Tag Archives: Chicago

Thoughts on the New NYC Framework for Great Schools

Right now I am supposed to be working on my undergraduate thesis and/or graduate school applications, except that I have writer’s block. And the best thing to do when you have writer’s block is to write, so here I am, procrastinating from writing about education by…writing about education.

I’ve had the great fortune of working at the New York City Department of Education this summer, an especially incredible opportunity given the timing. On July 1st, the NYCDOE underwent a complete restructuring–Borough Field Support Centers are in, and Networks and Clusters are out. Perhaps I will write a longer blog post about this change in the future, but for now I will just summarize the transition by saying that, like all changes in large urban education systems, it has some good and some bad, but we all have to be impressed merely by the fact that it is happening. Even better, it is happening thoughtfully and speedily, at least thus far. Rather than discuss the method of implementation of this new structure or the organization of the structure itself (both of which are completely fascinating), I want to speak a bit about the overarching initiative being launched in the NYCDOE, called Strong Schools, Strong Communities.

When I first started digging into the Strong Schools, Strong Communities initiative, I was stunned by the easily recognizable Framework for Great Schools. Here is a simple diagram of the Framework for Great Schools:


The Framework lists the six components that Chancellor Fariña and the current administration boast as crucial to school success: Rigorous Instruction, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Effective School Leadership, Strong Family-Community Ties, and Trust, all of which contribute to the main goal of Student Achievement.

Does this graphic look familiar to anyone? Do these values sound familiar? If you have ever read anything about school reform in the state of Illinois, then these should sound very familiar. Illinois adopted the 5Essentials metrics of school success from seminal research that has emerged from the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute over the past two decades. Here is the diagram of the 5Essentials:


The 5Essentials Survey tool measures schools’ success in implementing 5 “essential” components of a successful educational organization: Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Supportive Environment, Involved Families, and Ambitious Instruction. According to rigorous research performed at the University of Chicago, schools that rate well on at least three of the components of the 5Essentials are ten times more likely to improve in mathematics and reading. Measuring schools in these areas has been an important step in the direction of progress for Chicago’s schools, and there’s no reason that New York shouldn’t benefit from this extensive and revealing research as well. It’s really quite brilliant, politically speaking–adapting an already existing framework, changing a few words, and calling it a brand new wave of reform measures specifically tailored to NYC students and their communities.

Politically, this is great for the people who claim credit–but in a research sense, this isn’t necessarily the best idea. I say this because I place value in words. I believe that words relay meaning, and when you change words, you change the meaning behind those words, even if–maybe especially if–you’re just a well-meaning politician trying to pass your initiative off as innovative to incite optimism in your constituents.

One difference I noticed, both in its phrasing and its placement in the diagram, is the change from “Ambitious Instruction” as a centerpiece to “Rigorous Instruction” as a side element. In terms of phrasing, I reject the notion that “rigorous” is the same as (or better than) “ambitious.” Ambitious instruction inherently takes students into consideration; it means that classes are demanding for students. On the other hand, rigor is an objective term, facilitating the idea that setting standards will automatically lead students to reach those standards. We can make out “rigorous instruction” to mean a lot of different things, but “ambitious instruction” more clearly points to work that engages and is challenging for students, which is made even clearer by the original explanation provided by the researchers who developed the 5Essentials.

To be fair, this is fairly nit-picky. The bigger problem with the change of the instruction is not the type of instruction but the placement of the instruction within the framework. In the original 5Essentials, four elements revolve around a central goal of ambitious instruction. The purpose of creating the 5Essentials was to improve schools, and the goal in improving schools is to support ambitious instruction. It is only right that instruction should be the centerpiece, as it is in the 5Essentials. However, in the Framework for Great Schools, the centerpiece is “Student Achievement.” As we all know, student achievement can mean a lot of things. To some, achievement is measured by test scores; to others, it is measured by demonstrations of creativity. Every single teacher in the world likely has a different notion of what constitutes student achievement, and this may even be different for each student.

This change in the nature of achievement as a centerpiece is further reflected by the change of the phrase “Involved Families” to “Strong Family-Community Ties.” The 5Essentials defines Involved Families: “The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning.” Contrastingly, the NYCDOE website defines Strong Family-Community Ties as the creation of “welcoming environments for families and take advantage of community resources to enrich the civic life of the school.” In the NYCDOE definition, there is no mention of “learning” in the family component to the school; instead, the school acts as a hub of civic engagement. While providing a space for civic engagement is an admirable objective, the NYCDOE fails to recognize that families need to come to schools and be engaged in student learning in order to improve achievement. By failing to mention family engagement in the educational aspect of the schoolhouse, the NYCDOE Framework comes off as a thinly veiled attempt to use school reform as a cover for implementing additional progressive economic and political agendas. While the agendas themselves may be wonderful, infiltrating a rigorously researched framework for school improvement with these agendas may weaken the ability of the framework to serve as a valuable research tool and evaluation metric.

Probably the most noticeable change is the addition of “Trust” to the NYC Framework. Frankly, I almost laughed the first time I saw this. Don’t get me wrong: trust is incredibly important to the development of both the student and the school community. But the addition of trust to what are otherwise the original elements of the 5Essentials is worrying because trust is probably even less measurable than student achievement or community civic engagement. With the addition of trust, the NYCDOE has turned the 5Essentials tool from a focused, rigorous, research-based evaluation tool to a patchwork collection of vague, nice-sounding ideas about how each child’s life should look rather than a tool for determining how it does look. This Framework aims to simultaneously improve each and every facet of the child’s life; after all, the name of the umbrella initiative is about Strong Schools and Strong Communities. Both of these institutions work together to influence youth development, but so does every aspect of society. If we continue to merge various institutions and improvement efforts until we live under one umbrella initiative called Strong Schools-Communities-Economies-Families-Hospitals-Libraries-Police, social, economic, and political variables will become completely incapable of being isolated and studied, and we will lose the ability to institute rigorous research-based policy.

In short, by implementing a fantastic framework for school success, the NYCDOE may accidentally destroy both the Framework and the impetus for school improvement.

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Education is a Human Right (Town Hall)

Hello everyone! Although my blog doesn’t reflect it, I did a lot of education writing over the summer when working on a research project with Block 58. Unfortunately, this isn’t ready yet, but I’ll be happy to tell you all about it once it’s published! In the meantime, I’d like to talk about some of my more recent experiences in the realm of education, starting with an event I went to tonight.


This evening I attended the Education is a Human Right Town Hall. The meeting had a great turnout, with a mixture of students, parents, community members, UIC professors, and education activists coming together to present “testimony to Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Education on the impact of school closings, turnarounds, phase outs and disinvestment in neighborhood schools.” In addition, the Town Hall presented the people’s plan for the new Dyett High School (you can find out more by following #SaveDyett.)

Before going to the Town Hall, I expected that my post-event blog post would focus on the more philosophical side of the event. I expected to come out of this Town Hall with reinforced notions about the importance of civic capacity to our education system, and how that capacity is being continuously and purposefully undermined by our non-representative elected officials. And while there was certainly some philosophical rhetoric, and some very powerful rhetoric at that, I think it’s more important to highlight the mere facts that came out of the testimony:

Dyett High School:

  • The principal of Dyett High School is effectually attempting to trick the remaining 13 students (“the Dyett 13”) into transferring out so that the school can be forcibly phased out
  • The front door of Dyett High School has been locked so that students can only use the back door
  • Dyett High School students only have 4 teachers and therefore must take online versions of art, science, and physical education (what?!) classes

Mollison Elementary School:

  • Special education students at the overcrowded Mollison Elementary School are receiving their services under the staircases
  • Approximately 20% of students at Mollison Elementary School cannot eat lunch in the lunchroom, and must eat in the hallways and classrooms

These are some shocking and truly unacceptable facts. They speak for themselves, and I don’t feel a great need to explain why they are truly outrageous (I mean, taking PE classes online? Really?) Now, some facts that were brought up at the Town Hall concerning the political reality:

  • In 2012, 87% of voters were in favor of elected school board officials in Chicago (so, where are they?)
  • Title VI Civil Rights complaints have been filed in 12 cities thus far, and 3 now have open investigations

These are all of the facts that we should keep in mind before even attempting to contemplate the philosophical and political truths underlying educational inequity in Chicago and other cities throughout the U.S. It’s only once you’ve taken the time to hear community stakeholders state these facts and really think about the children that are living with these grievances that you can think about the deeper political implications and explanations for these grievances. Some of the great quotes from the night that point to these deeper truths are:

  • “It is about race, and somebody’s gotta have the courage to say that unapologetically.” -Jitu Brown
  • “When you close a school…you’re erasing that people’s memory.” -Jitu Brown
  • “This is a chance for elected officials to [stand with] the people and their children.” -Jitu Brown
  • The 3 D’s of Chicago school reform: destabilization, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement. -Professor Pauline Lipman

In addition to these, I was really impressed by Amara Enyia, who basically summed up the issue by saying “I know I’m supposed to spout talking points about educational policy, but I want to talk about the power that we are all born with, and what our communities would be like if we embraced that power.” While the grievances may be educational, they are symptoms of a broader problem of societal inequity that can only be conquered by communities that embrace their power, as individuals and as a collective.

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Who are the Players in the Fight to Save Chicago Public Schools, and Why Do They Matter?

This post was inspired by Asean Johnson.

This week, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the fight to save the 49 schools that the CPS announced it will close for the upcoming school year. There has been tremendous outrage over the past few months, and I’m glad to see that the fight to save the schools does not stop just because the school year ended. In fact, the fight seems stronger than ever, with new players becoming involved every day. I’d like to take a minute to look at all of the different players in the CPS closure protest and how their involvement has affected the fight. 

Teachers: The teachers of Chicago schools–including those that are not being affected by the planned closures–have had the loudest voice in the protest since the very beginning. Particularly those active within the Chicago Teachers’ Unions have been out on the streets rallying, tweeting non-stop about their engagement with the fight, and posting articles on the CTU website frequently to keep up with the heap of events and developments concerning the fight to save the schools. CTU President Karen Lewis has been in the public eye since the CPS announced the school closures back in March, making sure to voice her support for the union’s teachers in rallies, city hall meetings, interviews, and social media.

The CPS announced this week that they were laying off an additional 2,000+ school staff, including 1,036 teachers. News of particularly outrageous layoffs have been circulating the internet; most noticeably, stories about Xian Barrett. Firstly, Barrett found out that he was being laid off only because the CPS called his mother to give her the news. Talk about adding insult to injury! Secondly, Xian Barrett is an outstanding case because he was chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. Barrett is an outstanding teacher who has actively worked with students outside the classroom to help them learn about issues of social justice while serving the community. Laying off Barrett comes to many a sign that the CPS is taking teachers’ jobs and destroying their lives without so much as a glance at who it is that they’re laying off. After all, they need only look on the U.S. Department of Education website to see a profile of Xian Barrett, a talented teacher that the country claims to be proud of having.

Barrett believes that the CPS laying him off sends another message as well. He said in an interview:

[The administrators] are certainly not happy about union activity, but when I look at who has been laid off again and again in these types of situations, it seems like they target the allies for students even more aggressively than they target the union […]We live in a time where being cruel to public workers is acceptable in some ways, especially [those who are] people of color. But with students you’re not allowed to be quite as overt about it. So when young people go to board meetings and oppose them again and again, [the administrators] feel like they have to do something, they can’t just ignore it.

This brings us to the next category…

Students: Students have long been involved in the fight to save their own school communities, but only this week does it seem that they are starting to gain some real power in the movement. At a Board of Ed meeting held in Chicago on July 24th, students were allowed 2 minutes to voice their opinions about the school closings. This is, of course, time that the Board of Ed will never actually spend listening to the children, and allowing them to speak is simply an action taken in the name of placation. However, this is something that the students know, and they are not willing to just let it go. “One thing I don’t get about this board is that you only give us two minutes to speak and you give these corporate businesses, what, an hour to speak?” These were words spoken at the BOE meeting by 9 year-old Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader in Chicago who is quickly becoming the face of students in the Chicago school closings struggle. Asean started gaining recognition a few months ago, when he brought the crowd to its feet at a CTU rally. He is passionate, articulate, and–although the CPS doesn’t want to admit it–he knows what he’s talking about. I cannot emphasize enough how much I recommend watching these videos of him speaking his mind.

Some people are saying that the students are being used unfairly as political props. It’s a valid argument, and one that I have mixed feelings about. The truth is that children have always been used as pawns in politics. Rarely do they have any real power except as a symbol of cuteness and vulnerability that people can twist and manipulate to fit their arguments. It is true that some of the words that Johnson spoke at the BOE meeting were clearly not his own; words such as “nepotism” were very likely fed to him by the CTU. Having said all this, I still believe that students should continue to force their voices into the conversation. This is, after all, about their education, and they understand more than the CPS wants to admit. Furthermore, fighting for their schools is a sure way to spark a passion in public service and social justice, and I have no doubt that some of these kids may be inspired to continue the fight as adults.

Even though the CPS can dismiss children such as Asean as ignorant, there have been teenagers joining the fight who are clearly more informed, organized, and harder to ignore. The group Chicago Students Organized to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) has really grown a lot in the past few months. They organized a protest outside the BOE meeting on July 24th that had a lot of participants. In addition, they organized a protest inside the meeting, ultimately linking arms and chanting before being physically escorted from the meeting by security shouting: “Whose schools?” to the response, “OUR SCHOOLS!”

Parents: There have been some strong parent voices that have become popular and well-known, particularly on Twitter and other social media. Some great charts and tweets were released this week by @foolforcps, including a list of the top 5 and bottom 5 schools receiving money from the CPS, of which the top 5 are charter schools. Chicago Public Fools also released a list of the top 9 expenses that CPS finds worthy, a piece called ‘Top 9 things CPS is spending money on like it’s not broke,’ written by a contributor called South Side CPS Mom. Overall, I’ve been impressed by the speed at which parents are spreading information online.

In addition, parents joined forces with lawyers last week to bring the school closures fight to federal court. Parents filed two lawsuits against the CPS: one claimed that school closures disproportionately affect African-American and minority students, while the second claimed that “welcoming schools” could not have time to properly prepare for incoming students with disabilities, and thus that the district is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hearing went on for 4 days, with parents contributing testimony along with teachers and CPS officials. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of parents and supported by the CTU. The judge will announce a decision on the potential injunction in August.

Human Rights Activists: This is a new player in the fight, and one that I am particularly intrigued by. Human rights activists have sent the issue of school closures to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The letter of allegation is entitled “Letter of Allegation Regarding the Closing of 49 Public Elementary Schools in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America” and was sent on behalf of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. The issues covered in the allegation include the dangers posed to minority and disabled students that have been covered by the lawsuit. In addition, the letter of allegation also claims that the closures violate international human rights law concerning:

  • The right to equality and non-discrimination in education
  • The right to be free from violence and the right to life
  • The right to quality of education
  • The right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs
  • Justification of lack of financial resources

Whether the claim that CPS closures violate international human rights law has enough merit to make the CPS the center of a UN investigation–or even any merit at all–has yet to be seen. Regardless, I am very excited by the interest that human rights advocates have shown in the fight to save the Chicago public schools. All of the players listed above have made a tremendous effort to show that democratic and active citizenship is a spirit that is still alive in America, but the human rights advocates have made a point to highlight a deeper truth: we must remember that we are accountable to something greater than our own nation, greater than even our own democracy. CPS must be held accountable to the fundamental value that exists in educating and protecting children.

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Paul Vallas in Bridgeport, Democracy Gone Bad

Let’s talk about one Mr. Paul Vallas.

The New York Times published a story on July 21st called ‘Change Agent in Education Collects Critics in Connecticut Town.’ To be honest, I don’t know why this story wasn’t published weeks ago. Additionally, I find fault with the title of the story: firstly, Vallas is not a “change agent,” and secondly, Vallas is not collecting critics in Connecticut. Mr. Vallas now has vehemently upset critics all over the country, because this is not a story of a Connecticut school reformer gone bad. This is the story of American school reform gone bad.

I do believe that Vallas, like many, started off as a ‘good guy.’ I want to believe that he was simply someone who saw problems with the school system and wanted to help change that system. I want to believe that Vallas had good intentions. But it’s hard to believe that when it is quite apparent that Vallas has never once engaged in self-reflective behavior, an attitude that is becoming all too common among so-called school reformers.

The importance of self-reflection is something I find I cannot emphasize enough. Vallas first became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995. He was made CEO of the CPS by the first Mayor Daley, after Daley convinced Illinois to put the large urban school system under mayoral control. As Diane Ravitch puts it, “Paul Vallas was the first of non-educators to get the top job of reforming public education.” The position of CEO of the CPS is still seen as Vallas’ first major position as an education reformer, and according to him, a successful one. But this could not be further from the truth. If anything, Vallas focused on storytelling during his reign as CEO of the CPS, and conveniently neglected to investigate the data, all of which showed the falsity of his storytelling. He claimed that dropout rates had decreased by a whopping 50%, even though this was only possibly true when the definition of dropout from CPS was changed to leave out all students who left the public schools and eventually received training at night school. Not only is this egotistical and non-reflective self-evaluation, but a clear example of complete dismissal of data and logic.

After Chicago, Vallas went on to “reform” schools all over the country. By “reform,” I am, of course, referring to the self-serving act of traveling around the country posing for photographs with minority students while disregarding their needs in order to achieve political power and fame. From Chicago, Vallas went on to work in school districts in places such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and even Haiti. Vallas became known for his work in urban school districts that were poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly minority. In reality, the policies he enacted had a largely negative impact on minority and lower-class students. Unfortunately, the truth received much less recognition than the artificial political legacy that Vallas was busy crafting for himself.

Substance News, a newspaper focused on news concerning public education, published a story called The Paul Vallas I Knew, a piece which outlined the outwardly racist attitude that Vallas encouraged with many of his education policies in Chicago. Substance News republished the piece last week, in a response to the current national outcry against Vallas. The decision to republish this piece should not be seen as a “we told you so” moment. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that it is our duty as members of our political system to read the news when it is available to us and express our outrage as soon as it is deserved, not 11 years later when the problem has gotten so out of control that millions of school communities have already been killed by the policies that have been in the works for over a decade.

The current controversy concerning Vallas, the controversy that has finally had enough traction to gain the attention of the American people, concerns the Bridgeport, CT school system. Vallas was made superintendent of the Bridgeport schools earlier this year, signing a 3-year contract with the Bridgeport school board in March. Carmen Lopez filed a lawsuit against him and the school board, claiming that Vallas never completed a state-mandated leadership program and was therefore not qualified or legally able to have the job. On June 28th, a Superior Court judge in Connecticut ruled that Lopez was correct, and ordered that Vallas be removed from his position as superintendent.

What I find incredible is that the city, the school board, and Vallas still do not comprehend the ruling (which they are, by the way, appealing). Instead of Vallas completing the mandated 13 months of training, Vallas received a waiver that allowed him to complete his certification in fewer than ten days. “There is no doubt,” the judge wrote in her decision, “that Vallas received preferential treatment.” How Vallas could argue otherwise is a mystery to me. Arne Duncan continues to play dumb along with him, saying that the whole situation is “beyond ludicrous.” Arne Duncan is claiming that it is “beyond ludicrous” that people with the fame and prestige of school reform politicians should have to follow the law. To be fair, there are others who continue to defend Vallas who may not be as power-hungry and egomaniacal as Duncan (for instance, see ‘In Defense of Paul Vallas‘).

It is my sincere (albeit dim) hope that the case of Vallas and Bridgeport may come to some good. This is an opportunity to change the way the American public sees “education reformers.” These people are not gods; they are power-mongering businessmen-turned-politicians who, in rare cases, are also convicted of using their power to betray the public and pursue illegal means to achieve power. But this is also an opportunity to rethink the way we see politics, the way we read our news and force our voices into the public sphere. Vallas famously called blogging “electronic graffiti,” but I say let this ruling against him offer encouragement to the bloggers, tweeters, and other 21st century citizens of this nation. Let’s raise our voices and make sure politicians know that we will not allow Vallas or anyone else to say their privilege puts them above the law. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a story of American school reform gone bad. But even more so, I realize now, this is a story of democracy gone bad. The ruling against Vallas’ special privilege is a step in the right direction, it’s now up to the American public to continue the fight.

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