Take 5: Elected board support, testing alternatives, learning time

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One of the most divisive issues that came up at Saturday’s mayoral forum was the elected school board proposal. Voters in 37 wards will get the chance to vote on a non-binding resolution asking whether they want an elected school board instead of a mayoral-appointed board. (Here’s a quick take on the history behind the current selection process.)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is against the measure, suggested that it’s a moot point given that new Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t in favor of the idea, while a bill to change how  board members are chosen hasn’t gained much traction in the Legislature. “I don’t think we should actually convince (or) trick people by having a political campaign issue as a way to fixing our schools,” Emanuel said, according to a Tribune story.

The mayor’s challengers all support an elected board. During the forum in the Loop, hosted by the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said an elected school board would bring needed accountability, while Ald. Bob Fioretti said conflict-of-interest issues were “running amok” within the current board. “We all ought to be embarrassed by what we see at CPS at this point,” the alderman said.

2. Major caveats on closing success: Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell resigned his $180,000 position, effective Friday, in order to become the state’s Central Management Services director, according to the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. A former Marine colonel, Tyrrell was hired in spring of 2012 to oversee the closing of 50-some elementary schools–the largest mass closure of schools ever. His job was not only to move the children, but to also move massive amounts of furniture and to try to sell off the buildings.

District officials have declared success. However, only one-third of students enrolled in the new schools designated for them, far less than the 80 percent Tyrell predicted. Also, the district wound up spending $30 million to move materials from the schools and secure the buildings, three times the $8.9 million initial contract. Only one shuttered school building has been sold.

3. Social media law: CPS won’t compel students to give officials their passwords to Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram and any other social media platform, according to an article in DNAinfo. A new state law gives school districts the right to design their own cyber-bullying policies, which could include allowing school administrators to force students to provide their passwords. CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said that CPS’ policy calls on staff to monitor public items on social media, but not to try to access private pages. The district’s policy, she said, takes bullying of any type seriously.

But a downstate Belleville school district already used the new law and forced some students to give up passwords, which has led to numerous inquiries to the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois chapter spokesman Edwin Yohnka told DNAinfo. Yohnka said the ACLU is troubled by the new law and believes compelling students to give up their passwords crosses the line. In fact, Yohnka said that the ACLU is against any policy that give schools power to punish students for activity outside of school and would rather see that left to parents.

4. Testing, testing: The use–or overuse, in critic’s eyes–of standardized tests has become arguably the biggest controversy in education these days. Testing is one thing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refuses to budge on, despite a growing national backlash: Annual standardized tests should remain mandatory under any rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz breaks down why many teachers feel testing has distorted the learning process and what states and schools could do instead to assess learning. Kamenetz is the author of a recent book “The Test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing–but you don’t have to be.”

5. More on learning time:  Children in high-poverty public schools don’t have access to the extra learning time that students in wealthier schools routinely take advantage of. The latest issue of Voices in Urban Education from The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tackles learning time from this perspective of equity.

A national cross-section of authors write about using learning time in new ways in schools in poor neighborhoods. Among the programs noted are the TIME Collaborative of the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation, through which 39 schools are each adding 300 hours of time to the school year for all students (the equivalent of 50 days for a 6-hour school day).

The authors of one article make a critical point: Children in poor neighborhoods often experience considerable stress in their family life–unstable housing, lack of medical and dental care, community violence and so on–that impacts learning time by making it more likely they will miss class and more difficult for them to concentrate on academics.

In Illinois, education officials have asked for an additional $5 million in fiscal year 2016 for extended learning time activities. This year, the Illinois State Board of Education received 141 applications for learning time grants but only had money for 51 projects. The additional funds would allow ISBE to serve approximately 50 more sites–though sadly, given the state’s fiscal problems, the funds aren’t likely to materialize. Typically these programs are funded with federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers monies; last December programs in Chicago got about half of the state’s share of some $34 million in these federal funds.

The Center on Education Policy also came out with a report on expanded learning time last week.