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

January 2, 2015 - 4:30pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fraud at two high schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dropouts, selective admissions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone for the holidays

December 19, 2014 - 12:09pm

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

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

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

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

CPS school ratings system doesn’t help parents

December 19, 2014 - 12:01pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 18, 2014 - 9:30am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing the PARCC test is the wrong goal

December 16, 2014 - 11:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When 'universal preschool' is not universal

December 15, 2014 - 11:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take 5: Secret recalculations, education platforms and chicken nuggets

December 15, 2014 - 6:53am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”


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