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Neil Steinberg and Karen Lewis

Sun Times columnist Neil Steinberg engages in shoddy journalism in his attack on CTU president-elect Karen Lewis in today’s paper.

He takes a partial quotation from her Saturday remarks – “The only people who can improve our public schools are professional educators” – and makes up a classroom discussion in which a made-up student named Leonard calls her comment “kinda arrogant.”  Because it “negate[s] the crucial role of parents” and of students.

I didn’t see Steinberg at King High School on Saturday, and I seriously doubt whether he’s actually read Lewis’s comments.  Because his whole point hinges on ignoring what she actually said.

Here’s the context from Lewis’s remarks, which are posted at CORE’s website:

“Of course, just as our city’s social conditions must improve, many of our schools must improve too.  But we have hundreds of thriving schools filled with dedicated, loving, professional teachers and administrators who are wise enough to empower teachers to lead.

“So outside of the classroom we need society to recommit to bettering all communities.  We also need our parents to recommit to the education of their children with us.

“But inside the classroom, the only people who can improve our schools are professional educators.  Corporate heads and politicians do not have a clue about teaching and learning.  They have never sat one minute on this side of the teacher’s desk.

“But they’re the ones calling the shots, and we’re supposed to accept it as “reform.”

“As a union of 30,000 united educators we have a lot of work to do, and we know we cannot do it alone.”

Her remark about professional educators actually recognizes the role of parents and talks about teachers’ role specifically in contrast to the business leaders who are driving “reform.”

The unfortunate subtext is that Steinberg seems to be buying into the conventional wisdom that blames teachers for the problems of schools.  (We’ll let someone else unravel the conventional wisdom behind his take on the state budget.)

In any case, he owes Ms. Lewis an apology.

And a good rule of thumb: journalists should never accuse anyone of arrogance.

Good schools for all kids: Yes we can?

It can happen here.  Indeed, it has happened here.

After federal spending on education and anti-poverty efforts ramped up in the 1960s, there came a point where urban schools were spending as much per pupil as suburban schools.  Racial disparities in achievement rates were cut in half, and were on track to disappear.   For a brief and unique moment in the mid-70s, black and Latino kids were attending college at rates comparable to whites.

Then came Reagan, who cut the education budget in half, and “conservatives introduced a new theory of reform focused on outcomes rather than inputs.”  That’s the theory behind what passes for school reform today.

This is from Linda Darling-Hammond’s contribution to the Nation’s special issue on A New Vision for School Reform.  She contrasts the United States with nations across Europe and Asia that she says are succeeding in providing high quality education to all their students.

The U.S. is “among the nations where socioeconomic background most affects student outcomes,” because we have greater income inequality “and because the United States spends much more educating affluent children than poor children.”  And in many states, segregation and inequality of funding is increasing.

The Obama-Duncan program doesn’t address (and probably exacerbates) funding inequalities, and what it does address won’t help.

Their framework “envisions competition and sanctions as the primary drivers of reform rather than capacity-building and strategic investments,” Darling-Hammond writes. “No nation has become high-achieving by sanctioning schools based on test-score targets and closing those that serve the neediest students without providing adequate resources and quality teaching.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Diane Ravitch writes about “Why I Changed My Mind” on No Child Left Behind and on the sloganeering around “choice” and “accountability” in education.

After the 2008 campaign, she writes, “I expected that Obama would throw out NCLB and start over.”  Instead, “his admininistration has embraced some of the worst features of the George W. Bush era.”

“None of the policies that involve testing and accountability – vouchers and charters, merit pay and closing schools – will give us the quantum improvement that we want for public education.  They may even make things worse.

“We need a long-term plan that strengthens public education and rebuilds the education profession,” including better-educated teachers, principals who are master teachers, rich curriculums, and attention to the conditions in which children live.

Susan Eaton compares magnet schools (with their mission of racial integration), with charters, which tend to “exacerbate segregation” and associated inequities.  (Black students in charters are twice as likely as their counterparts in traditional schools to attend segregated schools.)  That charters don’t upset the racial stratification of public education “may be exactly what makes them, at first glance, appear politically neater than magnet schools.”

David Kirp looks at community schools, which at their best can provide the kinds of things we know help kids learn: longer instructional time, more adults in the classroom, cultural and recreational programming, more parental involvement, and support services to remove obstacles to learning.  But so far Obama’s education department has been “better on rhetoric than dollars for community schools.”

Guest editor Pedro Noguera points out that no progress is likely until policy makers figure out “why NCLB failed to do more to improve schools in high-poverty communities” and “[reject] simplistic approaches.”

‘Demilitarize Chicago’

With state and local governments drowning in fiscal crisis across the nation, Mayor Daley recently illuminated the great blindspot of American governance:

“Just think of all the money that we spend on wars to save the world,” he said at the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards in February. “Today we can’t save America. Why do we always have to go to war, continually, why can’t we rebuild America?” (See John McCarron’s report in the Tribune.)

While local budget cuts and mass layoffs leave vital human needs unmet and drag down prospects for economic recovery, we spend as much on our military as the rest of the world combined.  And discussion of this fact is taboo in ruling circles.

Daley also asked what happened to the anti-war demonstrators – were they just against the wars when George Bush was president?

Well, they’re back (never went away, actually) – the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism is holding its annual protest marking the anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq with a rally at the Federal Plaza (5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 18) followed by a march down Michigan Avenue.

CCAWR, which welcomed Mayor Daley’s “conversion” in February, is calling on the Mayor to follow through by demilitarizing peace marches and schools.  Since 2003, peace marches have faced an intimidating array of hundreds of police officers in full riot gear.  And with ten military academies, open doors for military recruiters, and JROTC in nearly half the high schools, CPS is the most militarized school system in the nation, according to activists.  (See AFSC for more on schools.)

Altgeld parents call for new school

Fenger parents are going door-to-door today collecting signatures on a petition calling for a new neighborhood high school to serve Altgeld Gardens.

Fenger parents from the Committee for Safe Passage will canvas the neighborhood after noon and hold a press conference at 1:30 p.m. today (December 14) at the office of People for Community Recovery, 13116 S. Ellis.

They are proposing establishing the Hazel Johnson School for Environmental Justice, named for the founder of PCR, a pioneer in the environmental justice movement.  They are calling for an open-enrollment school with union teachers and an elected LSC, according to a release.  And they want it to open immediately.

The Committee for Safe Passage was founded after the beating death of Derrion Albert outside Fenger in October.  Last week a federal court ruled that because CPS couldn’t guarantee students’ safety, Fenger students could transfer to one of four schools.  (See Newstips from October and November.)

But the only school in the Altgeld community, Carver Military Academy, was made selective enrollment in 2006.  Altgeld parents point out that building housing military academy could house additional schools.

“We’re committed to make sure that our kids have their neighborhood high school back for their security, protection, and education,” said Cheryl Johnson of PCR (and Hazel Johnson’s daughter). “They need an environment conducive to learning—it’s evident that they are not getting that at Fenger.”

Shriver Center gets award

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and its president, John Bouman, received the FDIC Chairman’s Award for Innovation in Financial Education today.

They were among six organizations honored by FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair in a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Bair commended Bouman and the Shriver Center “for their dedication to empowering consumers to make informed financial decisions by providing financial education in their own unique or innovative way,” according to a release from the FDIC.

In addition to development a financial education curriculum for low-income adults, the Shriver Center’s Community Investment Unit has operated a matched savings and financial literacy program at Mayo Elementary School, 249 E. 37th Street, and helped establish a student-run bank at Curie Metro High Schoool, 4959 S. Archer.

The Chairman’s Award was established as part of FDIC’s 75th anniversary observance.

Affordable housing and successful schools

Recent studies have suggested that school closings track gentrification patterns.  Now a plan to build new affordable housing on vacant lots in Logan Square is aimed at cutting into the growing shortage of rentals in the area – and at bolstering successful local efforts to strengthen neighborhood schools.  More at

Study — and organize

President Obama honored CPS honor student Shantell Steve in his speech today, noting her academic success in the face of life challenges. 

She’s also a member of Chicago Youth Initiating Change, which sponsors the annual Social Justice Student Expo — and she recently raised criticisms of Renaissance 2010 with CPS chief Ron Huberman. (Here’s video from the first CYIC expo.)

Steve spoke on behalf of CYIC at the August 18 meeting with Huberman recently noted at Newstips.  She urged Huberman to undertake a thorough reevaluation of Renaissance 2010, arguing that school closings and staff changes are especially bad for the most vulnerable students.  

Reached today, she said: “We have to change schools without getting rid of all the teachers, because they are our support system.”

Huberman invited Steve to visit two turnaround high schools so she could see the success of the program; she invited him to visit Julian High School “to actually see the turnaround that’s happening there without firing the teachers and having to shut the school and reopen it.”

She said there’s “great progress” at Julian, adding, “If we can change a school like Julian we can change any school.”  She said she’s “really trying to get more students involved.”

And being praised by the President?  “It’s exciting,” she said. 

Sick days for school janitors

With growing concerns about flu epidemics, Chicago janitors are pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control recommend at least seven sick days for teachers and school staff.  But CPS janitors haven’t had sick days since 1996, when their jobs were farmed out to private contractors who at the time paid minimum wage and had no health insurance.

The 1,500 CPS janitors who work for four contractors are represented by SEIU Local 1, which argues that providing sick days for janitors would help keep schools healthy.  Erica Hade of Local 1 said the companies say they’d like to provide sick days, but CPS rules make it difficult.

CPS is putting out an RFP for the next round of contracts next March, but Hade said the rule change should be instituted immediately.

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