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TODAY

Monday, July 23

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Detour

Every teacher finds him or herself in the midst of an uncomfortable moment, usually toward the end of each school year, when any teacher worth their claim to the profession asks: Are they learning anything? This is an imperative, not to mention a bit disillusioning. I usually find myself thinking this when a student asks, "What is a thesis statement?" (quite often with complete naiveté) after I've explained it well over 30 times, tested them on it and graded numerous assignments that require writing one. On a larger scale, many people within the Chicago Public School system have been reflecting on the inadequacies of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and have come up with a plan to address problems in the schools. Unfortunately their plan may have the same effect as my teaching a thesis statement — disillusionment. I have been unsure as to how long I can continue teaching in good faith when the system addresses some neighborhoods and individuals but clearly fails so many others.

I believe that most Chicagoans would like to see education be made better for everybody. After all, who is going to look into the large pleading eyes of a second grader and say, "Sorry, you're going to get an inadequate education." (Not that all of them will even understand such a high level vocabulary word like "inadequate" anyway, but I can't help but dream a little.) Furthermore, this is nothing new; the city's education system has been a cavernous pockmark on the city's otherwise proud and smiling working-pride face for as long as I can remember. But never fear, folks! Mayor Daley and the Chicago Public School's CEO Arne Duncan do have a plan: the city's most recent gentrification project, Renaissance 2010.

I am not sure any other school district in the country, let alone the world, has proposed a plan this ambitious or fantastical. It all hinges on opening not 10, not 20, but 100 new schools by the year 2010. Between 15 and 20 new schools should be opened each year from 2006 through 2010. Meanwhile, other schools have already begun to open or will be opening this fall. The schools will be a combination of charter schools, contract schools and "performance" schools, with sub-contracted management companies or school boards running charter and contract schools and trusty ol' CPS running the performance schools.

The good news is that there are academic standards by which all these schools' performance will all be judged; the bad news is that the standards remain so vague that little can be said to have changed, at least when looking at the backbone of any good education, the curriculum. Under the "Curriculum" heading, curiously listed under the sub-heading "Autonomy" of the "Adopt a New Policy to Establish Renaissance Schools" document, you will find that so few solid requirements for curriculum are established that nothing short of the absolutely absurd or unbelievable should be found acceptable. Of the three types of schools outlined under the plan, the curriculum of Performance schools appears the sketchiest. On one hand, they are supposed to meet CPS and State educational standards (both of which by themselves are easy to skirt), while on the other hand, they are allowed to "determine and implement their own curriculum, as set forth in the performance plan." (Would "Alien Studies" suffice? "The School of Social Thought on Vampires" sounds like a viable foundation for an understanding of the civilized world, no?) Contract schools have to meet just about the same standards, while charter schools have to merely reach the State and CPS standards. This is no different than before. Schools always had to meet these same standards. The bar — by which teachers should judge students' learning nor their own goals and methods — has not been reset any higher.

If the goals of the curriculum — the content and the skills — which kids are to be taught remain the same, I can't figure out what all the hoopla is about. As a teacher, I know that curriculum is the bread and butter of any education, and if nothing new of substance is being proposed, then I cannot understand why this plan is being heralded as some great advancement in the education of Chicago's youth. After all, where there is no plan, I can't imagine that any great curriculum is going to grow out of the community like roses in a vacant lot or, rather, like weeds. I have seen this happen. When left to themselves, many teachers preach on in some dreamy fashion, promoting their own vision of the world, instead of the core knowledge and skills young people will need to be successful in an information-based world. Yet there seems to be another impetus for this new movement: to get communities' input into the creation of schools.

On the surface, this seems like a noble premise. Under Renaissance 2010 communities will have some choice and input into their children's education. They should. However, it should not require a hunger strike to make this all happen. This is precisely what happened in the Southwest Side's Little Village neighborhood back in 2001. The fact that most participants in the strike were mothers only goes to show how desperate parents were. At a recent party attended by a large contingent of teachers, I spoke with Greater Lawndale School of Social Justice Principal Rito Martinez. His school is one of four opening in a new Little Village facility this fall. He remarked on the pressure and expectations that are being placed on the school by both the community and the powers that be. "No stress there," he joked. Having helped to open a school myself, I can't help but wonder why so much stress should be placed on an institution whose only concern should be on learning, not politics. Mr. Martinez also noted how his school, which began as a grassroots movement, fought to remain outside of the auspices of Renaissance 2010. Apparently the funding was so insufficient that they declined to be a part of it. If providing schools with insufficient means is the way the city has chosen to "help" communities that have been historically underprivileged, one has to wonder just what it is trying to achieve.

Luckily, the plan also has a strategy to address the disparities between the more affluent and the underprivileged schools that historically have been allowed to undermine the education of the working class and the poor. For decades, reckless inequalities have debased the education of Chicago's youth as fiercely as economic highs and lows peak and dive from zip code to zip code; meanwhile, a few magnet schools are scattered here and there in attempt to "even out" the discrepancies. Nothing more than the obvious needs to be stated: It's all about getting bang for the buck. The quality of education goes up (usually) where the invisible hand of funding leaves the most buck. To combat the disparities, four main problem areas have been targeted within the system — low performing schools, the under-utilization of CPS buildings, the lack of high school options and over-crowding in many schools that can't afford it — and the plan addresses them all in some way or other. But apparently this is all just lip service. If a school that is built upon a desire strong enough to fuel by a hunger strike cannot get sufficient funding under this system, then schools that have been unwillingly shut down or reorganized will suffer even more, and with less community support.

Recent actions at the state and city level bode about as well as a storm cloud over a picnic. Governor Rob Blagojevich has hacked at state education funding levels and dipped into teacher's pension funding to offset costs of the ailing CTA, and like a dutiful domino, his work has knocked down the budget at the city level. Some 2,200 educational jobs have been cut from existence, and in turn, hordes of teachers recently made a pilgrimage down state en masse to make their voices heard. Time will tell what becomes of it all. Meanwhile teachers are losing jobs and the education of our young people has been and will continue to be compromised, more and more and then even more until more schools are shut down, and well... until the Republicans have their way and privatize all education.

Recent budget cuts may very well put Renaissance 2010 in jeopardy. Maybe it's for the best. At least with all the fanfare pushed off to the side, we will all be able to see things more for what they are: the same old stuff. We'll be able to make adjustments to the system as need be, rather than projecting some bombastic plan that will merely make things look good on the surface.

The surface remains the focus of concentration of much of this plan. "Make it look good" may as well serve as Renaissance 2010's mantra. Even the name "renaissance" is a compromise of sorts, and it smacks of a bitter irony. The word "renaissance" generally means "rebirth;" or in the historical use of the term, it refers to a revisiting and reapplication of the past. CPS's curriculum is not worth bringing back for a second go-around; it clearly and utterly lacked any luster the first time. There seems little reason to have a renaissance of anything if there is, indeed, nothing from the past worth rehashing. "Recycling 2010" may be a more accurate title, but then again, the city hasn't really been into recycling, either.

All of this ultimately comes down to what teachers can achieve in a classroom. I mean let's not play the fool to promises that may never be fulfilled. The problems of poor funding, a curriculum that lacks substance, disparities between neighborhoods' schools, and lack of community involvement may outlive me. Yet what teachers give now is what will make the difference in the future. Renaissance 2010 will promise what it promises and then do what it does, but it may also slip back into history, another false promise. Time will tell, but I'm not sticking around to find out. I've taught what I can here. Like many city teachers, I'm heading to the suburbs where schools, teachers and, most importantly, children are supported.

 

About the Author(s)

Peter Eriksson is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher.

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