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?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Culture of Testing at CPS (or Why I Opted Out)

Last year, I attended the Raise Your Hand coalition's community forum on the culture of testing at CPS. One outcome of the forum was More Than A Score, a newish coalition of parents who are concerned about the number of tests and assessments given in CPS as well as the purpose of the testing itself.
Last year, each of RYH's five panelists talked about his or her experience and opinions on learning and standardized testing, and then they responded to questions and comments from the audience. Noah Sobe, a professor of Cultural and Education Policy at Loyola University, spoke about the history of standardized testing, the myth or misconception that American education has "always" used tests as a gauge of teaching or learning. What we've lost in creating this culture of testing is the definition of what we want our schools to do for our children, what we want our children to learn in the process of their education. He also pointed out the differences amongst (1) teacher-designed assessment, which he said is a critical part of teaching, (2) standardized testing, and (3) high-stakes testing.

Later in the evening, there were "breakout" sessions of things we could do to prevent or arrest the standardized test momentum within CPS. That assumes that all of the attendees were there for a common purpose.  We were not. As Wendy Katten acknowledged in her opening remarks, forum attendees had different reasons for being there: (1) to gain clarity in our understanding of standardized tests; (2) to learn or understand the impact of standardized tests on our students and the system; (3) to learn how to opt your children out of standardized testing at their CPS schools.  I really only have two problems with testing and assessments. The first is the use of student growth or progress as a way to evaluate teachers. The second is testing that doesn't have a clear, demonstrable point: when data is not recognizably useful to students, parents, teachers, the school, or the District. For me, this year's ISATs are a perfect example of a test that doesn't produce useful data. I opted my children out of the test this year. I want to be clear that this wasn't a decision I made alone, or in a vacuum, or without the input and counsel of others I trust and who are knowledgeable about such things.  First, in late January, I asked our principal for information on this year's ISATs, their import to both the school and my children, and her take on things. Dear readers, she was not surprised that I was asking, nor that I had a  fair bit of necessary background information on this. Our principal, like everyone else, I suspect, is somewhat used to me being the Person with the Questions. Not surprisingly, and also not to her detriment, she didn't convince me that the soon-to-be-obsolete AYP measure was enough reason to have my children take the test. 

Then I had a serious and ongoing debate of the merits of this particular test in this particular instance at length with The Dad. The Dad's arguments for taking the ISAT were that it's good practice. Um, for what? Boredom? Waiting? Standardized tests? They have the NWEA and the STEP tests already; The Boy also took the now-defunct Scantron test; how much practice for standardized testing do they need? Also, the ISAT is a pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble-test; the only other  pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble test in the distant horizon is the ACT and it's distance doesn't provide enough reason to take the last year of the ISAT.

I also thought about the results of the test. The Boy has two years of ISATs under his belt already, so it might be interesting to see how he scored comparatively this year compared to previous years. But the state messed around with the cut scores in 2013, and changed the test again in 2014; I couldn't muster enough support for this particular argument. There was even less of an argument for The Girl to take the ISAT for its ultimate and her inaugural year. 

Reaching for straws for reasons to justify spending 5 hours taking a test that didn't appear to have much meaning, I put it to the would-be test-takers themselves: I asked the kids. I laid down the pros and cons with them, letting them each know that there was no penalty either way. The Girl said, "Let me think about it." Then she came back and said, "No thank you." In preparation for the post, I asked her what went through her mind when making her decision. She said, "It's not going to be all math." (Some performance anxiety about reading comprehension there.) And "it's just like NWEA: test bubbles. I don't need any practice on test bubbles."  The Boy also wanted to think it over, but reached a similar conclusion to that of his sister: he'd rather have an extra hour of "sustained silent reading," to borrow a phrase from one of child lit's favorite characters/authors (Ramona Quimby, Beverly Cleary). 
And so, I made the decision to opt my children out of this year's ISAT, submitting a hard copy letter stating such to our principal and my children's classroom teachers. That I had reached this conclusion surprised no one within the building.  I was and remain open about this decision, and have fielded a fair number of questions about it. So here's my own little FAQ about the opt-out process:

Q. Will you opt out of next year's PARCC? Probably not, but it depends on the read about it I get from teachers and admin at school. For me, opting out of the ISAT this year is really a no-brainer. There is no point to this test this year, and the school doesn't really use the results for anything. I've heard from The TWN's teacher that she likes NWEA and other teachers like STEP as assessments because the data can be useful to good teaching practice. I've never heard a teacher say that about the ISAT.
Q. Who do you think is going to teach your kids while everyone else takes the ISAT?
Not everyone or every class takes the ISATs. I am confident that school staff will find something suitable for my kids to do every day for the 45-60 minutes it takes for the ISAT.  Q. Why not just keep your kids home during the testing period? 
I am not keeping my kids home for 7 hours each day because 45-60 minutes of the day will be spent taking the ISAT. Perhaps my kids can be helpers in younger classrooms (leadership), work on school auction projects (funding), D.E.A.R. (literacy), participate in another grade's art class (especially important because my 5th grader doesn't get art this year - integration*), complete homework (independent study), troubleshoot and do computer maintenance (5th grader's elective/technology). All of these are appropriate uses of time and provide opportunities for learning. 
Q. Will you also opt your kids out of the selective enrollment testing?
I have two things to say on this subject. The first is that opting my kids out of the ISAT this year has never been an objection to all testing and assessments. The second is that I am letting my kids opt themselves into that testing if they want to pursue admission to a selective enrollment school. They have a few viable options for high school; if they want to go for the gold of the SE process in Chicago, I will encourage and support them, but at this point, I am not willing to push or nudge them into that direction. 

* The explanation for this basically comes down to (a) budget cuts and (b) prioritization of student choice over 6 enrichment classes in a 5-day week. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Public Servitude

Before the September Board meeting, I ran into our school's contact in the Office of LSC Relations in the lobby of the Marquette Building. 

We spoke briefly about my ongoing request that the BoE include a teacher preference percentage into its admissions policies. Although he is a 20+-year veteran of CPS and his children went through the system under the previous policies, our contact told me that he doesn't support my request for several reasons, but chiefly because it is a requirement of public service that you don't give yourself perks. My changes, as proposed, would be "too much of keeping the best for ourselves."

We challenged each others' thinking for bit, exchanging ideas and beliefs about the issue, and then he went for coffee and I went up to attend the September BoE meeting. 

But the more I think about it, the more this particular stance ticks me off. As I said to our contact. if it were true that public servants should consider personal sacrifice as part of their job description, why is it only the rank and file teachers who must adhere to this mindset? 

Why does Tim Cawley get a residency pass to live in Winnetka? Why is there no outcry that the mayor sends his kids to Lab? On the current Board of Education, appointed by mayor Rahm Emmanuel in 2012 and 2013, there are are only a handful of members (Andrea Zopp, David Vitale, Mahalia Hines) who sent their children to CPS--and even then, only Hines's son attended a non-selective school (Luther High School South). 

On CPSObsessed this week, there is raging debate about how much access individual schools should give to individual parents. Inevitably, the discussion in comments turned to teacher perks. 

I don't get this us versus them mindset that seems to prevail whenever parents and teachers begin to bemoan the problems of a deeply imperfect and under-resourced system. I truly do not understand why we as a society cannot view the school environment as a school environment (even if it is a work environment for teachers/administration) and not as a corporate environment. As Dorothy Shipps chronicled in her book, School Reform, Corporate Style, business has been trying to modernize schooling to corporate ideals for over 90 years. Now the “free market capitalist” mindset toward public education has so infiltrated our collective psyche that the public is in on the cry for modernization as well. Even worse, we think it’s OK to compare every public service and agency to a private one. 

As I wrote last year, I believe in the teachers union. Even more important, I believe in the teachers themselves, and in the strength and integrity of their profession. I have been extremely fortunate that I have met only a handful of less-than-great teachers, and my children have been taught pretty much exclusively by good to great teachers. 

The mindset that teachers have it so easy--summers off, the laundry list of holidays, make more than the rest of us, automatic pay increases, work partial days, have funded pensions, to name a few things I've read about teachers lately--is farcical. It implies that there is only so much pain and suffering and general pain-in-the-assishness to go around, and that office workers have a lock on it. 

The teachers versus corporate workers comparison is reminiscent of conversations in the Great White Moose of an afternoon: does The Boy's loss of his favorite jacket trump The Girl having to be partners again with the boy next to her in line? Or does The Tot Who's Not trump them both because he's mortified that I told his uncle a story about The Tot and gummy bears?  

The fact is: if you're not a teacher, you have no idea how much the work day or work week can stink. (And if you've never worked a crummy corporate job, you've likely no idea how much the work day or work week can stink.)  That corporate America no longer gives the so-called white-collar knowledge worker a sense of purpose and control over his/her work environment is a great point of sociological discussion, but it has no bearing on what is happening systemically in public education or other public agencies.