Take 5: LEARN Charter opposed, NYC retaking school power

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More than a thousand people have signed a petition to keep a LEARN Charter School branch from opening in south suburban Chicago Heights, where the network has proposed to open a K-8 elementary school this September. It would be LEARN’s ninth campus, and its second suburban location. The Chicago-based network first expanded to North Chicago, a low-income suburb of Waukegan, in 2012.

“Until charter schools have a proven track record of being successful, I am not willing to support them,” commented one petitioner. LEARN’s website does boast higher ISAT scores than its peers. As you will remember, LEARN is the charter network that started in North Lawndale and, in 2010, won $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. The network is hoping for a victory after its bid to open a school in Waukegan was rejected earlier this month.

Opening in Chicago Heights would contribute to a national and statewide trend of charters expanding into suburban areas. Today Illinois is home to 148 charter schools, but the vast majority, 134, are in Chicago.

2. Speaking of charters…. An op-ed in Forbes magazine written by an economist for Moody Analytics argues that the prevalent narrative about charter schools is wrong. Adam Ozimek correctly says that most people summarize the studies on charter schools by saying that they are no better and no worse than nearby schools. Instead, he says the conventional wisdom should be that “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students.” Ozimek cites the 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study that says: “Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts. This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty.”

The debate isn’t likely to die, however. Charter school critics question whether there are other factors that separate poor black students at charter schools from those in traditional schools, such as family involvement and ability to get them into the charter school. Further, they point out that many charter schools have highly disciplined environments that often push students out and perhaps leave those who are better performing.

3. More on displaced students… The Consortium on Chicago School Research’s big study on students displaced by last year’s closings doesn’t say much that has not already been said about closings. Still, the study is a major deal because Mayor Emanuel is defending the closings as he runs to keep his job. Also, the decision is a defining part of his legacy and Chicago’s history. The Chicago Tribune dealt with it through an editorial. They note that as they interview aldermanic candidates for potential endorsements, many of them are still angry about the closings, something the editorial says is understandable. But according to their assessment, the study shows the results were mixed if not good. The best thing, according to the Tribune, is that one-fifth of students made it to top-rated schools–a “glass half-full” view. Yet they note one of the biggest problems pointed out by the study: Parents did not feel like they had enough time to do research and find the best school for their children.

Though the story is more nuanced, the Sun Times headline is a coup for Emanuel: “Most CPS students whose schools closed switched to better schools: report.” In it, Todd Babbitz, one of the architects of the closings, said the findings were affirming “that we succeeded in sending the vast, vast majority of those students to schools that were more highly rated.”

Declaring success or failure based just on this study is premature, though. The Consortium has not had a chance to study how students fared once they got to their new schools. One early indication of problems is that six welcoming schools would have had their ratings plummet had CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not used her authority to grant them higher ratings. One of them, Leland in Austin, would have gone from a top-rated schools to one of the lowest-rated in the district.

4. Retaking power in NYC… New York City Chancellor Carmen Farina is getting ready to re-establish the power of the central office, according to a New York Times story. By doing so, she will be reversing moves made by former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sought to give principals more freedom and make the central office more of a service center for schools. According to the article, studies on Klein’s network system showed that it cut spending in central office by 22 percent, but also that some networks were less effective than others.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio and Farina say they believe this system left the struggling schools with too little supervision. Also, because all schools were doing their own thing, it was hard to get a quick answer to questions about schools.

Of course, under Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett, CPS’ power structure is fashioned more like Klein’s and Bloomberg’s. However, Chicago principals complain that they have little autonomy. As the New York Times article describes, New York, like other big urban school districts, has tried many structures as the pendulum of power swings from being centralized to being nested in the schools.

5. Student privacy concerns … Apart from remarking on improved high school graduation rates and test scores, President Barack Obama largely stayed away from issues related to K-12 education during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He did, however, reiterate an earlier call for legislation to protect students’ online information in order to ensure it’s not sold to schools or used for targeted ads. The issue has been gaining importance as school districts across the country — including Chicago — increasingly turn to online learning tools to supplement classroom learning.

In a story about how local parents and educators are dealing with student privacy concerns, the Chicago Tribune explains that because some of these tools require “teachers or students to enter all sorts of data — from names to grades to personality traits — thus raising questions that educators had not faced before: Will information a teacher or child shares stay available in cyberspace with the potential to be brought up years later by college admissions officers or employers?”

Education Week wrote about other educational issues touched on by the president, including  his proposals for free community college and tripling an existing $1,000 per child care tax credit for working families — and the reaction from key lawmakers. Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, “noted the lack of attention to ‘fixing No Child Left Behind’ in the speech, and said that most of the education proposals had no chance of becoming law.”