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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, 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 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:

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, 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 and here is an Excel file:

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:

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."

Study highlights benefits of full-day preschool in Chicago

November 25, 2014 - 4:38pm

Research has long shown how preschool attendance can have lifelong academic and other benefits for children, especially those from low-income families. But a new study on Chicago’s child-parent centers found that children attending a full day of preschool do even better on a range of kindergarten readiness assessments than those who attend preschool for just part of the day.

Children who attend for a full day also have better attendance, are less likely to be chronically absent and demonstrate more gains in social-emotional development and physical health. 

The research -- from the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs -- comes just weeks after the city agreed to temporarily expand the number of half-day slots available in child-parent centers using a unique loan that ties repayment to a reduction in children needing costly special education services.

The study’s lead author, Arthur Reynolds, who has researched Chicago’s child-parent centers for decades, said he was surprised by the consistency and size of the impact of extending the hours. Previous research, he said, had already established that children in full-day classes make more progress on literacy and math skills than children in half-day classes.

“But we found even larger differences in social-emotional learning -- in terms of peer relationships, following directions, managing emotions and experiences – and also physical health, which has never been looked at,” Reynolds said.

Scores for literacy and cognitive development were not significantly different between children from the two groups, the study found. But, overall, children who participated in a full-day program scored 22 points higher on their “total school readiness score,” as measured by the observational tool Teaching Strategies Gold.

Reynolds said the benefits found by extending preschool hours in child-parent centers could likely be replicated at other kinds of high-quality preschools. Historically, most publicly funded CPS preschool classrooms have been half-day, meaning children attend class for less than three hours per day. CPS officials said that currently some 563 of the district's 663 preschool classrooms are half-day.

The study, conducted in the 2012-2013 school year, focused on about 1,000 low-income children who attended one of the 11 child-parent centers in Chicago that offered both full-day and part-day classes that year. (The number has since grown, with 13 of the city’s 16 child-parent centers now offering full-day classes.)

Child-parent centers are unique because of their wraparound services and requirements of parental involvement. They were started in Chicago in the 1960s but have been significantly improved and expanded across the Midwest since 2011, through a $15 million federal Investing in Innovations (i3) grant that’s being managed by Reynolds and a team from the University of Minnesota.

Longer days lead to better attendance

The new study – which is being published in tomorrow’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association -- found that children in full-day classes were also more likely to show up to school. The average daily attendance rate among children in the full-day cohort was 85.9 percent, versus 80.4 percent among those in the half-day programs. Chronic absenteeism, meanwhile, was cut by nearly half.

Reynolds said parents are more committed to sending their children each day to a full-day, high-quality preschool program. He also recognized the transportation and logistical barriers that make it challenging for parents to send their children to half-day preschool programs. A recent report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that children are most likely to miss preschool when they’re sick, although logistical obstacles for families account for nearly one-fifth of all absences.

Parents say many of those obstacles “arise because of difficulty with half-day preschool schedules,” according to the Consortium study. “Half-day programs require that parents find child care for the remainder of the day and arrange drop-off/pick-up in the middle of the day.”

In recent months, a new coalition of unions and community groups has issued a call to city officials to extend the hours of early childhood education programs and child care so that parents can work full-time.

In fact, Reynolds says the main reason that many of Chicago’s child-parent centers even offer full-day preschool classes is because of the insistence of parents who otherwise refused to enroll their children. Because the federal grant money only covers a half-day of class, “principals agreed to use their own dollars to match the i3 grant,” he said.

Take 5: Teacher evaluation study, pension reform ruling, foreign language high school

November 24, 2014 - 7:34am

While most teachers still agree that the new CPS evaluation system will lead to better teaching and improved learning, there’s been an overall decrease in satisfaction with the system, a new study finds. In addition, nearly four out of five teachers say the new system has increased their stress and anxiety levels, with the majority saying the process takes more effort than it’s worth.

The report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research comes two weeks after CPS released data on how teachers performed last year under the new system, Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students (REACH Students). The system is now in its third year.

The study found that two-thirds of teachers believe their evaluations rely too heavily on “student growth” metrics, which last year accounted for up to 25 percent of REACH ratings. In addition, half of the teachers think the assessments used to calculate student growth are not fair ways to measure learning -- with special education teachers being especially concerned about their fairness.

Apart from its report on teacher and principal perceptions on REACH, the Consortium also released an analysis of the ratings data from Year 1.

2. On the hook… At least for now, Chicago Public Schools better plan on paying up its pension obligation. Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz ruled on Friday that the pension reform bill passed last year is unconstitutional. Now, the battle over pension reform will move to the Illinois Supreme Court as Attorney General Lisa Madigan immediately announced that she planned to appeal.

That pension reform, which reduced benefits for employees, did not apply to CPS teachers. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel would likely want to pursue similar pension reform for teachers, if the reform bill holds up. After taking years of a pension holiday, CPS had to write a check to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund for $634 million this year. And that pension obligation is slated to rise to $724 million in 2017.

This year, as the mayoral election approaches, CPS officials found money to avoid major cuts. But they have warned that without some relief, those cuts are pending. The CTU, however, argues that the city needs to stop trying to get out of pension obligations. “The only constitutional solution going forward is to find ways of raising revenue in both Illinois and the city of Chicago,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey in a statement.

3. Good news… CPS announced that 20,000 students took Advanced Placement tests in the spring of 2014, earning the district a place on the AP Honor Roll for the second year in a row. This is the fifth year that the College Board has honored school districts that have increased access to AP classes and increased the number of students getting college credit for AP.

CPS has yet to post detailed 2014 school-level data on AP participation. But in the press release on the honor roll, it says that the district is now a leader in participation in AP by black students. It also says the number of black students earning a 3 or higher, which is what is needed to get college credit, has increased.

Still, there likely remains a big gap between white students and black and Latino students. In 2013, 30 percent of white high school students took AP classes and 64 percent of those classes were passed. Only 14 percent of black students took AP classes and only 17 percent of Latino students. In 2013, 17 percent of black students passed, and 35 percent of Latino students did so.

Low pass rates is one reason many CPS high schools are starting to offer dual credit programs in which students can take classes certified by City Colleges of Chicago.

4. Immigration news … President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that he will use executive action to grant temporary status to 5 million undocumented immigrants could have a significant impact on millions of students in public schools in the U.S. An estimated 7 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grades have at least one parent who is undocumented, according to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project; in Illinois, it’s about 8 percent.

"If this alleviates that situation, it's going to create a sense of security for families that will allow students to focus on their schoolwork" instead of worrying their parents or other family members might be deported, said Claire Sylvan, executive director of the International Network for Public Schools, a network of 17 high schools around the country that serve newly-arrived immigrants and English-language learners, in an interview with EdWeek.

Some teachers in Chicago used last week’s announcement as a teaching moment with their students, including Hancock High School’s Ray Salazar, who publishes the White Rhino blog. Salazar wrote about his students’ reaction to the decision last week.

5. A foreign language high school? A group of parents with children at language-focused elementary schools is pushing CPS to create a high school language academy, DNAinfo reports. While there are four public elementary schools where students can intensively study languages, it’s extremely difficult for these children to continue their language studies in high school. The city’s top selective-enrollment high schools offer numerous language classes, but getting into them isn’t easy and the language offerings differ at each school.

"CPS invested all this money and time, and the kids invested, and the families invested," says Michele Dreczynki, a LaSalle II Magnet School parent. "Say you take eight years of Arabic, and the high school you go to, they don’t offer it. Then you’ve lost the investment you put in."

Parents have made their case to top city and CPS officials, and district spokeswoman said CPS would consider community requests though there isn’t a formal process for proposing new selective-enrollment schools. The language academies are magnet schools and admissions is through lottery with consideration of socio-economic tiers. If the district were to create a new magnet high school focused on language, it would likely mirror the demographic makeup of the elementary language academies -- which are disproportionately whiter and more affluent than the rest of CPS.

One final note ... Voters in 36 of the city's 50 wards will have the opportunity to vote in a symbolic referendum on whether Chicago should have an elected school board. A coalition of unions and community organizations behind the ward-level campaign will turn in more than 50,000 signatures to election officials today, which is the deadline to file for items -- and candidates -- to appear on February's municipal ballots.

Parents push for testing 'opt-out' bill

November 21, 2014 - 3:22pm

As they continue to push state education officials to ask the federal government for a waiver to delay a new standardized test scheduled to be given next year, parent advocates announced Friday they also want the state legislature to pass a bill allowing parents to opt their child out of the exam. The group made the announcement on their way to deliver a petition with more than 3,700 signatures to state education officials, who were holding a budget hearing at the Thompson Center. The petition demands that the state ask for a waiver on the new test called the PARCC.

The PARCC is aligned with new Common Core standards, which are supposed to be academically tougher than the existing state standards. In addition to multiple-choice questions, the PARCC also include tasks such as drawing graphs and aswering more complicated questions.

Concerns about the PARCC include how schools will manage the logistics of administering the computer-based test to the time it will take to answer the questions.

State Sen. William Delgado and Rep. Will Guzzardi will be the sponsors of the opt-out bill and plan to introduce it in January, said Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand. Last year, when parents tried to opt their children out of taking the ISAT (the state-mandated standardized test), the state board sent CPS a letter stating that parents had no right to do so. As a result, students themselves had to refuse.

A couple thousand students opted out of the test, activists say.

Parent Tara Baldridge, who spoke at the press conference and is running for alderman in the 8th Ward, says the current law requires schools to administer state-mandated tests. Baldridge said her 13-year-old son was fine with telling his teachers he did not want to take the test.

“But what about children who are five or nine?” Baldridge said at the press conference. “Let me make clear, the law does not currently allow parents to make the decision."

Chicago parents were joined at the press conference by several from the suburbs. Cedra Crenshaw, who has children in school districts in Glen Ellyn and Bloomingdale, says it is especially important to her that there is a law allowing her to opt out because she would not want the task handed to her fifth-grader, who has special needs. “My child cannot make a conscientious decision on his own,” she said.

Saul Lieberman from Evanston said he thinks the PARCC is too long and he is against over-testing in general. “I would rather my children do art or music or play with friends,” he said. It has not been explained to parents how these tests benefit children, Lieberman said.

High school principals are especially worried about the logistics of the PARCC. Lara Pruitt, who has a son at Lane High School, says that 30 superintendents of high school districts have signed a letter to the state saying they don’t want to administer the test this year. They foresee having major problems  trying to figure out schedules as students take the PARCC.

Pruitt said this is especially complicated because at the same time students are taking the PARCC, they also have to take Advanced Placement exams. At Lane, more than 5,000 AP exams are taken each year, she said.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett also does not want students to take the PARCC this year. She has sent letters and is in conversation with state and federal officials. Byrd-Bennett’s major objection to the PARCC is that, given the other tests given by the district, Chicago students will wind up taking too many exams.

Take 5: New rating system OK'd, Oppenheimer awards end, Advance Illinois report

November 20, 2014 - 7:56am

Screaming from the audience, reprimands from Board President David Vitale and security guards carting people out are nothing new to CPS Board Of Education meetings. But the audience was much larger, more engaged and emotionally charged than usual at Wednesday’s meeting, which was held in the late afternoon in the auditorium of Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side. Many parents and teachers thanked board members for moving the meeting into the community, to which Vitale responded that they’re giving serious thought to holding more meetings outside of downtown headquarters.

It was the first opportunity for many to openly ask the Board to seek legal recourse over a series of financial transactions with banks since the publication of a Chicago Tribune investigation concluding they cost millions more than traditional municipal bonds. More than a dozen speakers  -- including mayoral candidate and Ald. Bob Fioretti -- took on that issue during the public comment period, though board members did not say much in response.

Other speakers included many parents from Mollison and Cook elementary schools who  complained about insufficient resources to pay for teachers and other key staff, while two opposing groups from Decatur Classical School debated whether the city should divert $15 million in tax-increment financing to expand to seventh and eighth grades and relocate into the shuttered Stewart Elementary.

In addition CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district is looking into raising the wage for school employees and those of contractors to $13 per hour, mirroring a new city policy. The Board also approved another change to the district’s school ratings process, which Byrd-Bennett called a “perfecting” of the system already approved in 2013. To show the district had taken account public input on the controversial changes, the CEO asked several school representatives in the audience to stand and read a letter of support from Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The final vote was not immediately available Thursday morning.

2. Goodbye Oppy awards … After 39 years of supporting CPS educators, the Oppenheimer Family Foundation is ending its Teacher Incentive Grant and OPPY achievement awards. Ted Oppenheimer said the work involved in putting together the annual grants has gotten exhausting for him and his wife, Susan. “There’s got to be a better way to support Chicago public school teachers without putting that much pressure on her,” he said.

The Oppenheimers plan to partner with another education organization through which to funnel their money and continue their mission of supporting teacher-developed, hands-on projects in classrooms. Over the years, the foundation has awarded grants totalling $3.7 million to 7,348 teachers.

“To see the enthusiasm of the kids, the excitement of the teachers being able to do projects they would not been able to afford to do otherwise has been very uplifting for us,” said Oppenheimer, a former CPS teacher himself. “And when we have [our award ceremony] each year and hand out the grants, we try to make them feel as positive about being a CPS teacher as possible, as opposed to how they’re being knocked down by politicians. We’re there. We have their backs.”

In its final ceremony this evening, the foundation will award 263 grants totalling $157,000 in addition to recognizing two educators for their work: jazz musician Diane Ellis, a band instructor at Dixon Elementary, and Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president and former chemistry teacher.

3. A complete picture, but not a pretty one overall. There’s good news, albeit sprinkled among plenty of not-so-rosy statistics, in The State We’re In 2014, a report from the group Advance Illinois. While the report doesn’t provide much in the way of “new” news, it offers a comprehensive look at how Illinois compares to other states when it comes to education from preschool through college.

Overall, elementary school students have made small gains in reading and math, with CPS students making gains at a faster rate than students elsewhere. It’s worth noting that the report measures gains made on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, which is a tougher test than the state’s ISAT and is probably more in line with the new Common Core-aligned tests that students will take this school year. Plus, high schools are offering more college-level courses, and more students, including students of color, are graduating.

Yet more students are living in poverty; fewer children are enrolled in preschool; the achievement gap between minority and white students hasn’t narrowed and remains widest for black students; minority students are still less likely to graduate from college; and the cost of college has become prohibitive.  Currently, a family earning $50,000—near median household income for the United States—would have to pay 32 percent of its annual income for one child to attend a public, four-year university in Illinois, the report states. That puts Illinois 47th among the 50 states for college affordability.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, acknowledges that there’s good and bad news in the report. The circumstances children and schools face are more challenging, given the increase in poverty and the growing number of students who are English-learners.  But the signs of academic progress, however small, show that “if we make the right investments, who knows what we could do?” Steans points out.

4. Illinois spending problem…  The Advance Illinois report points out that Illinois remains shamefully almost-dead-last among the 50 states when it comes to K-12 education funding. Illinois provides just 25 percent of total public education dollars, while other states average 50 percent; and state per-pupil spending on education has fallen by $1.4 billion in the past decade.

The lack of state funding and the funding formula have put many school districts in a bind. Using Illinois State Report Card data, the Chicago Tribune found that, in 2013, 500 of 860 school districts in Illinois spent more than they took in. Overall, school districts were almost $1 billion in the red.

But a big part of that $1 billion was CPS. CPS spent $5.7 billion, while only bringing in $5.4 billion, according to CPS’ report card. Only one year in the past decade did CPS spend less than it took in. However, 2013 was one of the worst years.

Meanwhile, the state average spent per student rose to $12,045, about 2 percent more than the year before. The Chicago Tribune points out that some school districts in Illinois are now spending more than $20,000 per student.

Lawmakers have done nothing to change that equation—and appear poised to continue doing same. The latest funding reform bill Senate Bill 16, , which was bantered about this week in a joint House committee hearing, is “…actually a dead bill, a repository of school funding reform bill language in a vehicle that is stalled and will cease to exist when the 98th General Assembly expires on January 13,” according to Jim Broadway of State School News Service.

5. A new vision … Leaders from school districts across the state say they want teachers to be represented on the state’s board of education, licensure reciprocity with neighboring states and expansion of broadband Internet access.

These were among the 25 education policy recommendations released this week by an alliance of school management organizations. Other suggestions in their report Vision 20/20 include prioritizing effective educators, learning integrity, shared responsibility, and equitable and adequate funding.

“We’re good at knowing what we lobby against [...] but this is an effort to lobby for things we are for,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

The alliance doesn’t take a stance regarding the controversial PARCC assessments set to roll out in the spring. Jason Leahy of the Illinois Principals Association said his group supports “what the elements of PARCC are attempting to do,” such as providing more immediate instructional feedback and growth assessment aligned to Common Core, but urged caution.

“We’ve got to be very careful moving forward with how high-stakes we’re making this assessment,” Leahy said. “Because we’re hooking a lot of big decisions to that.”


Asking the hard questions

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

When he ran for mayor back in 2011, former Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle was considered a favorite among progressives but a long shot to win. He got 9 percent of the vote, coming in a distant third place behind Rahm Emanuel—who won outright with 55 percent—and Gery Chico, with 24 percent. Del Valle and Chico split much of Chicago’s Latino vote.

Since then, del Valle has largely stayed out of the headlines, though he’s keeping busy. Gov. Pat Quinn appointed him to the Illinois Commerce Commission in February 2013. In addition, he remains deeply committed to education issues, which he championed as a state senator. He chairs the Illinois P-20 Council, which advises the state on how best to align the educational system from preschool to college; is the vice chairman of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission; and sits on the boards of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois and the Federation for Community Schools.

In a recent interview, del Valle gave his take on the upcoming election—including the 11th-hour entry of Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia into the race—and the state of Latino political power in the Windy City. The following is an edited version of the hour-long conversation. 

Why aren’t you running this time around? Because I don’t have millions of dollars. I already went down that path. Gery Chico raised more than $3 million and he still couldn’t compete with the $12 or $13 million that Rahm spent. And the business sector here in this city, the corporate sector, is firmly behind the guy who they feel is best going to protect their interests. You think the business folks out there want to hear what I have to say?

How is this race different from the one in 2011? In 2011, it was an open seat. No incumbent, so there was no record to look at. And you had four candidates that really competed and stayed in it until the end. There were lots of small organizations out there that sponsored candidate forums. I went to most of them. Rahm Emanuel went to none of them. And while we were spending our time in these forums, sometimes with just a handful of people in the audience, Rahm Emanuel was running his television commercials. He had a voice that could be heard in people’s living rooms throughout Chicago and there was really nothing to counter that. 

What were the issues back then? At those forums I, along with other candidates, talked about the neglect of our communities and the need to elect a mayor that would prioritize neighborhood development over downtown development. When you look at tax-increment financing (TIFs) and other methods for stimulating economic activity, we see that not nearly enough has happened in the neighborhoods. Yet those tools that were established to develop blighted areas were used downtown. So those kinds of issues needed to be talked about. Certainly the schools needed to be talked about. Back then, I talked about how we were developing a dual system of public education. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the dramatic increase in charter schools and the reduction in resources to neighborhood schools.

Has anything about these issues changed under Emanuel’s tenure? They’ve been accelerated. Look, there have been some jobs created. But they’re jobs in information technology, in the financial sector. I don’t see a whole lot of folks from my neighborhood working on LaSalle Street. And while this administration says we’re developing more International Baccalaureate programs and magnet schools, the fact of the matter is that some of that is being done to accommodate the newer population. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t happen. What I’m saying is there has to be a balance.

So when you’re doing all of this and creating the 1871s [a hub for digital start-ups] and the high-tech sector and trying to attract all of this economic activity, you’ve got to have activity going on at the neighborhood level. You’ve got to plan for attracting more manufacturing jobs. You’ve got to train folks in the neighborhood high schools for college and careers, but also ensure that they have opportunities to develop some skills to go into advanced manufacturing.

Aren’t some of these job trends inevitable, though? We’ve seen an economy that has a very small percentage of people doing better than ever, while the rest of us, the middle class, is shrinking and the low-income population growing. Chicago is a reflection of what’s happening nationally in many respects, but it’s up to the political leadership to tackle these issues head-on and advocate for the kinds of policies that allow you to improve some of this.

Some folks will say this is inevitable and just the normal natural flow of things. To a certain extent that’s true. You can’t stand in the way of progress, some will say. I don’t want to stand in the way of progress. I just want to make sure everyone is brought along. 

We need to hold every elected official accountable for what they’re doing to ensure that promise of opportunity remains for all.

What’s been the impact on Latino neighborhoods? This is the sad part. When Latinos had no political representation, those of us who demanded political representation stood together and fought. We won some of those battles, and today we have political representation even though from a demographic standpoint we’re still underrepresented. But we’ve kind of reached a critical mass. We’ve been able to create Latino caucuses, yet sometimes it feels like we have less power than we did before, because Latinos and elected officials have focused on their own careers and agendas and have made accommodations with the power structure that allowed lots of things to happen around them. Look at the kind of residential development that has taken place in the West Town area or in Pilsen. 

Yes, many of these elected officials advocate on issues like immigration reform, but the holistic approach that we envisioned back when we had no political representation has gone by the wayside. 

How do Hispanic voters feel about Emanuel? I know a lot of people appreciated his promise to welcome a number of undocumented Central American children who’d been detained at the Mexico-US border earlier this summer. Look, he’s going to make himself attractive to them. That’s the sad part about politics and the huge amount of money that is involved. You have candidates that because of their multi-million dollar war chest are able to create new images of themselves in the voters’ eyes and the past is forgotten.

It would have been nice if he had taken those kinds of positions when he was in the White House and in Congress, where he actually advised his colleagues not to go anywhere near immigration reform. Rather than thinking of what he did or failed to do during those years, they’re going to think, ‘Wait a minute, he said he’d take the Central American kids? Therefore he must be our friend.’ That’s human nature.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia recently threw his hat into the mayoral race. What do you think? We’ll have a much livelier discussion around the key issues, which is what is desperately needed in the City of Chicago.

How much do you think he’ll be able to pull in the Latino vote? There are lots of Latinos who will support a Latino name on the ballot the same way African-Americans supported Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate in the state of Illinois and in the presidency. It’s about empowering an electorate.

But Chuy’s reach is broader than that. When he supports an increase in the minimum wage, this affects all people, all residents. This is not a Latino proposal, but a proposal to benefit all Chicagoans. That’s the case whether we’re talking about the minimum wage or how TIF dollars are used or the repression caused by the abuse of the placement of street cameras that originally were for the purpose of increasing safety but have been used by this administration for the purpose of generating revenue.

Do you support him? I’ll vote for him. I was ready to vote for [Chicago Teachers Union President] Karen Lewis, but she’s not in the race; Chuy is in the race. I’ve talked with him at length. It’s a big job just getting him on the ballot but I’m hoping some labor groups get behind him, that teachers and others will get behind him. The dynamics are always different. Their personalities are different. Karen had a different kind of base than Chuy does. How those two meld has yet to be determined.

Did you think Lewis had a shot against Emanuel? The dynamic Karen brought in was that there was no other African-American out there working it. And because she took on Emanuel as Chicago Teachers Union president and beat him, a lot of people out there said, ‘Wow, if she beat him once she can beat him again.’ There was a feeling out there that Karen would be the most competitive. Not that she would necessarily win, but there would have been a competitive race where these issues could be debated. Where you could force Emanuel to answer the question: How are you going to uplift these neighborhoods? Give us your plan for a second term. Those are the kinds of hard questions that need to be debated within an electoral process, because after it’s over, those tough questions are not going to be asked. The City Council, filled with lapdogs? They’re not going to ask those questions.

Are you saying that even if Karen ran and lost … It’s an essential component of our democracy to have a competition and electoral process that allows for a debate on issues that are of concern to people. If you don’t have that opportunity, then we all lose.

Ald. Bob Fioretti is running on a progressive platform. What do you think is going to come of his campaign? Well, I’m glad he’s there. He’s a nice guy. But he doesn’t have the standing that Karen had. I’m sure that Bob is going to raise some of these issues. But having personally gone through this many times over a 25-year period, it’s not enough to raise questions—it’s how are you able to get people to listen. And how do you engage a wide audience that then translates into having a lot of questioners out there? People asking those questions in the barbershop, at the grocery store, in front of schools where they’re waiting for kids to get out when the bell rings.

What advice would you give to Rahm right now, if he would listen?  Well, he doesn’t listen.


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