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Education Tue Oct 19 2010

Where Do We Go From Here on the Education Front?

This editorial was submitted by Valerie F. Leonard

The Chicago Public Schools has been under Mayoral control for the past 16 years. Under the Mayor's leadership we have had School Reform, Renaissance 2010 which called for school closings and reopening them as charter schools, and attempts to qualify for the national Race for the Top (which seems to have been modeled after the local Renaissance 2010 initiative). The changing of the guard in City Hall could have serious implications for the direction of education in Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune ran an interesting article regarding the fact that the State's standardized tests have been made increasingly simpler over the last 5 years. ("Students Can Pass ISAT With More Wrong Answers"). It should be noted that the article does not mention the fact that Chicago Public Schools lobbied the State to simplify the test 5 years ago.

At the same time, the Chicago Tribune's Editorial Board is urging the next Mayor to continue the course that has been laid by the current Mayor, and suggested that the new Mayor keep the current CPS CEO on board to continue the reforms that have been made. ("Reform on the Ropes?").


Reading the editorial and the article causes me to think about a number of questions. 1) Should the next Mayor continue the same course in education, including keeping the same staff in place? 2) How has North Lawndale fared under the current school reforms? 3) Can we believe the headlines we have been reading over the past 16 years telling us that the schools have improved? 4) Do we need more of the same policies, or do we change course?

While there is a case to be made for keeping the current team in place to minimize further disruption of the school system, I believe the next Mayor needs to hire his own team. This would increase chances of loyalty to the new administration; increase the likelihood that the new cabinet members will fit within the new Mayor's vision; and increase accountability to the new leader, who will in turn, be accountable to the public. Under the current system, the Mayor's team would include the CPS CEO.

The best performing school districts in Illinois are headed by a duly qualified Superintendent, with a doctorate in education, with significant experience with the business of running schools. Members of the business and civic community that are most influential in shaping our public school policies typically send their own children to school systems headed by educators. I believe that over time, Chicago should have an independently elected school board headed by a duly qualified Superintendent with a history of real success in school improvement. I also realize that meaningful future school improvements will not be completed over night, as it took several years for Chicago Public Schools to go from one of the best systems in the country to where we are now.

CPS ISAT data reflect that on average, 49.21% of CPS students met or exceeded state standards in reading in 2005. In 2006, the year the test was changed, 59.66% met or exceeded standards in reading. CPS students have been making steady "gains", as the required number of points to pass the test were steadily decreasing over the years. By 2009, the CPS school performance data showed that 66.2% of CPS students were passing the test. It should be noted that Illinois ranks 46 of 50 states in terms of academic standards.

What has School Reform meant for North Lawndale in recent years? One indicator is test scores. The data show that even though North Lawndale schools' performance continues to lag behind the rest of the City, our schools were making greater "gains" than the students citywide. CPS data show that 36.4% of North Lawndale students met or exceeded standards in 2005; 48% passed the test in 2006 and to 55.5% met or exceeded standards in 2009. Some North Lawndale schools have made significant one year gains--as high as 8 percentage points between 2008 and 2009.

With few exceptions, when we move past the headlines and review CPS school performance data, it is difficult to see where we are making real improvement. The data show that elementary school students are making significant gains in performance on standardized tests, yet only 38% of North Lawndale students graduate high school (CPS 2004). Our top performing community based high school had 17% of its students passing the reading section of the Prairie State Achievement Test in 2009. Only 3% of African American students going through CPS were graduating from college in 2004. At the rate we're going, our children will not be able to compete for jobs in a global economy, and very few, if any, world class employers will re-locate to North Lawndale given the skill level of our workforce. This situation is not helped by the fact that the City Colleges have scaled back on remedial courses.

What we have learned over the past 16 years is that, regardless of what policies CPS puts in place, schools will only truly improve when the community begins to value education again. Most importantly, we must take responsibility for our children's education. Then, we must hold CPS accountable to educate all children, regardless of what school they attend, or their skill level.

Furthermore:

1) While tests are important indicators of performance, schools should stop teaching to test and focus on truly educating students. When students graduate high school, they should be prepared for the rigors of college or the global workforce.

2) Parents and guardians need to be more involved in their children's education. Students whose parents or guardians are engaged in their education are more likely to perform well in school.

3) Community leaders must engage CPS and local citizens in public discussions around education policy. Communities that exhibit higher levels of civic engagement tend to have higher quality schools that serve their needs.

4) There should be increased quality in the local community high schools, with strong support from the feeder schools.

5) There should be a wide array of high quality after school programs geared to reinforce lessons learned in school, while providing outlets for leadership development and organized recreation.

6) Schools should regain their status as the center of community, and provide activities for parents, students and local residents during after school hours. This could include evening classes at the high school and junior college level; vocational education and job training, etc.

Valerie F. Leonard is a North Lawndale resident, and convener of the Lawndale Alliance. The Lawndale Alliance is a group of residents who have come together to address community concerns, including community development, education and affordable housing. She is also a candidate for Alderman of the 24th Ward. Any questions regarding this article may be addressed to Ms. Leonard at 773-521-3137 or valeriefleonard@msn.com.

Fred Mitchell / October 20, 2010 12:44 PM

I fully concur with Ms. Leonard article.

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