Fear ain’t all bad, but has limits

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There’s no question that many Chicago schools needed a kick in the pants, which Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas has administered by giving a handful of principals the boot. Some 40 percent of elementary schools advanced under the laissez faire days of School Reform Phase I, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Now, with the remediation and probation programs of the new regime, schools that languished are getting overdue pressure as well as help—perhaps not enough help, perhaps not the best help, but more help than they got in the past.

What’s missing is a clear set of standards that are enforced consistently. Why was one school with declining test scores put on remediation—and not another? Why was one principal fired—and not another? Why does one school—and not another—have to get all its spending OKed by superiors? And what does it mean to “function well” in the eyes of the Office of Accountability, which is a prerequisite for getting off probation?

There may well be legitimate answers to each of these questions. But school employees and activists don’t know them. Instead, they see arbitrary action, which may well keep people on their toes but also undermines the independent thought, effort and debate that are an essential part of school improvement over the long haul.

It does not bode well when school reform activists, including both supporters and critics of the current administration, will not speak on the record about reservations they have about the administration’s remediation and probation programs. One actually feared a Vallas retaliation strike against schools he/she was involved with. No leader easily abides public criticism. But, hey, it comes with the territory and, more important, it is a guard against blundering ahead with a bad decision.

Fortunately, the new regime apparently listened to some internal debate in shaping its new promotion policy, which is the biggest help it has given schools thus far. Initially, there was to be one standard, a student’s score on a single test. Yikes! Even test publishers warn against using scores on a single test to make important decisions about individual students. The School Reform Board avoided that pitfall by providing for waivers based on a student’s overall academic performance. Further, it added poor attendance and repeated suspensions—shortcomings that students and parents can correct—as triggers for required summer school.

Initially, the board continued the longstanding policy of promoting older 8th-graders, mainly students who already had been held back a year during the elementary grades. Just because these students flunked doesn’t mean they’re dumb—many simply skipped the exit exam at the end of the summer Bridge Program, knowing they would graduate regardless. The new regime closed this escape hatch by providing that older 8th-graders who aren’t ready for high school will go directly to prep centers housed in high schools. This approach spares elementary schools the return of students who no longer fit in. We trust that the new prep centers will work better than the old Educational and Vocational Guidance Centers, which failed at the same goal.

ABOUT US We bid farewell to Springfield correspondent Michael Hawthorne, whose main job was with the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette. He has joined the Cincinnati Enquirer, where he will cover that state’s capitol. We also welcome Michael Klonsky back to Catalyst. Formerly a contributing editor and now co-director of the Small Schools Workshop, Mike has joined our editorial board.