How CPS turns promising ideas into harmful practice

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Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer, Peterson Elementary

Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer, Peterson Elementary

A couple of years ago, in an effort to positively reframe its focus, Chicago Public Schools renamed its Human Resources department the “Talent Office.” The rebranding came with a clear message: We want to recruit and support talented individuals to be our employees. However, the true legacy of the past few years is better reflected in the loss of the word human from this department’s name. It is telling. Most policies enacted over the past two years demonstrate both a complete incompetence in the ability of this administration to implement anything effectively, and an intentional disregard and disrespect of those charged with improving the lives of our city’s children on a day-to-day basis. 

I am a CPS principal who believes strongly in many of the reforms being proposed in the national and local education discussion. I should be an unlikely critic of current policy. Yet the lack of principal and teacher voice in this dialogue—which my heroic colleague Troy LaRaviere has written about in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed—has turned promising ideas into harmful practice. When this is coupled with implementation so poor it borders on malpractice, it is time for significant changes in our approach. 

As CPS began implementing the first overhaul to the teacher evaluation system in 30 years, the initial efforts seemed promising.  CPS conducted a multi-year pilot of a nationally recognized and utilized tool, the Danielson Framework.  But when it came time to actually begin evaluating teachers using the framework’s 10-page form, there was little district-wide thought given to training and developing teachers on what level of performance was expected of them on each criterion. The bulk of the decisions related to this tool were made during summer 2012, so teachers had, at most, one to two days to understand this major shift in expectations. It was only through that fall’s strike that teachers were able to negotiate a much-needed practice year with the rubric.

It should not take the most extreme form of exercising collective voice to make common sense recommendations that multiple school level leaders and educators had advocated for during the process. 

As troubling as the introduction of the new teacher evaluation system was, the rollout of the revised principal evaluation system comparatively looked like operational excellence. The 18-page rubric evaluating 34 indicators of principal success was not finalized until the beginning of February of the year it would first be used.  It was provided to principals for the first time in the middle of February, and principals were told they would be evaluated on it beginning three days later.

This meant that school leaders were not even provided the expectations for their work until more than two-thirds of the school year had already passed. Common sense would suggest that CPS should have introduced the new tool the following school year to allow principals adequate time to understand it, but this was not the path it chose. CPS crammed two principal evaluations into the final three months of the school year and linked these ratings to job retention.

Lack of thoughtful implementation hurts children

It would be one thing if these policies and this lack of thoughtful implementation remained only in arenas that affect adults and professionals. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that is not the case. The harm of this disregard of professionals is impacting children. Changes in substitute systems and teacher hiring have reduced the number of candidates available without any substantial changes in quality. I regularly have one to two substitute positions unfilled each day because no substitute is available. I have positions I cannot staff because I have fewer than three to four applicants for the positing, and none of them should be in front of children. The loss of instructional time is compounded over the year. 

The longer school day added 30 minutes to my school’s day.  Of that time, 15 minutes were allocated to “transition,” or moving through the hallway. Another 15 minutes extended teacher preparatory time and gave students additional time in art, music, physical education, technology, and library. The impact of this change was that it became more difficult to run after-school or before-school programs, and we lost 30 minutes of collaborative time each week. After two years of implementation, I would be hard-pressed to claim that our students have reaped any instructional benefit from this increased time, especially when I consider the strain on my school caused by the two-week strike. 

CPS now expects its schools to provide daily physical education classes and intervention blocks, as well as several hours each week of arts instruction and English Language Learning intervention. This instruction is obviously important, but CPS did nothing to enable principals to really enact these new initiatives. It has been incredibly difficult to find time in the instructional day on top of two-hour literacy blocks and other lengthened core subject times, much less the accounting around how to fund these positions when the resources are not provided to cover all the mandates.

CPS has left principals with the choice of where to fail students, rather than the choice of how to ensure each student has an education that is holistic, community-based, collaborative, evidence-based, equitable, and student-centered.

Disrespect, lack of collaboration drive away talent

Unfortunately, when systems stop considering the humanity of those working within them, employees with power in turn begin to disregard those working with them within the system. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched my colleagues and myself be disrespected in meetings or emails. I have sat through lengthy budget rollout meetings where principals were spoken to with empty platitudes about how they are the “levers of change,” while plans have not contained raises for administrators at any point in the past four years. These same presentations from leadership continued with sarcastic remarks that any school that wishes to give up its funds is welcome to do so, if we feel so strongly about how funds, such as those raised by schools through facilities rental, are distributed and thus negatively impact our colleagues’ schools.

When administrators have raised their concerns in these meetings, such as what to do when we see lunchroom employees in tears from being overworked as the district cut school positions by 33% to 50%, there is no response.  Instead, our employees are given veiled threats by nutrition service management to figure it out or find a new job.   I have routinely witnessed similar insensitivity to the uprooting of our schools’ custodial and engineering staff.  We are in the business of developing people, but these days, there is a lack of development and support for those doing that work. 

We need rigorous standards that prepare students for college and advanced citizenship. We need high-quality assessments that provide information on what each student knows and require students to demonstrate learning. We need evaluation systems that let teachers and administrators know where they are effective and where they need to get better. We need systems and policies throughout the district that will support this work and that are designed to put the student experience at the center. 

However, if we do all these things with a process that does not invite collaboration along with teacher and principal voices, we will not only fail in our efforts to retain talent–we will fail to act humanely both towards our educators and our children. 

Adam Parrott-Sheffer is principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School