Vallas, Chico sketch plan for learning

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In separate interviews, School Board President Gery Chico and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas sketched the key elements of a systemwide student achievement plan due out this month for review by the broader school community. Once the proposed plan is released, the board will conduct a series of public hearings, focus groups and workshops, according to Vallas.

STANDARDS At each grade level, there will be achievement standards in core subjects—language arts, math, science and social studies. The existing Chicago Learning Outcomes “may form the basis of this plan,” said Vallas. However, the outcomes, written as a joint project of the former board and the Chicago Teachers Union, are in for streamlining. “If you take a look at the outcomes, maybe 50 percent at best are articulable and able to be understood by a broad group of people,” said Chico. “I think we can write better standards that are agreed upon by the broader community and that we can get our arms around and actually get behind, school by school.”

“We’re not saying you can’t have thematic schools, can’t have bilingual schools, Afrocentric schools, performing arts schools,” Vallas stressed. “We’re not saying you can’t do creative things with your curriculum or add enhancements. But we are saying there are a number of things we expect to be taught.”

TESTS A new testing system will be devised to measure attainment of the new standards, and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills likely will be phased out. “I don’t think the Iowa will disappear immediately,” said Vallas. As CATALYST went to press, no decision had been made about the precise kinds of tests or the frequency of testing. However, with the MacArthur Foundation involved, which Vallas confirmed, it’s a virtual certainty that eventually they will include more than multiple-choice tests of basic skills.

PROMOTION Students will be expected to attain the standards for their grade levels before being promoted each year. “I submit to you that some of the worst self-esteem problems I’ve ever seen are from moving kids ahead when they’re not ready for it,” Chico said. Test scores, grades and teachers’ evaluations will be used to determine readiness, he said.

Previous school administrations set promotion guidelines loosely tied to test scores, but schools could do as they pleased. Noting research showing that students who are held back are more likely to drop out of school than similar children who are promoted, many education advocates say it’s better to promote and then give extra help. The new administration is attempting to provide extra help up front—with tutoring and after-school programs—but it’s unclear whether there will be enough to meet the need. And experts in early childhood education say that young children develop at such different rates that, before 3rd grade, formal testing and promotion programs can do more harm than good.

SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT PLAN It, too, will be simplified and focused on student achievement. “I’ve never in my life been handed a 1,000-page book that meant anything to me, except the Bible,” said Chico, again adding that long documents are fine so long as they are clear, followed and yield results.

“We want to turn the SIP into a student achievement plan,” said Vallas. “We expect the plan to explain how curriculum, instruction, assessment and extra services, like after-school programs, all support achievement of the standards,” said Vallas.

ACCOUNTABILITY Vallas said the board would intervene, through the process of remediation or reconstitution, at schools that continually fail to perform, exert no effort to improve or fail to cooperate in plans to put the school on track. “I do not in any way mean to criticize our workforce,” he added. “We face challenges that many other districts throughout the state could not imagine facing. I won’t evaluate us vis à vis the suburbs. I want to evaluate us against ourselves.”

As for the 149 schools currently on an educational “watch list” for having exceptionally low test scores, Vallas said about 50 are showing significant improvement, about 50 are “kinda there,” and about 50 are still declining. “We’re going to be focusing on the 50 that are not making progress,” he said. “We don’t want to dictate; we want to help.”