Take 5: ISAT news, charter study and the corruption cure

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The Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois students showed improvement in math in almost every grade last year, although the passing rates for reading dropped slightly.

District superintendents told the Tribune the improvements in math make sense, as they’ve been revamping curricula for three years in order to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards. Last year’s ISATs used only questions that were aligned to the new, controversial standards.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has not officially released any of the data on the ISAT scores. But that information — including school- and district- level data — will be accessible to the public on October 31. CPS has traditionally released its ISAT information well before the state’s official release, but officials have not said whether they plan to post it before October 31. This year, CPS will not be using the ISAT for its accountability system, leading a movement among parents to question why their children were forced to take it.

In addition to ISAT scores, a revamped state report card will include several new metrics and data, including information on post-secondary enrollment, freshman on-track rates and even rates of principal turnover and teacher retention. ISBE discussed some of the key, state-level findings from the report card during its meeting yesterday, including the fact that the percentage of white students has dropped below 50 percent for the first time

2. Looking forward…This week Chicago learned the grim details about the serious illness that has made CTU President Karen Lewis temporarily step down from her union position and back away from considering a mayoral run: Lewis, according to several media reports, suffers from a cancerous brain tumor. She had emergency surgery last week and is now recovering at home.

Her potential mayoral bid had excited many in Chicago’s progressive community who thought she’d be a formidable challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, as Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes, progressives in Chicago are left without a standard-bearer, although a movement to elect progressive aldermanic candidates as well as put an elected school board to referendum in all 50 wards is underway.

The CTU, too, must now face contract negotiations without Lewis. The union has been in the process of forming its “big bargaining team” which will begin meeting with city officials in the coming weeks to discuss the teachers’ contract that expires next summer. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey admits he has big shoes to fill in a Crain’s article profiling the temporary new union boss. But even though Lewis isn’t running for mayor, the fight for equity in the city continues, Sharkey told a group of teachers Wednesday evening. So it was no surprise that shortly after Emanuel presented his proposed budget to City Council on Wednesday afternoon, the CTU was quick to issue its own response on how the budget “continues a top-down imposition of two distinct cities, one for the privileged and one for everyone else.”

3. More charter fodder… The Tribune, Sun-Times and Crain’s all covered the release of a report that concluded charter schools perform worse than traditional schools, even as the fact that families select them–and students are presumably more motivated–seemingly signals that they should be performing better. As the report’s author Myron Orfield points out, other more comprehensive studies have found mostly mixed results when comparing Chicago’s charters to traditional, non-selective schools. Orfield, however, only uses one year of data to conclude that, as a group, charters are worse.

Orfield’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota is mostly focused on how housing and school segregation is harmful. The report notes that Chicago’s charter schools are less likely to be diverse than other district schools. Orfield identifies schools as diverse if they have a mix of black and Latino students, as well as black, Latino and white students. But it is hard to blame school segregation on charter schools. With only 9 percent white students and neighborhood segregation pretty much the only traditional schools in the district that are truly diverse are some of the selective and magnet schools.

According to the Tribune, Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools quickly dismissed the report as a “policy piece masquerading as research.”

4. Tangled web…There is growing concern about the way charter schools are allowed to do business. A ProPublica story looks at a North Carolina businessman named Baker Mitchell. Mitchell sat on the board of a charter school network and, at the same time, the companies he owns served as vendors for the charter, providing everything from the management to the buildings they rented to their desks and computers. North Carolina regulators eventually pressured him to step down from the board, but he still serves as the board’s secretary, taking notes at meetings.

Mitchell also played a political role, sitting on the state’s Charter School Advisory Committee and later pushing through a bill that loosened regulations over charters and get this, gave tax breaks to landlords, like Mitchell, who rent to charter schools.

ProPublica’s story says that the U.S. Department of Education is looking into such relationships and notes that the FBI sent out subpoenas to operators of at least three companies.

5. Cure for corruption?… Professor and researcher Dick Simpson told a state task force on Monday that the lack of “citizenship education” is the main reason that Illinois is one of the most corrupt states. He and others at the Monday hearing endorsed the recommendations in a preliminary task force report that calls for all students to take a civic learning class and for a revision of service learning requirements. If approved Illinois would join 20 other states that have standards related to civic education and engagement.

Barbara Cruz, a senior at Hancock High School, said that students in her community often don’t feel accurately represented by their elected officials, but don’t know what to do about it. “We are not apathetic, we are not hopeless, and we are not too stubborn to change. The truth is, we are going to be at the forefront, if you guys let us.”

Speaking of teaching service, over 100 schools in Illinois have already signed up to participate in this year’s We Day, an April event that celebrates students’ community service. The event was launched this week at Farragut High School where Martin Luther King III among others spoke. The initiative started in Toronto, Canada and has since expanded to 14 cities in three countries, including Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.