Take 5: Brokering CTU contract, stolen bus passes, rating educators

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File photo from 2010 of middle school students at one of UNO Charter School Network's Archer Heights campuses.

Photo by Elizabeth Rodriguez, courtesy of UNO

File photo from 2010 of middle school students at one of UNO Charter School Network's Archer Heights campuses.

Chicago Teachers Union leaders say they want to bring a three-person panel in to broker contract negotiations — but not quite yet. The Chicago Tribune reports that the union wants to time that step for Nov. 23, which is the same day the union is already planning for a massive rally in Grant Park.

The CTU and school district are currently in the mediation process, and either side can now call for a fact-finding panel to spend up to 10 weeks reviewing each other’s final terms.

Then, both sides would get two weeks to respond to the fact-finding. A month later the union could go on strike, if at least 75 percent of members vote to authorize one.

The union says CPS has proposed instead to begin the fact-finding process around the first week of February. The timing matters because it determines when a strike can legally take place. Under union leaders’ timeline, it could take place this spring. Under the Board’s vision, a strike wouldn’t happen until the end of the school year.

Last week the CTU ran a mock strike vote at all schools. Although the union didn’t directly ask members if they were willing to strike, a spokeswoman said that an internal analysis of the polling questions found that 97 percent of members are prepared to walk out.

Substance News reported on how some members were confused and frustrated with the questions asked as part of the “practice vote.” CTU recording secretary Kristine Mayle told Substance the questions were crafted in part “to educate members and remind them of contract demands.”

The union has been working without a contract since July, with talks largely stalled as CPS waits to hear whether state lawmakers will grant the district pension relief. CPS is operating with a budget that’s $480 million short of revenue, and district leaders have threatened as many as 5,000 mid-year layoffs if no relief comes from Springfield.

2. Advocates want voice in special ed pick … Advocates for students with disabilities are calling on CPS to release the names of the top five candidates to lead the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services (ODLSS), which oversees special education.

Markay Winston, the former chief, stepped down recently amid protests from parents and school leaders about steep cuts to special education staffing.

The disability-rights group Access Living, the CTU, the parent group Raise Your Hand and others sent a letter to CPS officials and board members last week requesting a month-long comment period to gather feedback on the candidates. In what would be a first, they want the Board to consider their findings before making a decision.

Advocates also questioned whether current ODLSS staff should be considered, citing “problematic” decisions the office made.

There is no word yet on the hiring timeline or whether CPS will take public input, but officials say the search will be “thorough.”

Some principals say they’ve recovered cuts through the district’s appeals process. A CPS spokeswoman said appeals are still being processed. Access Living estimates the citywide budget reduction for special education is now $32 million, down from an initial $42 million.

Kathleen Foley is leading ODLSS in an interim capacity; Winston is using up her vacation and sick time.

3. Problems with CTA transit passes … The BGA reported on a recent case of theft of CTA fare cards that are supposed to be given to homeless students — and how that incident is indicative of the school district’s poor track record of keeping tabs on these cards.

Federal law requires the district to provide transportation to homeless students so that they can stay at the same school in the event their housing situation changes.

“We have had high school students say that, without the bus cards, they would have dropped out of school,” says Patricia Nix-Hodes of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition, which monitors the CPS program, reported that about 20,200 CPS students were identified as homeless last year but only 62 percent received transportation help — an 11 percent decrease from two years ago. Advocates are concerned that students who need the help aren’t getting it.

CPS’ annual inspector general has reported on fare card problems in four out of his last five annual reports. In one case, a CPS headquarters employee was suspected of stealing more than $107,000 worth of transit cards and storing passes in unsecured places. In 2011, the inspector general’s office criticized the district for failing to record serial numbers, which make tracking and deactivating passes easier.

4. UNO’s possible bankruptcy … “On the brink of insolvency,” the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) says it may file for bankruptcy soon, leaving questions about what would happen to the six schools the neighborhood group owns in Galewood, Archer Heights and Gage Park, the Sun-Times reports.

It’s the latest development in an ongoing feud between UNO and UCSN, the charter school network that cut ties with its parent group so it could run its own schools, instead of paying UNO to manage them. UNO says the charter network owes it $4 million in back management fees and school rent.

UNO says that after it files for bankruptcy the school buildings “will no longer be in UNO’s control and instead will be in the hands of the bankruptcy trustee and UNO’s creditors.” The charter school network, which is trying to buy the schools, says they have long-term leases that would allow them to stay open. But UNO’s lawyer says the charter network broke the leases, and could be kicked out.

DNAinfo reports that members of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, including Ald. Danny Solis, who helped found UNO, called on the charter network this week to pay the back fees and rent to keep UNO afloat. Alderman say they’re prepared to call a hearing on the issue.

5. Researchers raise yellow flag on “value-added” formulas … An important group of education researchers is warning against the use of so-called “value-added modeling” (known as VAM)  in rating teachers or teacher-preparation programs.

In a statement released this week, the American Educational Research Association says there are “formidable statistical and methodological issues involved in isolating either the effects of educators or teacher preparation programs from a complex set of factors that shape student performance.“

Value-added modeling is aimed at capturing how much “value” individual teachers add to student achievement as measured by test scores. The research group acknowledges VAM “may be superior” to other models, but says that doesn’t “mean that they are ready for use in educator or program evaluation.”

Flawed data can be a huge problem when they are used to make high-stakes decisions, such as whether an educator keeps her job, the researchers say.

Last year in Chicago, for example, district officials made a computer coding mistake in the system used to rate teachers, affecting thousands of educators. While the VAM part of the equation wasn’t at fault, the situation spoke to the challenges of using complex formulas to evaluate educators.

Education Week notes that the education field is “far from consensus” on the validity of these models, and “it’s certainly fair to say that the use of these models has outpaced the research literature on them.”

A few last notes …

  • Today CPS is announcing a neat partnership with the non-profit group StoryCorps, which works to capture oral histories from everyday Americans. High school students from across the country are being asked to interview a grandparent or elder over Thanksgiving weekend — and CPS is the first district to commit to the project.
  • Sun-Times political reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes that City Colleges of Chicago students have been getting the runaround on financial aid for weeks, a development that college officials blame on IT problems. Students say they can’t pay for classes without the financial and are worried about having to drop out. Some are resorting in the meantime to maxing out their credit cards.
  • Last week’s shooting death of a 9-year-old boy in Englewood has cast a spotlight on what the CTU calls a “staggering shortage” of counselors trained to help students cope with trauma. Al Jazeera America has a report on the trend, showing how even though there’s been a nearly 20-percent rise in homicides in the city since last year, the district has designated only four crisis counselors.
  • Our long-read recommendation for the week is an Atlantic story about small meditation programs that have been cropping up in low-income school districts across the country, including Chicago, in part to help students and teachers reduce the stress from trauma outside the classroom.