Thursday, March 15, 2012

PTA Advisory Council: The Theory of Change

The theme among winners’ comments at the Alfred Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway is one of tolerance and keeping an open mind—especially when dealing with one’s enemies. The idea that we must embrace the differences of our foes is a difficult one for me to grasp.

And yet, it’s an important lesson—one that can ease the way for me (and others) in many situations. I’d urge my fellow parents to keep it in mind when reading or talking about the longest day debate played out in the papers, blogs, Facebook, message boards and on the playground.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the absence of balanced reporting. I think the Raise Your Hand Coalition is trying, but first, despite their numerous press mentions, they’re not the media. Second, they are only one voice—or more accurately, one set of voices—in the storm that is CPS education policy.

And so, when community meetings are held, there are a fair number of people who walk into the room with a closed mind, itching for a fight. I’ve seen it in West Garfield Park, and I saw it yesterday during the PTA Advisory Council’s monthly meeting. Moderated by Carl Hurdlik, a CPS employee, and Cassandra Eddings, a PTA member, parent, and volunteer, the PTA advisory council was the brain child of the late Betty Durbin, a longtime PTA champion with a significant legacy at Carl Schurz High School. As an aside, I’m often asked what PTA does. This is one of the things it does. Although it was set up for PTAs, the group is welcoming to representatives from PTOs, Friends-of groups, and LSCs from CPS schools throughout the city.

Carl and Cassandra had invited Monica Lee, Directory of New Initiatives at CPS, to speak about the changes coming to CPS next year. When she first started to speak, it hit me that the Longer Day could be a classic case of a politician reading a brief and misspeaking. Thus inadvertently creating a sound bite that doesn’t convey the whole picture, but ignites hysteria as it is reported by the media and picked up by concerned Chicago parents, to the detriment of the initiative. I know this is the optimist view, but read my review of Ms. Lee’s presentation before you snap to judge.

Ms. Lee, a former math teacher, tried to convey to the concerned group of parents in the room is that the longer day is just one piece in a three-pronged approach by CPS to improve student outcomes.

While most of us in the room had children in high-achieving schools—Skinner North, Farnsworth, Blaine, Burr, Alcott, Lenart, Inter-American, Northside Prep, and Disney II—the district-wide lack of achievement relayed by Ms. Lee was shocking:

  • only 7.9 percent of 11th graders score at the minimum ACT level (or higher) to succeed in college. How many CPS high school students aspire to attend college? I’m pretty sure that it’s more than 7.9 percent
  • only 17 percent of 3rd graders read at grade level. 3rd grade literacy is a marker of college-readiness down the line

Clearly, CPS is failing our kids academically. Sure, not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone should go to college. But the second largest school system in the country should prepare more than 8 percent of its total population to attend college, no? 

And so it was, Ms. Lee said, that CPS decided to study the problems and come up with a reasonable solution for their amelioration. Ms. Lee told the group that the imitative seeks to do three things. It’s not enough to lengthen the school day, as so many parents have pointed out. (In fact, in her presentation, this was the last point that Ms. Lee made.) It’s not enough to change what is taught through implementation of the Common Core. And it’s not enough to change how teachers teach. The initiative is the confluence of these areas to create more college-ready students.

Ms. Lee told the group that the elements look something like this:
  • Common Core is a change in what is taught from rote memorization (10 ÷2 = 5) to teaching students to understand conceptually what division is.

  • Instructional Framework gives teachers models of what good teaching looks like and how they can measure their success against it, and gives them professional development tools to tweak their methods for success.
  • Full School Day gives them time to understand, implement and tweak both the Common Core and the Instructional Framework. It gives time for students to catch up, but it also gives time for students to excel. The longer day also gives time for schools to offer “a richer array of academic, social and behavioral supports” and more time for “a broader set of subjects” –science and social studies as a mandate, and art, music, language if the school desires.

Then Ms. Lee went over how CPS plans to implement these changes. At this point, all the work is being done at the network and/or principal level, leaving parents mostly in the dark about what this is all going to look like. First, she said, the network chiefs had a lot of discussions about what’s best for every type of student. They conveyed this to principals, who then submitted a draft plan for next year. The draft plan’s goals reflect what parents, teachers and data say, and the schedule is to meet the parameters set by CPS. The draft plan also allows the network chiefs to flag facilities and other problems, Ms. Lee said.

The budget is still unknown because principals reported that incomplete data would be unhelpful. The district-wide budget will be presented at the March Board of Education meeting, following CPS’ typical schedule for these things, per Ms. Lee. The budgets will go to schools in March or early April, and final budgets will be due in May with the Continuous Improvement Work Plan, the replacement to the SIPAAA.

Someone in the room asked how CPS came up with a 7.5-hour day. Ms. Lee’s answer kind of surprised me. She said that CPS worked with Common Core experts, and focus principal groups, and from a content perspective to determine the ideal instructional time. For elementary school, that was 6.5 hours. The extra hour allows for lunch, recess, and bathroom breaks. As children and their parents know, there is a lot of waiting involved in group activities. For high school students, it wasn’t a huge increase over current instructional time: 6 hours and 8 minutes, adding 46 minutes to each high school day within CPS for lunch and passing time.

This is about the time than I began channeling Nobel Peace Center quotes. The Northside Prep parents were angry about the change: how were their kids going to continue their colloquium, their sports, and their extracurricular activities? I’m a non-athlete who grew up in a family full of intellectuals so this is a really difficult point for me to see. I also don’t have a teenager. Given that, I am going to bow out of any judgment on what high school should look like.


Mayfair Dad said...

Another thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

handmaiden of the Lord said...

I can see how you would take Ms Lee at her word "only 17 percent of 3rd graders read at grade level. 3rd grade literacy is a marker of college-readiness down the line" That is a lie that CPS is telling. The truth is 63% of 3rd graders read @ 3rd grade level w/17% ~exceeding the reading level. You can also see by the IL interactive report card that ALL grades made gains in 2011.

Also the Department of Education high school graduation rates are as follows: Natl Avg 71.7% Chicago 70.2%; NYC 57.3%; Houston 53.5%; San Antonio 53.5%; Dallas 48.7%; Los Angeles 48.7%

Why is that 41 other states recently adopted Common Core and they aren't changing to a 7.5 hour day? Ms. Lee won't tell you that. There is no need~no data suggests a longer day will benefit kids. Personally, I believe my kids need to be home w/me after 6-6.5 hours. Balancing activities, music lessons, homework and just having FACE time w/my boys is so important. They will grow and go to college (both straight A) but they won't remember 'school' they'll remember the times w/families. I won't allow CPS to infringe upon my 14th Amendment Right!

Programs at the Chicago Park District will be cut if the day goes to 7.5~it will all trickle down to BUDGET cuts, larger classes, it will all trickle down to fix the City Budget. The cheapest way to fix the CPS budget a longer school day. Rahm is always using Houston as a model for schools today. Well read yesterday's NYTimes~ Houston has a problem!

You and I aren't so different~we both want the best education for our children and we are both passionate about it.

But trust me when I say, we are not the vocal minority; we are from all corners of our City!

Caroline Pollock Bilicki said...

83 percent of 3rd graders at CPS do not read at grade-level, based on the "exceeds" ISAT standards. My understanding is that Common Core standards are the equivalent of the current exceeds standards. Further, Common Core experts believe that the 63 percent meets level will translate into about 19 percent under the Common Core assessments.

CPS calculates its high school graduation rate as 58.3 percent. The ISBE reported it as 71.8 percent. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my child to attend a high school with a graduation rate of 72 percent. I think that is part of the reason that (the lack of great) high school options within CPS incites such fury among parents. Indeed, among the selective enrollment high schools, often touted as the best within the city, the graduation rate is only above 90 percent at 5 of them.

In Finland, which consistently scores the highest in the PISA rankings worldwide for its educational system, students attend school for 4-7 hours each day, for 190 days of the year. Should CPS swing the other way and reduce the number of instructional hours offered because that model suggests that fewer hours in school will benefit kids? Japan also scores highly on the PISA; Michael Barrett suggested in—get this: 1990—in an essay in The Atlantic Monthly that American schools should take a cue from James Stigler and Ruth Baranes’s research: “Their research points to one of the contributions to quality made possible by a quantitative improvement in the school year: the pace at any given moment can allow for leisurely teaching and leisurely learning.

I am not sure that having students earn straight-A’s translates so easily into college-readiness or acceptance. By your logic, grades are irrelevant. I recently read an essay by Alfie Kohn that asked, ”how many students have been trained to think the point of going to school is to get A’s?” When I think back on my own childhood, I remember a lot of school and time with family both. To this day, I use foundational skills learned in 1st grade. In contrast, I can barely remember all the afterschool activities and lessons that I know I was fortunate enough to take: flute, competitive swimming, tap, ice-skating, Girl Scouts. Also? In Finland: no private lessons after school.

The statistics available do not bear out the assertion that your position isn’t the minority. 6.5 to Thrive have 1,700 online signatures. In a system of 400,000+ students, that is not a significant number. Even Stand for Children’s purported 4,000 members is an insignificant number in a system the size of CPS. I’m not pretending to speak for anyone else—not even other Disney II parents—but my opinion about this issue is as valid as that of any CPS parent.

Cherry-picking data again. The NY Times article to which you referred is about San Antonio-area, Austin-area, and Lubbock-area schools. San Antonio is 3 hours west of Houston. Austin is 3 hours north of Houston. And Lubbock is 9 hours northwest of Houston. Further, none of the 102 schools in the “Fast Growth Schools Coalition,” a major source in the article, are in Houston, although many are in its suburbs (Katy, Spring, Klein, Conroe, Pearland, Cypress-Fairbanks). From the article: “Research is mixed on the effect of class size on learning, but many educators agree that adding just two students to an already full classroom can intensify the challenge for teachers. Some worry that increasing class sizes hurts the neediest students most.

Also from the article: Ms. Causey also said she thought many of her students were doing fine with the extra bodies in the classroom. But she worried about the children for whom school is a “safe place” — the only place where an adult listens to them, where they get warm meals and feel secure. To me, this suggests that a 7.5-hour day is beneficial for the majority of CPS students.