As everyone gears up for a new school year (or maybe not), here are a few extra-credit readings that illuminate issues in Chicago’s drive for school reform – and in contract talks under way with Chicago’s teachers.
In the Sun-Times , Lauren Fitzpatrick looks in depth at the success of Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, a high-poverty, neighborhood school in Austin, a community beset by unemployment and violence.
The school is trending up under the inspiring leadership of a home-grown principal, Shawn Jackson, who’s focused on involving parents with his own version of a community school: “parent scholars” who volunteer in classes along with a parent center featuring GED and computer classes and job search help for parents. There’s a strong sense of teamwork here, and “teachers are trusted” and given autonomy to find the best ways to get material across.
While it has a ways to go, the school fits the profile of 33 high-poverty elementary schools performing above the citywide average identified in a report by Designs for Change  earlier this year (more here ).
These schools have school-based democracy – local school councils selecting principals and approving school plans and budgets – and supportive teamwork involving parents, teachers, and the community. They out-perform all of the city’s “turnaround” schools, even those in place now for four and five years – and they do so without the millions of extra dollars  each turnaround gets. (Spencer, which lacks an art program and a decent gym, does better than all but three turnarounds.)
While turnarounds have gotten extensive media coverage, high-poverty, high-achieving schools have been largely ignored, according to Designs; thus the Sun-Times is due special commendation for this report.
Designs proposes the extra money now going to turnarounds be shifted to allow these high-performing neighborhood schools become resources for other schools.
There’s the hypocrisy of the claim by Mayor Emanuel and his CPS minions that they have to close neighborhood schools and open charters because “we can’t wait” to offer a high-quality education to every child in the district.
It’s a non sequitur: they’re opening twenty charters and ten turnarounds a year, and diverting resources from the neighborhood schools that the vast majority of students actually attend in order to do so. These students’ education is being sacrificed to fund experiments which increasingly appear to be unsuccessful.
According to the New York Times Magazine ‘s look at extreme poverty this weekend, Austin is the kind of neighborhood where repeated school reform initiatives have utterly failed. (The article looks at the work in Roseland of Youth Advocate Programs , which CPS is now defunding , another turn in the administration’s revolving door of new strategies.)
A kindergarten teacher knows
The number of children living in extreme poverty has grown dramatically in recent decades, and children in areas where it’s concentrated face major challenges, often including community and family dysfunction. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists study the way early stress and trauma and family difficulties inhibit brain development and cognitive skills.
But “you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty,” writes Paul Tough. “Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions.
“Intensive early interventions can make a big difference, but without that extra help, students from the poorest homes usually fall behind in school early on, and they rarely catch up. When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn.
“And when these same children reach adolescence — unless someone like [YAP’s] Steve Gates has managed to intervene — they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.”
CTU proposed bringing the woefully inadequate number of social workers, counselors, and psychologists up to national standards, starting with schools on probation. Noting research showing that smaller classes are particularly important for low-income children in the earliest grades, the union proposed reducing K-3 class size from 28 to 20.
That would cost a lot – about equal to what CPS spends on developing new charters and turnarounds. But it would be a real step to helping every student succeed.
We may know more soon, but we can infer from the lack of progress in contract talks – including the large gap in salary proposals, where compromise might be possible if other issues were negotiated — that CPS isn’t moving much in these areas.
We do know that in his previous position heading Rochester’s schools, CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard increased class sizes ; fired hundreds of art, music, gym and language teachers; eliminated art, music, or library programs in many schools; and heavily cut counselors and special ed teachers. Rochester’s new superintendent has begun restoring  the positions, so more students can have access to electives.
Brizard and Broad
Of course, Brizard is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy, which promotes larger class sizes  along with school closings, high-stakes testing, merit pay, and charter schools.
In Detroit, a Broad academy alumnus successfully proposed raising class sizes to 61 in high schools . (It turned out that the Broadie, Robert Bobb, the city’s emergency manager for the past two years, received a $145,000 bonus  from the Broad Foundation on top of his $280,000 salary.)
But as PURE and Parents Across America  note, in his latest weekly address President Obama decried  the loss of 300,000 education jobs in the U.S. since 2009, cuts which “force our kids into crowded classrooms.”
“While average class size has decreased statewide over the last ten years, it has increased in [Chicago’s] public schools,” commented Becky Malone of the 19th Ward parents . “This is simply unacceptable if we are going to provide equitable learning conditions to all children, but especially our most at-risk students who need small classes the most.”
In Mother Jones  this month, Krintina Rizga “embeds” in a “failing school” in San Francisco and offers a fascinating account of the growth of standardized testing and its impact on struggling students.
Maria is a Salvadoran immigrant who’s escaped the violence she grew up with, and at Mission High School, finds dedicated and creative teachers under whom she blossoms. She’s done research papers ranging from the popularity of Latin dance in the U.S. in the 1920s to the defeat of Reconstruction to equal access to education (she discovers a 1946 case brought by Latino parents that laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education); she talks with her favorite teacher every day about her work.
And we sit with her as she struggles through a practice state exam – the test that will help decide whether her school is sanctioned as “failing” – and see how she gets nearly every answer wrong. I don’t know the right answer to the question she ponders in the article. Do you?
Here we come to another big issue in the contract talks: CPS’s plan to base teacher pay on student performance on standardized tests. CTU is strenuously opposed to this idea; this could be one of the big issues. (Under a new law, CPS can unilaterally implement its plan, but if the administration wants a contract, it will negotiate on this issue.)
As the Tribune  reported in March, 88 education professors at 15 local universities associated with CReATE  wrote Brizard warning him  that methods of measuring teacher performance based on standardized tests are statistically unreliable and will have a detrimental impact on classroom instruction.
Schools Matter  has pointed out that, since standardized tests now measure only reading and math, the new evaluation system will require a whole series of new tests – as many as eight more a year, probably costing tens of millions of dollars, not to mention class time and an increased focus on test preparation.
Last year Colorlines  looked at standardized testing, telling the story of a high school student in East LA whose grades dropped when he went into depression amid a family crisis. Teachers rallied to support him and got him through the year; he didn’t drop out, he passed his tests, barely.
But his scores went down – and under the proposed system, they would be penalized for all that work, for that heroic success of saving a student from the streets. Indeed, they would be incentivized to let him go.
Fordham professor Mark Naison explained the thinking of the business leaders –like his tennis partners — who are pushing school reform in an opinion piece in the Sun Times last month (it’s available here ). “The only things they take seriously as motivation are material rewards and fear of losing one’s job or business.
“They are convinced that schools in the U.S. can be improved only if a business-style reward-and-punishment system is given primacy. They love the idea of performance evaluation based on hard data (with student test scores being the equivalent of sales figures and/or profits), of merit increments for those who succeed and the removal of those who fail.”
They don’t understand teaching or learning, he explains. And their approach is demoralizing teachers and driving the better ones out of high-poverty schools, where scores are lower.
“The Great Recession should have shattered once and for all the idea that the measurement and motivation systems of American business are superior to those in the public sector,” he argues.
“Do we really want the same quality of teacher ratings as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s applied to mortgage-based derivatives?”
“I have seen about twenty rounds of classroom reform in my teaching career,” Maria’s history teacher, Robert Roth, tells Mother Jones. “You know what I haven’t seen? Serious dialogue with teachers, students, and parents. They can identify successful teaching, but they are rarely a part of the discussion.”
Let’s hope there’s some serious discussion about these issues in Chicago this week.
An earlier version had an incorrect identification of Mark Naison.