Wednesday, December 26, 2012

High School Redux

Before the break, CPS announced BoE approval of five new high/middle school projects. One of them is the expansion of an elementary magnet school to include high school grades as well. 

It is interesting that CPS would approve additional high and middle school seats whilst bemoaning its (under)utilization across the district. But: at the same time, everyone I know seems to be anxious about the (lack of) high-quality high school seats within CPS. The Boy is, unfortunately, among them.

It is interesting because it is the only CPS high school to be approved from the 2012 RFP. The other two high schools are charters, and the other middle school expansions are military academies going down into 7th and 8th grades.  But: I do not know how many other District operators made proposals.

It is interesting because (I think) only three other K-12 schools exist within the CPS portfolio: Ogden International, Alcott, and Chicago Academy.  But: Alcott and Chicago Academy are neighborhood schools throughout, while Chicago Academy is an AUSL/contract school. Ogden is neighborhood in elementary, but turns into a magnet with enrollment requirements and a preference for students who live in Ogden Elementary's attendance boundary.

My kids' school, Disney II Magnet, was the school approved for the expansion into high school. Like Alcott and Ogden, it will give preference to elementary students to matriculate into the high school. And (presumably) like Ogden, it will offer most of its seats to students who come from outside the elementary school.  In its first year of operation, Disney II 's expansion could provide an additional 300 high-quality middle- and high-quality seats to students throughout Chicago.

And finally, it is interesting how few magnet high schools there really are within the system. There are seven: Chicago Ag, Clark Academic Prep, Curie, DeVry, Goode STEM, Ogden International, and Von Steuben. In researching this blog post, I looked into magnet admissions policy across the District. Many magnet schools also have admissions requirements. There are four magnet high schools that require testing or requirements of some kind for admission into the school: Von Steuben, Chicago Ag, Ogden, and DeVry. DeVry only accepts juniors and seniors. Goode STEM just opened this year.

I've attended a fair number of CPS commission hearings, public hearings, public meetings, and other education- and CPS-focused events. A common concern running through them is the lack of high-quality options for (high school) students within the city. Or sometimes just for those populations represented at the event. 

As CPSObsessed notes, the prevailing view is "SEHS or bust," among parents of middle- and high-school students. Concurrently--and somewhat contradictorily--there is an increased emphasis on the importance of high-quality neighborhood schools. However, there doesn't seem to be an increased emphasis on students attending their own neighborhood schools--at either the high school or elementary school level. Perhaps because I live in the boonies of the NWside and none of my neighborhood options (Murphy, Marshall Middle, Carl Schurz) are terribly appealing, I know very few people who actually send their children to their neighborhood school by choice. (If you do send your kids to your neighborhood school by choice, please leave it in the comments.) 
In the past, when I've suggested that our local high school, Carl Schurz, is an option for my children, people look at me aghast. One fellow parent told me that I was selling my kids short to have them attend this school. One teacher told me that my kids would get in somewhere, anywhere, that would be a better environment for them than the one available at Schurz . And The Dad continues to worry about gangs-and-guns behavior that surrounds neighborhood high schools like Schurz (and Roosevelt, Senn, Lakeview, Taft, and Mather), and has remained steadfast in his view that suburban kids who shoot up are preferable peers for our children than CPS populations who shoot

Frankly, I don't see a significant difference between creaming because students are redirected toward selective-enrollment high schools and creaming because students attend neighborhood or magnet high schools outside of their own neighborhoods. Perhaps the problem lies in the belief that we must have options in the first place? Because, invariably with options comes competition. Instead of attending the best school for their talents, interests, and location, our children must vie with 14,000+ other high school students for a seat, any seat, at a high school that is anything but their neighborhood school. And that mindset is really the true barrier to improving options, education, and resource allocation within CPS. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Whenever I attend CPS meetings, I always ponder the wisdom of sharing what I've learned or keeping it to myself. Part of me thinks that it's important for CPS (and by extension: me) to be as transparent as possible. But the other part of me winces when I envision an angry mob with pitchforks heading in my direction as I read the comments. I now realize that my CPS experience as a parent is pretty much unlike that experienced by any of my peers or neighbors. For that reason, perhaps I should go back to straight reporting rather than editorializing? 

So with that out of the way: don't shoot the messenger.

This morning, I attended, via teleconference, the November monthly meeting of the PTA Advisory Council. My attendance, either in person or via phone, is mostly sporadic, but I've written about my experiences in the past, and you can read more about the advisory council here. Due to a previous commitment, I had to drop off the call just at the point that the conversation turned to school closings and became heated. But I did hear the first presenter, a man by the name of Ira Rounsaville, who is tasked with revising the district's policy for family life and comprehensive sexual education. 

He started his presentation by saying that he really wants to increase parent involvement in policy development at the district level. (See above.) His department, the newly created Office of Student Health & Wellness, reconstituted from the ghosts of CPS Offices past, is in the process of revising the comprehensive sexual education policy from 2008. The 2008 policy is a revision itself, of the 1965 policy. 

The reason for this, he said, is two-fold. One, there is no uniformity in implementation of sexual education curriculum across CPS currently. And two, and probably more importantly, they looked at the data and trends of what age, and in what ZIP codes they reside, people are getting sexually transmitted diseases. 

He shared that in some areas of the city, kids as young as age 10 are contracting sexually transmitted diseases. He also said that Chicago is the top U.S. city for gonorrhea and chlamydia. In his view, student health affects educational outcomes.

So how is this happening? In what I imagine is a similar method to that employed by the instructional strategy office for Common Core rollout, the Office of Student Health & Wellness went backward from a high school senior to figure out what kinds of knowledge should be covered in each previous year, from a health and sexual education point of view. 

He said that the policy in draft form now would have children in grades K-4th taught the basics of family life as a precursor to sexual education: what the body parts are called, what is good touch/bad touch, what families look like in a general sense--all using age-appropriate terms and concepts. Comprehensive sexual education would begin in 5th grade, again using age-appropriate terms and concepts. The idea is to give students a basic understanding of how their bodies work. 

Currently, the 2008 policy says that condom demonstrations are allowed in 7th and 8th grade with principal consent, and in grades 9-12th with principal notification -- too late to prevent a 10-year-old from contracting gonorrhea. The draft policy would have students see a demonstration of condom use in 5th grade, period. He pointed out that even if you think your 5th grader is not ready for sex; he or she may be targeted by the sexually mature students in his or her class or in 6th grade. 

The draft policy would have the curriculum integrate with a core subject, such as science or social studies because, especially as kids get into high school, they are more likely to have these subjects every day and the sexual education component can be integrated easily into a discussion of biology, discovery of AIDS, or history and civics lessons, for example. Also, he pointed out that the draft policy aims for spending 625 curriuculum minutes each year on sexual education, and it's important that students have physical exercise during their P.E. classes.

The draft policy calls for parent notification via a letter, and suggests that schools should offer a parent/guardian informational meeting about the program with a curriculum breakdown and opportunity to ask questions. Parents/guardians will be able to opt their children out of the program by submitting it in writing to the individual school offices -- again, per the draft policy. 

He pointed out that CPS does not follow an abstinence-only curriculum, and that in a sample 10-lesson unit at the high school level, maybe only two lessons would discuss abstinence. 

Another important point that Mr. Rounsaville made, repeatedly, is that he believes that parents and the Board of Education should hold schools accountable for following the policy. When I asked about transparency in the policy and parent feedback, he was very receptive to that. Next steps for his department and the draft policy are to go through a few internal levels, through the CPS law department and then simultaneously onto the website (not yet launched) and to the Board of Education for consideration. A vote may take place on the policy at the BoE's January meeting.

If you have questions, comments, or concerns about the policy or process, please contact Ira Rounsaville directly at 773-553-8384 or irounsaville at

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Testing and Assessment

To use Facebook parlance, CPS testing is what's trending on my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately. As "Common Core" becomes part of parents' lexicon and the effects of testing-based teacher evaluations trickles down, the pitchforks have come out and more parents vocalize their displeasure at testing practices.

As usual, I don't understand what the problem is with testing or assessments.

But back to CPS testing.

To me, it seems that some of this ire could be reduced by using correct nomenclature. As far as I can tell, the only standardized test given is the ISAT. The remaining standardized assessments are just that -- assessments. They are--or should be--used to tailor teaching methods and learning opportunities to students. Not to make a Kindergartener feel like she's failed school at the ripe old age of 6.

Our principal said recently, "If we don't know how students are learning, how can we accurately teach them?" Our school uses STEP assessments to assess students' reading abilities on a quarterly basis. A teacher recently told me that she gets a thrill from the process, although teachers do not assess their own classrooms. My kids get a thrill from the process, which I think must provide them a kind of mental calisthenics in a way that is enjoyable, similar to the way that doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles is enjoyable to me. (Further evidence of the contrarian; the best crossword puzzles are compiled by the AARP.) STEP assessments and levels provide everyone involved--me, my kids, their teacher, the school--an indication of my kids' reading abilities, where they started and where they need to go, what they've mastered and what they need to work on. In some ways, they're a tool to diagnose problems that need help. In other ways, they are a validation of what my kids have accomplished. Why wouldn't I want this checkup on their progress?

REACH and MPG or MAP are state- and district-wide examples of benchmarking assessments. CPS lists them as the only required assessments for K-2nd grade. The Tot Who's Not took the MPG two weeks ago, a fact which I only learned when I turned up to volunteer in his class at what turned out to be the end of the testing period. I don't think he would have commented on it otherwise. A few kids were still in upstairs in the computer lab when I walked in at 9:30; the balance of the class was chronicling the experience in their journals. They wrote "I felt hape (happy)/srprzd (surprised)/ankshus (anxious)/wrd (weird)" about their experience, and drew a picture before joining their classmates on the rug for a review of trick words, vocabulary, days of the week, and the weather. Yes, Ben, a five-year-old can know what the word anxious means. A four-year-old named Fallon taught my 15-year-old self  the word "facetious."

I wrote recently that the number or frequency of testing and assessments should not be taken as a sign that a school "teaches to the test." Yet, this seems to be the assumption made by many parents when they realize how many assessments their children must endure in a given year.

The only test I remember taking was the SRA Achievement test, which I took in 3rd-6th grade. The only anxiety I had about my performance on this test was related to my participation in my district's pullout gifted program, which was also the only class in elementary school to assign homework.

However, in cleaning out a filing cabinet recently, I discovered my K-12 academic records, which include teachers' copies of every progress report ever filed, incident reports from the nurse's office, college admissions acceptance cards, testing results, and completed assessments. I only remember taking the SRA Achievement test, but my file reveals a deeper story: Iowa Skills, Stanford Skills, and Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills tests, and Kaleidoscope, HBK Bookmarks, Boehm Test of Concepts, Metropolitan Readiness Tests, Botel Reading Inventory, and Kuhlmann-Finch Tests assessments.

The number of tests and assessments of my 1980s elementary school youth in Chicagoland district 161 stack up pretty evenly against those that The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot Who's Not will take in CPS this year: STEP, REACH, and MAP/MPG. The Boy and The Girl will also take Scantron, and The Boy will also take the ISAT.  And I'm fine with that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Community Forum

Last night, I attended CPS's N/NWside Collaborative's community feedback forum. I have several things to say about the experience, but before I do, I'll share the recurring thought that I thunk during the meeting. And that is: I'm not cynical enough for these things.

It's why I am glad for people like Wendy Katten and Jill Wohl of Raise Your Hand, because they are cynical about these meetings. I believe they know more about the processes and politics at play within CPS than I do. And I've said before, my math aptitude doesn't cover statistical analysis. 

That said, I (mostly) enjoyed the forum, and I took its format, content, and tone as an attempt for CPS to show us that it actually is listening to us--parents, community members, school-level governance--as we ask for real engagement and feedback opportunities in the process. 

Unlike the Blue Ribbon Commission hearings and other CPS forums of the past, this wasn't a panel of mute people in suits sitting on a stage at an audience while another suit ran through a slide deck and then tried to mask all emotion or response while dozens of Chicagoans made statements or asked questions in front of a microphone. Last night's forum was a continuation of the intent behind October 15th's School Actions Tele-Town Hall, wherein Adam Anderson and Mike Cardena* presented the guidelines, asked for directed or closed feedback, and responded to selected questions and suggestions from the audience.

I do think that CPS is really trying to engage leaders, community members, and parents in the process of change and feedback. I also think that they are cautious or guarded about the process because they are tired of being the public's whipping post. If Brizard was the fall guy for the teachers' strike, the various network directors, chiefs, and anyone from CPS management who attends a public meeting must be the fall guys for the public's wrath. Teachers are saints for putting up with 38 high-needs children in a classroom and/or their low-response parents, but I also have real empathy for the the front-lines CPS officers who deal with (an often-enraged) public every day. If you've ever worked in a restaurant, on a call center, or with sales people, you probably would too.

Not that there weren't problems with last night's forum. First--and perhaps the biggest problem--of all, they issued invitations to the forum via email to LSC Chairs, giving ours a scant 27 hours notice of the event, if the timestamps on the emails are correct. That left our Chair little time to rearrange her schedule or ask one of her fellow council members to attend in her stead. Fortunately for us, our LSC is stacked with policy nerds who have good childcare options and fond relationships with our iPhones, like myself, and two of us were able to make the meeting. That said, the lack of lead time may have been deliberate. After all, not giving people notice also means not giving people time to ruminate on how they can turn your civil little forum into a hotbed of ire.

I later heard that some LSCs never received notice of the meeting, and complaints that only some schools (Taft, Amundsen, Disney II, Schurz) really got notice. I take that as a sign that our network officers (MaRukh Mian in O'Hare, and Jane Norton in NW High School) are really on-task with their communications, although I'm sure some readers have drawn the conclusion that CPS wants to stack its deck with these darlings. The email communication I received belies this theory; it was also sent to 86 other email addresses by the FACE Deputy, Wendy Thompson. Some digging shows that those email addresses belonged not just to the Chairs of Schurz and Disney II LSCs, but also to LSC Chairs at Alcott, Skinner West, Whitney Young, Peterson, Inter-American, Haugan, Lincoln Park, Stockton, Field, Newberry, Farnsworth, Onahan, Northside Learning Center, Oscar Mayer, Thorp, Lincoln, Agassiz, Walt Disney Magnet, Von Steuben, Murphy, Smyser, Wildwood, Hamilton, Amundsen, Drummond, Bell, Stone, and Canty.

I understand that it's difficult to re-work your life mid-week on short notice (The Dad was not happy with solo bedtime parenting), and I'm not surprised that there were only about 30 parents/community members at the meeting. Which was seen as another problem. At my table, there was only one other non-FACE person sitting there when I arrived. Eventually, the table filled up. But most of the stakeholders at my table of 14 were non-parents. There were two FACE facilitators (Jane Norton and the guy from the Skyway Network), two CPS support/resource/vendors, one education fund angel investor, and two people affiliated with AUSL. The only other parent there was from New Field. She and I dominated the first two discussions, although I was the idealist and she was the pessimist. 

Finally, the forum ran late. What was supposed to be four presentations with three breakout discussion sessions for two hours took almost three hours. They frontloaded the most interesting--in my opinion--discussions, which meant that the hot mess that is CPS School Actions was left to a rapidly disappearing crowd. I confess I stopped paying attention once Adam Anderson explained the mathematical formula the district uses to determine whether a school is underutilized or overcrowded. I spent 40 minutes listening and tweeting to the School Actions TeleTown Hall last week, and the only experience I have with consolidation is when CPS moved the students from Irving Park Middle School to Thurgood Marshall Middle School in 2008.

I enjoyed the opportunity to offer feedback, and am reassured that CPS as an entity is actually really thinking, talking, and worrying about the problems it faces, and seems to want a dialogue. The format of the forum was that a speaker would give background information and data, and then present the dilemmas that 150 schools in the N/NWside Collaborative face, both individually and as a group. We'd break into our groups, discuss each dilemma or issue, and propose a number of solutions or concerns for each. CPS would take the top issue from each of the five groups, put it into a survey, and give us all an opportunity to "vote" for our own top issue from the aggregated list. For the first discussion, a spokesperson from each table also got to read aloud his or her top point for each of the four issues, further explaining the table's viewpoint. Then they showed us the results immediately after each vote.

For example, the first discussion was about (a) supports or resources within the school day/at school (b) supports or resources after the school day/for parents (c) facilities improvement priorities (d) anything else you think should be added or considered. My table came up with the following top priorities for each of these:
(a) class size ratio of 1:25
(b) individualize supports at the school level to support specific school/community needs
(c) infrastructure/facilities to support technology integration
(d) improve partnerships with other Chicago institutions, such as the park district

However, this is not what came up in the general discussion, as the votes came in as follows:
(a) 38 percent of respondents chose improved social/emotional/academic intervention supports and resources
(b) 35 percent of respondents chose making schools work for families
(c) 30 percent of respondents chose conducive learning environment
(d) 44 percent of respondents chose improving trust between Board of Education and parents, teachers, and individual schools 

The second discussion was around questions you'd ask about (a) the district's space utilization plans/policy, and (b) the School Actions guidelines.

The third discussion was one of two assigned topics, although as I said above, I was losing interest at that point and had stopped taking notes. I'm drowning under paper these days, so I left all the materials behind, which was probably not the best move. But the good news is, if you want to attend one of these forums to get some information and data, and to voice your thoughts, you can. 

This morning, I received an email from Carl Hurdlik, who runs the PTA Advisory Council on the CPS side. He was at the event last night, and sent out additional dates and times for the next planned Town Hall discussions: 

Saturday, 10/27 – 10am-12:30pm
Malcolm X College
1900 W. Van Buren


Monday, 10/29 – 6-8:30pm
Charles Hayes Center
4859 S. Wabash

Please confirm your attendance or direct inquiries to Anjanette Hosley, ahosley at cps dot edu.Breakfast/dinner provided.

* did not get the spelling of his name, and I was unable to reach a live person at FACE when I called to verify. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Musing on Data

As any reader of this blog over the past two years will know, I've developed a deep interest in the field of public education, and its relatives, public/social policy and political discourse. Maybe I should take it as a sign that I'm (finally!) a grown-up. Maybe it's a re-awakening of my poli-sci major past.

I managed to graduate with a B.A. in said field from Illinois's premier public university...without ever having taken a math class. It took me 15 years to realize what a mistake that was (UIUC revised its policy for students who graduated high school in 1993 or later). A strong foundation in mathematics is important in life--not simply for calculating insurance risks, or making a pampered living for oneself on the stock market, but for making the connections (or recognizing their lack) between research and reality. As John Ewing reports, and as Diane Ravitch reported in her book about NCLB, there is a problem with mathematics in this country.

I stopped trying in math when the work got too hard for my "smart" brain--to my great detriment as an adult. I'm trying to change that by recognizing that numbers aren't always meaningful without context. It seems that my fellow LAS grads often create and perpetuate falsehoods in their reporting. Falsehoods that might be prevented by a better understanding of math, assessments, and standards. The more I read the words, "studies show" or "research proves" in any article, the more I wonder if that is really the case. It would seem that in the newsfeed-happy world in which we live, editors are so desperate to be the first to break the story that they fail to check the facts or the data accurately before publishing. Twitter feeds or Reddit headlines that compress the information into even fewer characters exacerbate the problem further.

The truth is, research is not a quick process and there really aren't any easy solutions to education reform. Last spring, I spent the better part of three weeks looking at data from a huge fundraising project in hopes of isolating trends and ideas that could inform future decision-making. You'll notice that I used the term data-inform, not data-driven. I have lately wondered if the interchangeability of these terms is a case of willful or accidental ignorance.
It seems to me that too much weight is placed on assessments and their relative value in elementary education. ISAT scores, which are routinely used by prospective parents to judge a school's merit, are really only one very small piece that should be used in evaluating a school. Neither, of course, should parents use the number or frequency of assessments as a sign that the school "teaches to the test. " The real use in data produced by standardized tests is not in judging teachers or schools, but in tailoring teaching methods and learning opportunities to the students themselves. As our principal recently said, "If we don't know how students are learning, how can we accurately teach them?" (emphasis mine).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Stuff I Find

The Boy and The Girl have taken to walking to school in the morning. Originally, The Dad and I had approved only The Boy for this privilege/responsibility, but one day last week, The Girl wanted to walk and The Tot Who's Not wanted to drive, so I let my little rule-follower accompany her big brother on the walk to school. I suspect this enthusiasm for walking (and early morning brotherly-sisterly affection) will drop when the temperatures do, but for now, I'm enjoying The Boy's and The Girl's newfound independence.

It also gives me some one-on-one time with The Tot Who's Not. While I wasn't at all teary-eyed on The Tot's first (or fifth) day of K drop-off, I'm still feeling a bit lost without a little partner in crime. I find myself flirting with babies on the train, or sympathizing with other mothers at the grocery store. I'm starting to understand why generations of women begin pestering their daughters to have children as soon as they get married. I have to wait another 20+ years for grand babies? (Please let me wait at least another 15 years for grand babies...) I suppose I could nanny, but given my views of childbearing, I doubt anyone would hire me.

So I find myself ready to enjoy snippets of time with my youngest child -- such as in the car on the way to school. Yesterday, we stopped to salvage a dresser from the curbside trash. The Tot Who's Not has watched me do this often enough; he waited patiently while I found space for 5 drawers and the case piece itself. Once we were back on our way, I thanked him for his patience. He told me he has a lot of patience.

After he was safely with his class, I went home to unload the car and inspect my find. While some may be horrified by my trash-picking ways, they are probably not on the low-budget side of Apartment Therapy's readers. I get a kind of acquisitive or satisfied high when I find something usable or pretty in the alley. I didn't realize this before now, but it's apparently a trend to do this. I'm not brave enough to look inside cans or dumpsters. I'm pretty sure that Chicago residents, like those of other large cities such as NYC , Philly, or their environs, leave large pieces outside the cans for this reason. I know it's the reason that I left my broken-down Mac Volo stroller outside after a recent garage clean-out.

Like these writers, I get a thrill in finding something useable and unique in the alleyways around my neighborhood. Over the years, I've managed to amass two wooden chairs, one sewing table, an IKEA dresser, a teak side table, a giant wooden built-in cabinet, a chair and a half, two storagalooza bins, a white toy bin, a wooden rung ladder, cabinet doors, two IKEA wooden storage units, a wooden nightstand, a 1905 oak interior door, and a wooden file bin. Some things I've since given away via freecycle. Others have become projects in The Boy's and The Girl's nascent interest in woodcraft. The rest have been repaired, painted, refinished, or recovered in some fashion and put to use in our tiny Chicago Foursquare. Or, in the case of this week's finds, are in my garage awaiting their transformation. There are many things that I do better than this, but this is not a bad way to feed my creative soul or familial predisposition to putter. I do have a couple of rules for how I find and treat my alleyway treasures:

- do not pick up upholstery, carpets, or other soft items
- do not sand painted or stained wood
- air out all items in the garage for a bit
- inspect everything in the alley and when home to determine what/how to fix
- clean everything with hot water and/or vinegar and/or oxyclean before it comes inside
- list it on freecycle if I don't love it and/or use it within a year

Look for a "stuff I found" tag soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Am the Lorax

The CTU strike of 2012 was an eye-opening experience in many ways. I've reaffirmed that I'm not cut out to be a teacher (how do homeschoolers do it??), that I still hate summer, and that Mitt Romney is an asshat who is out of touch with reality of 98 percent of the population. I also learned some new things--some of which may have a devastating effect on my faith in humanity.

Over the summer, I read a series of books written by Rosalind Wiseman. The subject of them was primarily about girl bullying, but they also dealt with the societal pressures on girls and women not to show anger or true feelings that may be seen as "bad" by society at large. Wiseman made a rather salient point about how social media and mobile phones have changed the face of bullying since I went through elementary school in the 1980s.

They've also changed the face of organizational movements, as parents or other individuals fed up by large groups' inability to act quickly in response to _____ banded together to add their voices to the fray. Indeed, this is how Raise Your Hand got started in March 2010. Raise Your Hand got its start in advocating for fair funding of Chicago schools; to support its advocacy in this, it has launched two campaigns: a push for an elected representative school board (ERSB) and a statewide effort to introduce a progressive income tax.

In some ways, Raise Your Hand's efforts seem like a bypass/doubling of those of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), which began in 1987 in response to the last CPS teachers' strike. And in some ways, PURE's efforts seem like a bypass or doubling up of the efforts of the Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers -- aka PTA. It's not widely known among Internet-savvy parents, but PTA has been building relationships with CPS in an advisory role since 1996 with the creation of the PTA Advisory Council. Like RYH and PURE, the PTA's nonprofit status prohibits the organization from taking a position on labor negotiations.

During the Karen Lewis-Rahm Emanuel standoff, another group, calling itself Chicago Students First, launched, urging parents to make their voices heard. I find it somewhat amusing that hundreds of parents who were pissed off that they had to actually pay for childcare because the teachers had the audacity to band together to fight for what they believed in...banded together to do the same.

Presumably, some parents (although I don't know who they are) also support the efforts of groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Stand for Children, although I believe these groups are PACs with nonprofit arms.
How many groups are we up to? But wait, there is one more -- CPS's own Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE), which employs 17 area/network directors, each with a number of FACE officers under him or her. The FACE officers I've met all have extensive backgrounds in community organizing.

So there are seven organizations that I know about. Seven groups purporting to advocate for me as a parent. Yeesh. Although I admire these groups for banding together, I kind of feel like having so many groups to "speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues" dilutes the message. Parents want a seat at the table, but who gets to sit in it? Shouldn't that person or group be democratically elected or chosen? Otherwise, what's the difference between Matt Farmer and Penny Pritzker?

At my kids' school--and as I suspect was true at many other schools--the strike was a deeply polarizing issue among parents. There were those that baked cookies and visited the teachers on the picket line, those that protested the picket line, and those who fell in every place in between. If that can happen at one very successful Northside school, how can anyone reasonably speak for all parents? As school resumed, I read many Facebook statuses that asked their fellow parents to remain mindful of what we have in common rather than what divides us. I hope that all parents in Chicago can remember that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


So it's the end of Day 3 of the 2012 CTU strike and I'm feeling much the way I felt on August 27: utterly sick of my children. To quote a fellow Disney II parent, "I've grown tired of attempting to be cheerful with my kids." The boredom-induced bickering is just one of the reasons that I hate summer. 


I get that this is what the CTU and our teachers need to do. And suffering through more stretches of time in forced home-schooling with my children during this strike is the price that I'm willing to pay for (possibly) real education reform. Because Ms. Lewis's "real schools" comment had nothing to do with $7,500/year private school. To borrow a tired sports analogy, I'm willing to take one for the team on this.

Because I recognize that we, on the NWside of Chicago, live in a bubble. Our children, in large part, attend schools that are CPS's education superstars. Our teachers willingly gave up extra pay to give their students extra classroom time. Our teachers work evenings and weekends, and they are pleasant to us when we run into them in our daily lives when school is not in session. Our teachers have our support as parents every hour of every day. But it's not like this for every teacher or at every school. I think it's like this for very few teachers at very few schools within the system. Some of them are schools that I never want to enter to confirm that what they report is true. 

Like many parents, I'm frustrated by the necessary lack of transparency in what the hold-up is between CPS and CTU at the contract negotiating table. Why can't they compromise? Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel seem locked in a battle of wills that's holding the rest of Chicago in a captive standstill. It's anyone's guess who'll prove him or herself to be the biggest donkey in the end. 

But I'm also frustrated by what is reported in and opined by the media. Like balanced government, balanced reporting also seems to be a thing of the past. I've long known that the Chicago Tribune is a screamingly conservative paper, so maybe it's not surprising to anyone else that the only source in Jon Kass's opinion piece from today is from a man who formerly led a group called Americans for Limited Government before he came to lead the neutrally named Illinois Policy Institute. The IL Policy Institute's directors also include an equity firm partner, a portfolio manager, a lawyer and political appointee in the Reagan administration, and a former CEO who now works to "reduce government involvement in commercial enterprise." To quote The Girl: seriously?

Mr. Tillman, will your "nonpartisan" group consider reducing the involvement of commercial enterprise in (setting policy for) government? The only thing that introducing corporate practices to the public education system has done for it is to make it as unstable as corporate America. I'm neither a Republican nor rich, and I was fortunately raised in an educational era where learning to think--and speak/write--critically was more highly valued than not seeming to fall behind my peers, so I'll be lucky if five people read this. But I must say it: Of course executives like Mr. Tillman are anti-union. They're not offshoring their jobs to India or Bangladesh; they're just offshoring their money.

Union labor got its start in the Gilded Age, as a response to the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer political climate of the late 19th century. Some Many argue that the need for unions is over, and that many protections advocated by union labor have been codified in our society. But I look around at the rapidly disappearing middle class and think we're headed back to the Gilded Age, if we aren't there already.  "Soon the government was protecting the rights of wealthy Americans instead of all Americans." (italics mine)

Mr. Tillman's statement is disingenuous. People like Mr. Tillman are trying to break the union because they think that teachers are like widgets--entirely interchangeable. I'm quite sure there are teachers within CPS who phone it in--just as there are employees everywhere in America who phone it in. But what a huge disservice it would be to Chicago's children to get rid of teachers with 20 years of experience because they've gotten too expensive for the district's books. Too bad we can't offshore teachers, eh? 

But even if CPS can separate the wheat from the chaff, can the best teachers overcome poverty in the absence of adequate resources and supports (and the funding for these)? This Tribune editorial conveniently omits some critical points in its assessment of the importance of great teaching: 

First, the metro areas mentioned in the editorial--Boston, NYC, Houston--put their money where their mouths are. All of these cities spend more per student than Chicago does. Houston ISD ties teachers' pay to student test scores, although what that actually means will be anyone's guess in the next few years as most of the country moves to the Common Core State Standards while Texas remains with its state-developed STAAR. 

Second, Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust mentioned the importance of great teachers in her statement. But she didn't just say strong teachers. She said strong, well-supported teachers. And this is what teachers on the line are asking for: more/better resources. It's not just about pay. But because of SB7, pay becomes the focal issue.

The Tribune bills Education Trust as an advocacy group. It doesn't specify for what or whom the Education Trust does its work. Not surprisingly, the group's senior leadership has strong ties to the Children's Defense Fund, which in turn has strong ties to Stand for Children and charter schools. It's not that difficult to understand why Ms. Lewis isn't going to urge her teachers back to work without a contract while they work the details out. This infamous video is partially why. That and they've been negotiating for over 10 months already.

The Trib wrote, "Parents and principals need to know which teachers excel and which take up space." I agree with this because I already know which teachers excel and which take up space. As do most parents who are nominally involved in their children's education. I consider this part of my job as a parent. Good principals know this too. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Nerds like me

On Sunday night, I attended the first CPSObsessed book club. It was a group of 8-10 heavy readers and/or commenters of the blog, plus CPSO herself. We came together ostensibly to discuss Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but the discussion eventually became a CPS/education/social policy free-for-all.

I was in heaven.

One guy mistook my stated interest in reading social/public policy issues as credentials in the field, which I both corrected and find flattering. These in-person discussions make me feel like I'm back in college, arguing political theory until Espresso Royale kicked us out when they closed at midnight. I'm older, saggier, more worldly, and more dependent on coffee, but also just as recharged by the process now as I was 15 years ago.

A central theme in both Ravitch's book and our discussion was the difference between data-informed decision-making and data-driven decision-making. The former can be useful in public schools, whereas the latter is an oft-used buzzword for a concept that is best left to those who coined it: corporate America. As Ravitch said over and over again in her book, test scores are a measurement, not the goal:
  • Scores matter, but they are an indicator, not the definition of a good education.
  • No Child Left Behind had no vision other than improving test scores in reading and math. It produced mountains of data, not educated citizens.
  • Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction.

I have said before that I believe the standardized tests my children take are just one tool in the box available to their teachers. But the test scores themselves are not really the goal. The goals are students' ability to think critically, read fluently, and master other "executive-level functioning" skills.

With a former charter school administrator in the room and the reversal of opinion on charter schools expressed by Ravitch in the book, the dual concepts of charter schools and school choice was also a topic of discussion. The parents at the discussion were pretty much all beneficiaries of school choice (either through or in spite of NCLB), but opinion was split about whether school choice is desirable. As many pointed out, there are too many variables that aren't controlled in studies of academic achievement. Do successful schools succeed because the kids chose to go there, the parents chose to be involved, or because they fit the kind of demographic profile that has historically enjoyed success? Put another way, demographic changes in a school often drive change within the school population. In CPS, it explains the nascent popularity and/or acceptability of schools like Nettelhorst, Waters, Agassiz, Audubon, Coonley, Hamilton, and Belding when even a few years ago, those schools were on most well-educated, middle-class parents' no-way-hell list.

In contrast, the group reached consensus that (the expectation of) school choice is pretty much the only thing that NCLB achieved since its implementation in 2002. One guy even said that NCLB/charters' model of run-schools-like-businesses introduced the kind of organizational instability (heretofore known by corporate employees throughout the U.S.) to the public schools. We all agreed that NCLB is on the way out; that the Powers That Be will declare victory and move on.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Finding my own voice

Chicago Public Schools' independent fact finder report was released this week, and as all news outlets are reporting, both sides rejected the report's recommendations.

At yoga with a group of moms yesterday morning, the pre-pranayama chatter was all about whether CPS teachers are going to strike. On Facebook, everyone is asking the same question. The fear of the unknown is palpable. Working parents everywhere feel the shadow over what remains of the kids' summer vacation.

Although I follow CPS closely, I have no idea whether a strike is imminent or avoidable. My reaction to public issues is often so far outside of popular opinion that I cannot trust that my gut reaction to any particular issue is in any way predictive of outcome. 

Oddly enough, I feel fairly calm about the whole thing. The Dad is worried about a possible strike interfering with the kids' schooling, but I think a labor dispute could provide a standalone education lesson that The Boy, at least, would find interesting. I mean, this is the kid who found WBEZ's recent On Point story so riveting that he asked if we could continue to listen to it in the house. 

I came to my own interest in civics a bit later than the age of 9: although I studied Political Science in college, I pursued a (corporate) writing career. When I left UIUC in 1997, I also left late-night discussions about Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and the future of the EU to wither in my memory of Urbana's Espresso Royale.

Raising children in the city of Chicago--with its long history of both the good (architecture, arts, social work) and the bad (crime, graft, greed, corruption) in society--has been my political reawakening.  Don't tell my father-in-law, who is fond of quoting Winston Churchill, but as I get older, I've become more of a social democrat.

That said, I've been rather wishy-washy on the issue of the CTU, and of unions in general. I've yet to meet a white-collar professional/manager with something positive to say about union labor. But as I've read the news reports, and the editorials, and the public rants about the CTU's greed, I've come to an interesting realization about how I feel about the union versus free-market debate. 

And that is: I believe fundamentally in the unions. As a Chicago resident, I often find Karen Lewis's public statements to be irritating. But even with the CTU's bad (or nonexistent) PR, I don't think the usefulness of union labor has ended.  Without unions, we wouldn't have (had) a fair wage, a reasonable work week, and decent working conditions -- all things that helped to create a middle class, even as that middle class rapidly disappears. Even when I worked full-time, I often wondered why my field was not unionized. After all, in some ways, unionization is codification of an industry. Codification is really information. And information is power.  

I do not actually believe that the CTU wants or expects a 23% pay raise, but thanks to SB7, the CTU cannot negotiate on anything else unless/until CPS brings it to the table. So the teachers end up looking like greedy assholes in the press/public opinion. And the mayor wants this negotiation played out in the press; Karen Lewis isn't the only one who can play that game.

As an employee, the most important things to me were time, time, and culture (whether I felt respected by my co-workers and boss, and felt like I was contributing)--not pay. Of course "a day's pay for a day's work" is important, but no one in his right mind would argue that teachers in the United States go into the field for the money. 

As discussion of the fact-finders report and next steps continues, the online discussion invariably turns to what happens in the private sector (lack of raises, job security, etc.). In the private sector, we negotiate one-on-one with our employers about vacation time and benefits as well as about salary. To me, the CTU-CPS negotiations are no different. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Food That Rolls

A million years ago (it seems), I introduced The Tot (Who's Not) and The Girl to the world of crêpes. Vella Cafe has long since shuttered, but we've been to Crêpes à Latte a fair number of times since then. However, I'm kind of a purist when it comes to crêpes--or at least to my memory of them. A billion years ago, when I lived in France, crêpes were mostly a street food. We ate them hot, with jam or sugar, in a paper cone on the side of the street. None of this egg-cheese-avocado stuff. 

At one point in time, I had the recipe for crêpes memorized--in French. A liter of milk, 8 eggs and 500g of flour. Or something like that. But, I never really had the occasion to make them. If I were to make them now, I'd certainly check and double check the recipe before dumping all that together. I know just enough about baking and cooking to sense that my 18-year-old self has forgotten the butter as she committed the recipe to memory.

Recently, however, in a fit of gumption, boredom, or both, I decided to make flour tortillas from scratch. The recipe called for a comal, a Mexican griddle. Instead of investing in yet more kitchen equipment for which there is little space in my tiny Chicago kitchen, I pulled out the crêpe pan. The one that had been languishing in my kitchen cupboards since July 2009 when I bought it.  It worked beautifully.  

And thus we started our family love affair with "food that rolls." Given an hour of time, a 1/4 cup of butter, some flour, and a dearth of anything good to eat in the house, I'll happily make a batch of flour tortillas, and fry them up on the crêpe pan. They are best straight off the griddle, plain or with a bit of quesadilla cheese melted in the middle. I'm hungry just thinking about it. 

My success with flour tortillas quickly expanded to Swedish pancakes, the Scandinavian version of the crêpe (or tortilla). Unlike American flapjacks, Swedish pancakes have a rapid cook time, making them an easier choice for this not-a-morning-person mama on a busy weekday morning, for a snack that feeds a crowd of kids, or a Daddy-is-out-of-town dinner. I made a double batch of Swedish pancakes again at mid-morning, feeding The Boy, The Girl, The Kindy (The Tot), and three of their friends, in an unscripted school's-out-for-the-summer celebration. Served with three kinds of jam, chocolate sauce, maple syrup, powdered sugar, and (untouched) Greek yogurt, Swedish pancakes are more of a dessert than a savory meal, but what is more fun that food that rolls up for easy consumption? After they were done, I sat down at the table of sticky to eat some with Greek yogurt and sour cherry jam.

And so summer begins...

Thursday, June 14, 2012


My friend Melissa is my hero in the world of SAHMdom. She cooks, bakes, paints, and mothers calmly, which she manages to convey both in-person and through her blog.

As the school year winds down, and with it, my various school-related activities, I've had time to read--and be inspired by--more homekeeping-themed bloggers in the blogosphere. Like Melissa, or Marisa of Food in Jars, or Liesl of Oliver + S, or the folks at Sew, Mama, Sew, or occasionally, Young House Love, and everyone on Pinterest. Thank goodness for them.

Without meetings and action items to occupy the space not taken up by homework and kid emotions, I retreat back into my own head. And what I do to occupy my hands while I am thinking is engage in all forms of domestic arts. I'll likely never share step-by-step tutorials or photos of a project on this blog, but I'm incredibly grateful for bloggers who do, keeping the nearly forgotten arts of sewing, knitting, needlework, baking, cooking, and furniture restoration alive.

It is surprising even to me, but I do feel a sense of satisfaction in completing tasks around the house. After buying a flat of organic strawberries at the farmers market on Sunday, I've spent the week thinking up ways to use them. I've made two batches of cobbler, two batches of jam, one tarte aux fraises one batch of ice cream, and froze many individually.

Last week, I completed a twin-sized bed for The Boy, made from a set of Design Confidential plans, and refinished a side chair that I found on the street a couple of years ago. I cooked dinner. I cleaned areas that are part of the regular cycle and areas that are not. I pulled out toys and put them in the garage sale bin. I made dinner every night, and on some mornings, I actually made my children a hot breakfast (something I almost never do on weekdays). When The Girl asked me to do laundry, I complied.

I cannot really explain this flurry of domestic activity. On the surface, the explanation is that I did / do these things because they need to be done. But part of me wonders if it's my brain's way of letting go of this school year. Perhaps, in the same way that my children will use the time off from school this summer to play video games, run around outside, stay up late, and generally recharge their psyches, all this introspection and domestic activity is restorative for me.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Listening Tour, Part 3

This is old news in the world of Chicago education politics, but I wanted to finish the series for those who have been following along at home. I became intensely interested in CPS goings-on because of the funding piece and I would be remiss if I didn't mention money in my "reporting" of my meeting with Brizard.

Certainly, funding remains an issue within CPS. Everyone acknowledges this.

But in not sure the blame lies entirely on the shoulders of CPS Central fiscal mismanagement. In my opinion, funding remains an issue due to
1) TIF runoffs
2) state budget
3) federal funds shortage

I'll say right now that I haven't fact-checked the numbers Brizard gave us. I'm not a journalist, school ends in 3 days; I don't have time to do so at the moment.

A parent asked Brizard where she was really supposed to go to get more information or help when the programs--specifically, a summer orientation program for Von Steuben freshmen--that she and her daughters relied on have disappeared, often without warning. She noted that community schools don't have money.

While not addressing the nitty-gritty details of her question, Brizard responded by laying it out: the district does have money. It just doesn't have enough (me: and Von Steuben made the priority to cut the freshman orientation?). And that is a "structural" problem within the district. Brizard said that what they "advertised" with the 7-hour day assumed flat funding from the state. In fact, Illinois just cut $60 million from what they're providing to CPS for FY2013.

Illinois is funding education at the worst level in the country. That ranking is based on percentage of budget spent on education, not pure numbers. In New York, he said, the per-pupil spending was just under $18,000. In Chicago, it's half of that. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, other districts spend less than that per-pupil, but I find that hard to believe given the funding formula in Illinois. I suspect that Chicago has the highest per-pupil amount of state funds; other IL districts have a larger portion of local monies to make up the difference.

It's also difficult to compare per-pupil funding across states, as the funding formulas may or may not be calculated the same, as a quick online survey of other states' per-pupil funding shows (Michigan=$12,000, Houston=$5600).

Brizard said that just to replace the boilers in every school would cost the district $4 billion. So life at CPS quickly becomes an ongoing exercise in setting priorities and letting non-priorities fall by the wayside. And who best to do that but the principal and LSC at individual schools--not some bureaucrat downtown, Brizard said.

Another parent raised the issue of overcrowding and the use of mobile classrooms, and how they both affect socialization within a school population. It is a real issue at her child's school (Canty). What to do if your school doesn't even have a playground or green space, as is true for so many schools within Chicago? As Monica Lee reported on her talk at the PTA Advisory Council, there are some supports in place to flag and correct that. But Brizard, they know it's a problem. I got the sense that he hopes individual school communities can come up with creative solutions.

Mostly, at this point in the meeting, I felt relieved. We are so fortunate at Disney II. And we are fortunate because of a group effort. This is not to say that our school is not without problems and foibles (I'd love for my kids to have gym, art, music, technology on a daily basis, but at least they get it at all. In an ideal world, there'd be no lead paint in a building my children use daily, but at least it's covered and maintained.) Certainly, it's about priority setting and funding to those priorities and only those priorities. As an active parent volunteers I've been irritated in the past by the singlemindedness of funding to the priorities.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

...Where You Always Save More Money

TimeOut Kids Chicago didn't exist in 2006, when I started this blog. These days, I'm rarely looking for fun things to do on the weekend, but when I am, I'm so glad that TimeOut Kids has already compiled a happenings list for me.

This morning, The Girl woke up in a mood. I tell you, some days I am not sure that both of us are going to make it to the angsty tween/teen years. Which everyone seems to think are summarily awful. As I wrote another day, I think The Girl has been caught in friendship flux this year. And, unfortunately, with her personality, this means that she is fine at school or elsewhere, but bubbles into a seething cauldron of rage when at home, or with her family. I'm trying my best to soothe her emotions, but it's mentally exhausting. In fact, I'm relaxing with a glass of white wine right now.

Part of The Girl's mood was that she wanted to do something with the day. My initial suggestions (neighborhood garage sales, Wells Street Art Fair) were met with thumbs pointed down. Enter the TimeOut Chicago list!

Among the contenders were the Scandinavian Jam at the Swedish American Museum, the Chicago: You Are Here exhibit at the CAF, and my top pick: the BH&G Chill & Grill Fest with Stephanie Izard at Waveland Bowl. The winner, however, fit in with our "Saturday Sweets tradition" (gakked from our Norwegian friends): the Elmhurst Historical Museum's Sweet Home Chicago: History of America's Candy Capital.

The museum, free to the public, is in the Glos House near the center of Elmhurst. It's open on weekends from 1-5 p.m.

I grew up in the south suburbs, so I can't recall ever having been to Elmhurst before. I seriously cannot say the word Elmhurst without repeating the Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet dealers' tag line: where you always save more money! None of my children understand commercials, so the joke was lost on them. (Did anyone else watch copious amounts of bad non-cable TV in he 1980s in Chicagoland? When I queried The Dad as to his association with Elmhurst, his response was the word "tree.")

I even looked for mention of the slogan in the museum's other exhibit, a history of the town from the 1800s to the present. Sadly, there was no mention of it. I did learn, however, that Elmhurst started the second ever Boy Scout Troop in the early 20th century, and had GSA and Camp Fire Girls troops as well.

But back to the candy exhibit.

It was nicely done. We stopped in the gift shop/welcome desk on the way in to get a brief intro and a "treasure hunt" worksheet of sorts for The Boy and The Girl to fill out as we went. The Boy is a solid reader and could read the exhibit placards himself, but I found myself orating to a crowd as I read a brief history of the candy business in Chicago, as well as individual business histories--Cracker Jack, Williamson's Oh Henry! bar, Mars' Snickers, Ferrara-Pan (did you know the pan is the type of kettle used to make the candy?), Fannie May, Brach's, Tootsie Roll, Wrigley, Blommer's (so that's the wonderful chocolate smell drifting over River North most days!), Willy Wonka, Frango Mints, DeMet's, Bunte, and lots of others. They covered Keeler's, an Elmhurst fixture that has since shuttered. The Boy and The Girl might remember Mitchell's, the candy store and fountain that was popular in my hometown. The Boy completed his worksheet. The Girl was more interested in finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop ("three!") to fill out the sheet, which is just as well. Going through the museum was an hour of relative peace and air-conditioned comfort for us all.

Upstairs, the exhibit continued with a hands-on "candy twisting" timed test exhibit (I was rotten!), a guess-that-bar station, and a couple of shorts of Lucille Ball on the candy line.

We drive through what I'd guess is the main drag of Elmhurst on our way back to the highway, stopping at a cute, yet esoteric, store called "Fit for a King" or something like that, which sold chess sets, army men, and doll clothes. We rounded off the afternoon with a pair of size-gigantic iced teas from Starbucks.

Friday, June 08, 2012


Earlier today, I received Seth Lavin's School Wonks email newsletter. In it, he refers to Jean-Claude as an alien, and either predicts or recommends that the BoE remove him from his position:

"It’s insane that we’ve arrived here. For Rahm, firing Brizard essentially means raising a white flag on his entire first year of school reform. Yet that’s actually become a less damaging alternative than the charade of acting like Brizard’s relevant or speaks for CPS."

Um, what? As you know, I like Brizard. But also, I can't believe that Lavin is calling for his dismissal already. It seems incredibly short-sighted to want to axe the first educator we've had in the job since it was created by Mayor Daley in 1995. (For the record, Paul Vallas came from the city's budget office, Arne Duncan came from Ariel charters [always as a director; never as a teacher], Ron Huberman came from the police force/city offices/CTA, and Terry Mazany is a banker.)

Hasn't CPS suffered enough turmoil and turnover? How on Earth is CPS ever going to improve if it can't suffer a leader for longer than 24 months? Really Seth? What would you have Rahm and the Board of Education do--hire yet another smart bureaucrat who leaves before he can get acclimated to this complex system? All jobs have a learning curve; how many CPS CEOs have been able to climb up it to effectively perform their jobs? In 2009, the Tribune published an article about Ron Huberman's appointment. They wrote:

"Each time, Daley has gone outside the education bureaucracy and chosen a leader who comes with new ideas and strong administrative and financial skills."

To me, Brizard seems no different from his predecessors in possession of these skills. Where he does seem different is in his willingness to listen to teachers and parents and the mayor, and his ability to know what good principal leadership and good teaching practice actually looks like.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Listening Tour, Part 2

As I wrote yesterday, I met with schools' CEO Jean-Claude Brizard last week. The event, part of his ongoing Listening Tour series, was organized by Family and Community Engagement Officers from the O'Hare and Northside High School networks.

Not surprisingly, concerns about Common Core and true college readiness were brought up by more than one parent at the event.

I've known about Common Core for quite some time and I'm confident that the standards of teaching and learning at Disney II make it well-equipped to make the change. Therefore, the Common Core flurry hasn't penetrated my radar much beyond media mentions and blog chatter about the new standards and their implementation . However, in this i am again an anomaly. It would seem that despite the chatter and explanatory events hosted by Blaine PTA, Black Star Project, etc. many CPS parents remain, well, clueless, about the new standards and what they may mean for their students.

Brizard shed some light on the process, explaining first what the Common Core is on its most basic level. He then explained that the new standards will mean more advanced teaching practices that push academic rigor. Common Core will mean true college readiness at the high school level, and high school readiness at the elementary level. As an example of the kind of academic experience that Common Core is designed to encourage, Brizard held up an exchange he witnessed at Burley. He reported that he witnessed two 3rd graders arguing about an idea presented in a book; both were citing passages in the text to support their positions. This is the kind of academic rigor that CPS would like to see across schools in the district. 

He said that his office is spending time asking things like How can they change teachers' practices to promote rigor? How can CPS improve proficiency among students? He noted that although ISAT scores are up within CPS, joy within the district is down because ISAT does not prove the type of rigor expected out of Common Core. Chicago parents are "going to freak out" as their children's scores drop.

I'm less worried about what Common Core means for my own children as the kind of academic rigor in place at Disney II is the kind that encourages students to think critically, be curious, and assimilate information in a way that builds their academic careers. This also drives success on the assessments. (The Boy, for example, is scoring in the 99th percentile on math and reading.)

However, I'm concerned about what this means for the achievement gap, and what it will mean in school's where there is no curriculum (as reported by commenters on CPS obsessed) or instructional leadership supports in place. Brizard suggested that the longer school day could address the achievement gap. Certainly true, but it does assume that principal leadership is there to guide the process of the longer school day. Brizard did specify that the schools within CPS that work--and work well-- do so because their principals are committed stewards of the school community. I've seen this first-hand. He said that the people who are best-equipped to align goals with money are individual principals--not the bureaucrats downtown. 

But the problem--as even CPS may acknowledge--in this plan are those principals who are unable or unwilling to make the alignments--or worse, who are unwilling to be transparent in the process. What is it about Tchr's school that there is no money for  curriculum or books? What is the school spending its money on? Do parents or teachers have access to the school's budget? Would they know how to read it even if they do? Does the principal provide guidance as to what all the categorical numbers mean? 

On the curriculum front, a parent asked about implementing a common grading scale across the district. It's a good idea. But: no matter how you slice it, you can't remove the human (subjective) element from grading. Brizard said he tried to do a weighted GPA in New York and it was a "very difficult" and "complex" process. He said that it's more likely that CPS will create a standard or get rid of the policy altogether.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Perception V. Reality

Last week, I had a great opportunity to meet with a group of parents and Chicago Public Schools' CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. When Brizard was first named to the post, I heard a fair amount of negativity about his methods, approach, and success rate. But: I like the guy. I've found him to be approachable, thoughtful, and well-informed. On Thursday, he ponied up to the table with myself and parents from Scammon, Taft, Farnsworth, Canty, Peterson, Jahn, Hibbard, Roosevelt, Foreman, Portage Park, and Kelvyn Park, and introduced himself as a parent of three children who also happened to be the CEO of CPS.

And then he took and answered questions for an hour.

There were essentially three themes in the discussion:
- perception versus reality within CPS
- Common Core and curriculum
- funding / resources

I'll cover the first one in this post.

I think the issue of perception versus reality is prescient. During the conversation, Brizard made a few conflicting points, a reflection of the wider issue. He pointed put that there is "a crisis of 'good' available seat" within CPS, but noted that this is a perception that can create reality. For example, he said, Lincoln Elementary has gross overcrowding, but the network in which Lincoln resides has 1,000 more seats than bodies to fill them. Why does this happen? Is Lincoln infinitely better than Alcott or other schools within the network? Or is it a perception?

I have long believed that if everyone sent their kids to the local elementary school and made the time investment, these schools would quickly because the ideal schools we expect and demand for our children. To wit: Nettelhorst, Coonley, Agassiz, Blaine, Burley, Skinner West, Hamilton, Belding, Portage Park. Taft, Amundsen, and Schurz may be next on the high school front. The problem, however, is the perception that these--or any school--are broken beyond repair. (The turnaround plan unfortunately runs against this current.) However, I fully recognize that this takes a leap of faith and it may seem easier to make the investment in a "new school" in the form of a charter.

Brizard noted that the crisis of quality high school seats is really a crisis of (mis)perception that the only H.S. worth pursuing are on the selective enrollment list. As a parent from Taft noted, this does everyone a disservice. Like CPSObsessed, I've got my eye on the H.S. piece. (And given what comes out of The Boy's mouth these days, I'd say he's thinking about it too.) The Boy is certainly on track to do well in a challenging H.S. setting, but I'm not sure that a highly competitive, non-local high school is the best choice for him, or for any of my children. I'd love to see the city as a whole rework our collective definition of "choice" and "options" so that more students and their families really can choose.

As an aside, did you know that Taft has an average ACT score of 24? I didn't. And that is a fantastic achievement for "just" a neighborhood school; Brizard shared that the college boards consider 21 to be the absolute minimum for a student to achieve college success.

But: how do schools like Taft get the word out? Brizard suggested a few things that his office is launching in the next year. One is to relaunch the principal for a day program as a culmination of a successful partnership between schools and corporations or agencies. Another is a Blueprint for Success in community engagement, which will come out in draft form in late June.

The crisis of quality seats can also be blamed for Brizard's answer to my question: is there a way to revisit the Human Capital issue of teachers' children enrolling in the SE and magnet schools where they work?

Last summer's Blue Ribbon Commission referred this issue to Human Capital. Somehow, I don't see the union fighting for this issue in their list of demands. Although the discussion at the Listening Tour indicated to me that many people do not support teacher "preference," I just can't let this one go.

I believe that giving our teachers the opportunity to enroll their children in the schools in which they teach is nothing short of good policy. It seems ridiculous to me that my 3 children can get into Disney II because of another good policy to keep families together, but my children's teacher, who has been working there for 4 years (and yes, even in the summer), cannot enroll her child through a special teacher lottery when he or she is ready to enter K. At Disney II, we are talking about 1-2 entry-level spots per year, or about 4 percent of the class. In fall 2012, the year The Tot enters K, 54 percent of the class comprises siblings.

A teacher preference policy supports keeping families together. And more than that, it benefits the school communities themselves. Would I rather have my kids' teacher available to run an after-school program at Disney II or would I rather have him/her across town at his/her child's school? What would you choose?

However, Brizard said that although the Board of Education has been debating the issue for months, there is no consensus on the issue either within the board or among CPS parents. To prove his point, he asked the Listening Tour crowd and several people said no.

I'm not going to stop asking. Will you join me?