Parents United for Responsible Education – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 19 Feb 2018 15:45:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 PURE, UNO, David and Goliath Tue, 18 Jun 2013 22:24:51 +0000 Ben Joravsky gives deserved kudos to Dan Mihalopoulos for his work exposing financial shenanigans at UNO Charter Schools (though after a decent interval, the state dollars are again flowing).

The Sun-Times has also taken credit for a state probe of UNO finances.

But we shouldn’t forget what got this ball rolling — a demand back in January by Parents United for Responsible Education, joined by parents in Pilsen, that the state inspector general investigate UNO finances.  (Here’s the press release.)

PURE emphasized UNO’s reliance on financing by tax-exempt bonds — and the growing debt-per-student costs that resulted.  It looks a bit like a pyramid scheme, like a house of cards that would collapse if UNO failed to keep expanding.

Which is a question that should be considered — if one of these operators goes belly-up, who picks up the pieces?

PURE is a small, scrappy advocacy group with a long history.  In the last couple years it’s taken on the two most politically connected charter schools with impressive results.  Last year, a report by PURE and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education got the Noble Network on the front pages for harsh discipline policies involving extensive fines and pushing students out.

Charter waiting list inflation Thu, 04 Apr 2013 22:48:15 +0000 The Chicago Tribune isn’t going to admit error with their claim that 19,000 students are languishing on charter school waiting lists, “yearning” to be free of CPS. But they may not throw the number around with the same panache after WBEZ’s expose.

As Becky Vevea showed, the 19,000 number counts applications, not students — and students typically apply for multiple schools — and it also includes over 3,0000 students who’ve dropped out and are seeking admission to alternative schools.

The Tribune now cites Andrew Broy of the Illinois Charter Schools for the “estimate” (though as Michael Miner points out, they claimed the number as fact in their editorials) , and Broy has regrouped quite nicely.

Wednesday he was saying the real number was probably “around 65 percent” of 19,000, based on his own “spot checks.” Thursday he insisted that 19,000 is a “conservative estimate” — the real number probably higher than that, he now says — since it excludes non-reporting charters and new charters that are just ramping up.

But if families are applying to charters at the same rate they’re applying to selective enrollment and magnet schools — admittedly a big “if,” but they would be if there were such a “yearning” out there — the number of actual students waiting for places is probably closer to 4,000. Vevea’s numbers suggest that for CPS schools requiring applications, there are about four applications from every student.

The number only matters to charter proponents because it’s the only argument they have left, points out Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Reponsible Education.

They used to say that charter schools were needed because students performed better there, she said.  Then research started coming in, and it consistently debunked that claim.  The only argument left was the popular demand for charters supposedly demonstrated by waiting lists.

“The Tribune hit those numbers very hard, as if they’re scientific numbers and they prove the need for more charters,” said Woestehoff.  “It’s like everything else in the corporate reform movement — the numbers are not real. They’re imaginary numbers. And the whole argument falls apart when you scrutinize it.”

In 2008, PURE’s report on charter accountability — in which two-thirds of the city’s charter schools and networks ignored a letter from the attorney general saying they had to respond to the group’s FOIA request — showed that many charters “do not have waiting lists” and “some struggle to keep up their enrollment.”

In fact, as WBEZ reports, CPS says there are currently 3,000 to 5,000 open places in charter schools, and during  last year’s strike, charter groups said a third of the city’s charters had seats available.

What’s most remarkable, as Miner and Steve Rhodes point out, is that while charters could claim 16,000 applications, and maybe more, selective enrollment and magnet schools together boast over 99,000 applications.

What that shows is the opposite of what the Tribune wishes the numbers showed, Woestehoff said: “People really want their kids in public schools, and they’re not very interested in charters.”

Alternatives to standardized tests Thu, 24 Jan 2013 02:42:43 +0000 As opposition to overuse of standardized tests grows here and across the county, a public forum Thursday on Alternatives to Standardized Tests is being sponsored by a new local coalition.

It takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 24, at Hartzell Methodist Church, 3330 S. King Drive.

The forum features Dr. Monty Neil of FairTest, who advocates for dramatically reducing the use of standardized tests and incorporating a wider range of assessments reflecting classroom evidence of learning.

“Those of us who are concerned about too much standardized testing are often accused of wanting no accountability at all, and that’s just not the case,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education, which is co-sponsoring the event.

The new coalition, More Than A Score, includes parents and teachers and a number of local organizations.  They’re calling for eliminating standardized testing for pre-school through second grade and greatly reducing it for older children, Woestehoff said.

An initial focus will be on tests designated as optional by the CPS central office but required by network officers, she said.

The group wants an end to evaluating student and teachers and closing schools based on test scores, and will push for “full disclosure of the cost, schedule, and nature of all standardized tests” used by CPS.

A whole lot of tests

The use of “bubble tests” is not like you might remember from your childhood, writes CPS high school teacher Adam Heenan at ClasssroomSooth.  His students start the year with a week of standardized testing, which is repeated midyear and again at the end of the year.  And that’s just one of several tests.

By 8th grade the average CPS students has taken over 100 standardized tests, according to Sharon Schmidt in Substance.

In her son’s elementary school last year, Schmidt writes, fifth graders had three CPS reading and math benchmark assessments, three Scantron Performance Series tests in reading and math, and quarterly pilot Common Core assessments in reading and math – all in addition to ISATs, which include three reading and three math tests.

According to Ben Joravsky, kindergartners are now taking four standardized tests, administered two or three times a year – consuming as much as 60 school days.  That’s so their teachers can be evaluated.

Because the Measurement of Academic Progress test is web-based, it ties up his school’s computer lab for the three-and-a-half weeks it takes to administer it to all students – and it’s given three times a year, writes Greg Ritchie, and education professor who has returned to a CPS classroom.  That’s ten weeks without a computer lab, a major loss for students who don’t have computers at home.

Ritchie points out that MAP has a margin of error that in some cases is larger than average student gains, which means the test is essentially meaningless.

It’s one of six standardized tests given to his eighth graders.

Scandals and resistance

The use of standardized tests for high-stakes decisions has led to test-grading scandals in several major cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and most notoriously, Washington D.C. under Michelle Rhee.

In Chicago, the CPS inspector general found ethical violations when powerhouse test publisher Houghton Miflin used an impressive range of inappropriate inducements to an administrator as part of a sales push.  (Since Houghton Miflin is so large, it was deemed impossible to bar the company from future contracts.)

Recently teachers at two Seattle high schools voted to refuse to administer mandated standardized tests, attracting widespread attention; 130 scholars and advocates (including Karen Lewis, Diance Ravitch, and Jonathan Kozol) have signed a letter supporting them.

In a statement from FairTest, Neil applauded the Seattle teachers and called the exams “useless.” “Children across the U.S. suffer from too much standardized testing that is misused to judge students, teachers, and schools,” he said

“Seattle requires administration of the MAP tests three times per year. This eliminates days of valuable teaching time and ties up the school’s computer labs for weeks.

“The tests are used to judge teachers even though they are not aligned with the state’s standards and not instructionally helpful. The Northwest Evaluation Association, which makes the test, says the MAPs are not accurate enough to evaluate individual teachers.

“No wonder some Seattle parents began opting their children out of these pointless tests even before the teachers’ boycott.”

According to FairTest, “the high stakes attached to tests have led to narrowing curriculum, teaching to the test, score inflation and cheating scandals.”

Meanwhile score gains on the independent National Assessment of Educational Progress are well below increases in the years before the No Child Left Behind Act began the test craze, and score gaps between whites and children of color have stopped narrowing.

FairTest and a national coalition of education and civil rights groups are circulating a resolution calling on school districts to implement meaningful assessment systems – and on Congress to overhaul NCLB and reduce testing mandates.

On school closings, a political ploy Wed, 28 Nov 2012 00:44:12 +0000 The promise of a five-year “moratorium” on school closings – “announced” by new CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and “endorsed” by Mayor Emanuel – has all the fingerprints of a master at political gamesmanship.

The Tribune is certainly right that the offer is intended “to help sell drastic school closings this year.”  And CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle is certainly right that it’s intended to push the closings as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election, as she tells the Sun Times.

It would also seem to take away a major issue that drives the grassroots school reform movement here, which is the biggest challenge to Emanuel’s domination.  It even co-opts their call for a moratorium.

But for all its political oomph, it’s lacking in other areas – including basic logic, as Julie Woestehoff of PURE points out.


If “chaotic, disorganized closings are such a bad idea,” as Emanuel said in backing the idea, why demand yet one more round of them before you agree to stop, she asks at PURE’s blog.  “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.'”

She points out that parents have heard promises of community engagement time after time, and that the argument that school closings are necessary to close the district’s budget gap don’t measure up to reality (as Sarah Karp has detailed in Catalyst).

Byrd-Bennett’s insistence that the closing of 100 or so schools has nothing to do with the plan to open 60 new charters also strains credulity.

There are also basic practical and policy problems.  Most immediate is the problem of deadlines at schools that require applications. One reason the legislature imposed the December 1 deadline for announcing school actions was to allow parents to consider those options.

Is CPS going to push the application deadline back to May, after the board votes on 100 school closings?  When are parents going to find out where their kids are going next year?  How much uncertainty and confusion is going to flow from this purely political edict?

Then there’s the utilization standard that CPS uses, which is deeply flawed. If the new commission studying that issue were to come up with meaningful reforms, they would take more than a few weeks to implement – though they could provide a much more accurate picture of the district’s building use.

On top of that, CPS is asking the state legislature to move back the January deadline for a draft of a ten-year facilities master plan – so the wholesale closing of 100 or more schools would be done with no assessment of the future needs of the school districts or the communities being impacted.


Today CPS claims it has 100,000 “empty seats.”  A year ago the figure was 80,000; a year before that, 230,000.   It all depends where you set the “data point.”

Compared to other school districts, CPS’s method of measuring utilization is “really rudimentary,” indeed, “almost primitive,” said Mary Filardo, a school facilities expert with the 21st Century Schools Fund who works with districts around the country.  She’s also a pro-bono consultant with the state legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force.

At CPS, someone downtown fills in the number of classrooms and the number of students.  One-quarter of a school’s classrooms are allowed to be “ancillary” – going for “non-homeroom uses” like art, science or computer labs, recreation rooms if there’s no gym, and other purposes.  All the rest are expected to have 30 students. If it’s a kindergarten class with 21 students, those are nine “empty seats.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Filardo.  It doesn’t matter if the room actually has 18 pre-K students or if it’s a self-contained special ed room with five autistic students – those rooms have 12 and 25 “empty seats” respectively.  There’s no accounting for whether the school has a gym or lunchroom or playground, or whether a classroom converted to a science lab can fit the same number of bodies as a classroom full of desks.

[Indeed, the legislation governing utilization standards requires CPS to consider “the requirements of elementary and secondary programs, shared campuses, after-school programming, the facility needs, grade and age ranges of attending students, and use of school buildings by governmental agencies and community organizations.”  CPS’s standards do none of this; it’s not hard to see why CETF has charged that CPS isn’t meeting the requirements of the law.]

Other districts have “far more sophisticated” approaches to utilization, she said, accounting for how each room is being used. Some districts even have standards that provide for smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools, which is what research recommends.

New York City publishes a detailed report on utilization in its 1,500 schools every year.  (“It’s important to understand that a building’s capacity changes” as grade configurations and programs shift, Filardo points out. “Capacity is a function of programming.”)  It’s based on surveys by principals who report the function of each room in the building.  Capacity is calculated differently by grade, room size, and program use.

If CPS were to shift to a utilization standard that better measures capacity – which it should – it would take more than three months to design and implement.

Filardo has a very general, big-picture measure of CPS’s overall capacity (you can find it in CETF’s final report):  Chicago has 624 school buildings with a total of roughly 60 million square feet.  With 400,000 students, that’s about 96 square feet per student.

That’s far below what’s found in other districts, where the national averages range from a low of 125 square feet per student in elementary schools to 156 in the top 25 percent; in high schools, where class sizes are larger but programming more varied, it’s even higher, ranging from 156 square feet per student to 185 in the top quadrant.

It might be time to take another look at this year’s mantra of “100,000 empty seats.”


The Raise Your Hand coalition just unveiled a data base on elementary schools which reveals that 76 percent of CPS elementary schools have at least one overcrowded classroom.

Principals and LSCs have been doing “walkthroughs” to check on CPS utilization reports for their schools, and many are reporting that CPS didn’t even get the number of rooms in the school right, according to Jackie Leavy, an adviser for CETF and longtime community activist.

“We found several schools listed as underutilized that had overcrowded classrooms,” said Lashawn Brown of CPS’s South Shore Community Advisory Council.  One school that had very low teacher-student ratios on the state report card had 44 kids in a third grade class, she said.

She said principals sometimes accept larger class sizes as the price of an additional art or music teacher.

“I really believe schools should have a chance to have art and music and computer labs,” Brown said.  Determining utilization “needs to be a more thoughtful process that focuses on the children and their needs.”

Dwayne Truss of the Austin CAC did walkthroughs at five Austin elementary schools and writes at Austin Talks that he found many CPS utilization reports that “contained inaccurate data.”

One issue he raises: schools in low-income areas get federal Title 1 funds, and principals can elect to use them to reduce class sizes.  Under CPS’s utilization formula, their buildings are rated educationally “inefficient.”

“With CPS’ formula of 30 children per classroom, is CPS stating that using Title 1 funds to reduce class size in [schools] serving students from impoverished, high crime, high unemployment communities a ‘bad thing?'” he asks. These schools are most definitely using their space effectively, he insists.

One school he visited, Mays Elementary, makes full educational use of the “ancillary” classrooms its allotted by CPS.  In addition, six rooms are used by the YMCA for an after-school program, which serves 175 kids.  (Such use by community agencies to bring services and provide enrichment in underserved communities is “a best practice,” Leavy said.)

Figure in the six rooms for the after-school program and Mays’ space utilization rate goes from 45 percent to 54 percent, even by CPS’s broad standard of 30 students in a class.  In reality, class sizes at Mays range from 18 in Kindergarten to 32 in 8th grade.  Scores at Mays have been rising steadily, in some subjects dramatically, over several years.


Austin has been hit hard by foreclosures, but Truss insists the neighborhood is “going to come back.”  That’s another problem: making permanent facility decisions under the spur of an immediate financial crisis and absent any long-range planning.

“Planning is a really critical part of budgeting and particularly in making infrastructure decisions,” said Filardo.  “If you’re going to close something permanently, that’s a long-term judgment, and you want to have a plan.”

Instead CPS has dragged its feet on drafting a ten-year facilities master plan, and is now asking the legislature to postpone the due date.

Filardo said the school facility reform legislation mandating the ten-year plan required intergovernmental and inter-agency collaboration, which she calls crucial.  “Municipal planning and educational planning really need to be linked,” she said.

“The neighborhoods where they are closing schools are going to come back from the foreclosure crisis; there’s going to be infill development in the neighborhoods where public housing was demolished,” said Leavy.  “Nothing is as constant in Chicago as neighborhood change.”

She points to one of the first schools CPS closed ten years ago and one of the few to be demolished: Jacob Riis Elementary, just west of UIC.  “Today there’s all kinds of development going on there.”

“Tearing down a school costs tens of millions of dollars because they were so well built in the 1920s, and it’s going to cost way more than that to build the new school you’re going to need to serve that redevelopment,” she said.  School construction costs have risen dramatically in the past two decades.

“There are lots of way to be penny wise and pound foolish,” she said. One is “making public policy for the short term.”

And, she points out, “the idea that ‘right-sizing the district’ is going to be some kind of fiscal magic bullet has not been proven at all….Other urban districts haven’t saved a lot of money” by closing schools.  (In Washington D.C., Karp reports, school closings actually  produced no savings.)

“Responsible use of public assets and taxpayer money needs to be based on facts,” she said.

Under Emanuel, a politically-driven, needlessly adversarial drive for a longer school day left lots of confusion and little space for collaboration and planning over the past year, and ultimately led to Chicago’s first school strike in 25 years.  Top-down political domination of the school district has led to shifting personnel throughout the CPS administration and “chaos on Clark Street.”

Now a political drive to remove legal protections for school communities and schoolchildren – 30,000 of whom could be affected if 100 schools are closed – threatens more chaos, with decisions based on flawed data, and with no consideration given to long-term impacts.

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School closings: what ‘everyone knows’ Fri, 21 Sep 2012 04:09:31 +0000 “Everyone knows schools must be closed in large numbers,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times editorial published Thursday.

The editorial questions the savings involved in school closings and calls on CPS to be “more open and inclusive,” and to release a new facilities master plan required by state law before more closings are announced.

But does “everyone” really know schools must be closed?  At hearings on proposed closings in recent years, there’s been consistent opposition – until paid protestors, later connected to Mayor Emanuel’s political operatives, began showing up.

We asked around, and here are some responses:


Laurene Heybach, Director, The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless:

The notion that “everyone knows [Chicago public] schools must be closed in large numbers” is a remarkably un-researched assertion. As a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, I can say unequivocally that such is not the case. And CPS has never been able to make such a case.

Parents want quality neighborhood schools, not experiments (charters) which drain resources from their neighborhood school and don’t deliver. We hear this again and again, and parents are getting increasingly frustrated with a city that can help decorate the Willis Tower but tells neighborhood schools “no” for every request, from a math teacher to a working heating system to an air conditioner. Indeed, one parent spoke directly to the CPS representative on our task force to say precisely that: the Board of Education’s answer to just about anything our parents want is “no.”

It’s top-down and political people who push closures.  This is why we need to return facility planning to our communities and stakeholders — parents, teachers, students and principals — and take it out of the hands of politicians.


J. Brian Malone, Executive Director, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization:

Everyone knows there has been population loss on the South and West Sides of the city. The issue with underutilization, at this stage, is largely the result of CPS cramming charter and contract schools down the throats of communities of color, while also:

(1) raiding the coffers to fund these schools that do very little (if anything) to improve educational outcomes, but do a great deal to create wealth for the private operators and investors; and

(2) siphoning the human capital, material, and financial resources from neighborhood schools, which make them look unattractive when compared to the “new” school with the great marketing budget.

Disinvesting in neighborhood schools has done more to reduce the appeal, and by default the enrollment, of neighborhood schools, creating this manufactured need to close schools, which was orchestrated by the Renaissance 2010 plan and continued forward.

As the district gets out of the business of educating African American and Latino students, they are increasing their stock in brokering the education of our children to private operators who are seemingly more concerned with improving the value of their portfolio.

This misguided effort to continue to subsidize charter and contract schools (since 2004, only 18 percent of which are top-performing, and half of those are selective enrollment) at the expense of neighborhood schools, is the reason for this contrived budget crisis.

There needs to be a moratorium on both school closings and charter/contract schools, and greater investment in community-driven school transformation models.


Julie Woestehoff, Executive Director, Parents United for Responsible Education:

I think Wendy Katten summed it up yesterday when she raised the question of why CPS needs to plow another $76 million into opening new charter schools when we supposedly have so many under-enrolled schools.

I would add to that the fact that despite the enormous financial investment CPS has put into charter schools, they have only managed to perform about as well as existing traditional schools.

Some have been saying that charter schools are the school system’s parking meter deal.


Sonia Kwon, Raise Your Hand Coalition:

The main question is why are they opening 60 new charters if there is such underutilization of CPS schools?

And what is the plan for the extreme over-utilization of some schools? Neighborhood schools are really the only public schools that have no class size controls. Magnets, selective enrollment and charters can limit enrollment and cap class sizes, but neighborhood schools cannot. So once again there is undue burden on neighborhood schools.


Valerie F. Leonard, Lawndale Alliance:

There is considerable pressure on the legislature to provide equal funding for charters as for neighborhood schools. In fact, schools that receive funding from the Gates Foundation already receive equal funding from CPS.  That being the case, will CPS really save money by closing neighborhood schools and opening charters?

Will CPS tie the expansion of charters to past performance? After all, the reformers are demanding that teacher evaluations, principal tenure and the very existence of the schools be tied to student performance.  Are they willing to be held to the same standards they impose on others?  All too often, failing or mediocre charters are given license to expand, while similarly performing, or even better performing neighborhood schools are closed.

The long and short of it is, I think CPS is using the strike and unionized teachers as the scapegoat for decisions that have already been made. The schools would have been closed regardless of whether or not the teachers had a strike. Schools have been closing at an accelerated pace since the inception of Renaissance 2010, and there were no strikes during those years.


Dwayne Truss, Progressive Action Coalition for Education:

Tim Cawley [who the editorial quotes saying “to generate real savings, we must close those buildings for good”] has had his sights on closing neighborhood schools since late Summer of 2011.  I was in attendance at a Chicago Education Facilities Task  Force meeting in which Mr. Cawley announced that CPS is looking to “right size” the district.  For me this translated to closing schools.

Prior to the CTU strike the Austin and North Lawndale Community Action Councils were told by CPS that it planned to close schools in both communities.  We knew that any CPS settlement with CTU will be an excuse by the mayor to justify closing schools in order to pay for the teachers’ new contract.

CPS is disingenuous in that it has opened underperforming charter and contract schools in poor communities already struggling with underutilized neighborhood schools.  One of the school actions voted on by the school board this year was to approve renewing the charter for ACT Charter School.

ACT operated a high school.  ACT voluntarily suspended its operations because of poor academic performance and financial challenges.  The board allowed ACT to reopen as a 5-8 middle school.  The school is managed by KIPP, a level 3 performing [i.e., “failing”] charter school operator.  I argued that KIPP will stress the utilization of some of the neighborhood schools because KIPP will blatantly recruit students from Austin neighborhood schools.

[For more, see West Side parents fight ‘education apartheid’; for a similar story, see Does Rogers Park need a new charter school?]

There is no sane or even a fiscal reason to open additional charter schools.  As you may know, CPS has already allocated an additional $76 million to charter schools.

Also please note that Bruce Rauner is a board member of ACT.  He has already failed in operating a charter school.


There was also some e-mail discussion between commenters.  An announcement last month that CPS was seeking brokers to sell off 23 surplus properties, with the goal of raising $15 million for the school district, was brought up.

Then a Greg Hinz column from two years ago was cited, reporting on an idea from Bruce Rauner, the private equity financier, charter school impresario, and confidante of Mayor Emanuel, who’s been prominent recently with attacks on the Chicago Teachers Union.

Rauner was said to be floating a plan to form a private venture capital fund to buy up empty CPS buildings and lease them to charter schools.  In New York City, this has been a profitable enterprise. According to Hinz, Rauner was talking about $200 million in equity, $600 million in debt and 100 CPS buildings.

Two years ago, Rauner wouldn’t talk about the concept with Hinz, saying only that he’s “deeply interested in improving the way we educate our children,” and talking to people to “provoke creative thinking and solutions to the greatest challenge our city faces.”

Rauner was on the panel in June when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs unveiled a new venture philanthropy fund for Chicago schools.  According to the Sun-Times, Rauner told the assembly he had provided $20 million to school reform and 80 percent of it was “wasted.”

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Perspectives on the teachers contract talks Wed, 22 Aug 2012 21:20:12 +0000 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).

High-poverty, high-achieving

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.”

Here’s where the CTU’s contract demands for expanded social services and smaller classes  – detailed in a report issued as negotiations were getting under way (more here) – come into play.

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.

Punishing success

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.

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Time for a ‘high-class debate’? Thu, 12 Apr 2012 19:23:49 +0000 Mayor Emanuel may now regret ever proposing a longer day as a silver bullet for Chicago schools. The issue’s gotten away from him, and he’s scurrying to catch up.

On Tuesday Emanuel was forced to make two concessions: a small one, reducing his proposed seven-and-a-half-hour day by thirty minutes, and a large one, opening the door to discussions of what that day will actually look like.

Last August, Emanuel said, “I cannot wait for a high-class debate and discussion about, ‘Is it more math? Is it more history?'”

But on Tuesday he said, “I would hope now that we’d stop debating about the time and start having a real discussion” about “how do you use” that time.

Chicago Parents for Quality Education, including parent and community groups who’ve been pressing for “a real discussion,” will be at the mayor’s office Friday, April 13 at 4 p.m. to present him with a petition calling for a richer curriculum, better social supports, early education, smaller class sizes, facilities upgrades, and a reduction of test prep and over-testing.

Emanuel “brought this on himself, and he’s painted himself into a corner,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. “He’s trying to capture the high ground, and now he has to put his money where his mouth is.”

“He thought any kind of longer day would be better and parents don’t care what happens during the school day,” said Wendy Katten of the Raise Your Hand Coalition. “But parents do care.”

School planning impasse

She said schools have been meeting to plan for next year’s extended day, but CPS has repeatedly missed its own deadlines for providing them with budgets. Schools “were told to make wish lists, but nobody is being told what can be funded,” she said. “Everybody’s confused and frustrated.”

A quality day will require lots of new teachers for a district that has laid off thousands in recent years. Most elementary schools now have one half-time position for either art or music; parents expect a longer school day to offer both art and music, on a more than token basis. Most Chicago schools now give kids gym one day a week, despite a state mandate that requires daily physical education.

Many schools don’t even have the staff to monitor recess, Katten said. “If schools can’t get all their positions filled, how are they going to make a seven-hour day work?”

A white paper from CPQE highlights statements from CPS administrators on the need for additional class time to prepare students for new common core standardized tests. That would be a way to extend the day on the cheap. But it’s not what parents want.

Even cheaper would be computer-assisted test prep, which some parents fear is on the horizon. (In 2010 CPS piloted a longer-day program in 15 schools using online learning and non-certified teachers.) “That way you can put 60 kids in a classroom,” Woestehoff points out.

No answers

Emanuel “refused to say how he plans to pay for the longer day,” the Sun-Times reported.

“We haven’t gotten any answers [on funding] from the district,” said Katten. “They don’t want to reform TIF. There’s no new revenue. They’re claiming a huge deficit. It’s kind of absurd.”

“It’s their job to figure it out – and it’s not their job to tell parents what their children aren’t going to get,” said Woestehoff. “And if it takes going to all the wealthy businesses and saying you need to pay your fair share, they need to be leading the charge on that.”

Emanuel seems to have thought the longer day was a winning slogan and a nifty way of squeezing the teachers union. New legislation allows CPS to unilaterally set the length of the school day, and how it would be done was clearly given little or no thought.

CPQE’s report exposed the “misinformation” in Emanuel’s rhetoric and cited studies that show that longer days improve learning only when educational quality is improved. It looked at the experience of Houston, often cited by the mayor.

There an extended day piloted in 20 schools involved hiring 250 full-time math tutors. When the program was expanded to more schools last year, Houston kept the tutors but dropped the extra minutes.

What happens in the classroom – and how it’s paid for – it’s time to talk about it.

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Is CPS abusing probation? Wed, 15 Feb 2012 00:26:50 +0000 The lawsuit filed last week against CPS closings and turnarounds highlights two central issues – the charge that the district is systematically neglecting neighborhood schools, and the longstanding contention that CPS uses probation to undermine local school councils.

According to the lawsuit, filed by nine LSC members with backing from the teachers union, CPS has failed to follow requirements in school code that LSCs at schools on probation be provided with plans that specify deficiencies to be corrected and with budgets targetting resources to carry out the plans. (This issue was first discussed here in November.)

According to the Tribune, CPS says they’ve “provided support to these low-performing schools over multiple years to boost student improvement.” Have they?

Tilden High, now slated for a”turnaround” by CPS, has been on probation for eight years. During that time there have been “drastic budget cuts,” amounting to a half-million dollars or more each year, according to LSC member Matthew Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Drastic cuts

The school has lost English teachers, math teachers, a computer lab teacher, a librarian. It’s lost funding for its auto shop and its woodshop – leading some kids to drop out, he said.

Johnson is bitterly disappointed that CPS isn’t using a $5.4 million federal school improvement grant won by Tilden to bring in an outside partner for the school. Instead CPS is holding on to the money, in order to pay itself to replace the school’s entire staff.

Dyett High School, on probation for seven years and set to be phased out, was set up to fail from the start, as Matt Farmer has argued – established in 1999 to take struggling students cast off from King Prep, and seriously destablized with a new set of students when Englewood High was closed in 2005.

Even so, says LSC member Jitu Brown, the school worked with community partners to establish a restorative justice program that produced the largest reduction in violent incidents in any city school – and a college readiness program that produced one of the district’s largest increases in college admissions.

But when private grants supporting the program expired, CPS turned down the LSC’s request to take up the ball, said Brown, who’s also education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

The school has lost four teachers in the past two years, in addition to its assistant principal and a counselor; there’s now one counselor for 300 students. “When Dyett improves student culture, [CPS doesn’t] support the program; when Dyett’s scores start to go up, they take away teachers and counselors,” Brown said.

Probation: remediation or political control?

Probation was intended to be a program of remediation, but critics have long maintained that CPS used it as a political tool to centralize power. It’s pretty clear they haven’t used it to improve educational outcomes.

Parents United for Responsible Education made the case in a 2004 report, which showed that CPS went beyond the provisions of the Illinois School Code regarding probation, using it to take control over school improvement plans and school budgets away from LSCs.

The law limits the school board’s role to identifying deficiencies at the school which must be addressed in the school improvement plan and approving budgets with expenditures targeted to correct those deficiencies, according to the report.

“Few LSCs have ever seen the corrective action plan which is supposed to be guiding schools” to help them get off probation, PURE reported in 2004. That’s exactly what LSC members are saying today. (Ten years ago, CPS stopped attending advisory committee meetings where these concerns were being aired, PURE reported.)

Probation was one of two main methods of getting rid of democratic school governance, according to the report. The other was establishing new schools without LSCs under Renaissance 2010.

That strategy also violated the law, according to PURE. State law required LSCs to remain in place when schools were converted in buildings that had LSCs. PURE and LSC members sued CPS on that issue, but the case was dismissed for lack of standing, and its merits were never considered.

Research has consistently shown that most LSCs function well, that they provide accountability, contribute to academic improvement, raise money and building community partnerships. Significantly, most principals strongly support them. The low-income schools that have shown steady progress over sustained periods have LSCs.

Central office interventions have fallen far short of that record. Renaissance 2010 is recognized as a failure, and very expensive turnarounds have produced results that haven’t matched the hype. The rhetoric about “putting children first” is brilliant but unconvincing.

The old provisions of the school code dealing with probation, like the new provisions on facilities planning, are designed to foster communication and shared responsibility. If CPS has been ignoring its legal mandates – if the district has failed to provide help to struggling schools — it should be held accountable.

And since there’s precious little public accountability under mayoral control and top-down reform, maybe the courts – and the legislature, too — need to step in.

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