The Chicago Tribune's Editorial Page Earns Failing Grade on Ed Reform

Dear Chicago Tribune Editorial Staff,

I read your editorial today supporting Mayor Rahm Emanuel's CPS school closings, and accusing teachers of opposing reform. I'm sorry, but I had to give it an F.

This is not acceptable work for the editorial page of a major newspaper.

You have failed in the simple assignment of reviewing and reporting on the two texts being examined: University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) report from this month, and the Chicago Teachers Union's complaint, as reported by the Chicago Tribune's own Joel Hood just five days ago.

Thankfully, I believe in drafting, so here are some notes for you to consider when working to improve your next draft.

First, you mock the Chicago Teachers Union for accusing CPS of closing schools disproportionately serving African-American communities, attempting to deflect that charge by saying that 91% of Chicago's students are minorities, so "the real discrimination" comes from the union for recommending against closing low-performing schools. I would not take that tone if I were you; it makes it sound like African-Americans, who constitute 43% of our city's students, no longer have the right to speak up about their communities when they are disproportionately affected by public policy.

You also ignore a few facts: as Hood's article points out, the CTU argued in their complaint that in addition to students, African-American teachers have been disproportionately (and illegally) fired when schools go through turnaround. "The complaints states [sic] that African-American teachers make up 29 percent of teachers in CPS, but comprised 43 percent of those laid off in 2011." This is not a minor point that you can leave out. Please include it in your next draft, and figure out a more reasonable way to address it.

You also fail to mention that the CCSR report clearly corroborates the CTU's accusation: "The teacher workforce after intervention across all models was more likely to be white, younger, and less experienced, and was more likely to have provisional certification than the teachers who were at those schools before the intervention." Not only does this mean they're right, but it suggests an economic motivation for the firings rather than a purely student-based decision. Did you not notice that, or did you choose to leave it out because it might complicate your ability to persuade people of your opinion?

When writing an essay—even a persuasive essay—it is important to share all known opinions and facts about the topic, especially when utilizing the rhetorical strategy of "argument from authority." As you no doubt remember from class, any authority figure you quote can and will be used against you if possible.

You make this mistake a number of times in your essay.

You write, "We strongly support the CPS effort to close the worst-performing schools and send those students to better-performing schools nearby." This sentence may need revision, since the University of Chicago researchers clearly stated, "A prior CCSR study examined the outcomes of students who attended schools that were closed; it showed that displaced students in Chicago tended to transfer from one low-performing school to another. Overall, closings had no effect on student learning for displaced students."

You write, "Revamping struggling schools generally didn't mean pushing out lower-performing students. By and large, the students who enrolled after the CPS intervention had previously attended the school"; however, the CCSR study says that eight schools in the study were turned around into charters schools, which dramatically decreased the number of re-enrolled students to between 0-46%. "Schools under the Closure and Restart model experienced substantial changes to their student body composition," the report read, "serving more economically advantaged students, students of higher prior achievement, and fewer special education students. After intervention, schools under the Closure and Restart model also served fewer students from the neighborhood around the school."

That's a really big contradiction to leave out. Wouldn't you say?

Furthermore, other non-closure reform methods averaged only around 50-70% re-enrollment in the year after intervention. I recommend you take more time in your second draft to address the concern of low re-enrollment on not only the ability to assess school improvement after "turnarounds" but as a possible contributor to low academic progress in the first place (or a common effect of poverty).

You go on to write, "CTU wants to stop this progress cold." This appears to be an attempt to rebrand the word "progress." I see you paid attention to our lesson in political framing last week. Good for you. But I would be careful to accuse the teachers union of standing in the way of progress.

The CTU has made clear public pronouncements about the progress they support, and though it may not be the progress you agree with, your readers will recognize that it is not the status quo; making assertions to the contrary may convince some of your readers that you are leaving out facts and arguments intentionally. As we discussed last semester in our ethics of journalism unit, even opinion pieces should show intellectual honesty.

The Chicago Teachers Union believes that experienced teachers should not be blamed without cause for the failure of schools in low-income neighborhoods—income being the best predictor of high test-scores. And the CCSR report says that schools "under Closure and Restart, AUSL and OSI models...rehired less than 10 percent of the teachers from the year before intervention" despite the fact that nothing in the study or any other study has said the teachers were at fault; and despite the fact that the School Turnaround Specialist Program got similar results without all of the dramatic firings.

I think you know quite well that the union has valid concerns, but you write that the "needless stall" of a "one-year moratorium on school closings or turnarounds" would be "a disaster for thousands of students," despite the fact that the CCSR itself says that "turning around chronically low-performing schools is a process rather than an event. It does not occur immediately when staff or leadership or governance structures are replaced, but can occur when hard work and resources are sustained over time."

A process rather than an event. It makes sense that they would say that, since it took four years of test factory conditions just for some of the schools to close the gap half-way, and the high schools in the study didn't show improvement at all (another point you ignore).

Also, did they say "resources"?

Yes, they did. Like the resources is would require to purchase those iPads you show students using for math lessons at the top of your editorial.

In addition to resources, they recommend, as other studies have recommended, "building the organizational strength of the school over time...improving school climate and instruction, strengthening partnerships across school communities, monitoring instruction, addressing discipline, and building distributed leadership among teachers in the school," as well as collaboration, safety, and school beautification.

Could it be that providing the resources and leadership to achieve these goals has more to do with success than firing an entire staff and only hiring back 10% of teachers? Such a hyperbolically clumsy and myopic reaction to complex and subtle problems can't be confused for seriousness. And yet you write that while "there is disruption for students, teachers and staffers in a turnaround situation"—and I would add an erasure of a community's history—"the alternative, which we've tolerated for far too long, is a comfy settling into failure."

Once again, you've created a strawman argument. (Add that to your vocabulary homework if you've never heard the term.) If settling into failure is truly the only alternative you can imagine to firing an entire school work force, I could run off some copies of graphic organizers to help you brainstorm.

Finally, you should choose a different way to conclude your essay. Here is what you have now: "The Chicago Board of Education is set to vote Feb. 22 on the closings and turnarounds. It would be a terrible shame if a judge substituted his or her wisdom for that of the educators who are trying to create a better school system."

Wow. No.

It would be a terrible shame if you kept this "activist judges" throwaway in your final draft, because anyone who knows anything about Chicago, and you should assume that your readers are intelligent, already knows that the CPS Board of Education is made up of mayoral appointees, most of whom have no educational experience whatsoever, whereas the CTU is a collective of teachers (read: educators). If you leave this absurd Orwellism in your final draft, expect complete bios of David Vitale and Penny Pritzker to be thrown back in your face.

In conclusion, your personal opinions are transparent, but what isn't clear is that you've put enough effort into research or critical analysis.

See me after class.



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  • Thanks for writing this. It's refreshing to hear an intelligent, thoughfully composed retort to the absolute nonsense that is passing for journalism these days. The Tribune (and the Sun Times for that matter!) are spewing nothing but propaganda when it comes to any issues relating to CPS. The mayor's agenda is being force-fed to the populace. It's going to be extremely difficult to get the truth out!

  • In reply to jpwigner:

    You're quite welcome. Thanks for reading.

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