There’s gotta be a better way

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When the School Reform Board unveiled its promotion policy, it sounded like such a good, commonsensical thing to do: Don’t move students ahead if they’re not prepared to do the next level of work. The threat of being retained might make them work harder, and they wouldn’t founder in lessons they weren’t ready to do. Yes, other school districts that tried to halt so-called social promotion had found that the cure was worse than the disease. But Chicago had gone an extra mile, providing summer school, after-school programs and a probation program, among other initiatives, aimed at improving schools in general. There seemed to be reason to hope that Chicago might succeed where others had failed. But hope is fading.

As Elizabeth Duffrin reports, the School Board is refusing to release basic information about what has happened to students who are retained—information that by law it should make public upon request. That can only mean bad news. The board also has decided to retest retained students in January and to promote immediately those who get passing scores, thereby leapfrogging them over the first half of the next grade’s curriculum. Many of the successful students will have to reorient themselves with new teachers, new classmates and new routines. Then, within three months, they’ll take the next level of those all-important tests.

There’s gotta be a better way. Chances are, teachers and principals know a few. Writing in the September installment of our What Matters Most series, Shari Frost, who teaches 1st grade at Norwood Park Elementary School and reading courses in college, suggests assigning teachers with the best background in reading to 1st grade, where the foundation is laid. None of the carrots and sticks devised by the School Board promotes that logical practice; indeed, its promotion policy pushes resources and expertise toward 3rd, 6th and 8th grades. Frost also notes that under the state’s teacher certification policies, it is possible to teach in the primary grades after having had only one session of instruction—not course, but session—on early literacy. That shortcoming begs for professional development and support for teachers, not simply more time in school for children.

To the School Board’s credit, it is going along with a comprehensive study of its promotion program by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which will look into classroom practices as well as the statistics. Ideas should be sought from the classroom level, too.

At the high school level, school officials once again have adopted a major change in promotion criteria after having talked only among themselves. The new policy sets a number of requirements for earning a “certificate of mastery,” which amounts to a big gold star on a diploma. The idea is to motivate students to work harder and to offer a credential that colleges and employers can trust. Once again, the goal is great. But I want to hear what teachers and principals think about the particulars, and the board should, too. They’re the ones who work with kids and will have to make any new policy work.

ABOUT US On Nov. 15, the Rev. Calvin S. Morris will be installed as the 10th executive director of the Community Renewal Society. The occasion also will be a homecoming because Rev. Morris began his career in Chicago. Fresh from Boston University, he joined Operation Breadbasket, and was appointed associate director by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Between then and now, he has served as a teacher and/or administrator at the Martin Luther King Center for Non-violent Social Change, Simmons College, Howard University School of Divinity and Interdenominational Theological Center. Rev. Morris is a man of many passions, including American history (in which he holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) and the education of our children.

ON THE AIR Teachers Susan Ansai and Carol Gaul will discuss their experiences with student retention on the Nov. 8 edition of “City Voices” on WNUA-FM, 95.5. The program will be broadcast at 6 a.m.