three rates create a new, single metric that can be tracked over time. The rate offers a more real-time estimate than simply following a cohort of students over a decade.

In the new study, the Consortium also calculated a separate degree attainment rate that includes CPS students who did not follow a straight-forward path to college. This includes students who first enrolled in a two-year college and those who did not immediately enroll in any type of college after graduating from high school. The adjusted rate inches up to 17 percent today and would have been about 9 percent if it had been calculated in 2006.

Using either the 14 or 17 percent rate, CPS compared favorably to other large urban districts, the Consortium found. For example, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. have reported degree attainment rates ranging from 9 to 11 percent.

Nationally, less than a third of 9th-graders obtain four-year degrees by their mid-twenties.

Aarti Dhupelia, CPS chief officer of college and career success, said she was encouraged by the findings.

“Obviously the number is not high enough, but it’s significant forward progress driven by our increasing high school graduation rate, our college readiness rate and our college enrollment rate,” she said.

Indeed, researchers say the overall increase in the percentage of CPS freshmen who go on to obtain degrees from four-year colleges is due largely to improvements in the high school graduation rate, which has risen for all demographic groups. According to the Consortium’s calculations, the overall rate rose from 58 percent in 2006 to 73 percent last year. (The Consortium’s rate is higher than the 5-year rate CPS reports because of how transfers are counted.) With more students graduating from high school, a higher number are enrolling in college and getting degrees.

Still, Healey says the numbers can improve. “The next frontier is getting students through college, and this has to be a joint effort with institutions of higher education,” she said. “CPS can’t do it alone.”

Dhupelia said CPS is preparing to announce a new project called the Chicago Higher Education Compact, which will be an agreement between the district and those colleges where the most CPS graduates tend to enroll. “We’re basically asking them to join us in setting a goal around college graduation rates for CPS students,” she said. “And we’re going to work further on our high school graduation rates, college readiness rates and quality of college advising.”

Catalyst’s upcoming winter issue will take on the topic of college persistence and the sometimes challenging paths CPS grads face in getting their college diplomas. Email associate editor Melissa Sanchez at msanchez@catalyst-chicago.org to share your thoughts.

Take 5: Rahm touts City Colleges grad rate; CPS defends Confucius Institute; Lewis slowly comes back

December 8, 2014 - 9:38am

Unlike four years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not kick off his re-election campaign at a school, but he did talk about education, noting less controversial moves such as all-day kindergarten, the longer school day and the rising graduation rate -- which began under his prececessor. The campaign kickoff was at Cinespace Film Studios, which Emanuel said has provided hundreds of jobs.

Not surprisingly, Emanuel did not mention the closing of 50 schools in 2013, nor the many new schools that have opened amid declining enrolllment in the system, according to the Sun Times.

Emanuel highlighted his initiatives linking CPS with City Colleges of Chicago. Standing with him were students from Phillips and Senn high schools who qualify for the yet-to-be implemented scholarships that will provide free tuition for CPS students with B averages. Also, his second campaign commercial features City Colleges' college-to-careers program that helps students get jobs while in school. And he heralded the doubling of the City Colleges graduation rate during his tenure.  

However, The Chicago Reporter’s Curtis Black warns that the graduation figure is questionable. In a column he wrote last week, Black said that most of the graduation increase is due to City Colleges moving students who are taking courses for personal enrichment into the Associates General Studies Program. Of the 2,000 additional graduates (out of 115,000 students), 1,350 were AGS degrees, according to Black. Even the college system says these degrees are “not designed for transfer or as an occupational degree,” the two primary purposes of City Colleges.   

2. Summer job bonus… A new study finds that an experimental youth summer jobs program spearheaded by Emanuel did more than put a little cash into the pockets of some teens, the Chicago Sun Times reports. The participants--at-risk students ranging in age from 14 to 21--committed half as many crimes in the 16 months afterwards as those who applied but didn’t get in, according to a study published in Science Magazine.  In addition to getting a job as a clerk or a camp counselor, each student got a mentor.

In the 1980s and 1990s, almost every teenager who wanted a summer job got minimum wage work through the city, which had a large federal grant for the program. In the 2000s, that federal grant shifted its focus to serving teenagers year round through social service agencies, alternative schools and adult employment agencies. The result is that fewer young people were served.

But since the late 2000s, the city has pieced together money to bring back the summer jobs program. Last year, some 22,000  teenagers got jobs, at a program cost of about $1,000 for each.

3. Confucius Institute questioned... CPS officials are defending their partnership with the Confucius Institute, a free program that offers 8,000 students Chinese language instruction and cultural experiences, according to the Chicago Tribune. The program was the subject of a congressional hearing last week. Critics say the insitute paints China in too favorable a light and glosses over events like the Tiananmen Square protest and human rights violations in China.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley brought the program to CPS, where it is housed at Walter Payton High School on the Near North Side.

Several universities, including the University of Chicago, have dropped similar programs. Beyond questions about curriculum, university officials were concerned that they could not choose the faculty. While there is now a national conversation about the institute, the University of Illinois-Chicago just started the program.

Critics say the federal government could do more to finance Chinese-language programs within the United States, rather than relying on Chinese funds to do so. "Why should we hand our young people over to an authoritarian government because they supply the funds?’ asked one Chinese-language professor at the University of California at Riverside. ‘We have enough funds for that."

4. Karen slowly comes back… CTU president Karen Lewis tells the Sun-Times' Lauren Fitzpatrick that she is doing some work though not fully back on the job. Lewis had to step down temporarily after she was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. She says she has not been cleared by her doctors to go back to work full time but hopes to return to work full-time in January.

She introduced Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia at Wednesday’s House of Delegates meeting, according to the Sun Times.

“It all depends on how I feel, to be perfectly honest,” Lewis told WGN Radio. “When I come back, I will come back at the space where I was, at the level of doing the work I was doing, if that’s what my doctors allow me to do.” She said she talks with Vice President Jesse Sharkey about CTU business nearly every day. “We are very close,” she said. “He keeps that ship righted and steered.”

In the 17-minute interview with WGN Radio, she talks about the upcoming mayoral election, the elected school board initiative, and what life has been like since the diagnosis: “The problem with having a disease that’s this catastrophic on one level is you don’t know why, you don’t know how you got it, you don’t know what causes it. So you’re always in this sense of frustration about what you know and what you don’t know. And that’s just the way life is.”

5. Football for the rich … State officials say that a lawsuit filed last week over concussions student athletes have  suffered could lead to the shutdown of high school football programs that can’t afford on-call doctors for practices, computer-based screenings of the brain, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

“If this lawsuit is successful, it will present challenges to high school football programs that are ... so far-reaching for many schools, they will undoubtedly adversely affect high school programs, and could eliminate some programs in Illinois," said Marty Hickman, executive director of  the Illinois High School Association. He was responding to a lawsuit filed in Cook County last week by a former quarterback at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles who says the IHSA doesn’t do enough to prevent the potential damage players suffer from concussions. The plaintiff says he still suffers from lightheadedness, memory loss and migraines related to his own injuries in the 2000s. A recent study shows that just a single season of high school football -- even without a concussion -- can lead to brain abnormalities. 

Hickman says it would be a shame for poorer schools to drop football because of expensive new safety regulations, saying that would “create a two-tier system of high school sports in Illinois, where wealthier districts can afford new safety mandates and higher insurance costs, and poorer districts are forced to drop football.”

Don't park the PARCC exam

December 5, 2014 - 1:22pm

In districts across the country, the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers) is the new standardized assessment that will be used to measure student learning and growth under the Common Core standards. This spring, teachers, parents and, most importantly, students in Chicago will be able to do something amazing: They have the opportunity to pilot the PARCC and, in doing so, enter unchartered territory without the fear of failure.  

These are the kinds of opportunities that teachers hope for, but that come along very rarely.  While standardized assessments seem to be always preceded by phrases such as “high stakes,” meaning tests that are used to make important accountability decisions (for students, teachers, schools and districts), this year students in Chicago will be able to test-drive the PARCC with no strings attached.  So, we ask...  Why park the PARCC when we can pilot the PARCC?

There is no doubt that a great deal of hesitation and skepticism surrounds the roll-out of the PARCC. Concerns range from the difficulty and rigor of the new assessment to the technical and bandwidth capacities of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and individual schools within the district.  These concerns will not go away by postponing the test for another year.  Piloting the PARCC now provides us with the opportunity to address issues head on and find solutions.

Teachers from all over Chicago recently got the chance to assess the new assessment at a “Testing the Test” event organized by Teach Plus. Teachers there spoke about the importance of getting this assessment in front of their students sooner rather than later.  When asked what was most frightening about giving the test, first-grade teacher Katherine Kerivan said, “The unknown.  It’s like a fog we try to prepare for, but do not know if we are prepared for until it is upon us.”

“We should definitely pilot the PARCC,” Kerivan went on to say. “Taking the test is an experience to gain clarity and confidence for both students and teachers.  And if it is not punitive during the pilot year, why wouldn’t we give it a try?”  

Working through the kinks, raising standards

Change that involves technology can be difficult.  By piloting the PARCC, teachers, school staff, and district officials have the opportunity to work through technology kinks, bandwidth issues, and other technical challenges that schools and CPS may face.  What’s more, Chicago’s students will gain invaluable experience using electronic assessment tools.  Instead of students feeling anxiety and apprehension about a new assessment, they will have a practice year to learn new skills that will help them reach higher levels of success in the future.  

Parents, teachers, and community members have expressed concerns about excessive testing, the time that assessments take, and the stress that this test puts on students and teachers alike. With the focus on producing high scores for students, teachers and schools, many teachers are left to “teach to the test.” We acknowledge this and agree that teachers should not have to teach to a test. However, standardized testing is a federal requirement and a constant in our education landscape. Teachers in Chicago are fortunate that they don’t have to worry about “teaching to the test” since the PARCC is accountability-free this year.  Additionally, students in Chicago previously took the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT), which the PARCC will replace, so no additional testing time has been added.  

And unlike the ISAT, PARCC will provide student performance feedback much quicker so that teachers and school leaders can identify both areas of strengths and areas where improvement is needed, making the PARCC more useful than previous standardized tests.

Most importantly, the PARCC assessment raises expectations for what students can and should be able to do. The tasks are challenging, complex, and at times leave teachers feeling uncomfortable. This does not mean that we should shy away.  Instead, we should welcome the push into a new era where students learn to think critically and complete complex tasks that require more from them.  Our students are capable and will rise to our expectations.

Let’s seize this opportunity to pilot the PARCC in a low-stakes environment.  By doing so, we can work out any implementation issues prior to PARCC being utilized in our district and schools.  As educators, it is our job to empower students to become the best learners that they can be.  This means preparing them to successfully complete challenging, complex, and at times frightening tasks, and to provide them with the right support to ensure that they succeed.   By piloting the PARCC now, we can empower our students to be successful when it counts and the test moves to a ‘high-stakes’ assessment in 2016.

This op-ed was written by Teach Plus policy fellows Eu Choi, Sherisse Lucas, Paige Nilson, Krista Rajanen and Lindsey Siemens. Teach Plus offers fellowships that provide classroom teachers with training on advocating for policies that will provide better education for students and help retain teachers in the profession.

 

Comings & Goings: Blasingame-Buford, Jackson, Kane

December 5, 2014 - 9:19am

Roslind Blasingame-Buford has been appointed president of LINK Unlimited Scholars, which provides economically disadvantaged African- American high school youth with college preparatory opportunities. Blasingame-Buford has more than 15 years of nonprofit experience, including executive director of BUILD.

Shawn Jackson, former principal of Spencer Elementary, is CPS’ new deputy chief of teaching and learning with responsibility for  developing a systemwide framework for personalized learning, as well as supporting the district’s family engagement efforts.

 Kate Kane, the interim principal of Peterson Elementary, is now the contract principal.

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

Take 5: Arts education report, costly closed schools, PARCC concessions

December 4, 2014 - 7:12am

CPS did a better job last year of providing arts education when compared with a year earlier, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel first unveiled an ambitious arts plan for schools. Still, fewer than half of the city’s public elementary schools provided students with the recommended 120 minutes of weekly arts education last year, and teachers and other resources remain inequitably distributed.

The data point is one of many in a comprehensive “State of the Arts in Chicago Public Schools” progress report released today by the non-profit arts advocacy group, Ingenuity Inc. Executive Director Paul Sznewajs says the report shows “encouraging progress” both in terms of the number of schools participating in the voluntary Creative Schools Initiative -- which tracks schools’ arts programing and resources -- and in improvements at 371 schools that participated in both years. “We like what we see but we recognize that there’s still a lot to do and we want to keep at it,” Sznewajs says.

The Creative Schools Initiative allows Ingenuity to rate schools based on self-reported resources dedicated to arts education -- including teachers, minutes of instruction and whether the school collaborates with outside arts organizations. Although elementary schools in every part of the city got the highest rating, the data show an unequal distribution in programming. More than 40 percent of schools in the center, North Side and Far North Side of Chicago obtained the highest rating, while less than 20 percent of schools on the Southwest Side were highly rated.

Nearly nine out of 10 schools participated in the Initiative; a year earlier, just 57 percent of schools did so. Most schools that didn’t participate in the survey were charter schools. Ingenuity also announced the 100 schools that will receive a total of $1 million to improve arts programs.

2. Costly closed schools … After waging a battle for the information, NBC-5’s investigative reporters found that CPS spent $2.7 million to keep the gas and electricity on at closed schools—almost as much as CPS spent when the schools were in operation. District officials explained the money was to maintain the buildings, which makes sense considering buildings need to stay warm over the winter to prevent burst pipes and other expensive repairs.

But the costs show that CPS has already spent a good deal more money than the projected $1.8 million it expected to pay to maintain closed buildings. Perhaps more interestingly, the NBC-5 story also reveals Washington Park’s Ross Elementary was so badly damaged by vandals that an internal report shows repairs would cost $10 million more than estimated. All in all, the report calls into question the district’s assertions that it would save $43 million annually by closing the 50 schools. Despite repeated requests from reporters, district officials have never provided an itemized accounting of the estimate.

3. Flexibility on the PARCC … In a concession to principals and parents worried about scheduling test burnout in high schools, the state is giving districts options to choose from other tests besides the new PARCC. Superintendents were told about the option last week via a newsletter and have to make a decision by tomorrow.

Unlike previous tests that were administered by grade level, the PARCC is given by subject. The state chose English Language Arts III and Algebra II or Integrated Math 3 -- courses usually taken during the junior year-- as the set of PARCC tests to be given at high schools. Yet many juniors also take Advanced Placement tests, in addition to the ACT or SAT. Also, principals of large high schools say that, because students of different grade levels take these classes at different times, getting everyone into a computer lab at the same time is a scheduling nightmare.

However, in his weekly message, state Superintendent Christopher Koch announced he will let superintendents choose math and language arts courses typically offered in freshman and sophomore years. In related news, Koch wrote to the U.S. Department of Education last week asking for affirmation on how the state has interpreted federal requirements for giving the PARCC.

The letter is in response to parent groups that have been urging the state to delay the test, although ISBE says that’s impossible without risking federal funding.

4. Money for after-school programs … Dozens of extended learning programs for low-income students across Illinois were awarded nearly $34 million this week by ISBE. Programs in Chicago schools -- including some administered by CPS, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, and Enlace Chicago, among others -- got a total of $17 million. The money comes from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school, summer and other kinds of educational enrichment programs. The funding is expected to be renewed annually over the next five years.

Leaders of many organizations had complained to Catalyst back in May about how long it was taking ISBE to issue a request-for-proposals for the funding and, as a result of the uncertainty, said they were scaling back or cutting their offerings. One of the reasons for the delay, ISBE officials said, was because the state had additional flexibility this year on how to use the money. For the first time, programs had the option of using funds for student activities during the school day.

5. Better options for juvenile justice … Everyone basically agrees that locking up teenagers is not a good way to get them to straighten up, according to a new study released by Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice. These organizations interviewed 200 “stakeholders” and found that virtually no one thinks it is a good idea to remove young people from their communities.

The study points out that 90 percent of young people from Cook County who go to youth prisons end up going back. The study suggests that sentencing teenagers to alternative programs are much more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

On a related note, youth activists hoping for action on a bill that requires school districts to report suspensions and expulsions, as well as to develop action plans of they have high rates of punitive discipline, might be out of luck, at least for now. Today is the last day of the veto session and it does not look like Senate Bill 3004 will move forward.

Voices of Youth in Chicago Education held a press conference this week to urge Illinois legislature to act.

In the wake of the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., having the appropriate disciplinary measures in schools is important to everyone in the community, said Brandon Johnson of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“As a teacher, as a father, it’s an offense that this system here in Chicago, and school districts across the country, are sending a clear signal to black boys that their lives do not matter,” Johnson said.

New school ratings show mixed bag

December 3, 2014 - 4:40pm

As Phillips High School’s football team recently made its way to the state championship game, media accounts went beyond celebrating the accomplishment in sports: The all-black, all low-income school was lauded for earning the district’s highest academic rating last year.

Today’s long-delayed release of the latest ratings offer a sobering picture: Phillips is the only school to fall from the top rating last year to the bottom this year and is among only 44 schools (7 percent of 670 schools in the district, and including nine charters) to land at the bottom under a new rating system. Last year, nearly 30 percent of schools got the lowest rating.  

What happened?

For one, the district’s new rating system places more emphasis on improvement in test scores rather than the scores alone. As a result, more schools with low test scores, but a decent rate of improvement, moved up in the new five-level rating system. One example is Robeson High in Englewood, which had always landed on the bottom rung in the past but moved up a level this year. Phillips, on the other hand, had poor student growth.

Improving Phillips is more a process than an event, says AUSL spokeswoman Deidre Campbell. Phillips was turned around by AUSL in 2010. "We are expecting good things in the future," she says, noting that six of AUSL turnarounds were among the two highest ratings.

Another school, Leland Elementary in Austin, would have plummeted from the top to the bottom like Phillips. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used a power, just granted her at the last board meeting, to keep it at Level 1. In all, Byrd-Bennett used her discretion for 12 schools; half of the 12, like Leland, are welcoming schools that took in displaced students from closed schools.

Level 3 schools face consequences including having their principal and local school council removed or becoming a turnaround, in which all staff have to reapply for their jobs. (Because of the district’s stated five-year moratorium, they are not in danger of being closed). The nine charter schools among the 44 will be put on a warning list and will be shut down if they don’t improve, according to district policy.

CPS leaders have touted the new rating system as more comprehensive, pointing out that schools earn points based on overall improvement in test scores as well as improvement that narrows the academic achievement gap among black, Latino and other groups of students.  College enrollment, college persistence beyond freshman year, the percentage of ninth-graders on track to graduate, and dropout rates are also taken into account for high schools.

Byrd-Bennett says she believe the new rating system shows that good schools are spread around all areas of the city. However, one finding did disturb her: Among half of the 132 top-rated elementary schools—those rated Level 1-plus—so few black students were enrolled that no information was provided on their academic growth. 

“It does disturb me for obvious reasons,” she says.

Navigating choice

School ratings are supposed to help parents navigate the system and choose the best school for their child, providing information on options from charters to magnets to selective enrollment schools. But the information comes at the last minute, since the deadline for the application to selective enrollment and magnet schools, as well as other traditional district-run schools, is just a week and a half away. Charter schools have individual application deadlines that are usually later in the winter, in January or February.

The ratings also help district officials make decisions about which schools need intensive supports.

In previous years, the ratings were released in late September and given to parents in the form of a school report card during the November report card pick-up day. Byrd-Bennett says that did not happen this year because, as the district moved to the new system, she wanted to make sure that the information was correct. “There was a lot of double-checking,” she says.

In addition, the rating system was revised twice after its initial approval in August of 2013. One of the revisions was semantic. Schools now are rated 1-plus, 1, 2-plus, 2 or 3, rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as they were initially going to be.

The other two revisions were more substantive, giving Byrd-Bennett discretion to pick a school’s rating and letting some schools have their rating based solely on test scores instead of improvement in scores; officials say these revisions resulted in a change in rating for only 14 schools. Two schools—Grissom in Hegewisch and Prussing in Portage Park—benefited from being judged solely on scores rather than growth.

Byrd-Bennett gave a boost to one high school, Senn in Edgewater on the North Side. Rebecca Labowitz, who writes the blog cpsobsessed.com, says that Senn is one of the neighborhood high schools that parents are starting to see as a viable option. For schools like Senn, and also Amundsen and Lake View, a better rating may mean that they are able to attract more students, she says.

Welcoming schools benefit

Some welcoming schools that would have seen their rating drop significantly benefitted by having Byrd-Bennett step in and allow them to remain at Level 1.

Before the school closings, Leland School in Austin was a top-rated, small kindergarten-through-third-grade school. Its teachers and students moved into what was once May Elementary. May then became Leland, a move the district made in order to fulfill a promise that students from closed schools would only be moved to better schools.

But Austin community activists and parents thought the plan was crazy, given that the principal and staff of Leland had only been successful with little children in a small school. “They did not know how to talk to middle-school children,” says activist Dwayne Truss. “They did not have control of the school. Sources inside the school district tell me that it was a mess, that it was chaos.”

Truss says that people in the community know that the school has had problems and are more likely to take that into account than a rating.

Labowitz, whose blog caters to parents looking for advice on how to get into the city’s best schools, says that parents new to Chicago Public Schools might be influenced by a school’s rating. “A parent of an incoming kindergartener might see that their neighborhood school is a Level 3 and look for options based on that,” she says. “But once parents get more used to the system they realize that schools are much more than one number.”

Word of mouth often plays a bigger role than the ratings, she says.

Individual school reports are on school profile pages at www.cps.edu and here is an Excel file: https://www.catalyst-chicago.org/sites/catalyst-chicago.org/files/blog-assets/files/sy14_sqrp_report_.xls

State sets higher bar with revamped teacher test

December 2, 2014 - 7:10pm

Fewer teacher candidates are expected to pass the state’s revamped assessment of teaching  practice, under new cut scores approved by the state board on Tuesday. But the new test will be short-lived: Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials plan to scrap the test altogether when yet another, more comprehensive assessment comes fully online next September. Previously, 97 percent of teacher candidates who took one of the older versions of the Assessment of Professional Teaching (APT) would pass. The rate is expected to drop to 81 percent using the new APT, which was rolled out this fall.

Raising concerns about fairness to teacher candidates, board member Vinni Hall cast the lone vote against the new cut scores for the revamped APT.

“I just thought this was a little disingenuous knowing we were going to eliminate the test eventually,” Hall said after voting on Tuesday during a special board meeting.

Jason Helfer, ISBE’s assistant superintendent for Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, said there was little anybody could do about the short lifespan of the revamped APT – which is taken by prospective teachers during the student teaching phase of their coursework.

“It’s a circumstance of timing,” he said in an interview with Catalyst on Tuesday afternoon. In prior years, different versions of the APT were given to prospective educators based on the grade level they were preparing to teach.

ISBE began revising the APT about two years ago to make it the same for everybody and to align the assessment with the state’s professional teaching standards, which were updated in 2010. Two years ago “is a pretty long time in terms of thinking about potential overlap and what rules need to be in place,” Helfer said.

Meanwhile, the state had approved the implementation of another assessment -- an evidence-based review of teacher candidates’ performance called the edTPA – and made it a requirement starting next fall.

While there have been conversations between ISBE staff and faculty in the state’s teacher preparation programs about whether to phase out the APT, no date had been set.  Helfer says he expects to propose a fall 2015 sunset date for the APT at the next regular ISBE meeting in two weeks.

“My reasoning is, well, if the edTPA is assessing many of the same skills and knowledge as the APT, there’s absolutely no reason to have any candidate do both, not only because of redundancy of content but because of the cost,” he said.

Hall had also raised concerns about the financial burden of so many required tests. Apart from the APT, teacher candidates must also pass the TAP, formerly called the Basic Skills Test; and content-area tests in order to obtain their teaching license. Each assessment costs $135.

The edTPA is even more expensive; it’ll cost students $300 have portfolios of their student-teaching performance evaluated as part of that assessment.

Concerns about racial disparities

ISBE had initially cancelled its November meeting, but called for a special meeting on Tuesday in large part to set cut scores for the APT.

That’s because about 1,000 teacher candidates have already taken the new APT, but didn’t know whether they passed because ISBE hadn’t set the cut scores. The expected 81 percent passing rate is based on the results of the first group of 313 candidates who took the APT in September.

Unlike Hall, some board members expressed satisfaction after knowing the new APT is harder than the previous iterations of the assessment. Board member Curt Bradshaw spoke about the need to “raise the bar” for teachers in Illinois, echoing the rhetoric of the broader national push to improve the quality of teacher candidates and preparation programs.

“We clearly want our students to have the most prepared teachers they can possibly have and I think we’re all in favor of the teaching profession being held in the highest esteem possible,” he said.

But board Chairman Gery Chico said the state needs to tread with caution when increasing rigor for prospective educators if it comes at the expense of racial diversity. Blacks and Latinos – who are already disproportionately underrepresented as teachers when compared to public school students in Illinois -- fare significantly worse than their white counterparts on the TAP.

ISBE data show that just 31 percent of all teacher candidates who took the TAP between July and September 2014 passed all four sections. But only 13 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of blacks passed, compared to 37 percent of white students.

It’s unclear whether the racial gap will persist with the new APT. ISBE officials were unable to immediately provide passing scores broken down by race or ethnicity on the new assessment.

State sets higher cut scores for teacher test

December 2, 2014 - 7:10pm

Fewer teacher candidates are expected to pass the state’s new assessment of teaching  practice, under new cut scores approved by the state board on Tuesday. But the new test will be short-lived: Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials plan to scrap the test altogether when yet another, more comprehensive assessment comes fully online next September.Previously, 97 percent of teacher candidates who took one of the older versions of the Assessment of Professional Teaching (APT) would pass. The rate is expected to drop to 81 percent using the new APT, which was rolled out this fall.

Raising concerns about fairness to teacher candidates, board member Vinni Hall cast the lone vote against the new cut scores for the revamped APT.

“I just thought this was a little disingenuous knowing we were going to eliminate the test eventually,” Hall said after voting on Tuesday during a special board meeting.

Jason Helfer, ISBE’s assistant superintendent for Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, said there was little anybody could do about the short lifespan of the revamped APT – which is taken by prospective teachers during the student teaching phase of their coursework.

“It’s a circumstance of timing,” he said in an interview with Catalyst on Tuesday afternoon. In prior years, different versions of the APT were given to prospective educators based on the grade level they were preparing to teach.

ISBE began revising the APT about two years ago to make it the same for everybody and to align the assessment with the state’s professional teaching standards, which were updated in 2010. Two years ago “is a pretty long time in terms of thinking about potential overlap and what rules need to be in place,” Helfer said.

Meanwhile, the state had approved the implementation of another assessment -- an evidence-based review of teacher candidates’ performance called the edTPA – and made it a requirement starting next fall.

While there have been conversations between ISBE staff and faculty in the state’s teacher preparation programs about whether to phase out the APT, no date had been set.  Helfer says he expects to propose a fall 2015 sunset date for the APT at the next regular ISBE meeting in two weeks.

“My reasoning is, well, if the edTPA is assessing many of the same skills and knowledge as the APT, there’s absolutely no reason to have any candidate do both, not only because of redundancy of content but because of the cost,” he said.

Hall had also raised concerns about the financial burden of so many required tests. Apart from the APT, teacher candidates must also pass the TAP, formerly called the Basic Skills Test; and content-area tests in order to obtain their teaching license. Each assessment costs $135.

The edTPA is even more expensive; it’ll cost students $300 have portfolios of their student-teaching performance evaluated as part of that assessment.

Concerns about racial disparities

ISBE had initially cancelled its November meeting, but called for a special meeting on Tuesday in large part to set cut scores for the APT.

That’s because about 1,000 teacher candidates have already taken the new APT, but didn’t know whether they passed because ISBE hadn’t set the cut scores. The expected 81 percent passing rate is based on the results of the first group of 313 candidates who took the APT in September.

Unlike Hall, some board members expressed satisfaction after knowing the new APT is harder than the previous iterations of the assessment. Board member Curt Bradshaw spoke about the need to “raise the bar” for teachers in Illinois, echoing the rhetoric of the broader national push to improve the quality of teacher candidates and preparation programs.

“We clearly want our students to have the most prepared teachers they can possibly have and I think we’re all in favor of the teaching profession being held in the highest esteem possible,” he said.

But board Chairman Gery Chico said the state needs to tread with caution when increasing rigor for prospective educators if it comes at the expense of racial diversity. Blacks and Latinos – who are already disproportionately underrepresented as teachers when compared to public school students in Illinois -- fare significantly worse than their white counterparts on the TAP.

ISBE data show that just 31 percent of all teacher candidates who took the TAP between July and September 2014 passed all four sections. But only 13 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of blacks passed, compared to 37 percent of white students.

It’s unclear whether the racial gap will persist with the new APT. ISBE officials were unable to immediately provide passing scores broken down by race or ethnicity on the new assessment.

Comings and Goings: New principals

December 1, 2014 - 3:24pm

These interim principals have become contract principals at their schools: Peter Auffant, Shields Middle School; Patrick McGill, Westinghouse High School; Ethan Netterstrom, Skinner North Elementary; Jean Papagianis, Kilmer Elementary; Tracie Sanlin, Spencer Elementary.

Assistant principal Megan Thole has become principal at Ray Elementary.

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

Raising the bar for STEM education

December 1, 2014 - 11:54am

A teacher in West Garfield Park reads a letter to her class: A waste management company is interested in purchasing vacant land for a garbage dump. The students’ task is to decide what happens next.

In a discussion, they examine potential outcomes from various angles, such as employment opportunities, neighborhood safety, or environmental impact, to understand the costs and benefits. They take on different roles – a local resident, an environmentalist, the company’s CEO – to determine whether or not they support the proposal. Finally, they put their research together to come up with the best solution.

This exercise is one of the “real-world problems” used in the new curriculum at Hefferan Elementary, one of 11 so-called “welcoming schools” that gained a STEM program after last year’s school closings. Beyond teaching the subject content of science, technology, engineering and math, STEM education should be “a shift in instruction,” said Jodi Biancalana, the school’s math and science specialist. 

“More of the thinking is on the learners,” she said. “With real life, authentic situations, students have to do the researching, exploring, experimenting, and come up with the solutions.”

Over the last four years, STEM education has become a priority nation-wide, due to a projected increase in jobs in the field to 8.6 million by 2018. Half of the 7.4 million jobs in 2012 were unfilled.

In 2010, a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projected a nationwide demand for approximately 25,000 new STEM teachers per year over the following decade.

Yet while young people heading to college report high interest in STEM subjects, there’s far less interest in teaching these subjects: A new report from ACT found that nearly half of 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT said they were interested in a STEM field, but less than 1 percent of those reporting such interest said they planned to teach science or math.

‘Mile wide, inch deep’

The U.S. fares poorly in comparisons of the quality of U.S. math and science education to international counterparts: America ranked 51st among 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report.

“American science education has long been critiqued for being a mile wide and an inch deep – trying to cover a lot of material and not going [intensively] over the same content,” said Dr. Shaunti Knauth, the director of National Louis University’s Science Excellence through Residency project. “There has been a push for a long time to revisit how we teach science.”

National Louis University was one of 24 schools that in September received a grant from the Teacher Quality Partnership, a federal program that aims to improve the quality of teacher preparation and student learning through partnerships between colleges and schools in high-poverty communities. This year’s competition prioritized applications that focused on STEM education, with the goal of recruiting, training and supporting 11,000 STEM teachers over the next five years.

National Louis University won $8.3 million. Downstate, Illinois State University won $10.1 million.

In partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology, National Louis University will use the grant to figure out how to implement Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in its teacher preparation residency program. Teacher candidates will then take the science curriculum into middle-grades classrooms at Academy for Urban School Leadership schools.

Knauth said the NGSS picks out the central ideas in science and teaches them across several different content areas. Instead of prescribing what students should know, such as the various stages of a water cycle, the standards focus on what students should be able to do, like constructing models that explain cycles.

“NGSS expects teachers will be active in designing the curriculum and implementing it,” she said. “But it’s not fair to ask a biology teacher to incorporate engineering in her classroom without support.”

Even teachers who aren’t trained in the specific subject areas naturally want to engage their students with content that crosses over various curricula, said Biancalana, one of the two STEM coaches at Hefferan. Her job is to help teachers see that they can incorporate science content with teaching practices they’re already using in math or reading. By allowing students to reach their own conclusions about the “right answer,” she has seen more enthusiasm and engagement in the classroom.

“It’s really about creating a new culture for the students where they feel real ownership of the learning,” she said. “Everyone’s voice is important. Participation is important.”

Take 5: REACH exams, Walton's new focus, profits for testing

December 1, 2014 - 10:16am

For the first time, this year all teachers will be rated under the new REACH evaluation system that not only take test scores into account, but also student performance on exams designed by teachers. But complaints have emerged that these exams are too hard and setting students (and therefore teachers) up to fail. Saucedo special education teacher Sarah Chambers spoke about the issues at the last board of education meeting.

When questioned by board members, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett shrugged off those concerns, saying the problems with the test might be unique to Chambers’ students. But it turns out that Chambers and other teachers who have expressed concerns might be right. WBEZ reporter Becky  Vevea was given a leaked version of some of the tests and took them to Barbara Radner, the head of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. Radner, running them through some reading readability indexes, says that the tests were registering at least three grade levels higher than the grade of the students. Some of the passages for 4th-, 5th- and 8th-grade students were at a college level.

Of course, one problem with this criticism is that teachers themselves came up with the tests. CTU’s Carol Caref says that, while the exans are better than having teacher’s evaluations tied only to standardized tests, ultimately the union favors an evaluation system that is not tied to exams at all. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says the district is looking closer at the issue.

2. Taking on entire cities … In her first-ever extensive interview, Carrie Penner Walton -- the Walton Family Foundation’s point person on education issues -- talks with Forbes about moving beyond “choice.” The granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and heiress to one of the world’s largest fortunes says the Foundation’s new mantra when it comes to education policy is “accountability and reach,” with an emphasis on shutting down bad charter schools and expanding help for English language learners and special education students.

In the interview, Penner also gives vague details on the Foundation’s new five-year plan to “take on entire cities.” The Walton Family Foundation -- which has spent more than $1 billion on K-12 education since the late 1980s -- will soon announce “two to four mid-size ‘proof point’ cities with high poverty rates where they will work with on-the-ground partners to support students in and out of the school setting.” The lofty goal is to ensure every child is being “well-served within that community” and because this will require “buy-ins from major stakeholders, they’ll start with cities politically inclined to support such efforts.”

Could Chicago be one of those cities? The Walton Family Foundation has already had a huge presence here. In 2012, CPS charter schools received more startup funds from the foundation than any other city, getting a total of $3.8 million, according to a Chicago Sun-Times story. Also, that year, CPS received money from Walton for community outreach during the school closings. In 2013, Chicago charter schools got $1 million, including $250,000 for each of the two Horizon Charter Schools, opened by Concept charter operator after they were approved by the independent Illinois State Charter School Commission over the objection of CPS.

3. Phillips loses, but wins… As you probably know by now, Phillips High School’s football team lost the state championship to Rochester High School. If they won, they would have been the first CPS team to win a state championship in football since Robeson in 1982. Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent out a statement congratulating the team. “In defying great obstacles, they have defined what it is to be a great team, and they have developed the personal characteristics that will sustain them into the next season and – most importantly – throughout the rest of their lives.”

Emanuel didn’t note, however, that lack of resources for public school teams is one of the obstacles. In an article from the Toronto-based National Post, coach Troy McAllister says he took over the team because no one else wanted to. The team had no footballs, no pads and only 12 players.

In a DNAinfo article, McAllister elaborated: “It's almost impossible to believe with the talent and coaches that are in the city that there's never been a state champion. But when you see the resources that are available to many Public League schools, you see there's a problem… All these Catholic League and private schools have their own stadiums, and that's not the case with a lot of Public League teams. It's not an excuse — you have to overcome it — but it is a big disadvantage.”

4. Classes on computers… As more school districts move toward so-called blended learning that incorporates techonology, the Washington Post asks whether these programs are indeed less expensive. The Washington D.C. Public Schools’ manager of blended learning says these programs are actually more expensive.

One example is a math class at a middle school, with 200 students sitting at computers but the same number of teachers as in a traditional classroom. Start-up costs were high, including $600,000 from the D.C. Public Schools to renovate the room and $400,000 from foundations for software.

Chicago’s foray into blended learning seems to be focused on using computers to provide intervention to help students do better on standardized tests. Byrd-Bennett calls these “personalized learning” instruments. In August, CPS awarded two contracts, each for $250,000, to companies that promise to assess students and match them with the right educational software to improve their skills.

5. On that note… The growth of “personalized learning” tools has helped create tremendous profits for the testing industry. An article in EdWeek explains how the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, as well as “new interest in real-time online assessments and school officials’ desire to link tests to academic content with the goal of personalized’ learning” have helped the industry grow by 57 percent over two years ago.

The research comes from Software & Information Industry Association, a trade group that collected a sample of data from testing companies and then extrapolated the information across the industry.

The article notes that the growth will likely level off over the next few years, as states and districts settle into new assessments.  Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division at the SIIA, says “a lot of the purchases made are [for products] they're going to use for a while."

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