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Independent reporting on urban education since 1990 2015-07-31T20:25:23Z
Updated: 2 hours 22 min ago

Catalyst Critical Conversation focuses on improving high schools

May 22, 2015 - 10:31am

More than a 100 educators, advocates, parents and students gathered on Thursday for the premier of the sixth and final episode of a local schools documentary series -- and a lively discussion about how to improve Chicago high schools.

The forum was hosted by Catalyst Chicago and The School Project, whose final fim, "Teaching," explores the use of intensified algebra -- back-to-back periods of algebra -- at Roosevelt High School.

Catalyst founder and publisher Linda Lenz moderated the forum.

Speakers included: Camille Farrington, a researcher at the Consortium on Chicago School Research who's written a book about reforming high schools; Beatriz Ponce de León, executive director of Generation All; Laura LeMone, principal at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center; Cynthia Nambo, principal at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy Charter High School; Regeta Slaughter from University of Illinois at Chicago; and Warren Currie, math teacher at Michele Clark High School.

CAN TV Chicago broadcast the event live, and it will be rebroadcast at a later date.

The event is one of three town hall forums organized this year by Catalyst, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.  Join us for our future events, including our third Story Slam, and please consider making a donation so that Catalyst can continue reporting on education for another 25 years.

Below is a Storified version of the tweets from Thursday's film showing and discussion. And see more photos of the event here.

[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "The High School Challenge" on Storify</a>]

Take 5: Charter opposition, discipline reform, opt-out bill

May 21, 2015 - 10:15am

A group of North Side parents, teachers and principals have formed a coalition against a proposal to relocate the Noble Street Academy to the Uptown area. They’ll be protesting this afternoon outside of a public hearing on proposed changes to existing charter and contract schools -- including the Noble proposal.

“Opening a charter or any high school in our respective communities will undermine the efforts that are currently underway and the momentum we have gained in our neighborhood high schools through the hard work and dedication of our staff and our communities,” says Susan Lofton, principal of Senn High School, in a statement. “Relocating or opening a new school will be a detrimental diversion of needed resources away from our existing schools.”

Loften is working with the principals of Lake View, Sullivan, Mather and Amundsen high schools against the project, according to a story in the EdgeVille Buzz.

Also at today’s meeting the district will hear from the group that operates the Rowe Elementary charter school to create a middle school on the property once used by the now-closed Peabody Elementary. You may remember that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had promised to block charters from using closed schools. Now that Byrd-Bennett has stepped down due to the federal probe of the now-infamous SUPES contract, it’s unclear whether her promise still stands.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey told the Chicago Tribune that the district “continues to follow” the earlier commitment but if a community determines that a charter school is a desirable option, CPS will consider that option." WBEZ has a great story that asks whether it makes financial sense to keep charters out of closed schools.

2. School discipline reforms… Student activists seeking to reduce the excessive use of punitive discipline practices in school hailed Wednesday’s passage in the state Legislature of SB 100. The bill, which had already cleared the Senate and now needs final approval from Gov. Bruce Rauner, puts limits on when schools can suspend and expel students, prohibits the use of zero-tolerance policies and bans the use of disciplinary fines and fees.

"For too long, harsh school discipline practices have contributed to the under-education and over-criminalization of young people, and especially youth of color," said Dalia Mena, an 18-year-old member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, in a statement. "Illinois legislators have demonstrated that by listening to students, we can create schools where all students are valued and supported in their learning. SB 100 makes Illinois go from one of the worst states when it comes to overusing exclusionary discipline, to being a national leader with a model for other states to follow."

3. Speaking of student activists… More than 300 Chicago high school students gathered on Tuesday at the Chicago Cultural Center for the 13th annual  Mikva Actions Civics Showcase. It was an opportunity to show off student projects about a range of social issues, from violence and gentrification to recycling and LGBT rights, DNAinfo reports.

"The beautiful thing about this showcase is the way that the same curriculum comes out differently with each class, depending on what students wanted to change and what kind of an impact they wanted to have," Jocelyn Broitman, director of Democracy in Action, told DNAinfo. "So we're seeing so many different projects here, but the one thing they have in common is that they involve students taking action about an issue they really care about."

The story features a group of students from Julian High School who made music videos about gang violence and police brutality. It’s an especially poignant issue for many that school; last week two students were shot and killed while picking up their tuxes for prom.

4. Opt-out bill … After stalling for weeks, a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of state assessments cleared the Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday. If now goes to the Senate, but that’s not the only hurdle HB 306 would have to clear to become law: Gov. Bruce Rauner has threatened to veto the bill and, as the Sun-Times puts it, has been “leaning on Republican lawmakers to vote ‘no.’”

Rauner and others in his administration -- including the state’s new superintendent -- say they worry about the potential loss of federal dollars if too many children opt out of the controversial assessment known as the PARCC. Hundreds, if not thousands, of CPS students have already opted out of the assessment. This is the final week that the PARCC is being administered this year. Proponents of the opt-out bill, led by the Chicago parent group Raise Your Hand, say the PARC, is too long and and takes away valuable time in the classroom.

5. Earning college credit … Another education-related bill that’s further along is HB 3428 , which would require public colleges and universities to give course credit to students who receive a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams. The proposal, which overwhelmingly passed in the House and is now before the Senate, has been met with resistance from higher education officials who worry about losing out on tuition dollars.

In addition, college officials say they “fear that requiring them to give blanket credit for AP tests would unacceptably lower academic standards,” according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. As a result, they want the bill to grant them flexibility in how they allot the credit. A high school freshman from Arlington Heights told the Tribune changing the law "would give students a better chance of getting into the college they want without worrying about financial issues." Catalyst wrote about how financial troubles were one of the biggest hurdles faced by low-income college students in our winter issue.

A few last notes … The Tribune has a long story about how SUPES came to Chicago. It’s a good recap but doesn’t offer a whole lot of new information -- aside from the fact the mayor’s former education advisor,  Beth Swanson, had been involved in the decision to bring SUPES to CPS.

It's too bad that the Tribune and most other media outlets in town weren't asking these same questions two years ago, when the no-bid contract with SUPES was first approved and Catalyst raised questions about conflicts of interest.

Finally, Catalyst is hosting a film and discussion tonight with The School Project on the challenges and opportunities for high school reform. Come join us.

Photo: Charter school chalkboard/

Teachers union asks for 3 percent raise

May 20, 2015 - 11:54am

The Chicago Teachers Union is asking for a 3-percent raise – the same amount that educators could have received had the district offered to extend the current contract for another year.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told an audience of North Side parents, community members and teachers on Tuesday that the union presented the district its economic demands during negotiations last week. CPS officials have previously said a 3-percent raise would cost an estimated $105 million.

“We’re not seeking big things. We’re seeking a 3-percent raise,” Sharkey said during the union’s community contract forum sponsored by the group Parents 4 Teachers. “But that’s not what they want. What they want is a 7-percent cut.”

Union leaders had previously said they would seek a raise, but it’s the first time the exact amount has been said publicly. CPS officials, who generally decline to speak about contract negotiations, have said the district faces a crippling budget deficit and is seeking help from Springfield to alleviate its pension debt burden.

Last month, CPS officials said they couldn’t afford to offer the union the one-year extension that would have required a 3-percent raise. Instead, the union says the district has proposed to stop “picking up” pension costs for educators, which would effectively equal a 7 percent pay cut for most CTU members.

The existing labor contract expires at the end of June. At the current pace of contract negotiations, Sharkey says it’s unlikely there will be a new contract in place by the time school begins. He says he worries that the district won’t have its finances in order by then or be able to meet payroll. The district, which borrowed two months’ worth of tax revenue from next year in order to close this year’s budget gap, doesn’t have many options left.

“I do not know if they have money to open schools in September,” he said.

Shaping up to be a battle

Sharkey says the district’s negotiating team submitted its first written contract proposals during last Thursday’s bargaining session. He says the district wants to freeze any step-and-lane pay increases and eliminate the appeals process for teacher evaluations.

“We think negotiations are going poorly,” he says. “It’s shaping up to be a battle.”

Many teachers have told Catalyst Chicago they’re leery of another strike, which would be the second in three years.

Sharkey outlined the series of steps that would need to take place before a strike is even a possibility, including formal mediation, arbitration and fact-finding. That puts the possibility of a strike months after school starts – which could make for a cold picket line.

Two weeks ago the union filed a bad-faith bargaining charge against the district and sought formal mediation.

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo who participated in Tuesday’s contract forum, told the audience contract teams in each school building are reaching out to parents to tell them about the union’s contract demands and build up community support.

“If we don’t get a contract that supports our students and our teachers, we are prepared to go on strike,” Chambers said.

To keep and graduate freshmen, turn to charter schools for answers

May 20, 2015 - 11:01am

Andrew Broy

In the Federalist Papers, John Adams famously quipped that “facts are stubborn things.” Chicago policymakers would do well to keep this in mind as they debate the current performance of Chicago charter schools.

For years, charter opponents have explained away charter school academic success by arguing that charter schools do well with students who stay, but that many leave and are therefore no longer counted in the performance data.  Now, for the first time, recently-released data prove that a very different story is true: Chicago charter schools actually keep and graduate a higher percentage of incoming ninth-graders than do district-run schools. In fact, the data from Chicago Public Schools reveal that charter schools are among the most successful schools at graduating the students that choose to enroll on the first day of high school.

We can all agree that a high-quality high school takes responsibility for the success of all the students who enter its doors the first day of freshman year. Until now, the public only had access to the official graduation rates for schools, which report how many of a school’s original ninth-graders ultimately graduate from any CPS school – even if they transfer to another school.

However, in a recent article, WBEZ examined this graduate rate and obtained data that has never before been disclosed: the number of freshmen who actually went on to earn a diploma from the school they first enrolled in.  This rate – the percent of original freshmen a school graduates – is referred to as the “freshman retention rate.”

Contrary to the claims of charter opponents, the results reveal that charter schools are graduating their original cohort of ninth-graders at substantially higher rates than their district counterparts. The average freshman retention rate for charter schools is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the average for district open enrollment schools. Although only a third of the open enrollment high schools are charter schools, charters make up six of the top 10 open enrollment schools with the highest freshman retention rates. Three of the charter schools in the top 10 are part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In fact, this new data reveals that Noble schools are graduating their original freshmen at very high rates: eight of the nine Noble campuses have freshman retention rates that exceed the average for district open-enrollment schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

These data reveal another critical trend – the number of families who start high school in CPS, but leave the school district altogether during the high school years - a group referred to as “verified transfers.” We have long known that Chicago is a city with high mobility and a declining student population, but our analysis shows that 15 percent of students from district-run open-enrollment schools leave the system all-together (nearly 3,000 students), compared to only 3 percent of students who start their high school careers at charter schools. We can’t say where these students are going – private schools, parochial schools, suburban schools – but it does raise questions of why district-run high schools are unable to hold on to these students.

While charter critics often claim that charter schools are responsible for students leaving the traditional system, the data actually suggest that charter public schools keep more students from leaving CPS than their district counterparts. In short, charter public schools are keeping students in the district at a higher relative rate. For a district with a long-standing pattern of declining enrollment, this is a notably bright trend.

At the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, we commend WBEZ for bringing this data to the public. Not only does it provide a useful metric for families looking to better understand their high school options, it also raises important questions about how the city can better retain students and bring them to the finish line. Let’s just hope everyone working to increase graduation outcomes pays attention.

Photo: Graduation cap and diploma/

Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy is a former civil rights attorney and public school teacher.


Data breach triggers sharing of personal info for 4,000 students

May 19, 2015 - 3:22pm

CPS mistakenly shared the names, home addresses, phone numbers, disability status and other personal information of 4,000 students to five vendors seeking to do business with the district.

After learning of the unusual data breach, CPS officials say they took steps to remedy their actions. These include instructing the companies to dispose of the information, notifying parents of the unauthorized disclosure, and training staff about how to better protect student information.

“All [of the companies] have confirmed that they have responsibly destroyed the information,” Chief Accountability Officer John Barker wrote in a letter to parents last month.

Social Security numbers were not given out.

Data breaches like this violate federal and state student privacy laws and open the district to potential litigation; however, plaintiffs would have to prove the unauthorized disclosure caused damages. No suits have been filed.

The 4,000 affected children are a random subset of the 22,500 students who utilize CPS bus transportation.

Leonie Haimson, of the national group Student Privacy Matters, says there’s been an increase in the number of data breaches in recent years – in part because of increased federal requirements for data collection.

She says states and the federal government need to do a better job of ensuring districts are taking the right steps toward protecting private student information.

“Data should be encrypted. There needs to be better training, security audits and indemnification,” she said. “There’s been this huge push by the federal government to create the conditions under which the schools and districts have to collect more and more information and keep it in digital form […] But as we’re moving into a digital universe, the security and privacy protections have not kept up.”

Workers getting training on safeguards

In March, CPS gave the information to five vendors that had submitted proposals to provide management software for the district’s bus system. The companies were supposed to use the data set – which also included bus pick-up and drop-off locations – to test out their software.

District officials now say that the district should have given the companies a randomized list of addresses to test the companies’ software instead. Because the procurement process is still ongoing, CPS cannot identify the five companies.

“CPS takes student privacy very seriously and we deeply regret these circumstances,” officials said in a statement. “To prevent future unauthorized disclosures, the District is training staff members on student information safeguards and the importance of maintaining student privacy.”

Employees in the district’s procurement and transportation departments will be among the first to receive the training. CPS is also placing information on this breach in student files.

The steps that CPS has taken closely follow what the U.S. Department of Education recommends in cases of inadvertent data breaches. The department's Family Policy Compliance Office gets involved only when districts don't take steps to address the breach or if parents or students file complaints, according to a spokesman.

One parent who learned of the data breach said she’s not “completely convinced” her daughter’s information has been destroyed by the companies. “I just have to trust that the people with access to it know how to be responsible.”

Photo: Data security/

Take 5: State funding fix, testing opt-out bill, race and discipline

May 18, 2015 - 10:38am

It doesn’t look like a bill to overhaul the state’s school financing formula will go anywhere this year, but expect some significant changes to how the state funds schools anyway. That’s because the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is considering moving away from current model for handling funding when the state fails to provide the recommended foundation level of per-pupil funding, currently $6119. Instead, ISBE appears to be leaning toward switching to model that would lessen the financial impact for districts with a high percentage of poor students and low local property wealth.

At last week’s ISBE meeting, board members heard from more than a dozen students, superintendents and advocates from across the state that are lobbying for the alternative. Under the current model of "pro-ration," Illinois provides an equal percentage of state aid to rich and poor school districts when the Legislature fails to provide the recommended foundation level. For rich districts, the cuts have less of an impact because local tax dollars cover more than the foundation level.

But poorer districts with less property wealth rely more heavily on state aid, so the cuts are more significant. “Year after year, the pro-ration further deepens disparities that are baked in our funding formula,” said Mike Gauch, superintendent of Harrisburg Community Unit 3 School District.

Chicago lost more than $45 million in general state aid due to pro-ration this year; if ISBE had operated instead the alternative, Chicago would have actually gained an additional $1.7 million. ISBE will vote in June on whether to change the formula -- which board members see as a policy decision, not something that needs to be decided by Springfield.

2. Testing opt-outs … Will Guzzardi’s opt-out bill was given until this Friday to get voted out of the House, about two weeks past the standard deadline for moving legislation from one chamber to another. This is the bill that would clarify parents’ rights for opting their children out of taking standardized tests.

Meanwhile, the second window of testing for the PARCC ends this week. Parents across the district and state have been opting their children out of taking the exam -- although it’s too early to know exactly how widespread the movement has been so far. The Illinois State Board of Education won’t receive official testing rates until the summer, according to a Tribune article. ISBE officials say federal funding may be lost if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test in any school, or district, or statewide. ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus says the state will review each district with low participation on a case-by-case basis once the official tallies come in.

3. Dirty kitchens? The Chicago Tribune analyzes health records and finds that inspectors failed to visit about 300 of the city's day care centers last year -- more than 40 percent. When inspectors finally did show up, they'd sometimes find rodent droppings in food areas, standing water and other problems.

State law requires inspections in kitchens at day cares, restaurants and other institutions at least twice a year - but Chicago is one of only three municipalities in Illinois that routinely fails to meet this standard. In the case of the day care kitchens, inspections were "overlooked because of a glitch involving license code numbers and that staff discovered the problem."

It goes without saying, but frequent food safety inspections are important because they help "keep food-borne diseases at bay — especially for toddlers and young children, who are at high risk of serious complications or death," according to the story.

4. Delayed audit … What happened with the third-party audit of how CPS awards no-bid contracts in response to the FBI investigation of SUPES? Preliminary findings were expected by this Friday, but the Tribune reports that an auditor has yet to be selected. Now, results aren’t coming until June 12 because the district wants to thoroughly review the review process first. The auditor is being chosen by a three-person committee of district officials, while district attorneys and the inspector general’s office will review the audit’s “final scope” before any auditing can actually begin, according to the story.

"It is essential that the sole-source process review is done effectively," says district spokesman Bill McCaffrey. "And to make sure that takes place, CPS formed a committee of senior leaders from several departments to select the vendor that will carry out the review."

5. Talking about race … Absurd. That’s what the father of a second grader called the suspension of his daughter from a Forest Park school. The black girl--apparently upset that she was excluded from a hand-clapping game--told a white classmate that she couldn’t play with her anyway because black children can’t be friends with white children, according to an article in the Forest Park Review. The parents of the black girl, who coincidentally are white, appealed the suspension, but it was upheld by the District 91 Board of Education.

In a letter to parents, the principal of the Western suburban elementary school said the comment fit under a section in the Code of Conduct that prohibits “verbal and/or written threats, intimidation, fear or other comparable conduct toward anyone.”

The father alleges that if his daughter were white she wouldn’t have been suspended. He may have a point. In a related story, the Forest Park Review reveals that District 91 has a disturbing racial disparity when it comes to suspensions. Eighty percent of the students suspended in the school district over the past five years were black, while only 46 percent of students are black. The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is investigating the racial disparity in the school district.

A few last notes… CPS is holding a public hearing on whether to renew 14 charter and schools on Wednesday. Then on Thursday will be a much longer hearing over changes for already approved new schools, including several delayed openings for alternative schools and a proposal to move a Noble Street Charter school to Uptown. This last item, which we wrote about previously, is sure to generate some opposition as it will mean a charter school in a neighborhood on the upswing.

And if you didn’t hear it on WBEZ last week, check out Becky Vevea’s quest to find out whether Chicago schools were ever “good” in an ambitious piece for Curious City.


Photo: Education budget/

50 schools closed, students scattered

May 15, 2015 - 9:44pm
Then - 2013:

Two years ago this month, despite massive protests by parents, teachers and community members, the CPS board voted to close 50 schools at the end of the school year. It was the largest number of schools ever closed at one time in the nation, and impacted some 30,000 students, who either had to move schools or whose schools received displaced students. The rationale? There were several. Mayor Rahm Emanuel initially touted savings but then, when the numbers didn’t pan out as anticipated, he switched his focus to moving kids into better schools. Meanwhile, CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett said that the closing of under-used buildings would allow CPS to focus limited resources on a smaller number of schools.

See: 50 school closings approved at raucous board meeting, Catalyst May 22, 2013.


Students who made the transition from closed schools to different CPS schools have shown only modest improvement in attendance and performance, and only 20 percent transferred to significantly better schools. Most worrying, CPS lost track of over 400 students and does not know where or whether they enrolled in other schools.

See CPS touts minute improvements for students from closed schools, Catalyst March 26, 2014; Tracking 434 missing students after closings, Catalyst February 4, 2015.


Thirty-three of the closed schools remain boarded up and unsold. It is costly to maintain and secure the buildings. What will CPS do with these buildings that used to be centers of their communities?

See: Vacant schools still waiting for a second life, Catalyst March 30, 2015.

Quit complaining about the PARCC

May 15, 2015 - 11:27am

LeeAndra Khan

What is college readiness and how do you get it?

If we know that college readiness leads to access, then we know that readiness is what we need to prepare our students for. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is intended to help us do just that.

The PARCC is designed to tell all of us--schools, principals, teachers, parents and students--what we know and don't know about whether students are learning, what we are doing well and what we need help with. That's a good thing, right? So what's all the fuss about?

We have complained for years about standardized tests not being a true measure of student ability, arguing that these tests are disconnected from the classroom and from how students learn and are traditionally assessed. We have complained that standardized tests don't predict college persistence and success.

Now we have an assessment that is aligned to the standards that we believe in, the Common Core. This assessment that can help us tailor our instructional programs to best suit our student body and individual students as well.

Achieving standards, not compliance

I am a principal who has moved to standards-based grading. I started the conversation with my faculty by talking about what we see when we open a “grade book.” What does it tell us? Traditionally, it tells us how students are performing in categories like homework, quizzes, projects, exams. As a parent, how does this help me? It doesn't.

What you end up finding out is that your student has a 90% in homework, a 90% in projects, 65% in quizzes and 70% in exams.  Instead, what if the categories were specific learning standards? Like: "factoring," "solving equations", "expressions," "polynomials," and "graphing"? Then you would know how well your student is doing on the standards. You could get them the specific help that they need. You would know where to focus. We can then have conversations about teaching and learning instead of compliance and habits.

This is what we hope to learn from the PARCC. We want to know how our students are performing on the standards and how our schools are preparing our students to master skills and standards.

Yes, there are issues with the exam. Schools weren't ready for it. The exam is different from other assessments we have seen. The technology—the PARCC is administered online—is challenging. The exam is challenging; I took a few practice exams and I had to do some real thinking.

I have read many blogs and op-ed articles, and, more important, I live in Chicago. So I have been bombarded with opinions. What I know, though, is that good instructional planning starts with the exam: Design the assessment first and plan your lessons and tasks with the assessment in mind. While "we," as principals and teachers, didn't write the PARCC exam, now that we know how students will be assessed, we can plan accordingly.

Changing classrooms for the better

If you have a quality assessment, you can plan for quality instruction. While many school districts are behind the eight-ball, this is our chance to change what we do for children and how we will address their need to be college ready and therefore have access to college.

For PARCC success and college readiness, the way our classrooms look and function must be different.

We need classrooms where there is authentic student-to student discourse; classrooms where students know the criteria by which they will be assessed; classrooms where students are asked factual, debatable and conceptual questions; classrooms where students can make their thinking visible; classrooms where students ask each other questions; classrooms where students are allowed and encouraged to struggle with new ideas and concepts; classrooms where students think critically, act responsibly, and communicate effectively; classrooms that empower academic risk-takers, thinkers and life-long learners who demonstrate personal resilience, problem-solving skills, and an appreciation of multiple perspectives.

The PARCC exam requires students to have some staying power. It requires grit. It requires students to believe in themselves and what they know.

Coincidentally, this is what college readiness requires.

LeeAndra Khan is the principal of Bronzeville Scholastic Institute.


A growing trend to promote students based on skills, not seat time

May 14, 2015 - 3:07pm

In a suburb just outside of Denver, Principal Sarah Gould stands outside a fifth-grade classroom at Hodgkins Elementary School watching students work. This classroom, she explains, is for students working roughly at grade level. Down the hall, there are two other fifth-grade classrooms. One is labeled “Level 2 and 3,” for students who are working at the second- and third-grade levels. The other is for students who are working at a middle-school level.

But some of these students won’t necessarily stay in these classrooms for the whole school year. The students will move to new classrooms when they’ve mastered everything they were asked to learn in their first class. This can happen at any time during the year.

“We have kids move every day. It’s just based on when they’re ready,” Gould said.

Six years ago, Hodgkins Elementary worked the same way most schools and districts do: Students were assigned to a class for a fixed amount of time and were promoted when the time ended, assuming that they had gained the skills they needed for the next class — and sometimes even if they had not.

Now, the school is part of a growing movement toward “competency-based education,” which replaces “seat time” with skills as the main standard for whether students are promoted.

Competency-based education goes by many names — mastery-based, proficiency-based and performance-based education — but the idea is the same: Students are measured by what they’ve learned, not the amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom.

Innovations in technology and how teachers can monitor students’ progress, along with changes to regulations about how long students must spend in class, have made it possible for schools and districts to adopt competency-based systems in an effort to use students’ time in school more effectively.

At least 40 states have one or more districts implementing competency education, and that number is growing, according to a 2013 KnowledgeWorks report with the most up-to-date numbers on the trend.

In Chicago high schools

In Chicago, several schools have classes that use one of several versions of a curriculum that judges students based on mastery, rather than completion of tasks, said Sarah Duncan, director of the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works with neighborhood high schools to ensure students are ready for post-secondary education.

Duncan’s daughter attends Walter Payton High School, one of the city’s top selective high schools, where homework is optional in some math classes and students are given the power to judge whether or not they need the practice.

One of the city’s neighborhood high schools, Juarez High in Pilsen on the Southwest Side, has the most developed system of mastery learning. Juarez calls it “benchmarking.”

Students are given grades based on the number of skills they acquire as opposed to whether they turn in homework. If they do poorly, students are not given Ds and Fs; instead, they keep trying until they master the skill.

Juarez Principal Juan Ocon has explained that he thinks this system is more challenging for students, who cannot just scrape by and turn in low-level work. But Ocon says he has had some resistance from teachers who are used to giving students low grades for not turning in homework.

Duncan, whose organization works with Juarez through a federal School Improvement Grant, said that she thinks rating students on how well they have mastered standards makes a whole lot more sense than rating them on whether they comply with turning in homework.

She notes that using this method also removes the issue of time because students do not move on until they know what they are doing.

“It becomes less of a race,” she says.

Different models on a continuum

But competency-based education doesn’t look the same across the country. In fact, advocates say schools and districts fall on a “competency continuum,” based on which aspects of competency education they’ve implemented.

When advocates talk about a “pure” model of competency education, they describe a model that isn’t bound by grade levels or the Carnegie unit, a measure of the amount of time a student has studied a subject in class. At that end of the spectrum, schools like Hodgkins or New York City’s Olympus Academy have essentially gotten rid of standard K-12 grade levels and only move students to the next learning level if they’ve proven they’ve mastered the concepts. (The schools generally must track students by grade level for funding and state testing purposes, even if their classes are not designed for single-age cohorts. Some advocates, including officials in Hodgkins’s district, want state policies changed to allow competency-based learning schools to track students differently.)

“Education systems in the past have been notorious for jumping on bandwagons, but nothing substantially changes under the surface. In our model, everything has changed under the surface,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer of Hodgkins’s district, Adams County School District 50 in Colorado.

But at the same time, advocates acknowledge that the “full system overhaul” is a heavy lift and that schools need to start from a place that makes the most sense for them based on their time, resources, and community support. For some districts, the clearest path has been to create new schools based on the model, as Philadelphia did this year when it opened three high schools that assign students to workshops rather than classes.

The schools retain some of the traditional school organization, but are working toward replacing standard grading with a detailed, competency-based matrix that lets students know at all times where they stand and helps them understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Traditional letter grades don’t give students much information about what they know and can do, said Thomas Gaffey, the technology coordinator at Building 21, one of the three Philadelphia schools. The competency-based evaluation he helped design “makes the learning process transparent,” he said.

More often, schools have nestled a competency-based philosophy within their existing operations, maintaining their grade-level arrangements while adapting how they assess student learning.

“We’re a hybrid, which is what I think appeals to people who look at our model,” said Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn High School in New Hampshire. “It’s not vastly different from what they do with a traditional model, but it’s not so far out on the spectrum that it’s unattainable for them to get to where we are.”

At Sanborn, students are still enrolled in traditional classes and still receive credit for class at the end of the year. But all the courses have defined core competencies, and if students don’t gain those competencies, they have to do extra work in order to earn credit instead of simply accepting the lower grade. The school is also in the process of doing away with numerical grades in favor of a scale that ranges from “limited progress” to “exceeding expectations.”

“We grade kids every day,” Stack said. “The difference is, what are you doing with that grade? Are you using that as feedback to tell students how they’re doing and to inform instruction or are you just using it as a determination to say did they know it or not?”

Stack said as much as he would like for his school to be totally unbound by seat time, its model is still dictated by the school calendar.

“If we can’t move kids when they’re ready, we can at the very least try to personalize instruction to the extent possible when they’re with us,” he said.

Holding on to some grade levels

Other schools offer their own reasons for maintaining grade levels while rolling out a competency-based approach.

After a competency-learning pilot in math yielded major gains for California’s Summit Preparatory charter schools, the network adopted the approach in most academic subjects and considered going further.

“We thought eliminating grades was the gold-standard ideal,” said Adam Carter, chief academic officer. “We thought, ‘Those stupid grade levels are holding us back.’ ”

That changed when Summit officials thought through what they would lose by doing away with grade levels and realized that students benefit by belonging to a fixed cohort that advances together. “If students can plug into a project that is rich and full of layers, we don’t need to get rid of grade levels,” he said.

Schools operated by Rocketship, a national charter school network, regroup students four to six times a day based on their academic skills, in a robust example of how educators can use student data to foster competency-based learning.

“But we still have grade levels because of the social-emotional needs of students, especially early elementary,” said CEO Preston Smith. “Five-year-olds need to be with 5-year-olds most of the day so they can develop the life skills they need to be successful.”

Advocates of competency-based learning say the diversity among schools’ approaches should be expected — and appreciated — as more experiments take shape.

“Each school and each district is on its own journey and they’re going to have different entry points,” said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which champions online and blended learning models that are often part of competency-based programs. “Most school leaders who are implementing this well … had been working on the building blocks for three to six years.”

Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy for KnowledgeWorks, said, “Naturally, you’re going to see a tremendous amount of diversity in implementation. … That’s healthy. We need to try different approaches. We need to figure out ultimately which methods are the most effective.”

For now, the experience of schools like Hodgkins suggests that competency-based education might help engage students in their learning.

When kindergarten teacher Jenn Dickman recently asked for volunteers to share their “data notebooks” with a visitor, her students rushed en masse to grab the binders.

Jayleen Vasquez was first in line. She flipped quickly through the pages—each a mini-progress report of her skills. At the top were headers such as, “I can read a Level D book with purpose and understanding” or “I can read 50 sight words in 100 seconds or less.”

Underneath were columns shaded in colorful crayon hues showing whether she’d met the goal, and if not, how much farther she had to go.

“I passed these. I got those two right and this one I just forgot one. I did not pass this one,” she said, gesturing to one page. Then she concluded with pride: “I passed all this.”

This story was produced as a collaboration among news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project. Reporting was contributed by Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat Colorado, Sue Frey for EdSource California, Dale Mezzacappa for the Philadelphia Notebook and Sarah Karp for Catalyst Chicago.


Take 5: Budgets delayed, theft arrests, cutting Holocaust history

May 14, 2015 - 10:11am

Anxiously awaiting their school budgets, principals received a letter  on Wednesday saying they will get them… sometime later. The letter from interim CEO Jesse Ruiz says that the district won’t release budgets until after Springfield takes some sort of action. With a projected $1.1 billion deficit, whatever the district could hand out now would be a “doomsday” budget and would basically freak people out.

“This letter is to let you know that while we continue to work on individual school budgets for next school year, we do not think it is productive or in the best interest of our school communities to release school budgets that will drastically impact our classrooms if Springfield does not take action,” according to the letter.

Last year, then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proudly sent budgets out early April, noting that the early release would help principals make hires early and figure out if they needed to lay teachers off. Schools also got a bump of $250 extra per student. In years past, it was not that unusual for the district to wait until May to send out budgets but principals complained that was difficult to find good candidates for teaching positions because they had already been hired by suburban districts.

CPS is in the midst of increasingly tense negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union.

2. Junk-level debt … It’s been a tough week financially for CPS -- and Chicago in general. On Wednesday, just a day after dropping the city’s bond rating to junk status, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the district’s $6.2 billion general obligation debt to the same category.

The ratings company indicated the new Ba3 rating for CPS reflects "increased strain on the district's precarious financial position" in view of last week's Illinois Supreme Court decision overturning state pension reform, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business. It also placed the district on watch, “meaning that further downgrades in the coming months are likely.”

The drop doesn’t trigger any new payments to financial institutions, the Sun-Times notes, “but the worsening of CPS’ ratings could potentially affect negotiations the district has entered into with several banks over those ‘swap’ termination fees.”  Certain borrowing costs could also go up as a result, the Tribune reports. Two weeks ago the district announced it would seek $113 million in bond money for next year’s capital budget -- the smallest amount in decades.

3. Charges finally filed… It has been five months now since the CPS inspector general released his annual report outlining the massive theft of $870,000 allegedly orchestrated by a high school business manager. On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that the following people were charged: Jermaine Robinson, 36, of Chicago; Sidney Bradley, 46, of Chicago; Jonathan McKinney, 38, of Chicago; Albert Bennett, 49, of Carpentersville; and Paul Simmons, 55, of Calumet City, according to Cook County court records. Bradley, Bennett and Simmons are connected to companies that were banned from doing business with CPS at last month’s board meeting.

Employee records show that Robinson worked at Gage Park High School from at least 2009 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

According to the inspector general's report, the scheme had many tentacles, but most of the theft was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The CPS employee in question is accused of receiving at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals, according to the inspector general report.

4. Cutting electives … Are schools cutting back electives in order to offer more college and ACT prep courses? That’s the implication from an interesting DNAinfo story about the decision to cut a popular Holocaust history course at Lake View High School. Rosa Lamb, who teaches the class, says "it's mostly because we're cutting down electives in general to make sure we focus on things like ACT scores and college readiness."

Ross learned of the decision a week after getting accepted into a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum program. The museum’s educational program coordinator told DNAinfo it’s a familiar story: "The challenge we're seeing is time limitations are getting more and more restrictive because of the focus on standardized testing and Common Core. People don't necessarily see how this content can perfectly align with the skills students are required to use and will be tested on.”

CPS says decisions to cut electives at Lake View “were influenced by student data and are the basis for final decisions on which classes to offer each year, which is left to the teachers.”

5. Teachers stressed out … A new survey from the American Federation of Teachers on working conditions for teachers finds that nearly three-quarters of teachers are often stressed out at work -- and the biggest source of stress is having to adopt new initiatives without proper training or professional development. Teachers are far less enthusiastic about their professions now than they first started, and thirty percent say they’ve been bullied in the past year -- with the biggest bully likely to be their administrator or supervisor.

The 80-question AFT survey was filled out by more than 30,000 educators and circulated via email and social media between April 21 and May 1. It was created  by both the AFT and the Badass Teachers Association, a group that the Washington Post describes as “aggressively fighting the use of student test scores to measure teacher quality, the rise of charter schools and other market-based education policies.”

The AFT acknowledges the survey wasn’t scientific, but the Post writes that the “results were startling enough that it has asked the U.S. Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to follow up and conduct a valid survey to determine if there is a national problem of stressed-out teachers."

Photo:Education budget/

Mistakes made with teacher evaluation scores, CPS admits

May 12, 2015 - 2:35pm

Citing a computer coding error, district officials have acknowledged that they miscalculated last year’s REACH performance task scores for one out of every five educators.

Only a tiny fraction of the 4,574 errors were significant enough to result in ratings changes, however. A total of 166 teachers were given corrected ratings earlier this year, and most moved up a category, CPS officials say. Teachers whose ratings dropped won’t be penalized.

The coding error involved matching student rosters with scores on performance tasks, the subject- and grade-specific assessments that were developed by committees of CPS teachers.

Though the problem was not extensive, the number of mistakes – and the possibility that there are still others – has renewed criticisms about the use of such a complex system to evaluate educators and put jobs on the line.

On the front end, the REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students) evaluation system relies on teachers and principals to do classroom observations, administer tests and input data into a computer system. On the back end, REACH relies on a web of CPS departments, custom-designed software and third-party vendors to calculate student improvement on assessments, verify class rosters and tabulate final ratings.

“There needs to be an effort to reduce the complexity so teachers are getting fair, accurate, timely feedback,” says Jen Johnson, the CTU’s special coordinator for teacher evaluations. “This is serious stuff that leads to problems with potential job security.”

CPS Accountability Chief John Barker, whose office wrote the computer code that contained the error, says it’s now been corrected. He repeatedly stressed that the impact of the incorrect scores was minimal.

“Yes, that is something we are absolutely interested in as a district in getting it right. And getting it right means changing some scores,” Barker says. “What is important to know is that those are very, very minor issues. The number of changes in those scores that resulted in a teacher moving out of one category into another category is very, very small.”

It’s unclear, however, whether all of the errors have been corrected. Two teachers who spoke with Catalyst say their newly downgraded ratings no longer take all of their students’ growth on the performance task into account.

In one case, an elementary school teacher said her new score only counted half of the students who took the performance task at the beginning and end of the year. The other students -- who she says were counted the first time around -- are now missing from her data.

Similarly, an arts teacher at another school doesn't understand why her updated summative evaluation report now says that none of her students' performance task scores were counted toward her rating calculation. The "student growth" portion of her evaluation is now based entirely on her school's NWEA metrics – and not the performance task growth.

“Now we’re about to issue the second round of REACH Performance Tasks task for this school year,” she said. “And I ask myself, ‘Why am I even doing this? Who is to say it’s not going to be lost next year?”

Similar problems elsewhere

Chicago isn’t the first school district that’s discovered coding typos or miscalculations after releasing new teacher evaluations based in part on student growth on test scores. Last year, for example, bad data submitted by school districts in New Mexico led the state to issue incorrect ratings for hundreds of teachers.

A year earlier in Washington, D.C., district officials changed the ratings for 44 teachers after it was learned that the third-party vendor hired to calculate value-added scores for teachers (how much “value” teachers added to their students’ improvement on tests) made a typo in a long string of computer code. One of those teachers was mistakenly fired as a result, though district officials later reinstated that teacher.

In 2010, Illinois lawmakers passed a state law that requires student growth to count toward evaluations for principals and teachers. Other states passed similar laws, under pressure from the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top education initiative.

Jessica Handy, the Illinois governmental affairs director for Stand for Children, a supporter of the law, says “it’s totally reasonable that there are going to be some issues when implementing any new big system.”

Handy, who was a policy analyst for the state’s Senate committee on education when the new law was being drafted, says the rating system is complex because it includes multiple measures of growth. “Part of it is a way of doing checks and balances,” she says. “That way, we’re not over relying on just one test.”

Most CPS teachers will be evaluated under REACH this year. In its first two years, only untenured and some tenured teachers were evaluated.

The CTU first suspected there might be problems with the 2013-2014 ratings last fall, when several teachers complained that their performance task scores did not seem accurate. Johnson says the CTU notified the district of the problems in the fall during routine meetings on REACH.

In February, she says, CPS officials acknowledged the coding mistake; in March, teachers were notified of evaluation changes.

"When we checked that code after the conversations with CTU, we realized there was a very minor correction that needed to be made," says Barker, who described the coding error as “incredibly technical."

Essentially, the CPS computer code that was supposed to calculate how performance task scores affect teacher ratings skipped over some students who took the assessment. Teachers are supposed to verify who is in their class through a third-party roster verification system run by Batelle for Kids, a national non-profit group that is one of many vendors that contribute to the REACH system.

On certain occasions, "what the code didn’t do is pick up exactly what had been entered by that roster verification process," Barker said.

The same roster verification system is also linked to student scores on standardized tests to calculate the "value-added" portion of teacher evaluations. No similar problems have been reported in this case. CPS contracts with the University of Wisconsin to calculate the value-added metric.

Asking for clarity

Catalyst spoke with two teachers whose ratings changed after the glitch was discovered. They expressed frustration about the matter, but asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity about the subject.

The elementary school arts teacher, whose rating dropped from “proficient” to “developing,” said she asked her principal for help, emailed the district and called the IT Services Help Desk phone number listed in the initial CPS email notifying her of the change. It was only after reaching out to her union rep – and eventually connecting with Johnson from the CTU – that she finally was able to speak with someone at the district about her case.

But she still doesn’t know if the rating is correct.

“Never was CPS apologetic, flexible or clear about what happened,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair to change my score without explaining anything.”

Another elementary school teacher says she’s worried about the school year ending without a resolution to her case. “It’s coming to the end of the school year. I don’t want to spend my summer chasing this down,” she said.

The teacher wishes that someone from the district would sit down with her, go through the hard copies she kept from last year’s performance tasks and explain the math behind her score.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I would love for the district to sit down with me politely and explain where the mistakes were made,” she says. “This is my career we’re talking about, my profession, what I love to do.”


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