Catalyst Chicago

Syndicate content
Stories and items from the Catalyst Chicago Front Page
Updated: 2 hours 4 min ago

To boost teacher diversity, state scraps limits on basic skills test-taking

March 12, 2014 - 4:22pm

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) voted on Wednesday to scrap a policy established just four years ago that set a limit on the number of times prospective teachers could take the required basic skills tests.

The decision is aimed at eliminating a barrier for minority college students who want to enter the teaching profession, but tend to fare worse on exams than their white counterparts.

State school board president Gery Chico said the state needs to “manipulate the pipeline” of teachers in order to increase the disproportionately small number of African American and Latino educators in Illinois schools.

“When you have a student body like ours, nobody is looking for perfect parity but we have to improve,” he said. “You have to have some reflection of what the student body looks like.”

Half of students in Illinois public schools are white, but close to 84 percent of their teachers are white, according to state records.

In Chicago Public Schools, 86 percent of students, but less than half of teachers, are black or Latino. Catalyst Chicago wrote about the lack of diversity in the teaching force in 2011. The problem has worsened in recent years, as veteran black educators have lost their jobs with the advent of more school closings, turnarounds that overhaul entire faculties, and other actions. In addition, as the percentage of Latino students has soared to 44 percent, Latino teachers remain a paltry 18 percent of CPS teachers.

 “So many people are not passing” 

 In January 2010, the state set a five-attempt limit on the number of times teacher candidates could take each of the four portions of the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP). But many candidates-- especially black and Latino students – found it challenging to pass all of the exam’s components in five tries or less, especially after the state adopted higher cut-off scores in September 2010.

Test result data from the fourth quarter of 2013,  for example, showed that only 18 percent of blacks and 23 percent of Latinos passed the math portion of the test, compared to 40 percent of whites. Meanwhile, only 26 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Latinos met the reading comprehension requirements, compared to 52 percent of whites.

Overall, less than a third of all test-takers – and less than 18 percent of black and Latinos -- passed all four sections of the test last year, according to state records.

“So many people are not passing these tests,” says Anne Hallett, director of Grow Your Own Teachers, an organization that seeks to diversify the teaching workforce. “Lots of factors are troubling about standardized tests, from test anxiety to [the quality of] your own education leading up to the time you took the test. If it’s been less than sterling, it makes it more difficult to pass these tests.”

Hallett added that students who speak English as a second language face additional challenges when taking standardized tests. Plus, many people have difficulties with math.

“If you’ve taken [the test] four times, then you’re now facing a limit which puts yet another stressor on the test taking,” Hallett says.

Until recently, state law required that prospective teachers pass the TAP before entering an education program. Now, schools have the discretion to allow students into an education program before they’ve passed the exam, although candidates must still pass it before their student teaching.

The state also waives the tests for students who have high scores on the ACT or SAT.

The decision to do away with the cap on test-taking attempts stemmed out of an ISBE meeting last fall on diversifying the state’s teaching workforce, says Jason Helfer, the state’s assistant superintendent on teacher and leader effectiveness.

During two subsequent meetings in February, ISBE staff spoke with administrators of college education programs, as well as young teachers of color, about how to improvement minority recruitment.

Helfer noted one difference in the two groups’ opinions: “Faculty thought of recruitment and support in terms of program elements, [but] the young teachers thought of recruitment and support in terms of individual relationships.”

In order to continue the conversation, ISBE has convened an advisory group on recruiting a more diverse teaching workforce that will meet periodically and share its work with the state.

For the Record: Gifted education

March 12, 2014 - 3:12pm

Students who lose out in the upcoming round of selective elementary school admissions – as well as other students whose families might have never considered applying – have another option: The district’s less-well-known comprehensive gifted programs, located within magnet and open-enrollment neighborhood schools.

In recent years, these gifted programs have lost the extra staff that the district once allocated to them, such as psychologists and coordinators. But they remain a draw for parents, offering classes that are accelerated by half a year to a year plus perks such as foreign language instruction or violin or jazz band classes.

Admissions are determined by each school and there is no centralized collection of data on the demographics of students. But most schools with gifted programs enroll students of color: Eight schools are majority African American, 12 are majority Latino, one enrolls mostly Asian students, and the remaining six are integrated.

Overall, enrollment at most of the 27 schools with comprehensive gifted programs is on the upswing. At 17 schools, enrollment increased. Nine schools experienced decreases, and one school did not have enrollment data for 2012-13.

Less selective

Unlike magnet and selective enrollment programs, gifted schools do not control for socioeconomic factors when sorting out which students get a slot. And at small schools, running separate classes for gifted students can mean putting everyone in split-grade classes.

In general, students are selected for the programs using a language development test administered at the end of kindergarten, often combined with teacher recommendations and standardized test scores. At O.A. Thorp Elementary, says Principal Efren Toledo, teachers use a checklist of traits that aims to bring more objectivity to the identification process.

Even so, he notes that the students tend to come from middle-class families, with a few exceptions. There is no scientific definition of “giftedness,” but middle-class children who have more learning and enrichment opportunities usually have advantages in selective admissions.

“I’d love to see more, but the scores just aren’t there,” Toledo says. “In kindergarten, the only students who do well are those who’ve been read to, those with language skills.”

Once accepted, students get the chance to work at their own ability level with online curricula such as Compass Learning and Khan Academy.

This year, Toledo says, teachers are launching small-group math instruction that will teach 3rd- through 8th-grade students based on their math abilities rather than their grade.

Yet gifted programs can “create a bubble” of students who only socialize with each other, Toledo points out.

“When they get out of school, they’re not going to go to a ‘gifted’ grocery store. They are not going to go to a ‘gifted’ gas station. They need to know how to interact with everyone,” he says.

To avoid elitism, Toledo mixes students from throughout the school for recess and classes in non-core subjects.

Gifted programs solve another problem, he notes: “We tend to focus on getting the low students up. Rarely do we focus on getting those kids who are scoring really high and pushing them, because they’re not a problem.”



In the News: W. Side high school students go without teachers

March 12, 2014 - 7:40am

WBEZ interviewed a dozen students at Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, and all of them told the same story. Their core courses in English and science have been taught mostly by substitutes this year—sometimes a different substitute every day—meaning no homework, and often no classwork.  One student said students are passed automatically since there are no teachers.

CUTTING TOO DEEPLY: The head of the Illinois State Board of Education says some districts might not make it through the school year if the proposed state budget cuts are approved. (

REBELS WITH A CAUSE: Chicago is not the only scene of the high-stakes testing revolt. The uprising is growing nationwide, with FairTest fanning the flames. Teachers and parents and students cities in Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas are rebelling.

OPT-OUT STRATEGY: Riding what they see as a wave of anti-testing sentiment among parents, opponents of high-stakes assessments believe a strategy known as opt-out — having parents refuse to let their children take state-mandated tests — could force policymakers to take note of their cause. (Education Week)

SHORTENING THE SCHOOL YEAR: In an effort to save money for cash-strapped Wisconsin districts, state lawmakers are considering ending a requirement that schools teach for 180 days a year or lose state funding. The bill, expected to win Senate approval, would allow schools to extend school days rather than force them to stay open later in the summer to make up days lost to weather closings and parent teacher conferences. (Associated Press)

UNO teachers to vote on first union contract

March 11, 2014 - 11:17am

Charter school teachers and staff at United Neighborhood Organization charter schools are preparing to vote on what some say could be one of the biggest labor contracts for a charter school network in the country.

The scandal-plagued UNO network, one of the largest charter networks in Chicago, and the union reached a tentative agreement late last month after dozens of negotiation sessions that started in May 2013. UNO agreed last March to allow teachers to form a union.

Charter school officials did not respond to requests for comment on the pending agreement, and union leaders declined to share details, as neither UNO’s board nor the teachers have yet voted on the deal. But educators’ priorities included the elimination of merit pay, shorter schooldays and a shorter calendar year.

The UNO Charter School Network’s Board of Directors will vote on the tentative agreement on Wednesday during a special meeting at the Roberto Clemente campus, according to an agenda posted at the organization’s main office. Meanwhile union members will begin voting on a school-by-school basis on March 17.

"We know this is something that has never been done before and we’re pretty pleased," says Rob Heise, an English teacher at UNO’s  Garcia High School and a union delegate on the negotiating team. “My No. 1 personal goal was to create a place where teachers didn’t have to choose between having a family and being a teacher.”

A model for more charter unions

What makes this tentative agreement so unique is the number of schools and educators involved in a single labor contract involving a charter.

The UNO contract, if approved, would cover between 500 and 550 teachers and other employees – including information technology staff, office support, counselors, paraprofessionals and apprentices—at the 13 elementary schools and three high schools that make up the network, organizers say.

Charter school labor contracts are often negotiated on a school-by-school basis, not for all schools within a single network. In recent years, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), which falls under the umbrellas of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has negotiated contracts for about 300 teachers and staff at 11 of the city’s 126 charter schools.

The UNO contract would more than double those numbers.

"Everybody is going to be looking at the UNO contract as a model,” said Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris, who added that some of the key wins at other schools have included improved health care plans for families and employer contributions to teachers’ pension plans.

Many existing labor contracts at Chicago charter schools include no-strike agreements and tie teacher pay to student performance, although Harris says he now discourages members from agreeing to the merit pay clauses.

“One of the things our union has moved away from is merit pay agreements,” Harris says. “They’ve been a complete disaster so far. Everybody hates them.”

Unlike traditional public schools, the vast majority of charter schools are not unionized. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, just 12 percent of the country’s charter schools were unionized during the 2009-2010 school year, the last year during which the group collected data

Advocates for charter schools have long said that operating without a labor agreement allows for more innovation in curriculum development and the ability to offer more instructional hours than traditional public schools.

“One of the keys to running a successful charter school is the flexibility to structure the school, including teaching agreements, in a way that best serves the needs of the students,” wrote Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance, in an e-mail to Catalyst Chicago. “Sometimes this means offering students a little extra tutoring help or a slightly longer school day. Unfortunately, the agreements unions negotiate are often not flexible enough to address changing circumstances during a school year.”

UNO scandal bolstered union drive?

Across the country, charter school educators who do unionize often benefit from the help of traditional teachers unions, including the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), which have bolstered their ranks with charter school employees.

“Teachers who come to us often went into a charter school because they wanted a voice and bigger say in their school, but without a union, that doesn’t become a reality,” says Jim Testerman, senior director for the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “And to attract and retain the best and the brightest, you need a good compensation package, making sure you have due process […] as well as a stable workforce.”

Charter schools tend to have higher teacher turnover than traditional public schools, which also means they spend less on salaries for more experienced teachers. For example, state records show that the average UNO teacher earns less than $53,000 per year, while teachers at traditional Chicago Public Schools earn more than $70,000 on average.

UNO union members credit two major factors for their ability to unify educators across the network: The support of traditional teachers unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the AFT, and the timing of a major corruption scandal involving former UNO CEO Juan Rangel.

CTU leaders, for example, offered informal advice and guidance to UNO teachers at the contract negotiating sessions and assigned an organizer to work with charter schools in the city.

Last year Rangel stepped down from his posts as head of both the charter school network, which he helped create in 1998, and its parent political organization, after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation uncovered a pattern of contract steering and cronyism at the privately run, but publicly financed charter school chain. The state has since pulled millions in grant money to UNO while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a 2011 bond deal that helped expand the network.

“When the s--t hit the fan with Juan, I don’t know if it created an opening for us to unionize,” Heise says. “But this probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Comings & Goings: Haugh, new principal

March 11, 2014 - 10:07am

Patrick Haugh, formerly the vice president of program investments at the Chicago Public Education Fund, is now the president of Teaching Trust.  Based in Dallas, Texas,  the Teaching Trust develops programs to prepare educators to lead change from the “inside out” and to build trust across organizations central to transformational change—districts, charters, higher education and other non-profits. 

Joshua Vander Jagt, an assistant principal at Kenwood High School, is now the contract principal at Ogden Elementary.

The Chicago Teachers’ Center at Northeastern Illinois University has a new name—The Center for College Access and Success.  The new center will focus on the coordination of a university-wide effort that will draw on the expertise of all of its colleges to strengthen and enhance programming targeted at helping P-12 students gain access and succeed in college.  

In the News: AFT shuns Gates funding

March 11, 2014 - 9:28am

The American Federation of Teachers ended a five-year relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after rank-and-file union members expressed deep distrust of the foundation's approach to education reform.

AFT President Randi Weingarten told Politico's Morning Education the union will no longer accept Gates money for its Innovation Fund, which was founded in 2009 and has received up to $1 million a year in Gates grants ever since. The Innovation Fund has sponsored AFT efforts to help teachers implement the Common Core standards—a Gates priority—among other initiatives.

RALLY FOR TEST BOYCOTTERS: A group of about 100 people rallied Monday in the Bridgeport neighborhood to call on Chicago Public Schools officials not to retaliate against a group of teachers who refused to administer a state mandated test to students. CPS had threatened the boycotting teachers with disciplinary measures including decertification if they did not administer the multi-day Illinois State Achievement Test, which began last week. (Sun-Times)

BILL HAS ALEC BACKING: Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palestine) is the sponsor of SB 3533, a bill that would give public school students a choice of who will teach them - a teacher in their local schools or a "provider" in a remote location, even in another state. Murphy's bill, now assigned to the Senate Education Committee for consideration, was drafted by ALEC, a right-wing, corporate-funded, state policy-shaping organization based in Arlington, VA. (Illinois School News Service)

For the Record: Homeless students lack services

March 10, 2014 - 4:22pm

With the number of homeless children in Illinois on the rise, many school districts across the state admit that they aren’t providing students all of the educational services they need. Since 2009, the number of homeless students has doubled in size statewide to nearly 55,000. In Chicago, the number has risen sharply to 18,854 from 12,512.

In a recent survey, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless documented the lack of services and is now urging the state Legislature to reinstate an additional $3 million that it last earmarked in 2009 for tutoring, preschool, counseling and other support.

The online survey of three dozen regional educational offices and school districts was self-reported. Among the findings:

-       52 percent of survey respondents said more than half of homeless students weren’t receiving tutoring or preschool, even though they needed it. Many respondents wrote about the kinds of services they’d like to offer, including “tutoring after school and in the evenings at shelters and transitional housing.”

-       56 percent said that more than half of homeless students did not receive counseling. In Chicago, for example, the district estimated that only 25 to 50 percent of homeless who need counseling services actually receive them.

-       44 percent said they had “limited” or “very limited” capacity to identify and enroll homeless students in the school.

Patricia Nix-Hode, associate director of the coalition’s Law Project, says it was important to quantify some of the problems the advocacy organization had been hearing about anecdotally.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funding to states for services to keep homeless students in school, including preschool. Students are entitled to transportation to attend the school they were in before they became homeless to assure stability. Illinois receives $5 million, which homeless advocates say is not enough.

In its report, titled “Gaps in Educational Supports for Illinois Homeless Students,” the coalition carefully steered clear of criticizing districts for not providing mandated services; one of every five survey respondents said that less than half of students who need transportation get it.

“With more resources, districts will be able to provide the best services to homeless students and these gaps would be addressed,” Nix-Hode says.

Students are identified as homeless if they’re living on the streets, in cars or if their families have doubled up for financial reasons.

 “It’s very difficult to focus on academics when you don’t know where you may lay your head at night or where you’re going to get your next meal,” says Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokeswoman.

Tom Bookler, who serves as a homeless liaison for the north and northwestern suburbs of Cook County, says the additional state funding in 2009 coupled with other federal stimulus funds allowed districts to dedicate more personnel to homeless students and their families.

“Now we’re all stretched thin,” Bookler says. “I believe my districts are doing as much as they can for the families and certainly doing what’s required by law…but it’s difficult to implement everything you want because of the funding.”

Early College expansion paying off

March 10, 2014 - 2:45pm

In recent years, the district has touted its growth in Advanced Placement course-taking among black and Latino students. Education experts say the introduction to tougher academic coursework in high school helps pave a smoother path to college. But there’s a significant caveat: Far fewer students achieve the ultimate goal of college credit by earning a 3 or higher on AP exams. 

Enter Richard Gelb’s senior English composition class on the third floor of Juarez High School in Pilsen, where an alternative to AP coursework is on display. The class is one of a growing number of dual credit classes that bring college coursework to high school campuses.

Today, four young women lead the class through a PowerPoint on the story “Vampires Never Die.” They discuss the history of vampire lore, present a literary analysis and define advanced vocabulary, such as panacea and dystopia.

When they are done, Gelb asks if anyone has questions. They don’t, so Gelb has them pick questions from a set he has handed out. One question is about gender roles. A student named Kevin observes that vampires are usually men; if they were women, they would be called witches. After the discussion, the rest of the period is spent writing essays.

Stephanie Gil says Gelb’s class is similar to the AP English class she took last year, with one big difference:  She is much more likely to earn college credit.

Dual credit courses, along with dual enrollment courses that bring high schools students to college campuses, make up the district’s Early College program and are changing the high school day for a growing number of students. In CPS, enrollment in early college courses has soared from 816 three years ago to 2,350 this year. Over the next two years, CPS and the City Colleges of Chicago would like to see the number reach 4,000. (Only a handful of students take early college courses at other institutions.)

About 89 percent of students in dual enrollment classes and 79 percent of those in dual credit courses earn college credit for them, according to CPS.

The growth of early college course-taking in CPS mirrors that of many suburban and rural school districts in Illinois. In some districts, virtually every senior graduates with at least some college credit.

The trend is national too. According to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics, 82 percent of high schools had students enrolling in dual enrollment coursework in 2011. (Many of these students were in career and technical education courses.) 

Seats left empty

Before 2011, only small pockets of students participated in early college classes. Only five high schools offered dual credit classes and about 600 students took dual enrollment classes. Some high schools had small, one-off programs that sent students to City Colleges and other colleges, but the effort wasn’t coordinated and bureaucratic snafus sometimes cropped up.

Freda Richmond, early college manager at City Colleges, says that it was a “best-kept secret.” 

In 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told CPS and City Colleges to work together to increase early college participation. In 2012, the City Colleges started offering 100 free courses to high schools at each of its seven campuses.

Now, 30 high schools offer dual credit and scores of students are in dual enrollment courses.

The benefits are well documented. A 2013 study by the American Institutes for Research found that students in early college programs had higher graduation and college enrollment rates than a comparison group of students. The study examined an initiative in California community colleges that was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Plus, students and their families can save a lot of money. One young man at Kennedy High School earned all the prerequisites for the City Colleges nursing program. “He has been really strategic,” says Josh Kaufmann, senior manager of Early College Initiatives for CPS.

Being on a college campus can be especially important for those first-generation college-goers and shows them they can be successful in college, Kaufmann adds.

Says Richmond: “This is a great opportunity to see if you are ready for the rigor of college. This demystifies college.”

In CPS, most early college students take English or math courses, and must be a junior or senior with a GPA of at least 2.5 to be eligible. (Some students take career and technical education classes, which do not have any requirements.)

To earn credit, students have to meet requirements set out by City Colleges. For example, in Gelb’s English class, students have to submit three essays and earn passing grades on them. Of 31 students, 30 earned college credit last year.

Chadra Lang, who works for Kaufmann at CPS, notes that one of the best things about dual credit and dual enrollment is that it gives mid-level students an opportunity to earn college credit, which doesn’t happen with AP courses.

Suburban and rural high schools came to this realization long ago. At Alton High School in Alton, Ill., about 25 minutes from St. Louis, most students take at least one early college class. The school’s program has been running strong for at least five years.

Assistant Principal Catherine Elliott says the school is just starting to offer AP classes, mostly to attract students who are considering more selective universities and want the chance to get transferable credits. Some out-of-state colleges, and highly selective schools like Northwestern University, won’t take credits issued by Lewis and Clark College, the community college in the area.

Rewards for the motivated

For those that do dual enrollment classes, perhaps the most important, if intangible, benefit to students is the experience of actually going to a college campus.

While a student at Phoenix Military Academy, Francisco Peralta took English 101 and English 102 at Harold Washington College in the Loop. The classes started at 7 p.m. and lasted an hour and a half, allowing him to continue participating in after-school activities.

“I was the youngest one there,” Peralta says. He ended up enrolling at Harold Washington because it is more affordable than the four-year colleges he was accepted into. Making the transition was easy.

Juarez Principal Juan Ocon prefers dual credit classes because sometimes traveling to college campuses and fitting an off-site class into a school day can be difficult for students.

Yet offering dual credit classes can be a challenge also. For one, the high school teacher must have a masters’ degree in the subject they are teaching. Many teachers do not, though they have advanced degrees in education.  

Gelb, who is also Juarez’s assistant principal, is unique: He has a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Gelb usually teaches freshmen, because of the importance of freshman year. But for the last two years, he has taught the dual credit class. “Teaching these students is a treat,” he says.

Gelb has one complaint. Only students who get a certain score on the Compass exam—the placement exam for City Colleges—can take dual credit courses. That leaves out students who don’t take the exam but might benefit from the exposure to college coursework.

That the students in Gelb’s class at Juarez are among the motivated is obvious. Stephanie Gil and her two friends, Marisol Dominguez and Teresa Calderon, each took three AP classes last year. Stephanie was the only one to earn college credit, and she did so in only one class. 

Stephanie had also participated in a summer program at Harvard so she was familiar with the rigors of a difficult curriculum. (She got deferred early admission at Harvard.)

Teresa wants to enroll in pre-med courses at Elmhurst College. Last year, she took Juarez’s dual credit math program, passed it and will save money by having several math classes already behind her.

Marisol is mother to a little girl, so she plans to stay close to home for college, enrolling in a nursing program at either Daley College or St. Xavier University. She giggles when she says she only scored a 1 or a 2 on the AP exams she took last year. “I am not going to lie. I was not even close.”

Marisol is the only one of the three young women who is nervous about going to college next year, especially about meeting new people. She was nervous, too, about taking college-level classes. Now, she’s glad she did.

Looking at her friends, she says: “They encouraged me.”

In the News: Emanuel sees 80% grad rate in CPS' future

March 10, 2014 - 7:00am

Thursday night at a University of Chicago panel with the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the prediction that Chicago Public Schools are on track to have an 80 percent graduation rate in four years. (WLS)

An 80-percent graduation rate in Chicago public high schools would be a big improvement, but CPS cautions this would exclude students attending charter schools, special ed schools, the alternative schools where disruptive students are sent and schools in jails.

SALARY CUT: Chicago State University trustees extended President Wayne Watson's contract Friday and also reduced his salary to comply with a new state law that lowers the amount public university employees can earn if they are drawing a pension from a prior state university job. (Tribune)

RENT PLAN FOR CHARTERS: Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to charge rent to charter schools, but education experts say his proposal might be difficult to put into effect. (The New York Times)

AGRICULTURAL EDUCATION: A national curriculum for secondary agricultural education has spread to 655 teachers in 32 states since it started five years ago, and officials hope to continue that kind of growth. (Education Week)

In the News: SAT changes to help low-income students

March 7, 2014 - 9:50am

Saying that the culture and practices that have risen up around the SAT drive "the perception of inequality and injustice in our country," the head of the College Board announced this week a fundamental rethinking of the SAT, ending the longstanding penalty for guessing wrong, cutting obscure vocabulary words and making the essay optional. In addition, low-income students will now be given fee waivers allowing them to apply to four colleges at no charge. (The New York Times)

SCHOOL COUNCIL BOOSTER: "Our students need the voice of parents," writes Juliana Stratton, Parent Representative and Chair, Kenwood Academy Local School Council, in a letter to the editor urging people to run for seats on the school councils. "They need all of us working with the faculty and administration to make sure that decisions that are being made are in the students' best interest." (Tribune)

SCHOOLS LEAN GREEN: The Illinois State Board of Education has announced the state’s three winners of the Illinois Green School Award program, which recognizes schools that save energy, reduce costs, protect student and staff health and wellness, and offer environmental education. The three recipients are Woodland Primary School in Gages Lake, Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, and Evanston Skokie School District 65 in Evanston.

CHARTER EMPIRE THREATENED: Eva S. Moskowitz, a New York City charter school founder, is locked in combat with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who repeatedly singled her out on the campaign trail as the embodiment of what he saw was wrong in schooling, and who last week followed his word with deed, canceling plans for three of her schools in New York City while leaving virtually all other charter proposals untouched. (The New York Times)

In the News: Bill stripping state charter commission's power advances

March 6, 2014 - 9:44am

The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Wednesday passed chairperson Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia's proposals to let local school boards - or if not them, then the voters of a district - decide whether a charter school will be established and supported with their tax dollars, no matter what an appointed state commission decides. (Illinois School News Service)

Chapa LaVia's bill would prevent a decision by the Commission to overturn a charter application denial by a local school board from being implemented, unless district voters side with the state and approve the charter school.

SAVING CERAMICS: An online petition by a former student has been started to save Lane Tech High School's award-winning Ceramics Department.  Artists and educators at Lillstreet and ArtReach are also urging the administration CPS  to reinstate all ceramics classes at Lane Tech. "Please do not deprive future classes of Lane Tech students of the vital and full programming of the Ceramics Department," an open letter from the non-profit ArtReach at Lillstreet says. A Facebook page, Support Lane Tech's Ceramic Department, also has been started.

LSC DEADLINE: Chicago Public Schools is extending its Local School Council election candidate-filing deadline from Feb. 26 to March 14. (Hyde Park Herald)

STUDENTS SUE STATE: Teacher tenure laws are being challenged in California by a group of nine public-school students who are suing the state, claiming state laws mandating teacher seniority end up protecting incompetent teachers. (CBS News)

TEACHING CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY: A report released Wednesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project shows that coverage of the civil rights movement in U.S. classrooms remains woefully inadequate—three years after a first-of-its-kind study found that more than half of the states fail at teaching the civil rights movement to students. Generally speaking, the report found that the farther from the South – and the smaller the African-American population – the less attention paid to the movement in schools. Read the report here.

Most schools still lack candidates for local school council elections

March 5, 2014 - 6:04pm

The deadline for local school council candidate nominations is next Friday, but so far less than a third of schools even have enough parent candidates to fill available seats on the governing boards.

In order to encourage parents and community members to run for the councils, CPS launched an interactive online map today that shows the number of candidates – and vacancies -- at each LSC in the district.

“We created this tool to provide those who are interested in running for their LSC an understanding of what schools are still in need of candidates,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. “I encourage parents and community stakeholders that want to make a difference at the school level to submit their LSC nominating form.”

CPS extended the original Feb. 26 deadline for nominations until March 14 in order to get more parents and community members involved.

CPS data from March 4 shows a wide range of interest from parents and community members at schools across the city. The most contested parent race, according to the data, is Skinner North Elementary School, on the Near North Side, where 17 parents have filed to run for six available spots on the LSC.

Meanwhile, not a single parent has filed to run at 86 schools, including Harte Elementary and Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, King College Prep in Bronzeville, Shields Middle School in Brighton Park and DeVry Advantage Academy High School in Avondale.

Checks and balances

Similarly, just over half of all schools don’t have enough candidates to fill available seats for community members. At 144 schools, not a single community member has submitted an application to run.

Swift Elementary School in Edgewater has garnered the most interest so far among community members, with seven nominations.

Elections at elementary schools will be held on April 7, while elections for high school LSCs will take place the following day.

Each LSC is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative. Elected LSC representatives will serve a two-year term that begins with the 2014-2015 school year.

The councils are responsible for approving schools’ budgets, developing and monitoring annual School Improvement Plans, and hiring principals.

Valencia Rias-Winstead, a consultant for LSCs and a long-time LSC representative herself, said the councils are an important system of checks and balances.

“What we’ve found is that whenever you have parents that are at the decision-making table that are knowledgeable about the complete and accurate status of their school, they can help make good decisions,” she said. “Nobody knows the school like the parents, the teachers and the community.”

Rias-Winstead said there has been a noticeable drop in contentious LSC elections since they were created more than 20 years ago.

“People sometimes have to get riled up” in order to consider running, she said. “It’s when you have a principal’s contract coming up or problems with leadership, or unpopular decisions about uniforms or discipline, that you have contested elections.”

Jamila Johnson, a deputy press secretary for CPS, said she expects an uptick in nominations as the deadline approaches. “A lot of people wait until the very last minute,” she said.

Johnson said CPS has been encouraging parents and community members to run for LSCs by working with clergy, elected officials and the media.

“We are seeing our numbers grow every single day,” she said. “Of course when you have more candidates you have more people with ideas. You want to have people who really care and want to get involved at the school level.”

If a school doesn’t attract enough candidates to fill vacancies, CPS will hold a supplemental election to fill the seats, Johnson said.

The school district expects to update the data used for the online, interactive map early next week.

For more information or to download a nomination form, visit, or call (773)-553-1400.

In the News: Test boycott teachers remain in class

March 5, 2014 - 8:13am

More than 20 teachers at Maria Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy in the Little Village neighborhood who refused to give the test were allowed to teach students who opted not to take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. (Sun-Times)

EXAMS COMMENCE: Some Chicago Public Schools parents continued to complain Tuesday about how the district is administering the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, but officials reported no major disruptions at schools as the multi-day exam got underway. (Tribune)

STRIKE DATE SET: Ten days after authorizing a strike vote, teachers in north suburban Waukegan Public School District 60 announced Monday they plan to launch a strike on April 16 unless agreement can be reached on a new contract that includes salary increases. (FOX News)

SOCIAL MEDIA IMPACT: A parent’s protest on the website Humans of New York went viral, with 150,000 likes on a Facebook page, drawing attention to students without a much-needed foreign language teacher. (The New York Times)

EARLY DIGITAL DIVIDE: A new RAND Corporation report details the importance of early childhood education and the value of technology literacy — the ability to use computer-based devices, software, and networks— at an early age. Sponsored by the PNC Foundation, the report, “Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide,” details how incorporating technology into early childhood education may help address the digital divide. (Press release)

HOLDING STUDENTS BACK: A new Duke University study documented a ripple effect of behavioral problems in middle schools where higher numbers of students repeated a grade. In North Carolina schools with high numbers of students who repeated a grade, there were more suspensions, substance abuse problems, fights and classroom disruptions. The findings have relevance as North Carolina implements a new law that requires 3rd graders to pass a reading exam or risk being held back. (Raleigh News and Observer)

New associate editor joins Catalyst

March 4, 2014 - 4:52pm

Catalyst Chicago welcomes Melissa Sanchez as our new associate editor.

Melissa recently relocated to Chicago from Florida, where she was a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic in Washington State. She has written about politics, labor and immigration issues and has won a number of awards, including an Inter-American Press Association fellowship to report from Nicaragua. She succeeds Rebecca Harris, who recently resigned to pursue new career goals.

Melissa is a graduate of Michigan State University’s journalism program. At Catalyst, her beats will include teachers and labor issues, state education policy, bilingual education, elementary schools and early learning. She can be reached at

In the News: Parents take test boycott to state board

March 4, 2014 - 9:52am

A group of parent-activists cried foul Monday, after the state board of education informed Chicago Public Schools that the district could face “disciplinary action” if it does not administer the annual state achievement test to all students this week. (Sun-Times)

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE: Many Chicago Public Schools students found themselves Monday in the middle of a tug of war between parents and teachers calling for a boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and district officials who continue to stress the exam's importance.

FACULTY SUPPORT: More than 100 university educations professors nationwide have signed a letter of support for Chicago teachers' ISAT test boycott. (CTU)

HOLDING FIRM: And here's what the Reader's Ben Joravsky has to say about Mayor Rham Emanuel' position on the ISAT boytcott.

BACK ON THE COURT: The Curie Metropolitan High School boys varsity basketball team will be allowed to play in the state playoffs now that CPS has confirmed that nine team members have complied and are eligible to compete. (NBC Chicago)

BUILDING BRIDGES: In less than three years at the helm of the Broward County public schools, Superintendent Robert Runcie has ushered in a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the Florida district and what some say is one of the biggest threats to its financial viability: the charter school community. (Education Week)

PUSHING DIGITAL CURRICULUMS: Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools and the current chief executive of Amplify, the education unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, on Monday introduced a digital English language arts curriculum for middle school. (The New York Times)

Parents have no right to opt-out of tests, says state

March 3, 2014 - 5:56pm

On the day that many schools began administering the ISAT, state education officials told parents that they have no legal right to opt their children out of the mandatory test and that all students must be given the test and have the directions for taking it read to them.

“It is the law,” said Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover. “Parents cannot opt their children out.”

After a meeting with ISBE’s general counsel during which this message was delivered, Cassie Creswell of the anti-testing group More than a Score was incredulous. “How can they say there is no legal right to opt out?” she said, noting that in other states, such as New York State, large groups of parents had opted out of standardized tests. Though small numbers of parents have opted their children out of tests in past years, the movement to boycott the ISAT—including a boycott declared by the faculties of two high-achieving schools—has drawn more attention to a practice that has flown under the radar until recently. 

Creswell and 34 other parents filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday, asking ACLU attorneys to bring a case against ISBE for not allowing students to opt out of the exam. The parents say that their due process rights will be violated if the test is put in front of their children, despite their objection.  “As a parent, I have the right to guide the education of my son,” said Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand. 

The parents said they will have to send their children to school with instructions about how to disobey their teachers. 

“I told my daughter to lay her head down and say ‘I refuse to waste my time on this,’” said Rosemary Vega.

Over the past weeks, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has sent out several letters urging parents to have their children take the ISAT, which is being phased out after this year, as well as the NWEA, another standardized test. Parents have focused their criticism on Byrd-Bennett, who they accuse of putting out misleading information about the consequences of not taking the tests.

One of the points Byrd-Bennett has made is that CPS risks a loss of federal funding if too few students take the test. On Monday, Creswell said that ISBE’s general counsel acknowledged to parents that there is no significant risk of losing money, though Creswell said he added that there was “not zero risk.”

Vanover would not confirm that the threat of losing federal funding was minuscule, but he wouldn’t say that any real risk existed either. “Anytime you break a law, there is a chance of repercussions,” he said.

Over the past few days, CPS has shifted some of the blame for its hard line stance to ISBE.

CPS officials said ISBE told them they must give out the tests to students, even those with opt-letters on file. CPS also noted that ISBE could revoke the certification of teachers who refuse to administer the test. Saucedo and Drummond teachers have said they will boycott the test.

Vanover said that there are other steps that could be taken short of revocation, but that ISBE would likely follow the lead of CPS.

Don't put down teachers who choose charters

March 3, 2014 - 12:21pm

We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned applause no matter where they decide to work.Nobody wants a C-.

In particular, nobody wants a C- on the critical issue of keeping good teachers in the classroom. But that’s the grade Illinois got for “retaining effective teachers,” in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2013 State Policy Yearbook. Teacher retention is in fact a well-documented national crisis that negatively impacts students, especially those from low-income communities.  

Elevating the profession to keep the best teachers is a hot topic in education.  One low-cost, in fact free, way to do this is to change the way we talk about teachers and schools. This re-branding should start with an end to “shaming” the step-children of the education community: charter school teachers.

After seven years of working in a traditional district-run school, I made the decision to work at a charter this year. After being subject to the large-scale reduction-in-force at CPS last summer, I decided to try something new. The reaction from my friends and former colleagues was…well, mixed. Bad press and budget cuts have fueled the fire against any non-district-run institution.

Despite the metaphorical rotten fruit thrown daily in my direction, this was the right move for me. The environment is professional, my colleagues are dedicated, and the administration is inspiring. I realize as I’m writing this readers may respond with negativity and complaints, but here are the facts: We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned your applause no matter where they decide to work.

Here is my own list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about charters and my defense of those of us who choose to teach in one:

Q: According to The Charter Difference, a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, charter schools have a “significant under-enrollment of special needs students [that] may be discriminatory and warrants further investigation.” Aren’t they just taking all the “good kids” to boost their scores?

A: Not in my experience. To offer more information on this, see Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy’s article “Setting the Facts Straight on Charter Schools” (published in the Chicago Sun Times on August 7th, 2013). Broy reminds us that charter schools are public and “free and open to anyone who wishes to enroll, no matter a student’s neighborhood, family income, previous education, ethnicity or family status.” Another 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that charter schools generally are not drawing the best students away from local traditional public schools. The previous test scores for students who transferred into charters were near or below-average (except for white students), and the racial makeup of charters was similar to that of the traditional schools the students had previously attended.

Q: How can any teacher agree to work for “union busters?”

A: Actually, we do have a right to unionize—in Chicago, we have Chicago ACTS Local 4343. At my orientation, administration from our network even encouraged us to sign up and invited representatives to get us registered.

Q: Isn’t it true that there are cases of high-level corruption in some charter networks?

A: Yes. But isn’t that also true in most districts? Do teachers make those decisions? Why punish them?

Q: Aren’t charter networks big business in disguise?

A: Some are. And some are not-for-profits, or are funded partly by competitive grants programs. In Illinois, charters can only be awarded to a non-profit, although the non-profit may then contract with a for-profit to run the school. Plus, many charters were started by teachers.

Q: Why should state funding go to charters when the district schools are undergoing budget cuts?

A: Again, not a teacher decision. I’d like to stress that there is simply not sufficient funding for all of us to work in the district, so all we can do is make sure that somehow, somewhere, we are in front of students doing the best we can.

Q: Aren’t teachers treated badly in charter schools?

A: Some charter schools may treat teachers badly. Some district schools treat teachers badly. At my school, teachers are consulted on every matter from content of professional development to curriculum. Performance and tangible outcomes are rewarded with job security (as opposed to quality-blind layoffs in the district). It’s almost like we have a tiny, renegade district that values teacher voice! Yes, this may not be everyone’s experience, but I resent the prevailing generalizations.

Q: Don’t charters have underqualified teachers?

A: Frankly, it looks like few of us teachers, anywhere, are well-prepared when we begin. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, “less than 10% of all rated programs earned 3 stars or more.” This study included 1,200 programs across the country. Shall we agree to let each individual teacher’s data speak for itself, and hope that new evaluation systems will help to improve us all?

So, if I have to operate as an outcast in order to keep a job that I love, then let the judgmental comments commence! Excellent teachers, I applaud you, no matter where you work. You are a treasure, and we need you to stay in this field. Ignore the non-productive, hurtful, and prejudiced statements that will surely follow us throughout our careers. District colleagues and general public, I urge you to use a new lens to view all educators, one informed by research. Create a world in which every teacher is given a fair chance to show what they can do.

Susan Volbrecht is an eighth-year teacher on the South Side of Chicago. She is an alumni of the Chicago Teaching Fellows and the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship. She currently works as an academic interventionist at a charter school.

In the News: State's teachers union back Dillard

March 3, 2014 - 7:09am

The Illinois Federation of Teachers endorsed Republican governor candidate Kirk Dillard on Sunday, giving the state senator from Hinsdale the backing of the state's two major — and politically active — teachers unions. (Tribune)

DANGER WARNING: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis injected herself into a long-running neighborhood zoning fight on Thursday, alleging students at a public high school would face danger from a newly approved metal shredder in Pilsen. (Sun-Times)

SEASON FORFEITED: Chicago Curie Metropolitan High School’s basketball team, ranked among the best in the nation, has forfeited this year’s games because several players were academically ineligible to compete, public schools officials announced Friday. (Associated Press)

COLORBLIND NOTION ASIDE: Racial tensions are playing out in new ways on college campuses nationwide, like the University of Michigan, which has seen a sharp decline in black undergraduate enrollment. (The New York Times)

NOT JUST AN ELECTIVE ANYMORE: Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have policies in place that allow computer science to count as a mathematics or science credit, rather than as an elective, in high schools—and that number is on the rise. Wisconsin, Alabama, and Maryland have adopted such policies since December, and Idaho has a legislative measure awaiting final action. (Education Week)

More teachers to boycott ISAT, as parents rally behind them

March 1, 2014 - 9:20am

In talking about her decision to refuse to administer the ISAT next week, Drummond Montessori teacher Ann Carlson said she felt little joy.

“I don’t have the hooray feeling,” she said at a press conference after school on Friday. “I feel like we are standing up, but we are fearful.”

It is unclear exactly how many teachers from the high performing Near Northwest Side elementary school are joining Saucedo teachers, who announced earlier this week that they will boycott the test. Carlson says more than half of the 15 third-to-eighth grade teachers voted in favor of the action.

The announcement came after a week in which the CPS administration took a hard stand—sending out numerous, sometimes conflicting and misleading letters—advising teachers to administer the test and parents to have their children take it.  More than a Score, the advocacy group spearheading the effort, said some parents in at least 60 schools have submitted opt-out letters.

CPS has said that teachers refusing to give the ISAT “will be disciplined” and face having their certification revoked, which would render them unable to teach.

“There has been extreme pressure on us,” said Juan Gonzalez, who teaches math and science at Drummond.  “We have to think about how this affects our livelihood. But we decided to stand on the side of right and boycott the ISAT.”

Carlson added: “One more minute of testing is too many.”

Because of the threats, parents held a rally at Saucedo in Little Village on Friday to show their support.

The Chicago Teachers Union has vowed to fight any discipline, but in the latest CPS letter the position has seemed to soften. Teachers refusing to give the test, according to the letter, will be given the option of going home and not being paid or monitoring students who have opted out.

Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said it was clear that district leaders have not decided what they are going to do to the teachers.

Further, the idea that teachers would lose certification because “they are demanding to teach students who want to learn” is “ridiculous,” Sharkey said. Information on ISBE’s website shows that 16 teachers have had their certifications revoked since 1988 and that the vast majority were after the teacher was convicted of criminal activity or cheating.

Though many of the parents and teachers are against what they see as over-testing of students, the ISAT boycott has gained traction because it is being phased out. Also, CPS officials decided it would not be used for any major decisions, such as promotion or the selective enrollment admissions process.

CPS officials, with the support of state officials, warned that if too many parents have their children sit out of the test the district faces losing state and federal funding. But experts say that loss of such funding is unprecedented and at most it could trigger reallocating funds, but even that is highly unlikely and takes time to kick in.

Futhermore, the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, has fallen out of favor and the Department of Education has issued 42 states waivers from the requirements. Illinois also submitted a request for a waiver, but it has yet to be approved. 

"There is no real enforcement of NCLB anymore," said Andrew Porter, education dean at the University of Pennsylvannia.

Through this week, CPS messaging around the ISAT boycott has been conflicting at times. At one point, CPS issued a webinar to principals that seemed to indicate that opted-out students had to sit among their classmates, be handed the ISAT and be read instructions. Then, it would be incumbent on the student to refuse the test.

“If a student refuses to test they must remain silent while other students test,” according to the webinar. “Students MAY NOT engage in any other activities that would disrupt the testing environment.”

More than a Score’s Cassie Cresswell said this was “immoral and unethical” as it put students as young as eight in the awkward position of disobeying their teachers.

Later, on Friday, CPS sent a letter out saying that students who have been opted out of the test could be brought to another classroom and allowed to read independently or do other work, though they would still be given the test and read the instructions.

In the News: CPS threatens discipline, CTU fights back

February 28, 2014 - 9:50am

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett has threatened to discipline any teacher who refuses to administer an annual state achievement test next week, according to a letter obtained by local news sources. Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis says the union will defend teachers "against any retaliation."

The letter, sent out Thursday to principals, claims teachers could face the harshest repercussion from boycotting the test — losing their state education certification. On test day, teachers will be ordered to leave the school building if they refuse to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, according to the letter. Chicago Teachers Union officials said lawyers are looking into the district's letter and also that they believe teachers cannot have their certification revoked for taking a stand against standardized testing.

CTU is also asking members to attend a rally Friday afternoon in support of the Saucedo Scholastic Academy teachers who said earlier this week they will refuse to administer the state-mandated Illinois Standards Achievement Tests that are scheduled to begin next week.

ETS SEES TESTING OPPORTUNITY:  As interest in licensing exams that measure prospective teachers' classroom skills grows, the venerable test-maker ETS is entering the market with a new option for states. Field-testing began last month for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service's new exam, which purports to measure many of the same competencies as the edTPA, a licensing test seven states have recently adopted and many others are considering. (Education Week)

PUTTING BRAKES ON CHARTER: Mayor Bill de Blasio, seeking to curb the influence of outside providers of education, said on Thursday that he would block three charter schools from using space inside New York City public school buildings. Under the plan, Blasio would reverse the decision of his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, to provide free real estate to the schools so that they could open new programs this fall. The schools had already hired principals and teachers and were in the midst of recruiting students. (The New York Times)