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

December 1, 2014 - 10:16am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Study highlights benefits of full-day preschool in Chicago

November 25, 2014 - 4:38pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longer days lead to better attendance

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 24, 2014 - 7:34am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents push for testing 'opt-out' bill

November 21, 2014 - 3:22pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2014 - 7:56am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asking the hard questions

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A campaign for good schools and jobs

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

Five months from now, Chicago voters will go to the polls to choose whether to send Mayor Rahm Emanuel back to City Hall for another term. It’s no secret that Emanuel is not popular right now among Chicagoans. But whether or not another candidate can ride the wave of discontent into the mayor’s office is still a big question mark. His highest-profile challengers are Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti, who face an uphill battle to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, not to mention money to run a serious campaign. But given the mayor’s approval rating of 35 percent in one recent Chicago Tribune poll, don’t write off his challengers yet.

Emanuel has cited the country’s lagging economy as a major factor in his dismal poll numbers. And nowhere is the economic outlook as bleak as in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, where he faces his toughest sell for a second term. Black Chicago turned out in droves for Emanuel, giving him nearly six out of every 10 votes cast in predominantly black wards. That support is now turned on its head: Nearly six in 10 black Chicagoans, according to the Tribune poll, disapprove of Emanuel’s job performance. 

It’s not hard to see why the mayor has lost African-American support. I see the signs in my own Woodlawn neighborhood, where a community mental health clinic shut down, the jobless hang out at 63rd and Cottage Grove, virtually every street has abandoned homes marked with a red “X” and awaiting demolition, and two schools were among dozens shuttered last year. Yes, there are other hopeful signs. A school that took in displaced children is now a specialty STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school, the Grove Parc apartments on Cottage Grove are being revitalized, small businesses have popped up—a coffee shop here, a clothing store there—and pothole-riddled streets have been repaved. But perceptions die hard. 

Consider the citywide statistics below, compiled with the help of The Chicago Reporter from city, Chicago Public Schools and federal data:

Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s five largest cities—25 percent, compared to 19 percent in Philadelphia, 18 percent in Los Angeles, 15 percent in Houston and 14 percent in New York City—based on 2013 figures.

Public sector jobs, traditionally a route to middle-class success for African-Americans, have been vanishing in recent years. But city workers from black ZIP codes account for 40 percent of the 5,000 city jobs lost since 2009 (two years before Emanuel took office).

Those layoffs don’t include the 1,691 school system employees from black ZIP codes who lost their jobs since 2011.

White households with an income of $100,000 a year now outnumber black households by a 6-to-1 ratio.

Responding to these and other numbers, the mayor’s office points to success stories such as Chicago Neighborhoods Now, projected to target $2.9 billion altogether to projects in seven communities that include predominantly black Bronzeville, Pullman and Englewood.

Whatever the statistics, one thing is clear: There is plenty yet to be done to ensure that all Chicagoans have an equitable share of economic and educational opportunity.

The mayor’s popularity in the black community took a major hit with last year’s closings of 50 schools. Then there’s the rest of Emanuel’s education policies: Charters and other privately run schools have mostly opened in black neighborhoods, often in the face of local opposition; black teachers have been hardest hit by layoffs; and the achievement gap remains widest for black students.

In this joint issue of Catalyst In Depth and The Chicago Reporter, Deputy Editor Sarah Karp examines the potential effect on the mayor’s policies on his re-election bid. Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez explains how the Chicago Teachers Union and its progressive allies are seeking to make inroads in City Hall. Sanchez also talked with former mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle about the upcoming election and the state of Latino political power in the city.  And the Reporter’s Ade Emmanuel explores the reasons behind the city’s high black unemployment rate.

Also, Stay tuned for details about “Education: Then, Now, Next. Celebrating 25 years of Catalyst Chicago.” We’ll have a range of activities, from forums around town to an online almanac featuring education highlights. We look forward to your participation in the celebration.

Tough lessons for Rahm

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

On a Monday evening in September, the normally desolate stretch of 75th Street near Yates Avenue in South Shore was lined with cars. Inside a banquet hall, Charles Kyle sat on a small stage with Karen Lewis and asked her questions about crime, economic development and, most of all, education.

“Renaissance 2010 was a real-estate plan,” Lewis told the crowd in her matter-of-fact style. Lewis was referring to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s controversial plan, aggressively continued by his successor Rahm Emanuel, to open new schools while closing failing ones in an effort to keep middle-class families in the city. “I don’t think many people understand that.”

Though the mayoral election was months away, Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, was gearing up to mount a dramatic challenge to Emanuel in his bid for a second term. As is well-known by now, serious health issues forced Lewis to bow out of the race before she officially entered it. 

Yet Kyle, the moderator for the Exchange Ideas community forum, which sponsors events aimed at improving South Shore, says the concerns that drew so many residents out to hear Lewis and cling to her words still weigh heavily on the neighborhood.

Black communities, more so than any other neighborhoods in Chicago, have been dramatically affected by the education reform policies championed by Emanuel. The neighborhoods are simultaneously struggling with crime, high unemployment, loss of wealth as a result of the housing crisis and a dire need for economic investment.

[See Black Chicago by the numbers]

A case in point: Last year, South Shore became a food desert when the Dominick’s grocery store on 71st Street closed, leaving residents with one neighborhood choice: a weekend farmers market. The neighborhood’s dilemma reflects the economic development problems faced by other black communities in the city that want to lure new businesses and jobs. For example, tax increment finance districts, created to spark economic development, have not generated the same level of revenue on the South Side as elsewhere. Among the city’s active TIFs, not a single district on the South Side is ranked in the top 20 for property tax revenue. 

Meanwhile, the anger about schools came to a head with last year’s closings of 50 schools, virtually all in black neighborhoods. And it is squarely at Emanuel’s doorstep, a potential threat to his re-election hopes: A shocking 77 percent of black voters disapprove of Emanuel’s handling of schools and only 10 percent agree with the policy of increasing funding for charter schools while cutting budgets for neighborhood schools, according to an August 2014 Chicago Tribune poll. 

Education also promises to figure prominently in aldermanic races, where both the teachers union and the group Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Emanuel’s policies, are seeking to field and support candidates who will back their agendas.

Mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti calls Emanuel the most divisive education politician since Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief who made national headlines for shaking up the district but became mired in allegations of test-score cheating on her watch.

“For the sake of politics, he gave children the shaft,” Fioretti says. 

Another challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, spoke to an audience of teachers union members at a recent dinner and told them that a belief in the importance of neighborhood schools is what sets him apart from Emanuel. Garcia recounted his involvement in a hunger strike that led to the creation of Little Village High School. 

“We stood up for our children and protected them,” Garcia told the audience, after receiving Lewis’ crucial endorsement. “Instead of closing our schools, I believe in successful community schools.”

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she has not seen the polls that show dissatisfaction with the mayor’s policies. And she strongly disagrees with the notion that neighborhood schools have suffered from disinvestment under Emanuel. The district has spent “tens of millions of dollars” putting new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula and International Baccalaureate programs into some neighborhood schools, while providing extra help to failing schools, Byrd-Bennett points out. “These things have made a tremendous difference,” she says.

The dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s education agenda is local evidence of a rising tide against the current version of “school reform.” In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio rode to victory on campaign promises that he would curb charter expansion and standardized tests, and forge better relationships with teachers and parents.  

Chicago’s mass school closings became symbolic across the country of the disinvestment in neighborhood schools that has come as a result of the privatization movement, says author and education historian Diane Ravitch. “No one had ever done that in one day in America,” she says of the 50 closings. Ravitch, who is also on the education faculty at New York University, is perhaps the most outspoken and well-known critic of the reform movement that she once strongly supported. 

The public is also increasingly resistant to the use of standardized tests, another hallmark of reform. More and more, people have begun to realize that standardized tests are used to justify the closing of neighborhood schools and privatization of school systems, Ravitch says. 

A recent report by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, examined the anti-testing movement. According to the report, in New York City, 60,000 children and their parents refused to take federally mandated state tests in grades three through eight in 2014, up from a few thousand in 2013. More than 1,000 children and families opted out in both Chicago and Colorado, FairTest found, and smaller numbers of families did so in other regions. 

Meanwhile, the charter movement is now more than a decade old and the public is starting to ask hard questions about it, notes Peter Cunningham, who was press secretary for Arne Duncan when Duncan ran Chicago schools and followed him to the U.S. Department of Education. 

“We are further down the path,” says Cunningham, who now runs an organization called Education Post. “Is it enough to say that 29 percent of charter schools out-perform traditional schools? Maybe it should be 40 percent or 50 percent. It is not acceptable for charter schools to be worse.” 

CEO Byrd-Bennett says she is “absolutely agnostic [about] the type of school” and wants to talk instead about high-quality schools. She also points out that her administration has held charter schools accountable by creating a warning list for those not performing well, and closing two charters during her tenure. But the mayor and Byrd-Bennett will not commit to curtailing charter expansion altogether. 

These days, Emanuel talks little about charter schools, perhaps recognizing that they are not politically popular.  No new ones will be approved for next school year, putting the timetable for the approval process outside the timeframe for the run-up to the mayoral election. 

Providing a good education for his son has always been a priority for Charles Kyle and his son’s mother, Kyle says. But the issue really hit home when he began to look at schools as his son was nearing kindergarten age. He went to visit Madison Elementary School, which he had attended until sixth grade. Along with familiarity, proximity was a factor: Madison is located less than a block from where he lives. 

Kyle says he would have liked to show his commitment to the neighborhood by sending his son to the local school. But he just wasn’t impressed. “The kindergarten classroom didn’t have sight words on the wall,” he says. The school’s test scores are average to below-average. 

Fewer than half of the children who live in the attendance area go to Madison, which has space for up to 750 students, but enrolled only 233 students at the time Kyle visited. 

So when Kyle’s son was offered a seat at Murray Language Academy, a magnet school two neighborhoods away in Hyde Park, he reluctantly accepted it. Murray has high test scores and also offers foreign language classes—French, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese—every day. 

Kyle’s experience is replicated in families throughout South Shore: About 8,000 school-aged children live in the community, but instead of attending the neighborhood schools, they are spread out among 364 schools across the city. That means more than half of the city’s public schools have at least one student from South Shore, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis.

Yet the exodus hasn’t resulted in children traveling to substantially better schools. Among those children who leave the neighborhood to attend school, only 21 percent are enrolled in top schools. A larger number, 25 percent, are enrolled in schools with test scores that are among the worst in the city. African-American students are more likely to travel to mediocre or poor-performing schools than any other group of children.

The phenomenon is not new. For years, the number of students traveling outside their neighborhood to school has been on the rise. And one point in Emanuel’s favor is that a smaller percentage of students are now making the trip to low-achieving schools than under Daley, according to a Catalyst analysis. 

Still, Byrd-Bennett says she is “very worried” about the numbers and says the district needs to do a better job of sharing information with parents. “Sometimes schools appeal to parents because they are quiet or calm, but they are not high-quality [educationally],” she says. 

Last year’s school closings may have aggravated the trend: Two-thirds of the schools designated to take in displaced children experienced a significant drop in state test scores—an indicator that children from closed schools perhaps fared no better academically in their new ones. 

Another bone of contention in black communities is the diminishing public input and control of decisions about schools in African-American neighborhoods. 

When Emanuel walked into office, only three of the schools in South Shore and South Chicago, the community next door, were run by private entities. Now, eight of 21 schools, or about 38 percent, are either charter schools, contract schools or turnaround schools, which are managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.  

A telling example is evident in South Shore. Val Free, executive director of the South Shore Planning Coalition, recalls the opening of Great Lakes Academy, a charter school that is technically in South Chicago but draws South Shore students. 

Free feels that Great Lakes was forced upon the community unnecessarily. Virtually all the neighborhood elementary schools in the surrounding area are underutilized. While many are low-performing schools, one of them, Powell Elementary, earned the highest academic rating last year. 

“Why would you try to dilute Powell by adding a charter?” Free says. “It seems like sabotage.”

Neither the planning coalition nor the South Shore Community Action Council—one of several such entities created by CPS to weigh in on school decisions—supported the Great Lakes plan. Yet school board members approved it and the charter opened its doors last school year.

Free says her group asked the charter operator to sign a community benefits agreement that would stipulate having a certain number of people from the neighborhood on the school’s board, in the classroom and in other jobs, such as janitorial. 

Great Lakes Charter operator Katherine Myers was resistant, Free says. At one point, the charter did offer spots on the board to community members. Yet when Free was nominated to serve, Myers refused because Free had opposed the opening of the school. 

Despite how she felt about the school, Free says she would have been fair on the board out of a desire to have the students get a good education. (Myers did not return numerous calls from Catalyst.)

Henry English, the head of the Black United Fund, which supports local non-profits and is active in the community, says he is disappointed when he sees the teachers walking through the doors of Great Lakes. 

“They seem short on experience,” he says. “Great Lakes did not hire any teachers from the community… that is for sure.” 

The impact of school actions—closings, turnarounds in which most teachers end up losing their jobs, and charter expansion—on the black teaching force is a major flashpoint for many in the black community. African-American teachers have borne the brunt of layoffs as a result of closings, since the teaching force at shuttered schools was largely made up of veteran black teachers, according to an analysis of Illinois teacher service records. Meanwhile, the new, privately run schools have tended to hire younger, white teachers.

Citywide, 1,134 black educators—teachers, social workers and school counselors—are gone from the CPS payroll in recent years, according to CTU data. (The numbers include retirees.)  In South Shore, the number is 91. These job figures help fuel antagonism toward charters and turnaround schools. 

What typically has happened to schools in South Shore and other black communities is the exact opposite of what has taken place in white and Latino communities. 

Take Lakeview, a mostly white North Side community that, like South Shore, sits on the lakefront. Here, 70 percent of children attend their neighborhood school. Of those students who travel outside the community, nearly 90 percent land at a high-achieving school. No charters or contract schools operate in Lakeview. No schools have closed or undergone a turnaround. And since 2011, 140 additional teachers are working in schools in the neighborhood.

The contrast in what has happened in different communities has been by design. Andrea Zopp, a school board member and head of the Chicago Urban League, told a City Club audience recently that charters and other privately run schools were opened in neighborhoods that needed “quality options.” 

District officials have also maintained that school closings were intended to make the school system more efficient by shuttering buildings with too few children, and that the closings were done at one time to minimize disruption over multiple years.  

But the closings were still a bitter pill for many to swallow. And as for choice, education organizer Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization argues that what people want is good neighborhood schools, not a million options to sift through. Brown is also national coordinator for Journey for Justice, an alliance of activists who have fought against school closings, turnarounds and charter expansion in communities of color.

“It has ripped black communities apart, and people are becoming more sophisticated and angry,” Brown says.

Last year, Kyle worked in an afterschool program at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, a school designated to take in displaced students from Sexton. Kyle says that the students in his program felt as if they were being moved around like pawns on a chess board.

“No one asked them what they felt about the merger,” Kyle says. “They didn’t have a choice at all, and they felt abandoned by the staff at their old school.”

The first few months at Fiske were rough, Kyle recalls. Students fought and the staff struggled to maintain discipline. Eventually, the environment calmed down. But Kyle worries that the disappointment the students had in the education system will linger.

Like others, Free has mixed feelings about the closings. The schools were failing and “not producing global citizens,” she says. Free, like so many parents, decided not to send her son to a neighborhood high school; instead, she enrolled him at the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, a good 6 miles from South Shore.

Yet what didn’t make sense to her, and still does not, is that immediately after closing schools, neighborhoods with a lot of half-empty buildings got new schools thrust on them. 

Byrd-Bennett acknowledges that some community groups are still unhappy about the closings, but adds that parents of displaced students have told her they are pleased with the education their children are getting. 

According to CPS statistics, 74 percent of welcoming schools saw their enrollment fall by more than 10 students. Byrd-Bennett said she is not familiar with those figures.

When Emanuel talks about schools now, he emphasizes new programs and statistics that have improved, like graduation rates. The five-year graduation rate this year was 69 percent, up from 58 percent when he came into office.

Kyle says the statistic does not resonate for him or people in his community. Despite areas of South Shore that are wealthier, the community still has blocks crowded with abandoned apartment buildings, boarded-up businesses, high unemployment and too many young guys hanging out with nothing to do all day.  

The graduation rate for black males in Chicago still hovers at about 50 percent and is still the lowest compared with other racial groups. A shocking 92 percent of black male teens in Chicago are unemployed, according to a January 2014 Chicago Urban League report.

Sitting at a coffee shop one day, Kyle looks out the window and points to a young man whose shoulders are slouched as he peers down the block.  Kyle says the boy’s name is Donte and he worked with him at Fiske.  “I told him to go home, but look, he is back out there,” he says. 

The combination of dropouts and high unemployment means that illegal activity is commonplace. This reality intertwines with other concerns, including education and the ability to attract businesses to the neighborhood. 

It becomes a cycle that is hard for a community to break. “I never saw a good school surrounded by a depressed community,” says Kyle.

Another change proposed to rating policy

November 17, 2014 - 11:47am

In August of 2013, CPS officials announced they would make the school rating system more comprehensive, looking at multiple factors, including college enrollment and how particular groups of students were doing, and change the ratings from three "levels" to five "tiers" to make it more nuanced.

But this new rating system does not seem to be working out.

Schools have yet to see the results for 2013-14 and now CPS is announcing yet another change. The CPS board meeting agenda posted this morning includes an amendment to the comprehensive performance policy that would retain a three-level system but would add "Level 1+" and "Level 2+."

Also, it adds a paragraph that would allow CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to keep a school to at "Level 1+"  (the highest level) or "Level 1" if the school experienced a “significant event.” Significant events are defined as a change in student population, teaching staff, principal, academic program or “any other event that had a significant impact.”

That Byrd-Bennett could overrule the rating system’s results would be unprecedented. It is sure to raise the ire and suspicion of principals and parents who are already suspicious of the ratings because they are late. Even before the more recent amendments were announced, one principal said he thinks that CPS officials are trying to protect particular schools that didn’t do well under the new policy.

The ratings are usually released in late September and given to parents as part of a school progress report on the November report card pickup days, which were last week.

This would be the second major change since CPS adopted a comprehensive rating system. In August of this year, CPS already had decided to give schools two ratings, one based on multiple and the other based solely on test scores. Schools get to claim the higher of the two ratings. Many suspected these changes were made to protect high-performing schools that didn’t do well on the other factors. ​

Ratings are used by parents to help choose schools. Principals say they are frustrated that the ratings are not available yet, especially if they are expecting to do better, because they use the ratings to market their schools.

The ratings are also used by officials as they decide what schools to close or turn around.

Take 5: Discipline reporting push, CPS schools in football semi-finals and Senate Bill 16

November 17, 2014 - 10:43am

Young advocates will go to Springfield this week to press lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it mandatory for school districts to release information on punitive discipline practices. Jose Sanchez, coordinator for the student group VOYCE, says the group would like to see the legislation passed in the veto session. The bill calls for the reporting of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and student retention. It also requires school districts to report law enforcement involvement, including arrests--something already required by the federal government. And it prohibits schools from charging students fees for misbehavior, a controversial practice that the Nobel charter schools once used but abandoned last year under political pressure.

The bill also calls for school districts to report when students are removed to alternative settings. In revising its Code of Conduct this past Spring, CPS officials created a loophole that allows schools to transfer students to what is called a Safe School--a special school historically reserved for expelled and dangerous students awaiting expulsion--as an alternative to expulsion, without any due process, Catalyst reported this summer. Without this bill, it will be near impossible to find out how many students were given this "disciplinary reassignment."

Under the bill, schools with the highest rates of exclusionary discipline would need to submit improvement plans to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Sanchez says that some school superintendents are pushing against the bill. But he thinks the stories of students who have been suspended for small things or things that they couldn’t help, like being near a fight but not in it, have helped to convince lawmakers that some light needs to be shined on the issue.

After years of having advocates fight for the information, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett released school level suspension and expulsion data. However, that data, which cover the first semester of last year, have not been updated. Byrd-Bennett also announced a revision of the Student Code of Conduct that made suspension and expulsion the punishment of last resort. However, Sanchez says he still hears stories of students being suspended for what seems like insignificant reasons. For example, one boy, who is struggling since his father passed away, was suspended for missing school.

2. Three cheers… The football teams of Simeon and Phillips made it to the state semi-finals--the first time two public league teams have been in the final four, reports DNA info. The last public league team that made it this far was Hubbard’s 2005 team,  and the last state championship won by the public league was Robeson in 1982. Simeon’s coach Dante Culbreath says that the achievements show the “growth in the public league.”

Phillips seems to be beating the odds in other ways. It is a turnaround school, managed by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. Though ratings aren’t out for this year, it earned the district’s top rating last year. Yet like other public high schools in Chicago, it still is losing students. This year only 614 enrolled, which makes fielding a strong football team even more impressive. Simeon, the career and technical education school attended by the Bulls' Derrick Rose, has a middle rating and has been able to maintain a healthy student body of 1,400 students, though it also has lost students.

The importance of a strong sports program was underscored in a 2009 Catalyst story on the achievement gap between black male students and other racial/gender groups. Researchers say organized athletics can provide a sense of structure and discipline for youngsters. “There’s a point when you realize that stability is really the beginning point of academic achievement,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sports in Society, a Boston-based sports research and advocacy group.

3. Bring them back… WBEZ’s Curious City returned to the question of whether CPS should bring back truancy officers, a position the district eliminated more than 20 years ago to help balance its budget. Curious City had previously looked into the history of truancy officers, but in this update to that story, the reporter actually interviews someone who used to have the job.

Patrick Nelson, who was a full-time truancy officer in the 1990s, offers an interesting and timely perspective. He says he tried to be “as positive and uplifting with children as possible, to show them that someone cared — and noticed — they were missing.”

This summer, a state-appointed task force suggested CPS create a position similar to truancy officer. These “attendance coordinators” would go out to find absent students fortified with a background in psychology or social work and training in data analysis and counseling.   The task force was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation into the “empty desk epidemic." Catalyst reported earlier this year that chronic absenteeism and truancy increased in 2013, despite all the additional attention, though the numbers fell slightly last school year. Nelson told Curious City he thought the state was asking for too much in the catch-all “attendance coordinator” position: “You put too much plumbing in the works, you’re gonna get clogs.”

4. Senate Bill 16's future... Lawmakers are set to take up Senate Bill 16 -- the proposed legislation to revamp how schools are funded -- on Tuesday at the start of the Legislature’s fall veto session. But as an Associated Press article points out, it’s unlikely to get very far before the January inauguration of Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Republicans in the Illinois House criticized their Democratic colleagues for excluding the GOP from summer meetings about SB 16. “Sadly, the way in which the majority party presented it and went into hiding was a terrible disservice to taxpayers and families whose children are part of the public education system,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

Meanwhile the parent group Raise Your Hand came out against the bill over the weekend, noting it brings no additional revenue to schools. “Our schools are severely underfunded and merely shifting inadequate dollars won’t change that,” Wendy Katten posted on the group’s Facebook page.  Raise Your Hand is asking legislators to pledge to support a funding reform bill only if it “includes a fair weighted formula, significant new funding for education and adequate resources for students with disabilities.”

5. Four more years … The U.S. Department of Education last week extended waivers for states to avoid compliance with the tough 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Forty-one states, including Illinois, had gotten waivers -- which were set to expire next year but can now be extended for up to four years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Politico says the long extension “would carry the Obama administration’s policies well into the next presidential administration and possibly buy time for a congressional fix to the law,” which requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

To get the waivers, states must do more to show how they plan to intervene in low-performing schools, but, as Education Week reports, “they won’t have to provide any data to show their new systems are actually improving student achievement.”

Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit consulting organization in Washington, told EdWeek it doesn’t seem like the federal government is “really making significant changes [...] They are not necessarily doing anything new or ambitious, they are not collecting any new outcome data. It's kind of just the same old, same old."





Most teachers get high ratings in second year of new system

November 14, 2014 - 10:05am

More teachers evaluated under the district’s new rating system scored in the top two categories as “proficient” or “excellent” in the classroom, with elementary school teachers scoring higher than their counterparts in high schools.

The scores from evaluations conducted last year are from the second cycle of the REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago) Students system, which takes student test scores into account as well as classroom observations.

Non-tenured teachers, who had already been rated once using REACH, scored better than the small subset of tenured teachers who were being evaluated for the first time.

In the first cycle, only non-tenured teachers were rated with REACH; in last year’s second cycle, about 10 percent of tenured teachers were included.

This school year, in the third cycle, all tenured teachers will be evaluated and student performance on tests will account for 30 percent of ratings. (In the first two years, tests accounted for 25 percent of ratings.)

According to CPS data from the second cycle:

- 65 percent of the 7,031 evaluated teachers were rated proficient or excellent. In comparison, just 58 percent received these high ratings a year earlier.

- About 59 percent of tenured teachers were rated excellent or proficient, compared to 68 percent of non-tenured teachers.

- More than 8 percent of tenured high school teachers were rated unsatisfactory – the lowest category – compared to about 5 percent of elementary school teachers.

District officials said the improved performance of non-tenured teachers could be because they have had “additional experience with the evaluation […] Also, previous evaluations enabled principals and assistant principals to improve feedback and develop targeted support for teachers.”

Jennie Jiang, a research analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research who has studied the new system, cautioned against comparing the ratings of non-tenured versus tenured teachers, because the pool of tenured teachers who were evaluated using REACH included only those who’d been rated poorly under the previous system or who hadn’t received any rating a year earlier.

“These are the teachers who were already struggling in the previous system or, for whatever reason, they had no rating,” she said. “We’re not really getting a sense of what ratings for tenured teachers would look like.”

Meanwhile, CPS officials said they are still looking into why ratings for elementary and high school teachers were different. Jiang said the issue merits further analysis, but offered some possible explanations. She said the observation rubric – known as the CPS Framework for Teaching – was orginally piloted more in elementary schools than in high schools, meaning that elementary school principals and teachers are more familiar with it.

In addition, in interviews with teachers, Jiang and her colleagues have found that more high school teachers complained that their principals were unfamiliar with their specific subject area – which could have negatively impacted the observations.

“Teachers don’t feel that their principals understand their specialization, which we heard more at high schools than elementary schools,” she said.

Jiang further added that "it’s easier in elementary schools to really observe that a student is engaged. Kids tend to get excited, and there are visual cues of engagement,” Jiang said. “High school students are different. They could be listening, but maybe they’re not showing it as much.”

In a report released last year, Jiang and her colleagues at the Consortium found that most teachers and administrators thought REACH provides helpful feedback. But researchers pointed to several important challenges, including an increased workload for principals and anxiety among teachers about using test scores as part of evaluations.

The consortium plans to release a follow-up to the report in two weeks.

Questions about delay

CPS released ratings to individual teachers on Oct. 30, more than a month after teachers got the data last year. In the weeks prior to receiving the ratings, many teachers had expressed anxiety over not knowing how they performed. Though teachers got immediate feedback from the observations, they did not know how students’ test scores affected their cumulative ratings.

The frustration mounted after principal observations for this year’s evaluations began in late September.

“No one has been clear on when we’re getting them,” one teacher said during a study group on the CPS Framework for Teaching last month organized by the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center.

(In collaboration with CPS, the Quest Center offers teachers regular study groups on different parts of the Framework, which is the rubric principals use to grade teacher performance.)

In a statement on the Chicago Teachers Union web site, officials called the delay “entirely unprofessional and unacceptable.”

“Educators started to receive new observations in their classrooms without full information from the previous year,” according to the statement. “Educators have a right to accurate, thorough and timely feedback at the end of a given school year so that over the summer, they can either begin or seek out new professional learning opportunities and state the process of adjusting their plans for the following school year based on complete feedback."

CPS officials said it took longer to release the data this year because of the higher number of teachers being evaluated.

"Adding these teachers increased the amount of time necessary to review and incorporate the data into composite scores," a district spokesperson said in a statement.

Common sense on Common Core

November 13, 2014 - 12:34pm

David Coleman and his team developed the Common Core State Standards in slightly less than a year between 2009 and 2010.  That quick turnaround time begs the question, “How complicated can this be?” 

But in the four years since, education’s mandarins have produced landfills-worth of material to explain and promote the new standards--graphs, charts, curriculum documents, reference material, frameworks and guidelines.  Textbook publishers rushed out “old wine in new bottles,” by slapping on labels proclaiming, “Aligned with the Common Core!”  Yet no one has comprehensively piloted this new paradigm, and no one can provide enough longitudinal evidence on the effectiveness of any particular instructional approach for it. 

The end result is a web of complexity that too often results in pedagogical overload for administrators and classroom teachers who will have to do the work “in the trenches” of transforming teaching and learning.

Yet what the education world needs right now is a dose of perspective and common sense when it comes to the Common Core.

Putting content into context

First, the shift to Common Core-focused instruction will have to take into account two contradictory realities. One is education’s obsession with the amount of content students should process and remember. For confirmation of this, just skim through any of today’s 800 to 1,300-page high school textbooks. Juxtaposed with this focus on content is another reality: An unlimited amount of information is available, 24 hours a day, from practically anywhere on the planet, via the Internet.  Further, the amount of information, on any subject, is increasing at almost an exponential rate.  Soon, technology will not only be able to provide content, but to furnish the answers to questions about content.

As a result, it will become paramount for students to learn how to put content into a productive context, rather than just know what that content is. The justification for the Common Core rests on one overriding, hoped-for outcome: That students will develop the ability to think, not just remember information.

As I deconstruct what David Coleman and his team have wrought, I believe that the foundation of Common Core rests upon thinking skills represented by about two dozen key terms. Each of these terms—such as analyze, evaluate, develop, main idea, infer, theme and others—represents a specific cognitive process required for learning within the structure of Common Core.  Understanding what these terms actually mean is more important than being able to recite simple definitions.  For example, “metaphor” is often defined as, “A comparative not using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ ” However, if you ask a student, “What does that actually mean?” you will often get a simple shrug of the shoulders.  Indeed, “rock is a stone” is a comparative, but not a metaphor.  The more useful meaning of metaphor can be expressed as, “understanding one thing in terms of another,” or describing something as being something else, even though it is not actually that something else, as in “He is the black sheep of the family.”

For students who enter school with a vocabulary deficit, like many of those in Chicago Public Schools, it is all the more important for them to grasp the concepts inherent in each of the key terms that are the foundation of the Common Core’s thinking skills.

Giving ‘teaching to the test’ a positive spin

While the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments such as the PARCC will focus exclusively on passages of text as the content of their tests, application of the thinking skills referenced above is not limited to the written word. “Content,” per se, can be anything--students can analyze a piece of music, develop an hypothesis, interpret data, determine a common theme that flows through an historical period, compare or contrast two images on the same subject, evaluate the claims made on a website, and so forth. 

Each of those italicized words is embedded repeatedly in the Common Core English Language Arts standards and collectively they form the basis of PARCC questions and prompts. Lesson content used to develop students’ understanding can even come from the students’ own cultural and social contexts, not being limited to strictly academic material.  Proficiency with these skills increases students’ development into competent adults.

Bottom line: The Common Core was devised not only as a way to level the pedagogical playing field from state to state, but also to prepare students to grow up as capable adults in an increasingly complex, global 21st Century economy and society that will require them to imagine things that do not yet exist, produce products and methods that matter to someone else, and communicate effectively with people different from themselves.

So if teaching through the prism of Common Core is intended to deepen students’ capacity to actually think in a variety of ways, and if assessments such as the PARCC actually measure to what degree this has been attained, perhaps “teaching to the test” could take on a more positive gloss.

 Ultimately, the Common Core has the potential for encouraging a greater interest in life-long learning as our children will live in a more dynamic world that will require constant adaptation to new and unfamiliar experiences.  In spite of some current efforts to derail the implementation of Common Core, the train has left the station. If past precedents regarding educational reform are any indication, Common Core, or some manifestation of it, is on track to remain with us for at least the next decade.

Bruce Taylor is a consultant and the author of "The Arts Equation" published by Watson-Guptil. He has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and as the director of education for Washington National Opera.

Take 5: Emanuel on risky bond deals, charter closure, selective segregation, teacher ed

November 13, 2014 - 9:20am

In response to the Chicago Tribune series detailing how CPS is paying millions more as a result of risky bond deals, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tells reporters it’s too late to do anything about it: “Unfortunately there’s a thing called a contract.”

But as the Tribune points out -- and as the Chicago Teachers Union has been arguing for some time now -- the city could do as other government agencies around the country have done and seek legal recourse to recoup some of the money. “A federal rule requires banks to ‘deal fairly’ with governments when they underwrite government bonds,” the article notes. The investigation showed how bank officials failed to fully disclose the risks of the deals and drew a parallel to a suit filed by New Jersey’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. The suit alleges that its underwriter, UBS, “fraudulently urged the agency to temporarily change the terms of its contract so there would be no cap on the interest rate.” Attorneys for the state agency say the issue that came to light only after the contract was signed. That case is awaiting trial.

The story ends with a quote from Brad Miller, an attorney who has worked with the CTU on urging the city to take action on related deals known as interest-rate swaps: “I don’t think CPS needs to show fraud, just that the banks left out information about what could go wrong that might have scared CPS off.”

2. Easy come, not so easy go… An Ed Week story on charter school closures reminds us of another reason it would be good for the district to release school ratings that have been delayed with little explanation. These ratings help determine whether charter schools will be placed on academic warning or, if already on the warning list, allowed to stay open. Schools on the warning list get one year to improve. Last year, four campuses were put on the warning list and parents don’t yet know if the schools will remain open.

The story points out the difficulties of closing any school, charter or not, and highlights one instance in which an Indianapolis charter school was shut down after a cheating scandal. There, the mayor’s office, which serves as the authorizer, reached out to each family and held enrollment fairs where parents could talk to other schools and enroll their children on the spot.

One question for districts is the timing of announcements if charters are to close. If a closure is announced in the fall, sometimes teachers check out for the rest of the year. But waiting till spring cuts close to the deadlines to apply to new schools for the coming fall.  

Parents in Chicago would likely want to know soon because the application deadline for selective enrollment and magnet schools is December 12.

3. Where are the white kids? “Curious City” on WBEZ asks why so few white children attend public schools in Chicago and notes that just half of white children in the city attend public schools. The district’s white enrollment is just 9 percent.

The story doesn’t raise any new points about Chicago’s long-standing racial segregation. It features two white families to tell the larger story. One white family sent its children to the University of Chicago Laboratory School – an expensive private school where Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his own children. The other family sent its children to public school, Ray Elementary in Hyde Park. The first family said it has nothing against public schools, but that the elite Lab School was more convenient because one parent works at the university. The second family chose public schools for political reasons, saying they “believe in public education and always knew their children would attend CPS.”

In both families, at least one child attended the public Whitney Young for high school. The story reiterates the point that white children are disproportionately represented at elite selective and magnet schools. Other public schools are hyper-segregated, high-poverty and close to 100 percent African American.

3. Not just a Chicago problem... Chicago isn’t the only big city with selective public schools that disproportionately enroll white and Asian students.

A story from the Gotham Gazette looks at the admissions policies of districts with the highest number of elite public high schools -- Chicago, New York and Boston. Of the three, New York City has the biggest demographic mismatch. Nearly 60 percent of students at these high schools are Asian and another 24 percent are white, though whites and Asians are just 30 percent of the total student body.

Chicago is the only district of the three that reserves seats for students from low-income areas, so the racial makeup of these schools does more closely match the overall demographics. (The end of Chicago’s federal desegregation decree led to a whitening of CPS’s top schools.

Ultimately, the article points out, the debates around admissions policies across the nation boil down to equity. “Are the terms of access to these scarce and coveted institutions fair - and where does the measurement of fairness begin?”

5. Teachers get easy As… A new report by a group that some educators love to hate, the National Council on Teacher Quality, says that it’s too easy to get A’s in university schools of education. The report states that an average of 44 percent of education majors qualified to graduate with honors, while only 30 percent of all graduating students got that distinction. One reason is that education courses were more likely to dole out easy assignments than other kinds of courses.

Like other reports by NCTQ, the study has been denounced by college programs and teacher unions that say the organization relies on faulty data and assumptions, according to a story in Inside Higher Ed. NCTQ developed its own “rigor standard” to rate the colleges, but most of the Illinois schools on the list have a caveat because the final score was “derived from less precise data.”

While it might easier to get good grades in teacher education programs, Illinois, like other states, have taken steps to make it harder to become a teacher. In 2010, Illinois raised the cut scores needed to pass the basic skills test, limited (but later scrapped) the number of times teachers could take the tests, and now requires teachers to pass a new performance assessment.


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