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Updated: 4 hours 29 min ago

In the News: Emanuel sees 80% grad rate in CPS' future

March 10, 2014 - 7:00am

Thursday night at a University of Chicago panel with the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the prediction that Chicago Public Schools are on track to have an 80 percent graduation rate in four years. (WLS)

An 80-percent graduation rate in Chicago public high schools would be a big improvement, but CPS cautions this would exclude students attending charter schools, special ed schools, the alternative schools where disruptive students are sent and schools in jails.

SALARY CUT: Chicago State University trustees extended President Wayne Watson's contract Friday and also reduced his salary to comply with a new state law that lowers the amount public university employees can earn if they are drawing a pension from a prior state university job. (Tribune)

RENT PLAN FOR CHARTERS: Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to charge rent to charter schools, but education experts say his proposal might be difficult to put into effect. (The New York Times)

AGRICULTURAL EDUCATION: A national curriculum for secondary agricultural education has spread to 655 teachers in 32 states since it started five years ago, and officials hope to continue that kind of growth. (Education Week)

In the News: SAT changes to help low-income students

March 7, 2014 - 9:50am

Saying that the culture and practices that have risen up around the SAT drive "the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," the head of the College Board announced this week a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional. In addition, low-income students will now be given fee waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges at no charge. (The New York Times)

SCHOOL COUNCIL BOOSTER: "Our students need the voice of parents," writes Juliana Stratton, Parent Representative and Chair, Kenwood Academy Local School Council, in a letter to the editor urging people to run for seats on the school councils. "They need all of us working with the faculty and administration to make sure that decisions that are being made are in the students' best interest." (Tribune)

SCHOOLS LEAN GREEN: The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the state’s three winners of the Illinois Green School Award program, which recognizes schools that save energy, reduce costs, protect student and staff health and wellness, and offer environmental education. The three recipients are Woodland Primary School in Gages Lake, Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, and Evanston Skokie School District 65 in Evanston.

CHARTER EMPIRE THREATENED: Eva S. Moskowitz, a New York City charter school founder, is locked in combat with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who repeatedly singled her out on the campaign trail as the embodiment of what he saw was wrong in schooling, and who last week followed his word with deed, canceling plans for three of her schools in New York City while leaving virtually all other charter proposals untouched. (The New York Times)

In the News: Bill stripping state charter commission's power advances

March 6, 2014 - 9:44am

The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Wednesday passed chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia's proposals to let local school boards - or if not them, then the voters of a district - decide whether a charter school will be established and supported with their tax dollars, no matter what an appointed state commission decides. (Illinois School News Service)

Chapa LaVia's bill would prevent a decision by the Commission to overturn a charter application denial by a local school board from being implemented, unless district voters side with the state and approve the charter school.

SAVING CERAMICS: An online petition by a former student has been started to save Lane Tech High School's award-winning Ceramics Department.  Artists and educators at Lillstreet and ArtReach are also urging the administration CPS  to reinstate all ceramics classes at Lane Tech. "Please do not deprive future classes of Lane Tech students of the vital and full programming of the Ceramics Department," an open letter from the non-profit ArtReach at Lillstreet says. A Facebook page, Support Lane Tech's Ceramic Department, also has been started.

LSC DEADLINE: Chicago Public Schools is extending its Local School Council election candidate-filing deadline from Feb. 26 to March 14. (Hyde Park Herald)

STUDENTS SUE STATE: Teacher tenure laws are being challenged in California by a group of nine public-school students who are suing the state, claiming state laws mandating teacher seniority end up protecting incompetent teachers. (CBS News)

TEACHING CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY: A report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project shows that coverage of the civil rights movement in U.S. classrooms remains woefully inadequate—three years after a first-of-its-kind study found that more than half of the states fail at teaching the civil rights movement to students. Generally speaking, the report found that the farther from the South – and the smaller the African-American population – the less attention paid to the movement in schools. Read the report here.

Most schools still lack candidates for local school council elections

March 5, 2014 - 6:04pm

The deadline for local school council candidate nominations is next Friday, but so far less than a third of schools even have enough parent candidates to fill available seats on the governing boards.

In order to encourage parents and community members to run for the councils, CPS launched an interactive online map today that shows the number of candidates – and vacancies -- at each LSC in the district.

“We created this tool to provide those who are interested in running for their LSC an understanding of what schools are still in need of candidates,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “I encourage parents and community stakeholders that want to make a difference at the school level to submit their LSC nominating form.”

CPS extended the original Feb. 26 deadline for nominations until March 14 in order to get more parents and community members involved.

CPS data from March 4 shows a wide range of interest from parents and community members at schools across the city. The most contested parent race, according to the data, is Skinner North Elementary School, on the Near North Side, where 17 parents have filed to run for six available spots on the LSC.

Meanwhile, not a single parent has filed to run at 86 schools, including Harte Elementary and Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, King College Prep in Bronzeville, Shields Middle School in Brighton Park and DeVry Advantage Academy High School in Avondale.

Checks and balances

Similarly, just over half of all schools don’t have enough candidates to fill available seats for community members. At 144 schools, not a single community member has submitted an application to run.

Swift Elementary School in Edgewater has garnered the most interest so far among community members, with seven nominations.

Elections at elementary schools will be held on April 7, while elections for high school LSCs will take place the following day.

Each LSC is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative. Elected LSC representatives will serve a two-year term that begins with the 2014-2015 school year.

The councils are responsible for approving schools’ budgets, developing and monitoring annual School Improvement Plans, and hiring principals.

Valencia Rias-Winstead, a consultant for LSCs and a long-time LSC representative herself, said the councils are an important system of checks and balances.

“What we’ve found is that whenever you have parents that are at the decision-making table that are knowledgeable about the complete and accurate status of their school, they can help make good decisions,” she said. “Nobody knows the school like the parents, the teachers and the community.”

Rias-Winstead said there has been a noticeable drop in contentious LSC elections since they were created more than 20 years ago.

“People sometimes have to get riled up” in order to consider running, she said. “It’s when you have a principal’s contract coming up or problems with leadership, or unpopular decisions about uniforms or discipline, that you have contested elections.”

Jamila Johnson, a deputy press secretary for CPS, said she expects an uptick in nominations as the deadline approaches. “A lot of people wait until the very last minute,” she said.

Johnson said CPS has been encouraging parents and community members to run for LSCs by working with clergy, elected officials and the media.

“We are seeing our numbers grow every single day,” she said. “Of course when you have more candidates you have more people with ideas. You want to have people who really care and want to get involved at the school level.”

If a school doesn’t attract enough candidates to fill vacancies, CPS will hold a supplemental election to fill the seats, Johnson said.

The school district expects to update the data used for the online, interactive map early next week.

For more information or to download a nomination form, visit, or call (773)-553-1400.

In the News: Test boycott teachers remain in class

March 5, 2014 - 8:13am

More than 20 teachers at Maria Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy in the Little Village neighborhood who refused to give the test were allowed to teach students who opted not to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. (Sun-Times)

EXAMS COMMENCE: Some Chicago Public Schools parents continued to complain Tuesday about how the district is administering the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, but officials reported no major disruptions at schools as the multi-day exam got underway. (Tribune)

STRIKE DATE SET: Ten days after authorizing a strike vote, teachers in north suburban Waukegan Public School District 60 announced Monday they plan to launch a strike on April 16 unless agreement can be reached on a new contract that includes salary increases. (FOX News)

SOCIAL MEDIA IMPACT: A parent’s protest on the website Humans of New York went viral, with 150,000 likes on a Facebook page, drawing attention to students without a much-needed foreign language teacher. (The New York Times)

EARLY DIGITAL DIVIDE: A new RAND Corporation report details the importance of early childhood education and the value of technology literacy — the ability to use computer-based devices, software, and networks— at an early age. Sponsored by the PNC Foundation, the report, “Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide,” details how incorporating technology into early childhood education may help address the digital divide. (Press release)

HOLDING STUDENTS BACK: A new Duke University study documented a ripple effect of behavioral problems in middle schools where higher numbers of students repeated a grade. In North Carolina schools with high numbers of students who repeated a grade, there were more suspensions, substance abuse problems, fights and classroom disruptions. The findings have relevance as North Carolina implements a new law that requires 3rd graders to pass a reading exam or risk being held back. (Raleigh News and Observer)

New associate editor joins Catalyst

March 4, 2014 - 4:52pm

Catalyst Chicago welcomes Melissa Sanchez as our new associate editor.

Melissa recently relocated to Chicago from Florida, where she was a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington State. She has written about politics, labor and immigration issues and has won a number of awards, including an Inter-American Press Association fellowship to report from Nicaragua. She succeeds Rebecca Harris, who recently resigned to pursue new career goals.

Melissa is a graduate of Michigan State University’s journalism program. At Catalyst, her beats will include teachers and labor issues, state education policy, bilingual education, elementary schools and early learning. She can be reached at

In the News: Parents take test boycott to state board

March 4, 2014 - 9:52am

A group of parent-activists cried foul Monday, after the state board of education informed Chicago Public Schools that the district could face “disciplinary action” if it does not administer the annual state achievement test to all students this week. (Sun-Times)

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Many Chicago Public Schools students found themselves Monday in the middle of a tug of war between parents and teachers calling for a boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and district officials who continue to stress the exam's importance.

FACULTY SUPPORT: More than 100 university educations professors nationwide have signed a letter of support for Chicago teachers' ISAT test boycott. (CTU)

HOLDING FIRM: And here's what the Reader's Ben Joravsky has to say about Mayor Rham Emanuel' position on the ISAT boytcott.

BACK ON THE COURT: The Curie Metropolitan High School boys varsity basketball team will be allowed to play in the state playoffs now that CPS has confirmed that nine team members have complied and are eligible to compete. (NBC Chicago)

BUILDING BRIDGES: In less than three years at the helm of the Broward County public schools, Superintendent Robert Runcie has ushered in a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the Florida district and what some say is one of the biggest threats to its financial viability: the charter school community. (Education Week)

PUSHING DIGITAL CURRICULUMS: Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools and the current chief executive of Amplify, the education unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, on Monday introduced a digital English language arts curriculum for middle school. (The New York Times)

Parents have no right to opt-out of tests, says state

March 3, 2014 - 5:56pm

On the day that many schools began administering the ISAT, state education officials told parents that they have no legal right to opt their children out of the mandatory test and that all students must be given the test and have the directions for taking it read to them.

“It is the law,” said Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover. “Parents cannot opt their children out.”

After a meeting with ISBE’s general counsel during which this message was delivered, Cassie Creswell of the anti-testing group More than a Score was incredulous. “How can they say there is no legal right to opt out?” she said, noting that in other states, such as New York State, large groups of parents had opted out of standardized tests. Though small numbers of parents have opted their children out of tests in past years, the movement to boycott the ISAT—including a boycott declared by the faculties of two high-achieving schools—has drawn more attention to a practice that has flown under the radar until recently. 

Creswell and 34 other parents filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday, asking ACLU attorneys to bring a case against ISBE for not allowing students to opt out of the exam. The parents say that their due process rights will be violated if the test is put in front of their children, despite their objection.  “As a parent, I have the right to guide the education of my son,” said Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand. 

The parents said they will have to send their children to school with instructions about how to disobey their teachers. 

“I told my daughter to lay her head down and say ‘I refuse to waste my time on this,’” said Rosemary Vega.

Over the past weeks, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has sent out several letters urging parents to have their children take the ISAT, which is being phased out after this year, as well as the NWEA, another standardized test. Parents have focused their criticism on Byrd-Bennett, who they accuse of putting out misleading information about the consequences of not taking the tests.

One of the points Byrd-Bennett has made is that CPS risks a loss of federal funding if too few students take the test. On Monday, Creswell said that ISBE’s general counsel acknowledged to parents that there is no significant risk of losing money, though Creswell said he added that there was “not zero risk.”

Vanover would not confirm that the threat of losing federal funding was minuscule, but he wouldn’t say that any real risk existed either. “Anytime you break a law, there is a chance of repercussions,” he said.

Over the past few days, CPS has shifted some of the blame for its hard line stance to ISBE.

CPS officials said ISBE told them they must give out the tests to students, even those with opt-letters on file. CPS also noted that ISBE could revoke the certification of teachers who refuse to administer the test. Saucedo and Drummond teachers have said they will boycott the test.

Vanover said that there are other steps that could be taken short of revocation, but that ISBE would likely follow the lead of CPS.

Don't put down teachers who choose charters

March 3, 2014 - 12:21pm

We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned applause no matter where they decide to work.Nobody wants a C-.

In particular, nobody wants a C- on the critical issue of keeping good teachers in the classroom. But that’s the grade Illinois got for “retaining effective teachers,” in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2013 State Policy Yearbook. Teacher retention is in fact a well-documented national crisis that negatively impacts students, especially those from low-income communities.  

Elevating the profession to keep the best teachers is a hot topic in education.  One low-cost, in fact free, way to do this is to change the way we talk about teachers and schools. This re-branding should start with an end to “shaming” the step-children of the education community: charter school teachers.

After seven years of working in a traditional district-run school, I made the decision to work at a charter this year. After being subject to the large-scale reduction-in-force at CPS last summer, I decided to try something new. The reaction from my friends and former colleagues was…well, mixed. Bad press and budget cuts have fueled the fire against any non-district-run institution.

Despite the metaphorical rotten fruit thrown daily in my direction, this was the right move for me. The environment is professional, my colleagues are dedicated, and the administration is inspiring. I realize as I’m writing this readers may respond with negativity and complaints, but here are the facts: We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned your applause no matter where they decide to work.

Here is my own list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about charters and my defense of those of us who choose to teach in one:

Q: According to The Charter Difference, a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, charter schools have a “significant under-enrollment of special needs students [that] may be discriminatory and warrants further investigation.” Aren’t they just taking all the “good kids” to boost their scores?

A: Not in my experience. To offer more information on this, see Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy’s article “Setting the Facts Straight on Charter Schools” (published in the Chicago Sun Times on August 7th, 2013). Broy reminds us that charter schools are public and “free and open to anyone who wishes to enroll, no matter a student’s neighborhood, family income, previous education, ethnicity or family status.” Another 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that charter schools generally are not drawing the best students away from local traditional public schools. The previous test scores for students who transferred into charters were near or below-average (except for white students), and the racial makeup of charters was similar to that of the traditional schools the students had previously attended.

Q: How can any teacher agree to work for “union busters?”

A: Actually, we do have a right to unionize—in Chicago, we have Chicago ACTS Local 4343. At my orientation, administration from our network even encouraged us to sign up and invited representatives to get us registered.

Q: Isn’t it true that there are cases of high-level corruption in some charter networks?

A: Yes. But isn’t that also true in most districts? Do teachers make those decisions? Why punish them?

Q: Aren’t charter networks big business in disguise?

A: Some are. And some are not-for-profits, or are funded partly by competitive grants programs. In Illinois, charters can only be awarded to a non-profit, although the non-profit may then contract with a for-profit to run the school. Plus, many charters were started by teachers.

Q: Why should state funding go to charters when the district schools are undergoing budget cuts?

A: Again, not a teacher decision. I’d like to stress that there is simply not sufficient funding for all of us to work in the district, so all we can do is make sure that somehow, somewhere, we are in front of students doing the best we can.

Q: Aren’t teachers treated badly in charter schools?

A: Some charter schools may treat teachers badly. Some district schools treat teachers badly. At my school, teachers are consulted on every matter from content of professional development to curriculum. Performance and tangible outcomes are rewarded with job security (as opposed to quality-blind layoffs in the district). It’s almost like we have a tiny, renegade district that values teacher voice! Yes, this may not be everyone’s experience, but I resent the prevailing generalizations.

Q: Don’t charters have underqualified teachers?

A: Frankly, it looks like few of us teachers, anywhere, are well-prepared when we begin. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, “less than 10% of all rated programs earned 3 stars or more.” This study included 1,200 programs across the country. Shall we agree to let each individual teacher’s data speak for itself, and hope that new evaluation systems will help to improve us all?

So, if I have to operate as an outcast in order to keep a job that I love, then let the judgmental comments commence! Excellent teachers, I applaud you, no matter where you work. You are a treasure, and we need you to stay in this field. Ignore the non-productive, hurtful, and prejudiced statements that will surely follow us throughout our careers. District colleagues and general public, I urge you to use a new lens to view all educators, one informed by research. Create a world in which every teacher is given a fair chance to show what they can do.

Susan Volbrecht is an eighth-year teacher on the South Side of Chicago. She is an alumni of the Chicago Teaching Fellows and the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship. She currently works as an academic interventionist at a charter school.

In the News: State's teachers union back Dillard

March 3, 2014 - 7:09am

The Illinois Federation of Teachers endorsed Republican governor candidate Kirk Dillard on Sunday, giving the state senator from Hinsdale the backing of the state's two major — and politically active — teachers unions. (Tribune)

DANGER WARNING: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis injected herself into a long-running neighborhood zoning fight on Thursday, alleging students at a public high school would face danger from a newly approved metal shredder in Pilsen. (Sun-Times)

SEASON FORFEITED: Chicago Curie Metropolitan High School’s basketball team, ranked among the best in the nation, has forfeited this year’s games because several players were academically ineligible to compete, public schools officials announced Friday. (Associated Press)

COLORBLIND NOTION ASIDE: Racial tensions are playing out in new ways on college campuses nationwide, like the University of Michigan, which has seen a sharp decline in black undergraduate enrollment. (The New York Times)

NOT JUST AN ELECTIVE ANYMORE: Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective, in high schools—and that number is on the rise. Wisconsin, Alabama, and Maryland have adopted such policies since December, and Idaho has a legislative measure awaiting final action. (Education Week)

More teachers to boycott ISAT, as parents rally behind them

March 1, 2014 - 9:20am

In talking about her decision to refuse to administer the ISAT next week, Drummond Montessori teacher Ann Carlson said she felt little joy.

“I don’t have the hooray feeling,” she said at a press conference after school on Friday. “I feel like we are standing up, but we are fearful.”

It is unclear exactly how many teachers from the high performing Near Northwest Side elementary school are joining Saucedo teachers, who announced earlier this week that they will boycott the test. Carlson says more than half of the 15 third-to-eighth grade teachers voted in favor of the action.

The announcement came after a week in which the CPS administration took a hard stand—sending out numerous, sometimes conflicting and misleading letters—advising teachers to administer the test and parents to have their children take it.  More than a Score, the advocacy group spearheading the effort, said some parents in at least 60 schools have submitted opt-out letters.

CPS has said that teachers refusing to give the ISAT “will be disciplined” and face having their certification revoked, which would render them unable to teach.

“There has been extreme pressure on us,” said Juan Gonzalez, who teaches math and science at Drummond.  “We have to think about how this affects our livelihood. But we decided to stand on the side of right and boycott the ISAT.”

Carlson added: “One more minute of testing is too many.”

Because of the threats, parents held a rally at Saucedo in Little Village on Friday to show their support.

The Chicago Teachers Union has vowed to fight any discipline, but in the latest CPS letter the position has seemed to soften. Teachers refusing to give the test, according to the letter, will be given the option of going home and not being paid or monitoring students who have opted out.

Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said it was clear that district leaders have not decided what they are going to do to the teachers.

Further, the idea that teachers would lose certification because “they are demanding to teach students who want to learn” is “ridiculous,” Sharkey said. Information on ISBE’s website shows that 16 teachers have had their certifications revoked since 1988 and that the vast majority were after the teacher was convicted of criminal activity or cheating.

Though many of the parents and teachers are against what they see as over-testing of students, the ISAT boycott has gained traction because it is being phased out. Also, CPS officials decided it would not be used for any major decisions, such as promotion or the selective enrollment admissions process.

CPS officials, with the support of state officials, warned that if too many parents have their children sit out of the test the district faces losing state and federal funding. But experts say that loss of such funding is unprecedented and at most it could trigger reallocating funds, but even that is highly unlikely and takes time to kick in.

Futhermore, the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, has fallen out of favor and the Department of Education has issued 42 states waivers from the requirements. Illinois also submitted a request for a waiver, but it has yet to be approved. 

"There is no real enforcement of NCLB anymore," said Andrew Porter, education dean at the University of Pennsylvannia.

Through this week, CPS messaging around the ISAT boycott has been conflicting at times. At one point, CPS issued a webinar to principals that seemed to indicate that opted-out students had to sit among their classmates, be handed the ISAT and be read instructions. Then, it would be incumbent on the student to refuse the test.

“If a student refuses to test they must remain silent while other students test,” according to the webinar. “Students MAY NOT engage in any other activities that would disrupt the testing environment.”

More than a Score’s Cassie Cresswell said this was “immoral and unethical” as it put students as young as eight in the awkward position of disobeying their teachers.

Later, on Friday, CPS sent a letter out saying that students who have been opted out of the test could be brought to another classroom and allowed to read independently or do other work, though they would still be given the test and read the instructions.

In the News: CPS threatens discipline, CTU fights back

February 28, 2014 - 9:50am

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett has threatened to discipline any teacher who refuses to administer an annual state achievement test next week, according to a letter obtained by local news sources. Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says the union will defend teachers "against any retaliation."

The letter, sent out Thursday to principals, claims teachers could face the harshest repercussion from boycotting the test — losing their state education certification. On test day, teachers will be ordered to leave the school building if they refuse to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, according to the letter. Chicago Teachers Union officials said lawyers are looking into the district's letter and also that they believe teachers cannot have their certification revoked for taking a stand against standardized testing.

CTU is also asking members to attend a rally Friday afternoon in support of the Saucedo Scholastic Academy teachers who said earlier this week they will refuse to administer the state-mandated Illinois Standards Achievement Tests that are scheduled to begin next week.

ETS SEES TESTING OPPORTUNITY:  As interest in licensing exams that measure prospective teachers' classroom skills grows, the venerable test-maker ETS is entering the market with a new option for states. Field-testing began last month for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service's new exam, which purports to measure many of the same competencies as the edTPA, a licensing test seven states have recently adopted and many others are considering. (Education Week)

PUTTING BRAKES ON CHARTER: Mayor Bill de Blasio, seeking to curb the influence of outside providers of education, said on Thursday that he would block three charter schools from using space inside New York City public school buildings. Under the plan, Blasio would reverse the decision of his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, to provide free real estate to the schools so that they could open new programs this fall. The schools had already hired principals and teachers and were in the midst of recruiting students. (The New York Times)

In the News: How diverse are city's private elite schools?

February 27, 2014 - 9:55am

The Chicago Reader's occasional series on segregation in Chicago's schools continues with a fourth installment asking: Are Chicago's elite private schools as diverse as they claim to be? The author makes the point that educations students get at private schools like Lab, Latin and Parker are indirectly subsidized by the government.

ANOTHER CALENDAR CHANGE: Chicago Public Schools is again changing its school calendar, with classes beginning after Labor Day next school year. Last year, CPS moved to a single calendar for all schools and classes started Aug. 26. On Wednesday the school board approved a new calendar that has classes starting Tuesday, Sept. 2. (Tribune)

PENSION PACKAGE: Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she wants the Illinois pension reform package that recently passed applied to teachers. (Sun-Times)

TEST BOYCOTT: Teachers at a Little Village school will refuse to administer an annual state achievement test next week, a move that could ultimately cost them their jobs. About 40 teachers at Maria Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy voted unanimously Tuesday to boycott the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, said Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at the school. District officials say the calendar was developed in collaboration with the Chicago Teachers Union as well as feedback from parents. (Sun-Times)

HIGH ASPIRATIONS, PUZZLING OUTCOMES: Although black and Latino male students enter community colleges with higher aspirations than those of their white peers, only 5 percent of black men and Latinos earn degrees or certificates within three years, compared with 32 percent of white men, according to a new report. The findings are puzzling because minority men are more engaged than their white classmates in tutoring, study-skills sessions and other practices that are key to college success.  (Chronicle of Higher Education)

CPS "fiscal crisis" takes center stage

February 26, 2014 - 8:51pm

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sounded the fiscal crisis alarm on Wednesday and made clear that the district would like the same pension changes applied to CPS teachers that the state imposed on other public employees.

Next year, CPS will owe the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund $696 million, which, following a pension “holiday,” is 83 percent more than the district was required to pay last year.

“In the absence of action from Springfield, this increase in pension costs will crowd out classroom spending, and we will see further cuts to school budgets,” she said.

Imposing the changes made to the state employee pension system on CPS would save the school district $250 million, Byrd-Bennett said.

The declaration that the district is in financial trouble is an annual ritual. This year, however, the alarm is louder because schools were hit hard with budget cuts last year—a point reiterated numerous times by parents at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Byrd-Bennett’s statement can be expected to kick off a prolonged fight both with the union and in the courts. The state public employee pension changes include reducing the amount of annual cost-of-living increases for both current retirees and future ones, as well as raising the retirement age for workers 45 years and younger. Also, some workers can now get out of their pension and participate in a 401(k)-style contribution plan.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she has other ideas for how to reduce CPS’ teacher pension obligation, though she hasn’t detailed them publicly. “Please don’t take my mother’s or husband’s pension away,” Lewis told the board Wednesday.

Also, four lawsuits have been filed to stop the state pension changes.

These lawsuits could well be successful, said Amanda Kass, budget director and pension specialist for the Center on Tax and Budget Accountability.  She pointed to a recent supreme court ruling in Arizona to explain why. As in Illinois, Arizona’s pension obligation for public employees is spelled out in the state constitution, and Arizona’s Supreme Court recently ruled that cost-of-living increases are a protected benefit, she said. 

It is unclear whether the district has alternative plans, should the Legislature fail to approve the changes for CPS teachers. Under the state constitution, changes to pensions for any public employee, state or local, can be made only by state lawmakers.

Budget cuts

Meanwhile, parents from 17 schools explained to board members how last year’s budget cuts were hurting their schools, and urged members to increase funding in the coming year. “There is nothing left to cut,” they repeatedly told the board.

Many of the parents said their schools lost reading, bilingual and math specialists, as well as art and music positions. Parents from some schools, like Blaine and Audubon, said they had raised extra money to fill the gaps, but that they did not think raising more was possible.

Parents from other schools, like Salazar and Bret Harte, said their schools don’t have parents who can afford large contributions.  

The parents were especially critical of CPS for trying to implement daily physical education when schools hardly have enough money to pay for current teachers.  

Last year, CPS implemented a student-based budgeting system, and the parents urged CPS officials to increase the amount schools will get for each child.

“The per-pupil budget is too low, and it leaves principals to make awful choices,” said Victoria Bryant, a parent at Burr Elementary.

Wendy Katten from the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, which helped set up the parent presentations, declined   to weigh in on the issue of pensions. She presented the board with a two-page memo suggesting places where CPS could find savings, including in central office departments that saw increases last year. She also said that parents are going to Springfield twice in coming months to lobby for a graduated income tax, which could produce more revenue for CPS.

“We love our schools, we love our neighborhoods, we love Chicago,” Katten said. 

In other action:

  • The board renewed five charter and contract school contracts. Chicago Tech Academy got a one-year-renewal, and Providence Englewood got a three-year renewal. Noble Street’s 14 campuses, Namaste Charter, and Chi Arts got five-year contracts.
  • The board approved the school calendar for next year. Classes will open Sept. 2, the day after Labor Day. This year, school started before Labor Day. Officials did not explain why they went back to the traditional post-Labor Day start.
  • The district posted online long-awaited school-by-school discipline data.




In the News: Charter expulsion rates exceed traditional schools'

February 26, 2014 - 9:28am

Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday released data showing privately run charter schools expel students at a vastly higher rate than the rest of the district. (Tribune)

The data reveal that during the last school year, 307 students were kicked out of charter schools, which have a total enrollment of about 50,000. In district-run schools, there were 182 kids expelled out of a student body of more than 353,000. That means charters expelled 61 of every 10,000 students while the district-run schools expelled just 5 of every 10,000 students.

RALLYING AROUND PRINCIPAL: The principal of a elementary school in Beverly whose contract was not renewed by the local school council, but several parents have come to her defense and the principal is taking the LSC to arbitration to try to keep her job. The LSC contends that Catherine Gannon’s work “does not meet expectations” — even though the school's test scores have remained high and Gannon won a $10,000 merit award from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett that Gannon used to benefit the school. (Sun-Times)

COMMON CORE REPORT: The Fordham Institute has released a new report on how Common Core implementation is going in four early-implementing districts:
·  The high-performing suburb: Schaumburg District 54
·  The trailblazer: Kenton County School District, Kentucky
·  The urban bellwether: Metro Nashville Public Schools
·  The creative implementer: Washoe County School District, Nevada
 School District 54 has taken a hands-on, focused, and collaborative approach to Common Core implementation. Teacher support of the standards has been spurred by several factors: a unified message from district leaders, a curriculum overhaul led by educators, dedicated time to collaborate, a focus on student performance data and continuous improvement, and the deliberate use of resources to support classroom instruction. (Press release)

COMMON CORE REVIEW ORDERED: The Georgia State Senate passed legislation calling for a review of the controversial Common Core.  Senate Bill 167 passed by 34-16 and has strong prospects in the House. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Teachers at Saucedo say "No" to state tests

February 25, 2014 - 4:55pm

With nearly 40 percent of their students already opting out of the ISAT, teachers at Saucedo Scholastic Academy—a high-achieving magnet school—took the bold step on Tuesday of voting to refuse to administer it.

In only one other instance—at a high school in Seattle last year—have teachers in one school made a unified group decision not to give a mandated test. National opponents of standardized testing applauded the decision and said it will send a signal across the country.

Late Tuesday, CPS officials released a brief statement, saying that employees who don't administer test will "face appropriate disciplinary actions." They did not specify what actions may be taken against employees.

"The District is committed to administering the exam and expects all CPS employees to fulfill their responsibilities to ensure we are in compliance with the law," according to the statement, which was attributed to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. We also continue to encourage parents to support their children taking the exam, as the results help teachers tailor instructional planning for the following year."

The statement also noted that Byrd-Bennett has "maximized instructional time" by reducing the number of standardized tests and lengthening the number of hours students are in school.

ISAT testing is conducted for eight hours over two weeks, starting on March 3. Testing opponents have already launched a drive to urge families in CPS to “opt out” of the ISAT, which is being administered for the last time this year.

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo, says that teachers were emboldened by parents and the student council, which voted unanimously against taking the ISAT. She said that all the 3rd through 8th-grade teachers voted to participate in the boycott.

“Our students are tested and tested,” she said on Tuesday, just hours after the vote. “They cry over the test. They get nervous over the test.”

Chambers said Saucedo teachers were not going to tell the principal until after school, but that the principal so far has been quiet on the opt-out issue.  

Saucedo teachers are hoping that other CPS teachers will join them. Saucedo is a Level 1 magnet school in Little Village.

The Chicago Teachers Union is supporting the Saucedo teachers and vowed to fight any repercussions that might the teachers might face. The union would “mount a strong defense of this collective action,” according to a press release about the vote. 

In general, teachers are “disgusted and overwhelmed” by the amount of testing that they are required to administer, said Norine Gutekanst, organizing coordinator for the CTU. The ISAT, the NWEA-MAP and REACH exams are required and, in addition, network chiefs and principals have teachers administer extra tests.

The CTU estimates that CPS elementary students spend anywhere from 11 to 21 hours on testing.

"Nation will be watching" the latest salvo in the testing battle

This year, parents and teachers are especially critical of the ISAT. As the district transitions to the new Common Core Standards, the ISAT is being phased out. Next year students will be taking a standardized test based on the Common Core, called the PARCC.

To get students, parents and teachers used to the Common Core, CPS is using the results of the NWEA-MAP as a basis for important decisions, such as which students are promoted, how schools are rated academically and for teacher evaluation. 

As a result, many have concluded that the ISAT is a waste of time. “We think it doesn’t make any sense for teachers to have repercussions for not administering a test that doesn’t mean anything,” Gutekanst said.

However, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has insisted that the ISAT is important. She issued two letters to parents urging them not to opt out of either the NWEA or the ISAT.

Byrd-Bennett and district officials point out that the ISAT is still used for the federal government’s accountability system under No Child Left Behind. They say that the district could lose out on federal funding if less than 95 percent of students take the ISAT or if too many schools fail to meet the federal benchmark, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Those who favor opting out of the ISAT point out that AYP has become meaningless. This year, the law calls for 100 percent of students to meet standards on tests in order for a school to meet AYP—something that no school accomplished last year. Since 2001, only 11 schools have had all their students meet standards.

Cassie Cresswell, a leader with the group More than a Score, said it is now time for parents to stand with the Saucedo teachers and any others who refuse to administer the test.

“One thing is that CPS can really do nothing to a parent or a student who opts out,” she said. “But for a teacher, it is a much bigger deal. It might be seen as insubordination.”

Cresswell said that parents in 38 schools have opted out of the ISAT. At Saucedo, 300 of about 790 3rd through 8th graders opted out--the largest number--though about six or seven other schools have significant percentages, Cresswell said.

Cresswell and national anti-standardized test advocate Robert Schaeffer point to what happened in Seattle last year as an example for what could happen in Chicago. In Seattle, teachers refused to administer the NWEA-MAP test. Because parents rallied around them, the teachers did not face any consequences.

Schaeffer said the Chicago teachers could have an even bigger impact than the Seattle group, because CPS is such a big player in the education world.

“The nation will be watching,” he said

In the News: Standardized testing backlash hits CPS

February 25, 2014 - 9:14am

Hundreds of CPS students from more than 20 schools are refusing to take their annual state achievement test next week, according to a group opposed to some standardized tests. (Sun-Times)

But of the over 200,000 CPS elementary students, only a small percentage have opted out of the ISAT so far, according to a group of eight parents and teachers at a news conference Monday at CPS headquarters. Holding signs that read “Our children are more than a score!,” the group encouraged parents to not have their children take the test.

TESTING AND FEDERAL FUNDING: Critics in Chicago think it's a good time for students to opt out of the ISAT because CPS is using another national test for school and student assessments, promotions and eligibility for the most competitive schools. CPS still wants students to take the ISAT, however, because if fewer than 95 percent of all students take the test, it affects the district's ability to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. That in turn could put federal funding at risk. (Tribune)

A RICH GIFT: Chicago investment executive Mellody Hobson and her husband, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, are donating $25 million to the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools to support the construction of an arts building. (Tribune)

CHARTER GIFT LIST: In the last eight years, the Noble Network of Charter Schools has raised tens of millions of dollars from Chicago's wealthiest corporate leaders. Already the state's biggest charter network, Noble expects to teach 15 percent of Chicago public high school students by 2017. Bruce Rauner, a Republican gubernatorial candidate for Winnetka, has backed a number of charter schools, including the UNO Charter School Network now dogged by questions of cronyism. But he has given the most to Noble, just over $3.5 million. He not only funded the opening of Rauner College Prep on the city's West Side in 2006 but prompted Penny Pritzker, now U.S. secretary of commerce, and the family of his late mentor, Stanley Golder, to sponsor two more schools. (Crain's)

TEACHER DATA: Florida has become the latest state, after New York and Ohio, to release "value added" data on its teachers to news outlets, after losing an open-records battle in the courts to the Florida Times-Union. (Education Week)

For the Record: Arts education ratings

February 24, 2014 - 11:30am

As part of its arts education plan, CPS has rolled out the district’s first-ever effort to rate schools on the quality of their arts programs and linked the ratings to arts funding of $500 to 750 per school.

But the ratings system likely won’t do much, at least initially, to help many schools, especially those in black or Latino communities.

Overall, one-third of schools were given an “Incomplete Data” rating, taking them out of the running for arts funding or for arts education grants that will be announced later this year. The schools were rated “incomplete” because they did not have an arts liaison in place or failed to complete a district survey on arts offerings.

Schools with the most African-American and Latino students were more likely to miss out on funding because of incomplete ratings. Just 11 percent of schools with white enrollment of at least 20 percent received such a rating. But 46 percent of predominantly black schools and 31 percent of predominantly Latino schools lost out on the money.

The same disparities appear in which schools got top ratings. Among schools with a substantial proportion of white students, 38 percent received the highest possible rating, but just one in ten predominantly African-American or Latino schools did.

Over the next several years, CPS wants to increase arts instruction to two hours a week for all students. The district says there are now only 55 schools without a full-time arts teacher. And next year, CPS has pledged to spend $21.5 million hiring new arts and physical education teachers.

A survey by the parent group Raise Your Hand found that two-thirds of 170 schools that were surveyed don’t offer the two hours of arts education each week touted by the district.

Providing support, mentoring

The goal of the ratings system was to provide schools with tailor-made support to improve their arts programs. Schools with incomplete ratings will get extra help to designate an arts liaison to help forge partnerships with outside arts organizations. Also, principals at schools that received the lowest ratings are supposed to receive mentoring on how to improve arts education at their school.

The ratings for both high schools and elementary schools are based on criteria that include the number of arts staff and whether the arts are part of a school’s plans for its budget, parent engagement, teacher training, interdisciplinary teaching and outside partnerships.

In addition, high schools are rated on the number of disciplines and levels of coursework offered. Elementary schools are also rated on the percentage of students who can take arts classes and how many minutes of instruction students receive per week.

Gale Elementary in Rogers Park was one of the schools that received an incomplete rating. Principal Cassandra Washington says she’s not sure why, but she thinks the retirement of the school’s art teacher – and the lag time in finding a new one – played a role.

“I know plenty of principals were trying to get the survey in on time, but it is something new. So there might not have been as much understanding as [the district] thought there was,” Washington says.

Washington says there is only enough money in her school’s budget to pay for a half-time art teacher, so only half of her students have art classes.

“We try to at least write grants or partner with organizations to get their services for free,” she says. CPS has sent resources on partner arts organizations to schools.

Raising the schools ratings will depend, of course, on resources. “If it’s based on the number of art teachers we have, that’s based on how much money we have,” she notes. “We can only buy as much as our money allows us to buy.”

In the News: Charter proposes using shuttered CPS building

February 24, 2014 - 7:30am

Legacy Charter has approached the North Lawndale Community Action Council about taking over the former Pope Elementary School building at 1852 S. Albany Ave. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett assured state legislators in fall 2012 that no charters would move into the shuttered buildings, a vow repeated by board members during the months of debate over school closings last year. (Tribune)

CHURCH AND SCHOOL: A yet-to-be charter school, set to open in the Austin neighborhood in 2015 and affiliated with Moody Church, is raising questions about how a publicly financed charter school can comply with the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, especially when both groups share some leaders. (Tribune)

PROMISE VS. REALITY: A new survey of 170 Chicago public elementary schools by Raise Your Hand Illinois found that 65 percent do not offer the expected minimum of two hours of arts education per week, as stated by both Mayor Emanuel and CPS officials. (Comcast SportsNet)

INCREASING READING: Two hundred students including those at John Hope College Prep, a South Side charter school, will benefit this year from a three-year-old reading program aimed at getting students to read more. The program runs from March 11 to May 8 at Hope and will meet for one hour every Tuesday and Thursday. Students will read the novel, "There Are No Children Here," by author Alex Kotlowitz. (DNA Info)

A MONTESSORI SURGE: Arguing that the traditional Jewish day-school model is outmoded and too clannish, many Jewish parents and educators are flocking to Montessori preschools and elementary schools that combine secular studies with Torah and Hebrew lessons. (The New York Times)

In the News: Report shows class size does matter

February 21, 2014 - 9:13am

"Class size is an important determinant of student outcomes, and one that can be directly determined by policy," says a report, "Does Class Size Matter?" by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University.

"All else being equal, increasing class sizes will harm student outcomes. The evidence suggests that increasing class size will harm not only children’s test scores in the short run, but also their long-run human capital formation. Money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future." The report is from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

URGED TO RUN: Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis went to Springfield on Wednesday to rally against possible pension cuts to city teachers but left town being urged to run against Mayor Rahm Emanuel—by her own and other union members. (Sun-Times)

EMPLOYEE DEBTORS: In 2011 Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent a not-so-subtle message to city workers who owed City Hall for parking tickets, water bills and other fees and fines: Pay up or you could be suspended or fired. Those scofflaws now collectively owe more than they did when Emanuel focused on the issue and the worst offenders are Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority employees. They make up nearly 6 of every 10 city workers but account for almost 80 percent of the debt. (Tribune)

A NARROWER VOUCHER BILL: After rejecting a much broader schools measure, the Wisconsin Senate moved forward with a narrow bill that would apply existing state report cards for public schools to voucher institutions but not impose sanctions on schools receiving poor marks The Assembly plans to proceed with a broader bill that would sanction failing schools. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

COMMUNITY COLLEGES BENEFIT SOCIETY, STUDENTS: Community-college graduates receive nearly $5 in benefits for every dollar they spend on their education, while the return to taxpayers is almost six to one, according to  new report. The report seeks to quantify what happens when community colleges provide employers with skilled workers, the economy with consumers, and graduates with jobs along with better health and well-being. (Chronicle of Higher Education)