Take 5: Meeks to head state board, college credit classes, principal autonomy

Print More

In his first statements after being named chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, Rev. James Meeks said he is open to charters and vouchers, anything that successfully closes the achievement gap. Of course, as chairman of the board of education, he won’t have any real role in passing legislation to get more vouchers or charters.

But if the litmus test is whether they close the achievement gap, that will be hard to prove. Studies have generally shown that students who go to private schools using vouchers show no greater improvement than students who stay in public schools. Charter school results are equally inconclusive with about a third of schools doing better than traditional public schools, a third doing worse and a third doing about the same. As a state senator, Meeks tried, but failed, to get a voucher bill passed. Soon after, a private school run by his church closed its doors.

Of course, Gov. Bruce Rauner supports charter schools and vouchers so that might be a bigger factor than whether they actually close the achievement gap. With Meeks, it also will be interesting to see if he is as strident an advocate for more school funding as he has been in the past. Remember that in 2008 he kept more than 1,000 Chicago students out of school on the first day and took them on a bus to try to enroll them in New Trier High School. That school spends about $30,000 on each student, double what CPS has to spend. Meeks only sent the students back to school when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn’t meet on the subject until the students went back to school.

2. Lucrative connections? Speaking of Rauner, the Sun-Times digs deep into the business dealings of one member of the new governor’s transition team: former Chicago Public Schools CEO Rob Huberman. Reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes that a company started by Huberman has gotten $200,000 from charter operators he helped before leaving government four years ago.

Huberman launched the company, TeacherMatch LLC, which provides software to help schools screen job applicants, in 2011, and two years later got a boost of nearly $1.9 million from investors, including a private equity firm where he’s also a top executive.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools and United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools — both clients of TeacherMatch — had previously benefitted from Huberman’s tenure as CEO, getting permission to enroll more students at three campuses and approval for new sites. A third charter group that has paid TeacherMatch is Distinctive Schools, which manages some of the Chicago International Charter schools, and whose chairman is involved in a separate business venture with Huberman.

3. Worth the money? The Chicago Tribune raises serious questions about the effectiveness of a state program aimed at developing minority teachers. Illinois has spent more than $20 million in the past decade for the Grow Your Own Teacher program — which so far has produced only about 80 teachers of color. Another 140 are in the pipeline. When the program was originally funded, state legislatures projected it would graduate about 1,000 teachers by 2016.

Advocates say programs like Grow Your Own Teacher are important, considering that minorities make up more than half of students across Illinois but just 16 percent of teachers. But some critics, like state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, call it “an example of politics still trumping merit, in terms of whether a program warrants continued funding.”

One important reason why many recruited candidates never became teachers is a failure to pass the assessment previously known as the Basic Skills Test that’s needed to get into colleges of education. Across all races, passing rates have dropped significantly since the test was revamped in 2010. (The test is blamed in part for the decrease in enrollment in colleges of education.) But white teacher candidates are still twice as likely to pass than their black and Latino counterparts, according to recent data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

4. Dual-enrollment vs AP…. A day after saying that in his second term he wanted to increase the number of high school students taking dual enrollment classes at City Colleges, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he has found private funding for it. GE Transportation, a Chicago-based division of General Electric Company, is offering up a $500,000 investment for the program. City leaders hope to enroll 6,100 CPS students in the program by the 2016-2017 school year, up from 2,481 students enrolled this year and nearly eight times more than when Emanuel took office.

“We have to rethink what senior year of high school is all about,” Emanuel said at a Friday press conference. “It’s got to be a period of preparing kids for their next step in education, whether that means summer internships, or enrolling in a two-year degree program, or applying for college.”

Of course, the big push over the past decade was for students to earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement classes. The number of students taking AP classes went from about 4,000 in 2000 to more than 16,000 in 2013–the last year CPS data is available. But the chronic problem with AP classes is that they are too hard for most students to pass. To earn credit from an AP class students must get a three or above on a test developed by the College Board. Only about a third of CPS students got college credit for their AP classes in 2013.

Dual enrollment classes are basically city college classes and students simply have to meet the requirements to pass that class. According to CPS, about 90 percent of students who take dual enrollment classes pass them.

Through the years when reporters questioned CPS officials about having so many students take AP classes only to fail them, we were assured that students benefitted from the rigor of the courses, even if they didn’t earn college credit. No one is saying that dual enrollment classes will replace AP classes, but that would seem to be the natural consequence for some students. The question then becomes: Is an easier route to college credit better?

5. Autonomy reality check… As would be expected, the day after Emanuel touted his first-term education performance and laid out what he wants to do in the second term, rivals and critics attacked his rosy picture and questioned his plans. Interestingly, one of the plans taking the most heat is the one to give high-performing principals freedom from district mandates to run their schools.

First off, on a video posted to Mayoral Candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s website, principal activist Troy LaRaviere said that in a survey of principals, 85 percent feel as though they have less autonomy under Emanuel. He said that principals were especially disturbed with regular mandates being handed down by central and network offices. On the survey, one principal said that CPS administration should stop using the term “autonomy” because it is an “illusion.”

“In the end Emanuel’s public comments are a stark contrast to reality,” LaRaviere said on the video.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett insisted that this proposed program was different the previous initiative that ended in 2011 called AMPS or Autonomous Management and Performance Schools. However, she did not give details.

In its critique of Emanuel, the CTU noted that with per-pupil budgeting, principals were supposed to get more autonomy–though their budgets were cut at the same time. Further, they say it is a bad idea to use autonomy as a reward. They note black students made up 18 percent of students in AMPS schools and white students made up 40 percent, yet 40 percent of CPS’ student population is black and 9 percent are white.