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Independent reporting on urban education since 1990 2015-09-01T17:29:26Z
Updated: 1 hour 41 min ago

How Chicago became a leader in IB

June 19, 2015 - 4:04pm
In 1997, Chicago tapped the International Baccalaureate program as a strategy to hold on to high-achieving elementary graduates. Over time, it has become the district's premier pathway to prepare prospective first-generation college students.

Take 5: Hancock’s award, late pension payment, teacher test bias

June 18, 2015 - 11:47am
Hancock receives a community award, CPS may be late with its teacher pension payment, how test bias is hurting minority teacher recruitment, and competing proposals for Dyett get public scrutiny.

Head Start would become full-day, full school year under proposed changes

June 17, 2015 - 9:28pm
Proposed changes to the rules governing Head Start would make most programs run six hours a day and 180 days a year – a significant expansion that would require additional funding to prevent cuts to teaching jobs and slots.

Student poets talk about violence: photo gallery

June 16, 2015 - 10:53am
In an interactive exhibit at the Poetry Foundation, student poets from Phoenix Military Academy shared their experiences with urban violence.

Q & A: Charles Burbridge, Chicago Teachers Pension Fund

June 15, 2015 - 1:29pm
The new executive director of the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund talks about the long history of pension woes, the impact of underfunding, and what he expects as the district's payment deadline approaches.

Take 5: Pension deadline looms, finding a schools chief, Noble decision

June 15, 2015 - 10:25am
City Hall sources say CPS can only afford a partial pension payment, and the process for picking a new schools chief remains a mystery in Chicago while other districts take a more public approach.

The history of hidden dropouts

June 12, 2015 - 3:53pm
New efforts to ensure CPS high schools report dropouts accurately are fighting a long history of misclassified students.

Take 5: Graduation rate scrutiny, questions on an UNO firing, union rally turnout

June 11, 2015 - 8:48am
Some high schools inflated their graduation rates by misclassifying dropouts, and CPS promises an audit; Dyett High graduates its last class and proposals are on the table to reopen it; UNO fires a charter school activist.

Opening a window to diverse viewpoints

June 8, 2015 - 11:23am
By reading Catalyst, I get to hear the diverse viewpoints of parents, teachers, principals and other Chicagoans who are engaged in and care about our public schools. This helps me understand multiple views, even those on opposing sides of controversial topics such as our new Common Core tests. Catalyst has given me a wide lens […]

Take 5: No Noble in Rogers Park, UNO eyes preschools, more on bankruptcy

June 8, 2015 - 10:55am
The Noble Network of Charter Schools has decided not to try to open a new campus in the Rogers Park area, a decision that was already being celebrated on social media this weekend by activists opposed to having a new charter in the neighborhood. Rogers Park was just one of many neighborhoods across the city […]

Latinos criticize lack of representation on school board

June 6, 2015 - 10:10am
The mayor should have made more of an effort to recruit another Latino member of the school board, say several prominent Latinos. The district is now 46 percent Latino. The lack of diversity is a problem statewide, however.

The rise and fall of student retention

June 5, 2015 - 4:29pm
Then - 1997: Chicago made national news when the School Board adopted a strict promotion policy requiring summer school and then possibly repeating a grade for 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders who fall short of chosen cut scores on standardized tests. The first year, 8,741 students were retained in those grades. The policy was approved despite strong evidence that ratcheting up student retention would […]

Take 5: Phoenix Pact for college, Urban Prep union vote, dirty schools

June 4, 2015 - 8:20am
An ambitious new endowment at North Lawndale College Prep will pay all out-of-pocket college expenses for its graduates.

Who’s in, who’s out on Board of Ed

June 2, 2015 - 2:39pm
Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have swept in new faces when his office announced four hand-picked replacement board members, but few expect much in the way of regime change in a system still controlled by City Hall.

Take 5: Byrd-Bennett resigns, no budget deal, Koch lands a job

June 1, 2015 - 6:48am
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett handed in her resignation letter, leaving the district without a permanent chief in the middle of budget season and during contract negotiations.

Chicago struggles to redesign neighborhood high schools

May 31, 2015 - 2:59pm
In 1992, Hyde Park High School housed 2120 students. Current enrollment is 783. Then - 1992: For decades, Chicago has wrestled with urban education's toughest problem--how to improve climate and achievement in nonselective, neighborhood high schools. As early as the 1980s, Hyde Park High School was using schools-within-a-school to give students more personal attention. In 1992, […]

15 years of leadership and proud of our role

May 28, 2015 - 11:10am

Heather Anichini

In her recent column in Catalyst In Depth, Sarah Karp opined: “The public has the right to know the costs and the results of initiatives taking place in our schools, with our children, teachers and principals.”

We agree!

Over 15 years, The Chicago Public Education Fund has committed more than $50 million to support the programs and organizations that measurably improve teaching and learning in Chicago’s public schools. The Fund’s website includes the grants we’ve made dating back to 2000, along with each grant’s duration and purpose. Both our website and our publicly-available tax filings were discussed with Ms. Karp as she prepared her column.

Ms. Karp’s column also cited three grants The Fund made in our third funding cycle, which launched in 2008 with the ambitious goal of “creating a city-wide system of great public schools” to serve all students in Chicago.

By midway through that funding cycle, Chicago Public Schools had already seen three CEO departures in quick succession (Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman and Terry Mazany), and other key leadership positions at CPS were vacant or only recently filled. In 2011 and 2012, The Fund made grants to a variety of consultants to ensure that a relatively new CPS administration had the management and data support required to make informed decisions about issues such as capital planning and the expansion of strong neighborhood school models.

By 2013, having seen more change atop CPS, The Fund made a strategic decision to move away from this kind of grant-making. Instead, our fourth funding cycle returned our focus to improving support for principals in schools and educators in classrooms. This school year alone, we committed more than $2.5 million to support 80 school teams in implementing educator-led innovation and to fulfill our commitment to quality leadership in each and every Chicago public school.

And we are sharing what we learn. We released case studies on our Summer Design Program and our recent School Leadership in Chicago baseline report. We will publish similar reports in the future, including case studies focused on local school councils and Common Core implementation at CPS. For the past three years, we have also relied upon the feedback and guidance of our Educator Advisory Committee, which consists of some of Chicago’s best educators.

Approving and supporting this work is The Fund’s Board of Directors, which Ms. Karp noted is made up of many of Chicago’s “most powerful people.” In addition to the directors she mentions by name, our board includes academic and thought leaders in education, former and current educators, and former leaders in city, state and federal agencies. Their combined expertise helps put The Fund on the leading edge of philanthropy, often providing early grants for new initiatives that meet educators’ most urgent and pressing needs.

Ms. Karp certainly did get this right: “The Fund’s current focus is on principals and educational innovation.”

Photo: Public schools concept/

Heather Y. Anichini is CEO of The Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit organization working to grow the number of great public schools in Chicago by seeking out and supporting innovative leaders working to reinvent classroom learning.

Take 5: Union vote at Urban Prep, Noble decision delayed, charter renewal revamp

May 28, 2015 - 9:02am

Just over 100 educators at Urban Prep Academies’ three campuses will vote next Wednesday on whether to unionize and join the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. The secret-ballot election -- which takes place under National Labor Relations rules -- comes more than three months after teachers announced a union drive at both Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep, two of the city’s longest-running and most respected charter school networks.

David Woo, an outspoken teacher at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus, says he was disappointed administrators did not agree to recognize the union through a “card check” -- which would count how many employees signed union cards -- or to remain neutral during a formal election process. “I genuinely thought they would take a bold step and do something progressive to support unions in charter schools,” said Woo.

Urban Prep Chief Operating Officer Evan Lewis declined to comment before next week’s vote. But administrators at the campuses have been talking about unionization to staff during mandatory meetings that, according to some teachers, have painted unions in a negative light and helped create a culture of fear. Noel Perez-White, a teacher at the Bronzeville campus, says some educators are especially nervous because they have not yet been told whether they’ll be invited to return to Urban Prep next fall.

Educators at North Lawndale College Prep remain in conversations with administrators about unionization and have not set a date for a vote.

2. Deferred vote on Noble ... In response to an outpouring of criticism from principals, elected officials and community activists, the CPS Board of Education decided not to vote Wednesday on a proposal to relocate the Noble Academy to the Uptown neighborhood.

Board President David Vitale said the decision to pull Noble’s proposal – along with two others related to contract and charter schools – was in direct response to the public outcry.

“We do listen here at the board to the community input, whether it’s from students, families, union members, educators, elected officials who provide feedback on the location and other issues related to the charter schools,” he said. “We’ve taken [these three items] off the agenda so we can actually learn more and understand better the reasons that people are not supporting these actions.”

Board members did, however, vote to approve another controversial proposal from Rowe Charter Elementary to expand and relocate part of its operations into the annex of the closed Peabody Elementary School in the West Town neighborhood. The move was approved despite promises made by Barbara Byrd-Bennett -- who is now on leave pending a federal investigation -- to keep charters out of closed schools.

Just four voting board members were present at Wednesday’s meeting: Vitale, Mahalia Hines, Deborah Quazzo and Carlos Azcoitia. Board member and Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz did not vote on the items.

3. New charter renewal process … Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Charter School Network, says he’s troubled by the fact Noble Academy is still in limbo about where it might open next fall. Setting an earlier timeline is one issue he’d like to tackle as part of a project to codify the process for charter renewals by October, when the Board will consider new charter proposals.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Broy and CPS Innovation and Incubation chief Jack Elsey said they’ll spend the summer crafting a new set of standards based on the district’s School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) to determine whether charter schools are on track for renewal.

Elsey said the current policy doesn’t provide enough guidance to charter school leaders about whether they’re on the right track or what they need to do to assure a renewal. The district currently keeps a “watch list” of charter schools that could be shut down if they earn the lowest possible rating under the SQRP two years in a row.

Under a new policy, high-performing charter schools might have their renewals fast tracked, says Broy. “Having a one-size-fits-all approach is too far too burdensome for schools that are, by every measure, great,” he says.

Apart from INCS, the district is also working with private donors -- including New Schools for Chicago -- on developing the new standards. You may remember that New Schools -- a big donor for Noble, KIPP and LEARN charter schools, according to its 2013 tax records -- was formerly known as the Renaissance Schools Fund and came out of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to open 100 new schools in Chicago.

4. Other deferred items … Also on Wednesday, CPS also pulled a recommendation for a one-year renewal of the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter School, an alternative school in the Englewood neighborhood.

Principal Pa Joof, who had complained to Catalyst last week about the metrics used to rate the school, said he is optimistic the district will return with a recommendation for a longer renewal. “I don’t see any reason they’d have to be very punitive,” he said. “We know what we’re doing, but they come to us with these difficult and impossible measurements.”

The third deferred proposal was a three-year extension of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL)’s contract to “turn around” Dulles Elementary in the South Side. It’s one of the worst-performing schools in AUSL’s portfolio, earning the lowest-possible rating under the SQRP last fall.

CPS had originally given AUSL a five-year contract in 2009 to “turn around” the school, and last year extended the contract for a single year.

5. Ed czar's salary ... The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s education czar, Beth Purvis, is getting paid out of the agency that funds autism and epilepsy services. Purvis’ already controversial $250,000 annual salary is drawing new criticism now that it’s known the beleaguered Department of Human Services is footing the bill.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, called it “financial trickery [ …] This is a huge salary, especially when on Good Friday you’re cutting autism and epilepsy, and you’re paying someone at the same time a quarter of a million bucks?”

The governor’s office had initially “sliced $26 million in services including for autism, epilepsy and burials for the indigent” and caused some shut-downs until the monies were later restored in April.

One last point … about Wednesday’s board meeting. Many of us in the audience were stunned when Ruiz asked CPS staff to publicly outline a variety of measures and contracts that board members would be voting on. That’s an unusual move -- but one that helps bring much-needed transparency to the board. Hopefully Ruiz and the next CEO keep this up.


A laundry list of problems with new edTPA teacher assessment

May 26, 2015 - 11:35am

Larry Vigon

Beginning on September 1, students in teacher preparation programs in Illinois will be required to pass an assessment known as edTPA in order to obtain a license. The test was added on to a list that already includes the Test of Academic Proficiency (also known as the basic skills test) or an acceptable score on the ACT or SAT; a content test before student teaching; and the Assessment of Professional Teaching.

Surprisingly, there has been little debate about edTPA, and coverage in the mainstream press has been scant. However, many in the educational community have some major concerns with this new assessment.

The edTPA was developed by Stanford University as a multiple-measure uniform assessment, and will be scored in Illinois by Pearson Education, a private, for-profit corporation that provides products and services for educators and school districts. (Pearson has also amassed the largest amount of student data in the country, which should be alarming for those worried about the privacy of student information.)

What is most worrisome about the edTPA is that student teachers will need a passing score for licensure and this score will gradually rise, making it more difficult to pass in the years ahead. What the final score will ultimately be has yet to be decided. Hopefully, the required score for licensure will not be determined by a failure/pass ratio, guaranteeing that some students would have to fail in order for the edTPA to be considered valid.

Impersonal, costly and subjective

Aside from the scoring system, a number of other issues are troubling to the educators who are mentoring these students: The evaluators hired by Pearson have absolutely no contact with the students. It is completely impersonal, yet these evaluations will determine the destiny of students who might very well be exemplary candidates as judged by their instructors and supervisors at their college. No matter how many A’s these students have on their transcripts, and no matter how praiseworthy their letters of recommendation, it will be these Pearson evaluators who, in the end, determine their professional fate.

Instructors see their students during seminars, confer with them after scheduled observations, and exchange emails with them offering guidance and suggestions. This constant contact exemplifies the close, professional relationship that develops between instructors and their students, and in most cases ends in a successful student teaching experience. As any veteran teacher will tell you, relationships matter, but this is totally lacking in the edTPA/Pearson experience.

What is particularly painful from a financial viewpoint is that Illinois is not even picking up the $300 tab that goes to Pearson. The full cost is borne by the students who must pay an additional $300 if the entire test has to be retaken due to a poor score. (The basic skills test and content-area tests each cost $135.)

What makes the edTPA totally offensive is that instructors are severely limited by illogical guidelines. For example, certain types of support for their students are deemed unacceptable such as leading comments about their observations in order to help their students pass edTPA.  This represents such a fine line that I totally excused myself from the edTPA classes, and focused instead on the non-edTPA classes, knowing I had full reign to say whatever I needed to say to help my students improve.

Having gone through the edTPA pilot program this semester, I have found Pearson evaluators to be highly subjective, despite rubrics that are in place. One score was so outlandish that it is hard to believe that such an individual is currently employed and in a position to cause some real harm to highly qualified students. Each edTPA portfolio can receive a total of 75 possible points and in this case there was an 18-point differential between what the Pearson evaluator gave one of my students and what I determined the final score should be. The other scores were within 1 and 5 points, indicating a real problem with the score.

It should be noted that Pearson evaluators are paid for each portfolio they grade so it makes economic sense for them to grade as many portfolios as they can, as fast as they can. Obviously, monetary rewards may come into conflict with their professional responsibility to give each portfolio the time it needs to properly evaluate it.

Drain on time, doesn’t predict good teaching

Another problem is the video component of the edTPA. Permission slips have to be distributed and collected, and due to deadlines, the videos of classroom instruction have to be completed early in the student teaching experience. Since student teachers invariably improve over time, it is basically impossible for edTPA evaluators to see how much the candidate has grown by the end of the semester. Then there is the fear, at least on my part, that some evaluators might even be biased against candidates because of their skin color, accents, or the fact that they wear turbans or hijabs.

One of the most frustrating aspects of edTPA was the time it took to deal with the minutiae. A required “language function” was so vague that none of my students even understood it. Neither did I. Also, much emphasis deals with formative and summative assessments. This sounds good in practice, but is impractical given that the final high-stakes summative assessment could take place weeks beyond the three to five lessons that the edTPA entails.

The handbooks contain a lot of information and much of it had to be explained to my students. All of this took up crucial class time that was needed to discuss appropriate methods and strategies that I had developed over the course of a 36-year teaching career at elementary and secondary schools in the private and public sector. Furthermore, my students constantly complained how burdensome this was and how they needed more time to prepare for their non-edTPA classes. Anyone who has gone through student teaching can tell you how challenging it is. The edTPA is an unnecessary drain on their time, and becomes extremely troublesome if their school asks them to help coach or advise an extracurricular activity as part of their student teaching experience. For instance, one of my students was deeply involved with the history fair at her assigned school.

What amounts to an educational entry level “bar exam” is also impractical since it is not a predictor of performance. After being hired, some exceptional teachers burn out and quit within five years, while others with fewer skills continue to grow and even become master teachers. In addition, evaluating a student teacher in one school does not mean that they will be hired in the same educational setting. In my case I did my student teaching at a public high school in Chicago, but was first hired by a Catholic elementary school where I taught junior high students.

While the Illinois State Board of Education will determine the score that is needed to pass the edTPA, the colleges of education throughout Illinois and their instructors need to have the final say. These instructors know their students best and are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the schools where they have been placed. They will witness their progress over many weeks, while the evaluators at Pearson will be limited by viewing two relatively short 10-minute videos and reading commentaries and lesson plans submitted by the students.

It will be the instructors of student teachers who will recognize the many nuances that eventually result in successful teaching, and it will be these new and successful teachers that will motivate and inspire our children.

Photo: University concept/

Larry Vigon is an adjunct instructor at the College of Education, Northeastern Illinois University and a former veteran classroom teacher.



Noble takes up rugby

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

It is 6 a.m. and still dark on a March morning, at a small park near the corner of Chicago and Kedzie, a busy intersection of strip malls. A group of boys from Noble Street Charter’s Rowe-Clark campus, about a half-mile away, are gathered here.

“You have 10 seconds to find a partner,” says Ryan McBride in his clipped Irish accent. Some 30 boys rearrange themselves, with one lying on top of the other. They wait for McBride to blow the whistle for the drill, which looks like something that would take place during a wrestling match.

“The ground is freezing,” they holler into the wind.

In an odd twist, rugby, the national sport of Ireland, has become one of the most popular sports among Noble Street campuses. All of the 16 campuses have boys’ teams and most have girls’ teams as well.

When he opened the first Noble Street campus with his wife in 1999, former teacher Michael Milkie admits he wasn’t thinking too much about sports. But through the years, students would often ask about playing on teams. “We realized it was important to them,” he says.

Milkie supported the idea when one of his principals brought in rugby, and now makes sure each school spends about $65,000 on sports. That pays for coach stipends, transportation, uniforms and other equipment. The teams also sometimes fundraise.

Noble Street is the exception among charters in its commitment to a sport. Many charter schools are housed in buildings that don’t have space for teams to practice and play. In fact, Noble Street-Johnson College Prep in Englewood is located in an old elementary school building. One day this spring, the girls’ soccer, track and field and softball teams shared the small lawn behind the school with the boys’ baseball team. Meanwhile, the boys’ track team ran sprints around the block.

“Facilities is one of our biggest limitations, but we make do,” says Jon Watson, the athletic director at Johnson College Prep.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

All Noble Street campuses have a rugby team. The unusual sport came to the network via a principal and has taken off because it is inexpensive and the students love the chance to learn something new.

An analysis of sports teams that play in Chicago’s Public League shows that on average, charter high schools have fewer than five teams. Because the initial focus is usually on academics or school climate, sports programs typically are not developed until the charter is more established.

A sport like rugby, however, is not played as part of the Public League. Instead, the Noble Street teams compete against each other and some suburban teams. What Noble Street’s experience shows is how students will latch onto a sport, even one that is foreign to them.

Though many colleges don’t yet have rugby as a varsity sport, it is growing and scholarships are out there. Rugby is also inexpensive, as there are no pads or other equipment as in football.

McBride notes that rugby also fills a gap for the boys and girls during seasons when they don’t have any other major sport going on. When students are playing sports, their grades improve and they behave better, he says.

“It is a great way for social control,” McBride says.

It also provides an outlet for students who might need it. Shabree Evans, now a senior, is the manager of the boys’ team and is at the field on this March morning. She has played for the girls’ team since she was a sophomore.

“At first, I was scared,” she says. Her mother was also, when Shabree explained that rugby is like football, but played without a helmet and pads.

But after the first practice, Shabree says she was hooked. “You get a lot of support from your teammates, so that can relieve a lot of stress. And tackling, that can relieve a lot of stress too,” she says, giggling. “It is a fun sport.”

Shabree also was impressed and surprised that her team won every game. The girls’ Rowe-Clark rugby team is somewhat legend and almost every season wins all their games. “I did not know that our team was that good,” she says.

Shabree’s older brother dropped out of Orr High School. But she says one thing that might have kept him interested is more sports programs or other activities.

For her, it made a big difference. As Shabree gets ready to leave high school, she says the two things she will miss most are rugby and drumline. The two adults she is most attached to are McBride and her drumline teacher.

“They are different from a regular teacher, because they know us outside of the classroom,” she says. “They know how to handle us if we are feeling a certain way. A regular teacher only sees us academic-wise, and how we act in the classroom.”


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