Take 5: Parents form PAC, Byrd-Bennett on testing, teacher tenure fight

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Frustrated parents from an overcrowded Southwest Side elementary school have taken the unusual step of forming a political action committee. Dore, in Clearing, has 673 students but was built for 400, and, as of last year, with mobile units was 127 percent over capacity,  according to CPS standards. It is a Level 1 school that is 60 percent Latino and 35 percent white. About 56 percent of students are low-income.  

The SWNewsHerald, an online newspaper, reports that the vice principal has to share the boiler room with the engineer. Parents also say that after fourth grade, special education students often leave the school because there’s no space for them. Board members seemed sympathetic to the cause of the parents, but political pressure might be the way to go. The North and South sides of the city have about the same number of overcrowded schools, with most of the overcrowding on the west sides, such as McKinley Park and Sauganash, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data for 2013-2014. But six of the eight schools that got annexes under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration were on the North Side.

2. Leading the way? Is CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett really another national figure standing up to over-testing and showing concerned about new Common Core tests? Ever since she announced last week that she planned to ask the state and federal government to delay districtwide implementation of the PARCC, the move was mentioned in Politico and the Washington Post as another signal that testing, and in particular the PARCC, are in trouble.

The Washington Post Answer Sheet features CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett ‘s pronouncement.  The blog’s author, Valerie Strauss says that the PARCC and another Common Core test developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium were supposed to be revolutionary—that is, more sophisticated and better able to assess student skills. But the hesitation to move toward PARCC is a sign of concern that these tests will not be the “absolute game-changer in public education” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted in 2010. Duncan’s administration has put $360 million into developing these tests.

The blog reports that 12 states will give the PARCC this year and 26 will give the SBAC.

The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is certainly concerned with these larger questions about the PARCC, with parents complaining that the PARCC was too confusing and subjective. The group started an online petition urging the state to ask the federal government for a waiver.

But Byrd-Bennett’s recent stand raises questions. Her request to delay the PARCC was already turned down and she failed to mention it in her statement, and some are wondering whether it was merely a political maneuver. In her letter to ISBE, Byrd-Bennett in fact praises the test, saying the “pilot program” showed positive results. (Copies of the letter are now posted.)

According to the letter, Byrd-Bennett’s biggest concern is that, in addition to the PARCC, she also wants to administer the NWEA to elementary school students and the ACT to high school students.  That would leave students facing two batteries of tests—like last year, when parents and teachers staged a mutiny against the district’s plan to give both the NWEA and the ISAT, even though the ISAT was being phased out.

At the end of this week, ISAT scores will be available from the state (CPS has not released the results on their own as they usually do). It will be interesting to if the opt-out movement caused a dip at particular schools, providing yet another reason why Byrd-Bennett likely doesn’t want another opt-out movement on her hands.

3. Protesting a strike … As the teachers strike in Waukegan drags into its fourth week, frustrated parents say it’s time that the district and educators reach an agreement so that classes can resume. Some parents told Univision this weekend the impasse is hurting students — and that they plan to send their children to school on Monday even though union and district officials will be back at the bargaining table.

The 17,000 students in the Waukegan public school system have been out of class since Oct. 2, when teachers walked off the job seeking better pay and benefits. The strike has caused a logistical nightmare for many parents who now have to worry about day care and keeping their children busy all day. Some have also expressed concerns about the impact a continued strike may have on graduating high school seniors. The Lake County News-Sun reports that parents have also been calling nearby private schools, asking if it’s too late to enroll their children. “It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, it’s really obvious who’s getting hurt,” says the president of Cristo Rey St. Martin Prep School in Waukegan.

4. Who wants to teach? … Enrollment continues to decline at teacher-prep programs across the country, Education Week reports. “Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career,” the story reports. Federal data show that enrollment in university teacher-preparation programs dropped about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012. In California, enrollment fell by more than half between the 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 school years, leading state officials to worry about a teacher shortage.

The article features one would-be teacher who changed his mind about entering the profession because he felt “in the middle of an ideological war that surfaced in everything from state-level education policy on down to his course textbook, which had a distinct anti-standardized-testing bent.”

Catalyst looked into the decline in enrollment at teaching colleges across Illinois in April and found that enrollment fell most significantly among white students. Because of the state’s historic over-production of teachers, it’s unlikely that Illinois will have massive overall shortage of public school teachers.

5. Battle in California … The Los Angeles Times reports on this year’s tight, costly battle for what’s typically considered a sleepy race for the job of state schools chief. But as has been seen in races across the country — and was expected, too, in the Windy City if Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had run for mayor — the California contest has drawn national attention and millions of dollars from unions on one side and billionaire education reformers on the other.

One reasons for all the excitement is how the candidates say they’ll respond to the recent Vergara v. California decision, which ruled that some teacher tenure rules violated the rights of poor and minority children who were stuck with bad teachers that were hard to fire. Incumbent Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson — a former teacher and legislator — has appealed the decision and has the backing of the unions. His challenger, Marshall Tuck, who has run charter schools and traditional public schools taken over by the former L.A. mayor, has promised to withdraw the state’s appeal if elected. He’s received millions of dollars in donations from business-minded reformers, including Eli Broad.

The results could have implications far beyond California. “Whichever side wins this relatively low-profile office gets a huge leg up in the broader debate over education policy,”one political scientist told the paper.  “The politics and symbolism are tremendous both for [the unions] and the reformers.”