CTU & Reformers Both Wrong

The drumbeat from CTU and other CPS critics is already pretty clear:  oppose any and all school closings, and push for an elected school board instead of the current system of mayoral control. The drumbeat from the reformy right isn't quite as clear, but seems to include closing schools and opening more charters and bringing in lots of new teachers.  However, I would argue that both agendas are impractical, misguided, self-serving, and do little more than set Chicago up for more clashes and more stalemates.  What other things could CPS and CTU and the rest of us focus on?  I have a couple of ideas -- and maybe you do, too.Let's start out by debunking the CTU agenda of opposing closings and pushing for mayoral control:

CLOSINGS:  Reasonable people can argue about the number of schools that need to be closed, and which ones, but it seems hard to argue that the system can support as many buildings as it currently has, considering the dwindling enrollment, etc.  Arguments about transparency, gang boundaries and disruptions only go so far, especially if the schools being closed or consolidated aren't performing particularly well.  That won't stop CTU and those directly affected from clamoring, but that doesn't mean they're right.

ELECTED BOARD:  A return to an elected school board is a great rhetorical device for CTU and other CPS critics but seems like a ridiculous thing to want in this era of uncontrolled campaign spending.  Groups spent something like $5 million on two board spots in Los Angeles in 2011.  Outside spending swamped direct contributions. Both sides went extremely negative.  Turnout was still very low.  Imagine what school board races would be like.

The reform agenda -- at least the cutting edge of it -- seems equally problematic:

CHARTERS:  Thus far, at least, few if any of the successful national charter networks have been willing to come to Chicago.  They don't believe in Emanuel.  After the strike, even more so.  There aren't enough school leaders or homegrown groups to start mom and pop charters with any chance of success.  Chicago's in-district authorization process is slow and cumbersome, and its state appeals board is untested.

NEW TALENT:  There are something like 500 TFA teachers in CPS, plus 800 alumni, and AUSL folks and TNTP and all the rest.  But, as with charters, it's a drop in the bucket -- a bucket that's got a big hole in it because of new teacher attrition.  As Harvard economist Roland Fryer recently pointed out, there's no "magical drawer" full of effective teachers to draw from to replace teachers deemed ineffective.


CPS-CTU LEADERSHIP COMMITTEE:  If CTU wants to help make CPS better, fine.  With power comes responsibility.Give Team Lewis a chance to provide input on the schedule, the budget, and the closings ahead of time, rather than freezing them out and then having them clamor against whatever decisions have been made.  Testing schedule?  Common Core training?  Yes, and yes.

UNIFIED APPLICATION PROCESS:  If charters don't trust CPS to handle the process, bring in someone who will.  Roll it out for high schools first, if that helps.  The current process is a maze, a frustration, and a bit of an embarrassment.  Charter approval and renewal should include participation in the unified application process as a prerequisite.

NEW, IMPROVED AAMPS:  For a time in CPS there was a subset of schools that were given greater leeway from CPS mandates based on proven performance.  It wasn't perfect -- far from it -- but it was too good an idea to abandon.   Loosening the reins on some subset of higher performing schools is both a reward for schools that bring achievement up and a relief to schools where centralized control isn't necessary.

GENTRIFYING NEIGHBORHOODS:  The vast majority of CPS and foundation resources are focused on the lowest-performing schools, leaving middle-performing schools in the lurch.  In gentrifying neighborhoods particularly, there's a completely predictable but unnecessary clash between longtime residents and teachers and newcomers ("gentriphobia," one pundit calls it).  A small team helping manage this process at a few schools would be enormously helpful.


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  • Where can I find information regarding historic CPS enrollment? We are currently somewhere around 400,000 students. What were the totals in 2000, 1990, 1980, 1950, 1930 etc. ?

  • Shame for CPS throwing the AMPs baby out with the bath water. We earned our AMPs status. Now we have a despot area officer who wants us to do it his way even with our scores continuing to go up. Because of this area officer, our faculty believes that CPS really wants us to start to fail.
    A continued waste of big money on these area offices. For many years, area officers are to ‘assist’ poor performing schools that for many years are still performing poorly. Why can’t CPS just get out of the way of schools that are doing well?

  • Alex, baby... ugh... it is too late to try to rewrite history, too late to try to appear "fair and balanced". Your attempt to take the middle-ground is WEAK. Nobody is buying this "CTU and reformers are both wrong" routine. You over-corrected. The District 299 blog is well past the tipping point. Your readers now see you as education's version of Glenn Beck. Horrible, bizarre, yet strangely compelling. While you and the aforementioned lump of pale flesh, tissue, and XXY chromosomes are both obvious shills, it is important to "tune-in" in order to be aware of this cycles talking points.

    Dude, you jumped the shark close to a year ago. Your only chance at redemption is a miraculous revelation of religious proportions. Maybe you should actually visit Chicago. That would be a start. Next, go to a school in a struggling neighborhood and see what those who live and work there actually have to deal with. Maybe then you would see the light.

    Having said that a moral reversal might be a good career move when your blog takes a nosedive. It is bound to happen. Remember though, flip-flopping as a tactic is unsustainable. Honesty is the best policy.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    the blog is doing great -- more readers than ever. thanks for being one of them. i was in chicago last week. sorry we missed each other. why don't you sign your name, you big talker, tell us where you teach if you teach? for all we know, you're just some hired blowhard posting anonymous comments.

  • In reply to Alexander Russo:

    Hired blowhard? Wow. The professional blogster thinks I am worthy of a paycheck. Move over Kugler.

    Do I really get under your skin, or is this just an act on your part? Hmmm. Intrigue. Hmph... deep down I know it is all a work on your part.

    Maybe instead of MMA allusions I should reference big-time wrestling. Alex, you were a GREAT heel for the last 6 months or so, but it time for you to turn babyface at least for a spell. Your pro-reform stuff is just getting obvious and dumb. Yin and yang. Wax-on / wax-off. Ebb and flow. Subtly is the key. You've lost that. Study Ric Flair. He was a master of the flip-flop. Sustained him for at least 30 years. Woooooo!!!!!!

    Seriously though, my name is John Smyth. Coincidentally I teach at John Smyth Elementary School. Despite my naysaying I am confident no one in CPS would ever punish me for speaking out. Like Mayor Emanuel I believe in total transparency from here on out.


    John Smyth

    P.S.- Shave that unholy tangled mass of filamentous biomaterial on your chin. It will do your soul good.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    there, don't you feel better? well, i do.

  • In reply to Alexander Russo:

    Interneting is enjoyable. Almost as much fun as watching MLB playoffs. Go Devil Rays. This is what I do whilst winding down at night. Goofing on 299 coincides well with commercials. Blogstering is my avocation...






    for you it is you vocation.


  • In reply to Alexander Russo:


  • Would an elected school board make any difference? Yes and no,
    It depends on various factors like would everyone run at large,or would
    districts be established?
    Would any candidate relying on the sour tit of the scum bag democratic
    party be any better than a candidate appointed my the mayor? Seems to me none of the above would be independent.
    If local control,say on the ward level, is what people are after neither would work.I fear electing a school board would be more symbolic than appointing one.But in the end nothing would change.

    Isn't local control what the LSC is suppose to be doing?

  • Alex - why do you say a return to an elected school board? We have never had an elected school board in Chicago. There was a nominating commission prior to mayoral control where a large group of people made recommendations to the mayor but we never had elections. I am working on this campaign and we don't see it as a panacea but better alternative to what we have now. If your alternative committee comes to fruition - I would hope they put parents and community on it.

  • Re: Elected School Board

    "Groups spent something like $5 million on two board spots in Los Angeles in 2011. Outside spending swamped direct contributions."

    Now we are concerned with outside spending? We were not concerned with outside spending when Stand On Children spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying state legislators to impose SB7? Or when private equity fund managers spent over a million dollars on a propaganda television ad saluting the accomplishments of Rahm's teacher debacle? Not concerned with the lack of transparency of big dollars within the coffers of DFER?

    Go ahead, attack me for anonymity but really WTF?

  • In reply to urbanteach:

    my point was that many of the folks who oppose outside spending support an elected board that would bring in more outside spending. some of the money would be from national teachers unions, some would be from reform organizations. but there would be lots of it.

  • One value of an elected school board: an opportunity for dissent.

  • more ideas coming in for an alternative / pragmatic agenda for CPS this year --

    - leadership training 300 for 100 spots (vs picking off the list)
    - cross training between charters and district schools like denver is doing
    - bring back the LSC alliance (a shortlived citywide association of LSCs)

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Alexander Russo:

    First one would have to empwer the LSCs for it to matter anyway. perahps the individual school budget would have to approved byt he LSC. Right now it the individual school administration that does the budget and puts it in a nice little secret black box.

    I for one would love to see the budget. Can we under FOIA?

  • To echo Wendy---the Chicago public school system has never had an elected school board. Period. The CTU and others always describe this platform as a "return" to an elected school board, which is not accurate.

  • apologies -- i meant return in the more general sense (elected boards used to be the norm). but i don't think that changes my basic point, which is that an elected board is no guarantee of anything but a tidal wave of campaign funding and negative campaigning and (i fear) really just a proxy way of expressing dissatisfaction with CPS and City Hall. we get it, you're mad at CPS. but unless you're ready to unseat emanuel can we please have a more constructive, realistic focus?

  • Alexander, thanks for working to find the middle ground. I believe the best way forward lies somewhere in between the CTU and CPS approaches. It's difficult to see through the politics, allegations, and power plays, but it's worthwhile.

    There are a whole lot of kids and families that depend on this school system, and the decisions that get made in the next year will have a huge impact. If CPS decides to close a school that serves its families well, and replaces it with a charter that does an awful job, or conversely decides to keep a school open that does an awful job, that's going to have a profound effect on those families. I hope that people in positions of authority, journalists, and leaders of advocacy groups keep that in mind when they take their positions.

    I'm afraid that some people get caught up in fighting against the other side, that they're not fully thinking through what happens if they win. Some people think that they mayor is the devil, that he disrespects teachers, and that he is pursuing the agenda of billionaires who plan to profit from the privatization of the school system. So, they're going to fight against any school closings and try to get at elected school board to take the mayor's power away. Well, if they win, then we could end up keeping open all of the schools that have horrible academic records, awful leadership, and a broken school community. And what kind of education are those kids going to get? And, what are their parents going to think about the education that their kids are getting?

    Other people think that Karen Lewis is the devil, that she is only interested in higher pay and benefits for teachers, that she leads a group of lazy and ineffective workers who are fighting tooth and nail to hang onto their cush high-paying jobs with no accountability. So, they're going to fight to close down every school that's proposed for closure, support every charter opening, fight for lower teacher pay, less money for schools, and legislation to prohibit teachers from striking to take away their power. Well, if they win, we could end up with large numbers of school closings, new schools that take years to operate smoothly, some that don't do a good job and nobody knows about it for years, and low teacher morale. And, what kind of education are those children going to get? And, what are their parents going to think about these reform efforts?

    We need to cut through all that and figure out how to fix what needs fixing, and how to leave the rest alone. What I'm personally most interested in is the views of parents and prospective parents in communities that are most likely to be affected by these decisions. Do they want to keep their "underperforming" open, or do they think a change is needed? Do they want a turnaround effort, or a charter to operate their school. Or, do they want to keep things the way they are? I would have an opinion about that if my children's school could be on the chopping block.

  • Paul - I think you make some really good points and I agree wth you that we need a collaborative process that works to engage all parties and bring in solution-based thinking from all sides rather than constant fighting and unwillingness to work together. Unfortunately, having spent 2.5 years meeting with CPS numerous times, asking them for a way to engage stakeholders more authentically, etc. I find myself and RYH working on an elected school board campaign because no one has been interested in the process you mention. What we should have and what we do have are two different things. There has been little effort from cps and the city to do what you mention and they would need to set this up. There is internal dysfunction at CPS regarding how they deal with school closings from what I have been told from people who work there- a group was set up to form and work with community action councils - stakeholders in the community. There was some good work going on there and then the Portfolio dept was set up last year and made decisions around this group, from what I have been told. When I met with the head of Family and Community Engagement this year he said they are not really yet ready to bring in external stakeholders to help shape policy. There's a lot to sort out internally, I believe.

    To Alex - I share some of your concerns and don't think an elected school board would be any kind of panacea. It's not just about "being mad at CPS.' I am not sure you get it. It may be costly and political to run school board elections, but it's also costly to be spending $300 million on the office of Assessment, increasig 27 positios to the Portfolio dept this year, giving Rupert Murdoch's company $4.7 million when 75% of our schools have rooms with class sizes over the required limits, people have to sue to get an IEP, spend money on music classes because their kid is in 7th grade and has never been offered one, etc. etc. etc. I think the parent at Lorca with 42 kids in the Kindgergarten class last year, or the parent who is about to have their school turned over to UNO but was never even brought into a discussion about it might have a different view about whether we need to an elect a board that is at least accountable to the people who pay the taxes to CPS and not the mayor alone.

  • I do think it would be good to point out that Ms. Byrd-Bennett opposed an elected school Board in Cleveland. So I would expect no support from her in relation to this issue. I support the idea and I also understand that it is likely to be controlled in Chicago by the Democratic Party. But at least there would be an outside possibility of getting an individual or two elected that might reflect some different perspectives than those of our current Mayor.

    The problem is of course that this would require action by the Illinois General Assembly and the Assembly gave increased power over CPS to the Mayor in big part because that body wanted nothing to do with educating students in Chicago. The reality was and is any failure of CPS especially fiscally would require a massive intervention by the state and that would cost money. The Assembly and ISBE have zero interest in that, so currently they are more than happy to have the Mayor of Chicago hold the bag for CPS.

    A big reason for the push to increase charters, aside from the publicly stated ones of improved academic quality and choice, is the fact that if a charter blows up CPS has zero liability for its debts even if they owe salary to teachers. CPS then can simply pull the charter under the contract they have given them and transfer the students to a new provider. In the economic situation we are current in that looks pretty good to many legislators down in Springfield especially is their districts are outside of Chicago.

    Rod Estvan

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