School ratings changes made with research in mind, budget cuts now official

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As several hundred community members gathered outside to protest policies they deem racist, the Chicago school board adopted new school rating measures and a budget that slashed school spending.

The new rating policy, scheduled to go into effect next school year, is aimed at aligning more closely with what research has shown to be effective in improving student achievement. For example, it puts a premium on student attendance, which will count for 20 percent of an elementary school’s rating, and singles out reading achievement in 2nd grade, which will count for 5 percent.

At the high school level, the new policy intensifies a focus on post-secondary education. For the first time, high schools will be rated in part by the number of college-bound students who complete freshman year and move on to sophomore year.

The policy also singles out achievement of groups that historically have lagged behind: One-tenth of a school’s rating will be based on the achievement growth of black, Latino, special education and English Language Learner (ELL) students.

Changes involving testing were:

·         Students’ achievement and growth on tests will be compared with those of students nationwide. 

·         Test score measures will be from performance on the NWEA in elementary schools and the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT in high schools.

New rating levels draw questions

There will be five rating levels under the new policy rather than three. The bottom level , called  “intensive support,” could spell the most serious action, including a school turnaround, which involves re-staffing, or removal of the principal. The next-to-lowest level, “provisional support,”  will receive interventions and resources geared toward their specific challenges.

The presentation on levels stirred some questions from board member Andrea Zopp, who said she wants it to be obvious to parents what supports low-performing schools will receive.

Some school-closing opponents have argued over the years that underperforming schools received so few resources that there was no way for them to succeed, or even that CPS intentionally sabotaged schools.

“What I’m concerned about here is creating a model where we make commitments to our communities and then fail to deliver,” Zopp said. “… I just want it to mean something — not what we’ve had out there for years, schools on probation for decades and it means nothing.”

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that the supports underperforming schools receive will be fleshed out in the next year, before the rating system takes effect. 

Zopp also questioned how CPS will help schools improve college persistence rates – typically not something high schools have been given resources or training to address. “I hate to have metrics we just put in there and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re failing,’” she said.

CPS Chief of Accountability John Barker Barker said he hopes that the new policy lasts five years. He noted that the most recent rating system — the results of which will come out in the next several weeks – was just passed in April.

Speakers take aim at CPS budget

By the time public participation started at 12:45, many of the people who had signed up to speak had already left. Also, many seats in the chambers went empty. This was the first meeting under a new policy that requires observers as well as speakers to sign up online. 

Many speakers took on the district’s steep budget cuts. Adenia Linker, a Lane Tech parent, began by playing audio of schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promising a moratorium on school closings and a new beginning this school year.

“There is a moratorium – on enrichment opportunities, including art and music,” Linker said. She said CPS had opened a “Pandora’s box” of parental anger and protest, and that she and others would fight “until this Board is history.”

The first speaker in public participation was Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group. He said the budget gives the district “no leeway” for future financial challenges.

Blaming state funding cuts and increasing pension payments for the funding crisis, board officials said that raiding the district’s reserves was a necessary step.

“Our current resources make it very difficult to invest in children the way we want to,” said Tim Cawley, the district’s chief administrative officer. “We completely agree with the public’s outrage about the overall funding level.”

He added that CPS has “managed our debt rather creatively” to lower payments and even defer some to the future.

Cawley noted several new aspects of the CPS budget. For the first time,  changes in school-level funding to accommodate enrollment changes will happen on the 10th day of school instead of the 20th day. That will allow principals to decide what to cut (or how to spend extra money) by the 20th day. But it could pose challenges for schools where students show up later in the year.

Also, CPS increased the bilingual education allocation to schools by $44 per pupil.

At the end of the meeting, board officials responded to speakers’ criticisms about the budget.

Cawley said that money for the Office of Innovation and Incubation has gone toward needed school supplies at schools that expand or open for the first time (including neighborhood and magnet schools), not just to Central Office staff and charters.

Board member Henry Bienen said that pension reform is a euphemism, and that it “has to come out of somebody’s hide,” be that taxpayers or teachers. But he said he hoped CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union could work together to increase the amount of funding for schools.

Board members passed the  $5.592 billion operating budget unanimously.