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About that injunction

By angering teachers with a motion for an injunction declaring the teachers’ strike illegal, Mayor Emanuel may have made passage of the proposed teachers’ contract even more difficult, said Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with Access Living.

If so, it would be just the latest in a series of mayoral moves that have backfired.

Teachers on the picket line are talking to parents about how you’d want to read a contract for a new home before you signed it – and about how the City Council failed to read the contract that privatized Chicago’s parking meters.

They also recall their experience with SB 7, the bill designed to make school strikes in Chicago impossible.  According to a union attorney at the time, language that “satobtages union bargaining rights” was slipped into the bill at the last minute, after negotiations had been concluded.

And of course they recall the 4 percent raise rescinded based on an obscure contract provision last year – while CPS voluntarily stepped up payments to city agencies by tens of millions of dollars.

“CPS’s spur-of-the-moment decision to seek injunctive relief … appears to be a vindictive act instigated by the mayor,” reads a statement from the union.  “This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor Emanuel’s bullying behavior toward public school educators.”

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Teachers demand respect

Entirely aside from what the school strike has revealed about Mayor Emanuel’s executive incompetence – or how he intends to spin the eventual outcome – and far more important, there are several layers of historic significance to the teachers’ fight.

Here are three:  it’s marshalled broad popular support in a period when public-sector unions are under assault on many fronts; it’s dramatized and exposed the costs and compromises of the corporate school reform agenda; and – particularly going forward, as the outcome unfolds – it represents a signal battle in the fight against the austerity agenda of the world’s elites.

They’re also teaching us about an old-fashioned value that we may hope is not yet out of date: respect.

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On teacher evaluation, a teacher’s perspective

Teacher evaluation — based partly on students’ standardized test scores — has emerged as one of the key issues in the school strike, a “dramatic illustration of the national debate on how public school districts should rate teachers,” according to the New York Times.

But teacher voices and teacher perspectives have been largely missing from the public debate.  You may have gotten the impression that teachers oppose being evaluated altogether.

That’s not the case, said Bill Lamme, a social studies teacher at Kelly High School and part of a CPS-CTU committee that negotiated over a new evaluation system earlier this year.

“I’m an advocate for the idea that teachers unions need to protect teaching,” he said.  He wants an evaluation system “that helps teachers identify deficiences in their teaching and helps them improve.”

He just doesn’t think that’s the purpose – or the motive – behind the system proposed by CPS.

New system

Two years ago a state law mandated new teacher evaluation systems throughout the state.  CPS pushed hard for separate provisions for Chicago:  instead of launching a new system by 2016, as other districts are required to do, CPS must — under provisions it advocated — do so this year.

And while other districts are mandated to negotiate with teachers representations for 180 days – and to use a state-designed evaluation template if they fail to reach an agreement – CPS was required to negotiate for only 90 days. And if no agreement was reached, CPS was entitled to implement its own proposal.

“That doesn’t set the stage for serious negotiations,” Lamme said.  Still, teachers met with representatives of the administration, and won some minor adjustments, he said.  “Basically they had their plan, and they weren’t very receptive to our larger, more substantive objections.”

Those center in particular on the use of statistical programs to measure “value added” based the scores a teacher’s students get on a standardized test.

Bogus

Those tests “are not designed for that purpose,” Lamme said.  “They do not have statistical reliability.  Teachers can be at the top one year and the bottom the next year.  They’re methodologically bogus.  They’re not defended by serious scholars in the field.”

They can’t account for the multitude of factors that go into teaching and learning.  “They do not have a good system to compensate for teaching in a difficult school, with high mobility, transient students, poor attendance.  A teacher can be teaching at their best every day, but the kids aren’t there every day.”

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Perspectives on the teachers contract talks

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.

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It’s Rahm’s strike

If there’s a teacher’s strike in Chicago this fall, it will be the result of Rahm Emanuel’s approach to implementing the longer school day.

And the simplest – and perhaps only – way to avert a strike will require Emanuel to take another look at the plan.

That’s the clear implication of the fact-finder’s report issued last week by mediator Edwin Benn (and rejected by CPS and the CTU).

Emanuel isn’t mentioned by name in Benn’s report, but since he controls the school board, every option Benn outlines for the board is one that will ultimately be decided by Emanuel.

In comments on the report, the mayor did not seem inclined to consider its suggestions for settling the dispute.

According to Benn, the board “has a very straightforward option” to reduce the monetary impact of recommendations to pay teachers for the longer day and year, which he calls “the major flashpoint” of the dispute: it “can simply reduce the length of the school day and/or the school year from its stated expansion.”

Although the media has downplayed this dynamic – and the Chicago Tribune has editorialized against compromising on the longer day (or on charter expansion) — parent groups involved in the issue are picking up on it.

Can we afford it?

In an analysis of the fact-finding report, Raise Your Hand points to the longstanding failure to address school funding issues and says, “RYH does not believe we can afford a seven-hour day that comes with a 14.5 percent raise at this time.

“A 6.5-hour day that works by moving the teacher lunch [break] to the middle of the day would be affordable,” RYH argues.  “If you can’t afford something, don’t do it.”

A 6.5-hour day “is a ‘full day'” and is in fact the national average, RYH adds.  And “longer or shorter, CPS has still not sufficiently addressed the issues of quality in the school day – class size, fine and performing arts, violence prevention, foreign language, physical education, etc.”

Finally, “until we get real about the state of education funding and do something to change it, we won’t make real improvements in the school day.”

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In contract talks, teachers challenge CPS priorities

Since Chicago teachers voted to authorize a strike last month, contract negotiations “appear to have broadened to include items once thought off the table, possibly including class size,” the Tribune reported recently.

That’s a significant development.  Prior to the strike vote, CPS had reportedly refused to entertain CTU proposals on class size and other issues, including appropriate staffing levels.  The union has proposed providing art, music, and world language teachers for every school, in addition to badly needed counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.

Those are among the key issues that grassroots parent groups have raised, too.  Raise Your Hand has called on CPS to negotiate over class size and other issues, and Chicago Parents for Quality Education petitioned Mayor Emanuel to address issues like a fuller curriculum and more social supports in planning the longer school day.

By law, CPS is only required to negotiate over economic issues.  In the past the district has agreed to consider these optional classroom topics; this year, it took a strike authorization vote to force them to do so.

It’s a setback for the agenda of corporate reform groups like Stand For Children and Democrats For Education Reform, which as Ramsin Canon points out have no real popular base here but outsized influence due to huge bankrolls.  They opposed the strike vote.

Smaller class sizes: for and against

Classroom issues do not appear to be on the agenda of these groups.  As Erica Clark of Parents For Teachers pointed out here in February, they never talk about the issues that matter to parents – class size, curriculum, less standardized testing – but focus solely on trimming collective bargaining rights and increasing testing in the name of “accountability.”  If you want a better curriculum or better facilities, you can try to send your kid to a charter school.

The issue of class size is revealing.  In forums earlier this year, SFC said the issue wasn’t a priority for them.  In fact, most corporate reformers follow Bill Gates, who has called for lifting limits on class sizes.

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