clearing the bar

Officials: A's reflect successes, but standards may be too low

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky briefs reporters on the high school progress reports, alongside Deputy Chief Academic Officer Adina Lopatin.

At a briefing on the latest high school progress report grades this afternoon, Department of Education officials touted the small boost in the number of schools receiving the best grades, but warned that the high grades might not be fully warranted.

It wasn’t easy for schools to keep their graduation rates or progress grades up this year. For the first time, most students were required to pass five Regents exams before graduating, and schools’ college readiness rates were factored into their overall progress scores. Still, 72 percent of schools received As and Bs—up from 64.4 percent last year.

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters that the gains showed that schools were able to meet the new challenges before them.

“When you set a high bar and you give people time as you phase it in, people rise to the challenge,” he said. ” I think it’s a real accomplishment … but we’re very interested in getting schools to push higher.”

But that could mean raising the threshold for a good progress report grade—necessary to stay off the city’s list of schools it might close—for the second time since the progress reports were designed in 2007.

“If everyone’s reached the goal that we’ve set, then we typically up it because we want to push people to keep striving higher,” Polakow-Suransky said. If that happens, he added, the department will announce the new cut-off point this winter, giving schools time to reset their expectations.

Regardless, Polakow-Suransky said the schools that received As and Bs all deserved them, given the “higher bar” set by the  college readiness metrics, which make up 10 points out of 100 for each school. Last year, college readiness was measured, but not scored, and 24.7 percent of schools met the city’s standards. This year, that figure rose by one percentage point.

Officials singled out several schools with As for helping high-needs students meet the college readiness standard, including Bronx Latin and Excelsior Preparatory High School, small schools which opened just a few years into the Bloomberg administration.

Other schools that have struggled on recent progress report saw stronger-than-average college readiness scores, including John Dewey High School, which was almost closed earlier this year, and Herbert H. Lehman High School, which is on this year’s list of schools that might close even though it received six out of 10 points for college readiness and earned a B in that section.

Polakow-Suransky attributed the small overall college readiness gain to the emphasis on critical thinking skills found in the new Common Core curriculum standards, and a new program the city created for awarding credit to high school for special, advanced courses that once received no extra recognition.

“Most of the job of a high school is to meet the state standard for graduation, and we are slowly over the next few years changing the curriculum, changing the assessments, and changing the goals,” he said. “What we’re looking at really closely here is how do we motivate schools to introduce strong curriculum so that their kids actually have a shot at success when they leave.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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