Take 5: Education assemblies, middle grades to college, Duncan’s pro-testing stance

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A diverse group of parents, students, teachers and educational activists came together on Wednesday evening to plan what they are calling “education assemblies.” Details are still being worked out, but the idea is to hold two assemblies a year and use a democratic process to develop a progressive education platform. Smaller groups would push the agenda between assemblies. They hope to have the first assembly in late spring.

Anton Miglietta, who is co-director of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Task Force, told the group of about 75 people at Wells High School that other progressive movements, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, used the same process to determine an agenda and advocate for it. Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia came to the planning meeting for a short time. Other familiar faces were Raise Your Hands’ Wendy Katten, More than a Score’s Cassie Caswell and Ross Floyd, a Jones College Prep student who helped launch the Chicago Students Union. Along with Miglietta, Morrill Principal Michael Beyer and University of Illinois Professor David Stovall are organizers.

Most of the ideas that they talked about were not new. For example, they discussed an elected school board with a voting student, eliminating high stakes testing and no new charter schools.

2. Texting to the rescue… Chicago will launch a 311 texting service this fall sending tips and information to the city’s parents, according to a recent press release from the mayor’s office. The service, called “Connect4Tots,” will give advice to parents on issues from immunization and nutrition to literacy and social services. The city will collaborate with child advocacy group EverThrive Illinois to roll out the service. Connect4Tots will “provide a central place for Chicago parents to receive maternal and child health as well as early childhood education information, in a quick, easy to use, and free manner,” said Janine Lewis, executive director of EverThrive. The messages will come from experts at public institutions  like the Chicago Department of Public Health as well as private groups like Ounce of Prevention and Everthrive.

The service will be modeled on Text4Baby, a nationwide texting network launched in 2010 that now reaches more than 500,000 pregnant women and new mothers with maternity tips.  Services like Text4Baby have been gaining popularity in recent years, and they’re backed by some pretty substantial research. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study last year that found a similar texting service gave a substantial boost to the literacy scores of the children whose families it reached. Also owing to the success of texting services is their extremely low cost: According to the New York Times, they typically cost less than $1 per child, where home visiting programs can run up to $10,000 per household.

3. Hard transitions… Following up on an earlier report, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research  published two briefs last week examining indicators of college readiness in middle school and high school. Among the findings: Middle school attendance is critical to determining whether students are on-track to graduate in high school. Small variations in eighth-grade attendance, the middle school report found, lead to drastic differences in high school on-track records. Students with 96 percent attendance had a 77 percent likelihood of being on track for college by ninth grade, for example, but when attendance drops to 90 percent, that likelihood falls to 44 percent.

Another major takeaway from the study is that the transition from middle school to high school takes a toll on nearly all students: Across the board, attendance drops significantly between those two years. What’s more, the majority of off-track high school students had shown few signs of struggling before they arrived in high school. According to the most recent numbers, 79 percent of high schoolers at-risk of being off-track boasted attendance rates of at least 95 percent in middle school.

4. Ogden anti-Semitic bullying … The bullying of a Jewish student at Ogden Elementary school is in the top 10 of the worst anti-Semitic incidents in the Midwest last year, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish watchdog group. The Chicago Tribune article on the situation said that a group of boys told the student that “he should wear striped pajamas” and that he could be put into an oven. The school talked to the boys and suspended them for a day.

However, the student’s mother told the Tribune that she didn’t think it was enough of a punishment for tormenting her son for an extended period of time. The school also held parent forums on anti-semitism. The Wiesenthal group notes that CPS did not take a strong stand against until the mother went to the media.

5. Duncan wants testing… U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to replace No Child Left Behind, but keep its hallmark policy: yearly, mandatory high-stakes testing. In an unveiling of the White House’s 2015 education agenda, Duncan gave an urgent defense of standardized testing, saying “parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year toward college and career readiness.” Instead, he harped on NCLB’s punitive treatment of underperforming schools, saying the 2002 law’s replacement should “recognize that schools need more support, more money, more resources than they have today.” The announcement rattled Republican lawmakers as well as teachers unions, who by and large warn that yearly high-stakes testing put too much pressure on students and stifle school curriculums.

Duncan also called for a $2.7 billion increase in federal spending on education, including a $1 billion boost in Title I funding, which is directed at the country’s poorest students. The federal government currently spends about $79 billion annually on education, including $14.4 billion for Title I programs. Duncan said he hopes to join a bipartisan effort to reform national education law, but it’s unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress, with an eye toward scaling back federal intervention, will approve the spending boost. At the same time, Republican efforts to gut yearly standardized testing–beginning with a familiar plan recently proposed by a former GOP education secretary–are likely to die at President Obama’s desk.