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School reform ‘myths’ and the next mayor

A new group of local academics working on education issues held a forum last night comparing the “myths” of school reform in Chicago with the “realities” documented by research – and examining the education platform of mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel.

Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE) held a panel discussion at UIC last night, and the overall assessment — of Chicago’s record and of Emanuel’s promises — was highly critical.

Emanuel’s focus on individual actors – his agenda (pdf) consists mainly of proposals concerning principals, teachers, and parents – reflects a common approach by proponents of charter schools which deflects attention from systemic problems, said Kevin Kumashiro of UIC.

One example of this approach — the notion that “lazy or incompetent teachers” are the problem — comes out of think tanks and foundations which push market-oriented reforms, said Sumi Cho of DePaul.  In fact, research has determined that family income is by far the strongest predictor of student performance on standardized tests, suggesting that poverty and inequality are the basic problem (and that test design could be a factor).

The mayor-elect’s proposal for principal autonomy and accountability may sound good (though he would remove principal hiring powers from local school councils), but William Watkins of UIC said it reminded him of King Louis XIV and feudalism: “He would relegate principals to feudal overlords subservient to the king.”

His plan to expand “school choice” flies in the face of research that shows such policies have not increased overall student achievement, said Leslie Rebecca Bloom of Roosevelt.

His proposal to compensate teachers based on student test performance (he would also use achievement levels rather than seniority to guide layoffs) ignores research showing that a focus on test preparation narrows the curriculum and shortchanges critical thinking, said Isabel Nunez of Concordia.

Greg Mitchie, also of Concordia, said his student teachers  reported back that schools were focusing almost exclusively on reading and math, with virtually no science or social science.

Several speakers criticized another casualty of high-stakes testing, reductions in arts education, particularly in low-income schools. They said research has shown that arts education is important for problem-solving skills, raises achievement levels, and can help keep kids in school.

Several activists also participated.  Jackson Potter of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators urged attention on major donors to Emanuel’s campaign like “the Pritzkers, the Crowns, the same millionaire families that are funding a campaign to strip teachers of their bargaining rights – not in Wisconsin, but right here.”

He noted recent reports showing that half of TIF money has gone to some of the city’s biggest corporations, “siphoning money out of the schools.”

A parent said that when her neighborhood school was closed, “I tried to buy into school choice, but my children were not eligible to get in the new school” –though she could see it from her window. Josephine Norwood of the Peer Parents Education Network of the Grand Boulevard Federation said two of her sons had been through three school closings and four schools.

She talked about PPEN’s grassroots school planning process and stressed the value of “listening to parents as problem-solvers.”

“School choice is a coward’s way of not dealing with the fact that you have not equalized education in this country,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.  “Parents don’t want school choice, parents want to be able to sent their children to a world-class school in their neighborhood.”

Brown added: “Teachers and parents and young people should be locked arm in arm, because we are all being targetted.”

Earlier this year, CREaTE issued a background paper on Chicago school reforming listing over 40 local academics who are available for comment on various issues.  The group was founded to provide reseearch backup “in support of the efforts of community groups to ensure quality education in their communities,” said David Stovall of UIC.

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Category: CPS, school closings, school reform

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