More battered than buoyed by reconstitution

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Judging from seniors at Robeson High School, reconstitution has increased the supply of teachers there who still have enough idealism and energy to show that, despite enormous frustrations, they still care about kids’ learning. “Most of my teachers are new this year,” senior Rachel Rattley told Catalyst contributor Susan DeGrane. “Half of my teachers seem more concerned.” Classmate Kinte Green agreed, “It seems like more teachers want to help.”

As conceived in Chicago, reconstitution is intended to do just that, clear out staff members who can’t or won’t try to teach, or who, as Chief Accountability Officer Phil Hansen has said, simply need a change of venue. Such teachers can be found in any school, but they can be least tolerated in the schools whose students are farthest behind. These schools need the most sensitive, committed and capable teachers. More than that, they need time and support for teachers and community members to figure out how to turn around very difficult situations. Teachers should not always be running scared. Where that’s the case, even the teachers who impressed Rachel and Kinte easily could burn out.

In Chicago, reconstitution is not yet producing solid faculties or supportive conditions. At Robeson, a dozen veteran teachers who had made the reconstitution cut, bolted in late summer for jobs elsewhere in the system. Several went to the Reform Board’s new transition centers for 15-year-olds who aren’t ready for high school-level work, where they are guaranteed year-round work and smaller classes. The abrupt departures threw a monkey wrench into Robeson’s plans, which were months in the making, and left the school with a staff shortage that continues today.

Robeson Principal James Breashears blames his staffing problems on a systemwide teacher shortage and the stigma of reconstitution. Major Armstead, Robeson’s probation manager and a former CPS district superintendent, adds, “When teachers have the opportunity to work in a less stressful setting or enjoy an enhanced income, they take it.”

Though a welcome change from past administrations, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas’ bias for action, has, in some cases, battered rather than buoyed schools. At Robeson, the problem is twofold. By acting with little deliberation or planning, the administration created chaos; while better than the status quo, chaos slows progress. By casting reconstitution in punitive terms—i.e. “We’re getting rid of bad teachers and turning the screws on the rest;” rather than, “We’re building cohesive, risk-taking faculties”—the administration touched off a not-my-fault domino effect that winds up with teachers blaming students and their parents for lack of success. In most cases, teachers are doing the best they know how under the circumstances; the challenge is to increase the know-how and improve the circumstances.

Reconstitution is a useful tool for changing a school’s culture and winning new commitment from all the players, but it needs strong, sensitive leadership. Perhaps, too, it needs a clean slate. For example, New York City school officials closed the failing Julia Richman High by phasing out one class at a time, giving creative educators time to create new, smaller schools as alternatives. Either way, reconstituted schools must become places where teachers want to teach.

In contrast, the Reform Board’s Lighthouse program is a winning combination of more time, smaller classes, sufficient materials and teachers who want to be there. With card games, board games, Legos and blocks, the recreation part promotes learning, too. As Lisa Lewis’ research roundup points out, improving the quality of teaching will get schools farther than increasing the quantity of teaching. Staff development, teacher recruitment and initial teacher preparation all need serious work. In the meantime, Lighthouse is helping kids and allowing schools to redirect their discretionary dollars to meet their unique needs.