A wrong turn for our schools

May 8, 2014

Bob Simpson, a retired high school history teacher, exposes the truth about the Chicago school board's "turnaround" program, in an article first published at Daily Kos.

TEARS WELLED up in the eyes of Angela Gordon, the local school council president of Dvorak Elementary School, as she composed herself to speak her allotted two minutes in front of the Chicago Board of Education on April 23.

Her school, along with McNair and Gresham Elementary Schools, was about to have its entire staff fired, from the lunch ladies to the principal, and then reorganized by a private management company called the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL)

In Chicago, this is called a "turnaround."

Gordon tossed aside her prepared remarks and pleaded for the Board to postpone the decision. Her voice filled with emotion, she told the Board they are "all about the numbers," explaining that she was there for the students as human beings, not as statistics.

Surrounded by Dvorak parents and children, she concluded by saying: "Do not turn us around through AUSL! Give us the resources so WE can give the students what they need!"

Representatives of the other two schools also spoke in behalf of their students.

Parents on the march against a city plan to "turn around" their kids' school
Parents on the march against a city plan to "turn around" their kids' school (Bob Simpson | SW)

A couple hours later, the Board went ahead and issued orders to fire everyone at all three schools and replace them. But that had been decided long before the meeting even began. The entire morning was, as one observer said, "just a game of charades."

THE THREE schools chosen for turnaround by Rahm's handpicked schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and his handpicked school board were Dvorak Technology Academy and Ronald E. McNair Elementary School on the West Side, and Walter Q. Gresham Elementary School on the South Side.

Turnarounds differ from charter schools, because AUSL school workers can join the Chicago Teachers Union and AUSL schools can have a local school council (LSC)--though the AUSL LSCs are stripped of important powers. Local School Councils are a unique Chicago experiment in local democracy, where teachers, parents and community members are elected to help develop school policies.

Individuals can apply to be rehired, but AUSL prefers to bring in its own people (usually younger and whiter) and proclaim that the school is "turned around" and on the road to success.

The criteria for turnarounds are based on test scores and racial geography. AUSL picks schools with low test scores, usually in working-class African American neighborhoods. While it's true that AUSL has had limited success at raising test scores in some schools, most of their turnaround efforts do no better than neighborhood schools, and test scores have even fallen in some cases.

AUSL's test score criteria for determining school "failure" is itself a failed measurement. The complexity associated with genuine learning cannot be bubbled in and quantified by the dubious tool of the multiple-choice test. Low test scores do reveal the extent of poverty in a community, which research shows is mostly what they measure. But one does not need a high-stakes test to know that. They also suggest the chronic under-resourcing of neighborhood schools, which must struggle for basics like textbooks and toilet paper.

AUSL's generally mediocre performance on test scores is despite the influx of additional money CPS puts into their "turnaround" schools. Neighborhood schools that have been denied basic educational resources like libraries are suddenly deluged with funding once they are targeted for turnaround by AUSL or to house a charter school.

Ollie Clemons, a grandmother and the guardian of two boys at Gresham Elementary, explained how that worked at her school:

It was decided last year to have a charter school come in. In the meantime, over the summer, they put in an elevator. They put in a new library, but yet when the charter school decided not to come, the library did not get a librarian. The librarian was totally eliminated. Our art teacher did not come back. We only have a half-time gym teacher, yet they want us to have healthy activities for the kids.

But ironically, when a school does receive better educational resources, that is often linked with privatization.

Representatives of the largely African American Lawndale, Austin and Auburn-Gresham neighborhoods packed hearings and community meetings. They picketed the Board of Education and held prayer vigils and press conferences. They turned out in force at the April 23 board meeting and testified before the final decision was announced. They proposed alternate plans for school improvement.

In Chicago, where the vast majority of students are African American and Latino, there is no elected school board as in in the rest of Illinois. Chicago Teachers Union organizer and CPS parent Brandon Johnson compares this to the racist voter suppression being directed at African Americans and other people of color around the nation. A school board handpicked by the mayor and corporate elite makes it easier to privatize education.

A GRESHAM parent told me with pride, "Gresham is a school that goes back generations."

A quality education requires a complex web of human relationships among all of the people who directly affect student lives including teachers, administrators, non-teaching school staff, parents and other people in the surrounding community.

Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance talked about these long-term human relationships when she testified on behalf of Dvorak. Dvorak's highly regarded principal Cheryl White had only been there two years, and almost half of the staff was new. Leonard quoted from a Carnegie study:

A study by the Carnegie Foundation examined the relationships between teacher tenure and experience and student performance and found that the sheer number of novices in public school teaching has serious financial, structural and educational consequences for public education--straining budgets, disrupting school cultures and, most significantly, depressing student achievement.

Lisa Russell, a parent and Local School Council member from Dvorak explained how a neighborhood school with these deep connections can be a refuge for children who have been rejected elsewhere:

Let me tell you about the neighborhood school, particularly Dvorak. We take anybody's child from anywhere...Don't turn us around. Give us the resources. Give us the small class sizes...Our neighborhood school is more than what you know. It's a community, as they say. We have all kinds of children at the neighborhood school. When everybody else doesn't want them, we get them. And guess what. We teach them. We work with them.

West Side activist Zerlina Smith made a similar point about McNair after explaining that 21 percent of the students at McNair are special needs with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) "Why would you turn around a school with that many IEPs knowing that there's not another school on the West Side that can handle that?"

At the time of the proposed turnaround, McNair had no librarian, no music or art teacher and no reading specialist.

There are teachers who choose schools like these because they want to teach the students whom no one else wants. The abused. The misused. The abandoned. The ones with very special needs. The ones drowning in a sea of poverty and racism. The ones that Rahm Emanuel was describing in a discussion with CTU president Karen Lewis. "In that conversation," Lewis later recalled, "he did say to me that 25 percent of the students in this city are never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything, and he was never going to throw money at them."

Teachers who take on these kinds of challenges are being punished for doing so.

In African American communities beset by racialized poverty and segregation, school-based relationships form connections of human solidarity that are the basis not only of quality education and neighborhood stabilization, but of resistance to racial oppression. In schools that are struggling and where these relationships are weak, they can be strengthened through the hard work of organizing.

The corporate elite's war against the Chicago Teachers Union is only partly about money issues. Under its present leadership, the CTU has allied with embattled neighborhoods fighting for quality education. The CTU has shared important educational research with the city's working class, which has helped built stronger human connections among teachers as well as with the community at large.

Brandon Johnson put it this way:

This is not simply about keeping union employees. Teaching and learning go way beyond the ability to have collective bargaining rights. It's about the deep-rooted relationships that are critical for a child and their family to develop the trust that allows access to these family's spaces.

AT THE hearings and protests that I have attended, people constantly challenged the Chicago Board of Education to work with them on school improvement, to provide resources, to support teacher and parent involvement, to join that complex web of relationships as a partner instead of a relentless adversary.

But instead of working with communities, AUSL ignores their input. Here is how AUSL operates, from the AUSL proposal to the Illinois State Board of Education in 2009:

AUSL replaces the principal with an individual selected by and accountable to AUSL as well as the district, and also brings in a cohort of specially trained new teachers from AUSL's Teacher residency program. AUSL evaluates all incumbent teachers and staff before re-hiring any who are interested in remaining. We expect that more than half of the school's incumbent teachers and staff would be replaced.

1. AUSL weakens Local School Councils (LSCs) by taking over principal selection and budgeting. This strips LSCs of any power and makes them only advisory organizations. In addition, AUSL ignores the countless hours that parents and community volunteers have put in to obtain special grants and programs that CPS did not provide.

2. AUSL turnarounds contribute to the sharp decline in experienced African American teachers, as they are replaced with younger, mostly white teachers. Younger teachers of any race need experienced teachers to mentor them. Experienced teachers benefit by working with younger ones who can bring fresh ideas into the education mix. Breaking this critical relationship degrades quality education.

3. The loss of jobs in African American communities through AUSL turnarounds contributes to the disinvestment and destabilization of Black Chicago. Along with charter school operators, AUSL also divides communities against themselves as different types of schools compete for educational resources.

4. AUSL has a high teacher turnover rate, making it harder for them to work together and develop close collaborative relations.

5. The AUSL has a "zero tolerance" discipline policy, which results in more students being pushed out or expelled, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. According to Brandon Johnson, AUSL has the highest suspension rate of any network in Chicago. This is especially troubling as AUSL ends up working mostly with African American students.

6. AUSL does not have adequate programs in place to deal with the many special needs students in Chicago.

7. AUSL relies heavily on high-stakes testing, which cannot measure critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, inventiveness and the skills necessary to resist racial, gender and class oppression.

Anthony Capetta, who went through AUSL training, said in an interview that AUSL makes the extraordinary claim that a few years of "good teaching" (as they define it) can overcome any problems that children bring from the outside: i.e., the effects of institutionalized racism and poverty. Capetta explains:

They very much believe in a paternalistic mentality toward schooling: The parents don't know how to teach their children. The neighborhood is bad. There is a cultural deficit. We as teachers and we as a school have to make up for that. We are going to take the place of an authority figure, and we are going to do the job of raising these kids right.

AUSL has close ties with wealthy corporations who profit off of racism and poverty. That alone tells us a lot.

PARENTS AND teachers at all three schools recognize the need for improvement, but asked for help that did not involve privatization. Dwayne Truss, a West Side activist, made this point when he testified on behalf of McNair:

McNair as well as any school will admit that there is always a need for improvement. There are other alternative school improvement models and school improvement providers then AUSL...McNair is more than happy to partner with any provider to provide professional development for both teachers and parents in order to augment the efforts McNair already has in place.

The Chicago school research group Designs for Change published a study in February 2012 which showed a much more effective way of improving school performance than turnarounds.

Designs for Change calls it "School-Based Democracy." This model has achieved significant improvement at a number of Chicago schools, but like the Chicago Teachers Union plan, "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve," it has received little recognition from the Chicago Board of Education, the mayor's office or the Chicago major media.

The report compares test scores in schools that use School-Based Democracy versus those that used the turnaround model. School-Based Democracy showed the most significant gains, even though those schools did not receive the kind of extra financial support available to AUSL.

Remember, these are gains in test scores, which are the main criteria used in determining whether a school will be turned around. Designs for Change concluded the following:

This study indicated that the high-poverty schools achieving the highest reading scores were governed by active Local School Councils who chose their principals, and had experienced unionized teachers...These effective elementary schools have dedicated Local School Councils, strong but inclusive principal leadership, effective teachers who are engaged in school-wide improvement, active parents, active community members, and students deeply engaged in learning and school improvement.

CPS has weakened and even eliminated many Local School Councils. It has relentlessly attacked the Chicago Teachers Union and eliminated many experienced teachers. Its climate of "FUD" (fear, uncertainty, doubt) has caused most school principals to remain silent as public education is being dismantled before their eyes.

AUSL IS using a problematic model from the corporate world. At the hearing to decide the fate of McNair, Chicago mayoral candidate and public policy expert Amara Enyia spoke about the origins of turnarounds: "I think this model is flawed. It is adopted from business practices. And as a business practice, it does not work. In fact, it has had limited to no results. So why are we adopting this method in education? And specifically, in public education? It's problematic for a number of reasons."

The president of the Chicago Board of Education is David Vitale, former chief executive officer of the Chicago Board of Trade and a former board president of AUSL. Tim Cawley, chief administrative officer of CPS, was a Motorola executive before joining AUSL. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with his close ties to Wall Street, is an enthusiastic supporter of AUSL. Hedge fund operator Bruce Rauner, a heavy investor in Chicago charter schools and the Republican candidate for governor, is also an AUSL enthusiast. And the list goes on...

The people who run the Chicago schools today come from the corporate world. In the introduction to her book, School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000, Dorothy Shipps looked at the long history of how business interests have dominated Chicago education--and done a poor job: "This book asks a necessary but important question: if corporate power was instrumental in creating urban public schools and has a strong hand in their reform for more than a century, why have those schools failed urban children so badly?"

Their corporate vision for working-class schooling today is massive privatization with a very narrow focus on memorization and recall. It values the ability to stay focused on boring repetitive tasks, emphasizing obedience to authority. The AUSL model with its emphasis on high-stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline is a perfect example of that.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, I heard a parent brag that you can walk into a classroom in her child's AUSL school and "hear a pin drop." Is that what we want from children? Silence?

Chicago's corporate education model is also profoundly racist, with its history of segregation and unequal allocation of resources, as well as its persistent racial discrimination against teachers and other education workers of color.

The corporate education model of rote learning, mixed with politically connected real estate speculation and lucrative vendor contracts, has nothing to do with actual education.

UIC professor of education Pauline Lipman's book The New Political Economy of Urban Education demonstrated how the destabilizing influences of school closings, turnarounds and privatization are an integral part of the city elite's policy of gentrification. This contributes to the ongoing exodus of the city's African American and Latino working class. AUSL is deeply entwined with this project of replacing much of the city working class population with affluent (mostly white) people weary of long suburban commutes.

The income of the parent is the best single predictor of student success, yet the city elite has done nothing to raise wages on behalf of low-income neighborhoods or provide the investment to create good paying jobs that keep people in the city rather than driving them out.

Corporate Chicago apparently believes Chicago's status as a global city depends upon economically driven ethnic cleansing.

The business world is littered with the corpses of companies that were subjected to hostile corporate turnarounds and takeovers, which drained their resources, destroyed their morale and drove them to an early grave. Is that what we want for our system of public education?

ACCORDING TO Principal Diedrus Brown of Gresham school, "I have a school full of wonderful teachers that care about the students...We teach the whole child. My children are not about test scores. There is more to a child than test scores. They are whole children and they deserve love. And I love my children."

Love. That's a word I've heard often since I joined Chicago's education justice movement in the months leading up to the 2012 teachers' strike. It's a powerful emotion in a school setting. I know that, because I was a classroom teacher for 25 years. When a school is working, it's because the power of love has been nurtured and encouraged to grow.

The city power elite also understands the power of love. That's why they want to break the human relationships that create it. Love is a threat to the city elite because it motivates people to protect their neighborhood schools and their communities.

For the city's power elite, the biggest problem with school-based democracy and similar programs is their success in improving neighborhood schools, while empowering the communities that surround them. That kind of success stands as a powerful testament against the corporate driven turnarounds and increased privatization.

Instead of supporting the city's teachers, many of whom work under very difficult conditions, the Chicago power elite treats them with the same contempt it has for the working-class students that make up the majority of CPS. It attacks their union, a union which takes quality education for ALL children VERY seriously--apparently a cardinal sin in the eyes of those whose love extends only to power and money.

The Chicago street violence that has made headlines across the country is directly related to the poverty and neighborhood destabilization favored by the city's power elite working through organizations like AUSL.

Both Wall Street and Washington are behind this privatization movement. It is a bipartisan project, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting the educational carnage that results. Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been closely allied with Republican Bruce Rauner, the current frontrunner in the Illinois governor's race. Democratic President Barack Obama has essentially continued the same destructive polices that came out of the Republican Bush administrations.

However, it would be a mistake to see the turnarounds and the school privatization movement as simply being about short-term profit from gentrification, lower teacher salaries and bloated contracts to education vendors like Pearson. There is a distinctly ideological component that, in the long run, is the most dangerous.

In a nation facing a some of the worst wealth inequality in its history and a global environmental crisis that threatens the existence of humanity itself, who would benefit from a fearful, obedient and racially divided working class that has been shorn of creativity, inventiveness and independent thinking?

Chicago's multiracial working class will continue to fight for quality education. They will lose some battles along the way, but as people learn through struggle and study, I believe that the privatized schools will eventually be returned to the public domain. Chicago can then develop a school system that will educate ALL children--so they can grow up to create the kind of human society they truly deserve.

First published at Daily Kos.

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