Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summer, SAHM, and the Illusion of Choice

I love that Mongo DB CEO Max Schireson told the world that he quit because of his kids. But as even he acknowledged, he isn't walking away from everything. He's just dialing back his work. He wrote, "I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so."

As a run-of-the-mill, college-educated, tech-savvy, but not technical woman with three kids, I don't have that option. Tomorrow, I return to SAHM status after an 8-month stint working part-time. The company was (is) great, although the job itself gradually required full-time availability or face time. 

I am not particularly happy about it. Part of it is that I still hate summer. Part of it also is that I feel like Elephant in the Mo Willems story, We Are in a Book. Replace "book" with "job" and the sentiment is the same: 

As I have written previously, work-life balance is an issue among parents in my generation. (I recognize that this may have been an issue for parents in the pre-Internet days, but I do not know such things in the way that I know it affects modern parents. Or maybe just me.) I don't think it's unique to women / mothers either, but I've yet to meet a full-time SAHD in my travels through Chicago parenting circles. 

I feel like I should have figured this out by now. Some of my frustration may be tied to that self-judgment. 

I often think of various challenges in my life or work as puzzles. It's a matter of fitting the correct tab into the right slot, or finding the word that matches the clue and the little boxes. I'm still struggling with finding the piece that fits my desire to contribute something significant to this world, in my skill set, for an organization, on a regular basis, with recompense, without sacrificing my existing relationships (with my children). Put simply:
  • I want to use my writing/communication, analytical, and organizational skills. 
  • I want to be home for my children in after-school hours. 
This doesn't seem like it should be so hard to find. 

And yet, it is. At least in the modern U.S. economy of competition and drive. Politicians in the media often give lip service to the "importance" of raising children, usually as they justify why their wives don't work. They don't talk about the minutiae and repetition of parenting, but of the Hallmark moments that allow us all to give lip service to the importance of child care. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sore Feet, Equity, and LSCs

I am tired. I had a crazy afternoon on Tuesday. It was the first day of spring park district classes for all 3 kids, the second day of LSC elections, and I had a meeting for a few of my projects scheduled with a stakeholder. I spent the day walking from my house, to the second campus, to Athletic Field Park, back to campus, back to Athletic Field Park, and then a little jog over a few streets for dinner, and back to campus again. In flats. The kind that look cute, but have no sole support on hard Chicago sidewalks.
I've spent nearly two years on the Disney II Local School Council, and decided to seek re-election for the next term. In the last election, there were seven parents and one community member running for six and two spots, respectively. We didn't have a second campus and an expanded grade set. The District hadn't just closed 49 neighborhood schools in one fell swoop. And the reformy fervor that is the public (and private) dialogue about public education hadn't yet reached a fever pitch. (Perhaps it has not yet reached its apex, and perhaps it had in 2012 and I just wasn't as aware of it as I am now.) In 2012, I ran because I want to know how stuff works. That remains true today.
I actually thought about not running, but I realized that even if I don't sit on the council, I'd likely attend all the meetings anyway, so I might as well have a metaphorical and physical seat at the table. Even The Girl  knew this, and she helped me to "electioneer" outsize the second campus on Tuesday afternoon, handing out cards with my name and asking them to vote for me. The candidate pool was wider this year, with 10 parents and three community members running for six and two spots, respectively. Everyone told me not to be, but I was worried. 

It's times like these when my insecurities cloud my (limited) ability to see the situation clearly. The Boy believes that writing comes naturally and easily to me. Sometimes it does come easily. At other times, like writing about how I feel about something, such as my fear of not being re-elected to the LSC, a position of importance in my life, writing is difficult. 
I tend to think of the qualities that make me a good council member: persistence, information-gathering, information-sharing, and critical thinking in negative terms: stubbornly annoying, nosy, critical. Although a persuasive writer by trade, self-promotion is not my strong suit. That may be why this blog is still at 7 followers despite nearly 8 years of writing. 
In the end, I gained enough votes to re-gain a seat on the council. Seventy-one people voted for me. I attended the ballot count at the second campus on the night of the election, because going to the source is the fastest way to get the information you seek. It definitely felt like a popularity contest as the election judges read out and recorded the ballot tallies by ballot number. My two fellow council members running for re-election also gained a seat on the council, while the remaining parent spots went to one 7th grade and two 6th grade parents.  
At this point, I have two personal-organizational goals for the council: communications and budget. When I became a council member in 2012, the Office of LSC Relations was in the process of revising its budget training, and just recently got around to rolling out the revised editions to councils. I am perhaps unnaturally fond of puzzles and analytic situations, and a CPS school budget is an ideal example of both. Again, I find myself anticipating with glee both the budget training and subsequent budget analysis. 

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Fair System? CPS Tiers

It's CPS elementary school admissions-offer letter time in Chicago, and Northside parents (and the Interwebs) can't get enough of the chatter. Everywhere I turn, whether online--CPSObsessed, NPN, Facebook--or in real life--at the park, on the train, in the office--parents are talking about acceptances, waitlist numbers, school tours, first impressions, curriculum and teachers and principals, choices or options, possible moves to suburbia, and the odds. 
It's actually kind of exciting to watch and read and hear about. I know that perspective is a luxury; a luxury that comes from satisfaction with my kids' school and therefore outside of this year's process.
The acceptance date for first-round offers is fast approaching: April 11. I picture a flurry of activity and then silence, leaving new-to-CPS families to spend 5 days hand-wringing during the District's spring break. And as the date of family acceptance or rejection of offers approaches, the annual bitching about the unfairness of the system begins. (There's always bitching, but it gets worse around process dates.)

This is most often directed at the tier system, a method adopted by the Board of Education in 2011 to improve equity of access to magnet and selective-enrollment (gifted/IB) schools by using a formula of SES and other factors to assign each block in the city a tier.
I don't think the tier system is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it does as good of a job at striving for equity as it can do. T
he system is underfunded and under-resourced; sometimes I think the District makes asinine decisions, and sometimes I think the District is doing the best it can. The tier system of admissions in the second category.

There is a mindset among some city (and even some suburban) parents that it's "selective enrollment high schools or bust." This creates a lot of frustration, anger, tears, and threats because Chicago's nine SEHS simply do not have enough seats to educate everyone who wants to attend those schools, and a fierce competition for those seats is one of the results.  

When the public discussion turns to how unfair the (tier) system is for SEHS, I always think of the gifted schools in New York City. There are also nine, And the NYC schools offer admission considerations for disadvantaged students as well. My father attended one of the "Specialized High Schools," as NYC calls them, Bronx High School of Science. In 2013, according to the literature in the link above, the acceptance rate at Bronx Science was 5.3 percent.

When looking at Chicago's data, the complaints about how the system is unfair seem, well, unfair. The tier system doesn't seem to give a hugely unfair or imbalanced advantage to kids who live on statistically less-advantaged blocks. I mean, it's like a 5%.

For SEHS, the current system gives 40% of seats to students in order of pure score rank. Then it takes the remaining 60% of students and divides them evenly among the tiers. Looking at the mean scores among tier 1 and tier 4 students from this year's applicant class, it doesn't look like there is a huge difference in achievement levels at any of the SEHS between tier 1 and tier 4 except at Lane (85.73% T1, 94% T4). And oddly, the mean tier 4 score at Westinghouse is the mean scores for tier 2 and 3, but the percentage difference between tiers 1 and 4 is miniscule - 80.84% (T1) v. 81.79% (T4).

I do understand the frustration with the SE process. But I think it's misdirected at the tier system. I think we'd do better to advocate for stronger programs that serve the 80-92%-level achieving students within our neighborhood/magnet schools, but that isn't a popular opinion in the larger "SEHS or bust" mindset among parents who are engaged in and vocal about their children's education.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A few more thoughts on STEM

Although I have not thought of myself as particularly mathy since about 7th grade, I want to be clear that my position on STEM education does not reflect a general dislike of math or science itself. The Dad is a software programmer. My father, Grandpa Texas, is a nuclear engineer. I get that having people with these skills is important and that people who have these skills often do important work.
But I don't think they are important to the level of core subject matter. I don't think they are important to the detriment of other subjects or interests in the elementary grades. And, unfortunately, in CPS, focusing on STEM will be to the detriment of other subjects. The reality of an underfunded system such as CPS means that a focus on STEM necessarily means a subtraction of other art, music, world language, or social studies. Because with $4400/student, schools can't hire a classroom teacher and an engineering teacher and an art teacher. And the reality of a heavily prescribed system such as CPS means that a focus on STEM means the detriment of other subjects because there isn't time in the day/week to include a block of literacy, a block of math, 30 minutes of P.E. and 40 minutes for lunch/recess.
And I want to be clear that I know that the perceived lack of qualified workers that is driving public policy on increased STEM education is fake. I went looking for the job growth statistic that CPS referenced in its press release. I could not find it within the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report, but I did reference to a lower number--778,300. Said the report, “Computer and mathematical occupations are projected to add 778,300 new jobs between 2010-2020.” Incidentally, this job growth makes this area the 6th fastest growing major occupational group, but it’s ranked 12th out of 22 occupational groups because of it’s relatively small size.
The BLS also reported that heatlhcare support is projected to grow by 35.9% in 2020. The Boomer lobby is slacking on that one. Or perhaps even they are disgusted by the thought of their grandchildren sliding back into their own parents' job prospects. According to the same report, community and social service occupations are expected to grow at a rate of 24.2% by 2020. Where is the lobby of social workers? Oh wait….

My original guest-blogger post hit the Internet on Tuesday. I didn't realize it would be a primer to The Atlantic's "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage," published the very next day. (In the fantasy world where print journalism still exists, I would make an ideal Atlantic writer.) As writer Michael Teitelbaum reported about the STEM shortage, "U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more."

In light of this more factual reporting of the STEM landscape, it makes statements like Christopher Emdin's even more maddening. A recent PBS article quoted Emdin as saying, "Our STEM jobs continue to go unfilled, and our young people refuse to be scientists and engineers."
Emdin was speaking in response to last week's DoE release of civil rights data, a report that showed unequal education. From PBS: "Yet the department found that there was a “significant lack of access” to core classes like algebra, geometry, biology, and chemistry for many students. That lack of access was particularly striking when it came to minorities.." I think of these classes as foundational. They should be in the core curriculum at all schools. I think Emdin's assertion that there are unfilled STEM jobs is false, but the inequality in education offered to minorities is well-documented.

In fact, for those interested in the issue of segregation on science education and other subjects, there is an upcoming lecture at DePaul's College of Education. From the email: Lecture and Discussion with Richard Rothstein and Patricia Fron, Why Are Schools Still Segregated and What We Can Do About It, Monday, April 7 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Room (TBA)

Richard Rothstein is a Research Associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, a widely published author and lecturer on education policy and the national education columnist for the New York Times from 1999 through 2002. 60 years after Brown v Board, our schools continue to be segregated. Rothstein looks at the intersection of school segregation and residential segregation. He argues that " Too quickly forgetting twentieth century history, we’ve persuaded ourselves that the hobbling residential isolation of low-income black children is only “de facto,” the accident of economic circumstance, personal preference, and private discrimination. But unless we re-learn how residential segregation is “de jure,” resulting from explicit, racially conscious and motivated public policies, implemented by federal, state, and local governments, we have little hope of remedying school segregation that flows from neighborhood racial isolation."

Patricia Fron, the co-chair of the policy committee of the Chicago Fair Housing Alliance will be a respondent to Rothstein, discussing some of the findings in their recent report, Chicago From Home to School: Why Segregation Persists and Current Reforms May Only Make Things Worse.
For more information, and to RSVP please contact Diane Horwitz at dhorwit1 at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CPS Brings STEM Curriculum to District

This post first appeared on March 18, 2014 at

What’s up with CPS’s decision to introduce and ramp up STEM curriculum within district schools, as it announced yesterday in a press release

On its face, the district’s decision to add computer science as a core subject to city high schools seems like a good one. It’s not all that different than earlier administrators’ addition of typing classes to the curriculum. 

What is the district really trying to achieve by introducing a curriculum that is heavy on science, technology, engineering, and math? Is it trying to get ahead of a projected shortage of qualified candidates in those fields? Does it reflect a need at U.S. colleges and universities to matriculate students who are able to work at advanced levels of math and science, at a rigor that would make them able to “compete” with their global counterparts? 

What is driving this policy? 

Despite the persistent idea that our schools are not preparing students for the kinds of jobs the market offers, a look to historical STEM trends suggests that the renewed emphasis on STEM within CPS may be another manufactured crisis. 

Back in 1997, a Stanford-educated researcher named Gerald Bracey suggested that the National Science Foundation may have started what could now be traced to the current “inadequacy” in STEM education. When Sandia Labs undertook a study of the issue in the late 1980s, they concluded that the biggest risk to education of U.S. students was the H.S. dropout rate—not the quality of STEM education or number of STEM degrees awarded. 

The biggest driver of growth in STEM competitiveness may have come in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. Yet even Congress agrees that the percentage of postsecondary science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has remained steady at 17 percent. Is there job growth to justify this kind of subject-matter emphasis? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the fastest growing occupations are largely medical and vocational—not high-tech. Will increased STEM fluency increase students’ ability to compete for jobs? Will it improve their chances at success?

Perhaps the important question is not why CPS is pursuing this policy, but what it can hope to achieve? How will a renewed emphasis on STEM education affect our children? Will they be better off for having this kind of education? Or will this policy further cream or tier an already stratified system? Who does a STEM curriculum help?