Conservative ideas at the Chicago Tribune???

Ready for reform

A Joyce Foundation-Chicago Tribune poll finds public impatience with mediocre schools

 Students arrive for school in Chicago Thursday morning. A Joyce Foundation-Chicago Tribune poll finds public impatience with mediocre schools. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune) (Michael Tercha /March 23, 2013)
5:34 p.m. CDT, March 23, 2013
Last year, 8,781 students dropped out of Chicago public high schools. In our elementary schools, 51,106 children couldn’t meet state reading standards. And as you absorb this editorial, 19,000 young people yearn to leave their current public schools for seats in charter schools. Why? Because those kids — and their often desperate parents — know that as their childhoods quickly slip away, they’re … falling … further … behind.Chicagoans understand the grave disadvantages many of this city’s children face when they walk through schoolhouse doors. And many of those Chicagoans are speaking up to demand better. Today we offer the first of three editorials based on polling by a unique partnership: the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, a persistently strong voice for education reform, and the Chicago Tribune editorial board. You’ll read our editorial board’s interpretation of the survey results in these three editorials. And you’ll read the Joyce Foundation’s interpretation in a commentary by Ellen Alberding, that organization’s president. Although we at the Tribune worked with Joyce to design the survey, neither party vetted nor influenced the other’s independent conclusions.

This is an exploratory venture for Joyce and for the Tribune: The mutual goal is to gauge Chicagoans’ attitudes about their city’s schools and how to improve them. To carry out the survey, the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago conducted telephone interviews with 1,010 Chicagoans — 520 parents of Chicago public school students and 490 other Chicagoans — who were asked to grade the schools and weigh in on how they would suggest boosting academic performance.

As a group, these respondents know that schools are the engines of the city’s prosperity. That a Chicago which fails to educate its children cannot thrive.

As you’ll read, the Chicagoans surveyed tend to be results-oriented and impatient. After watching City Hall launch 18 years of school reform efforts since then-Mayor Richard M. Daley assumed control of the system in 1995, Chicagoans understand the results: A school system once labeled worst in the nation by a U.S. secretary of education has shown some gains. But many of the reform initiatives have flamed out and sputtered back to Earth.

Our overriding conclusion from the survey data: Chicagoans are ready for education reform. Two examples among several: They want the best teachers paid more than their colleagues — and the least effective more quickly dismissed.

Through these 18 years, Chicagoans have heard politicians, school officials, union leaders and parent groups speak about what they would do to fix Chicago public schools. Today, a scientifically selected subset of Chicagoans speaks.

First, the report card:

Overall, 4 in 10 respondents give the schools a barely passing grade of C. Another 2 in 10 grade the system a D. More award an F (8 percent) than an A (7.8 percent.)

That’s not a report card any child would want to take home. No wonder the poll shows Chicago is ready for status-quo-rattling reforms that many advocates for better schools, this page included, long have urged. Those reforms include:

More charter schools. More than 6 in 10 respondents (63.7 percent) favor making it easier for charters to expand in neighborhoods where there are currently charter waiting lists. An even larger share, 67.9 percent, say it should be easier for charters to set up shop in neighborhoods with underperforming schools.

A “parent trigger” law. Six in 10 (61.1 percent) favor a law that would empower parents to take control of a persistently failing school.

Tuition vouchers. There’s significant support for this concept but also strong opposition: Almost half of the respondents (46.5 percent) support efforts to give tuition vouchers to parents with children in consistently underperforming schools, so those kids can attend parochial or other private schools. But 47.8 percent oppose vouchers. The bottom line: Supporters need to do a better job of selling this idea.

Every day in Chicago, 400,000 kids stow their backpacks, pile into classrooms, and turn their heads toward the teacher at the blackboard. Then teachers inspire them to learn about science, math, English, social studies, art. Or, too often, not.

Every night, parents across the city see the results of what happened in thousands of classrooms: Kids fired up by school or … bored to distraction. Kids tackling homework or … goofing off.

Teacher pay,teacher performance

Of all the factors that drive school performance, none is more important than the quality of that teacher at the front of the classroom. Nine in 10 parents polled said they are very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their child’s teacher. But many Chicagoans are impatient with teachers across the system who aren’t performing. The poll finds widespread support for reforms that tie student achievement to how teachers are evaluated, paid and, when necessary, laid off.

• Merit pay. Chicago Teachers Union leaders fought hard against merit pay in negotiations over their current labor contract. Unfortunately, they won. But Chicagoans overwhelmingly support the concept, the poll shows: More than 7 of 10 respondents (72.2 percent) agree that highly effective teachers should be paid more than those whose students make insufficient progress. We strongly agree and hope that school boards throughout the state take notice.

• Making the grade. How long should a low-performing teacher have to significantly improve? More than 6 in 10 respondents (61.7 percent) believe that it is unfair for a student to have a low-rated teacher for more than a year. We strongly agree. If anything, a year is far too long to doom kids to an ineffective teacher. Studies show those teachers hold back student performance. That should prod CPS officials — all school officials — to take a tougher stand on pushing mediocre teachers to leave the system. Termination is a shamefully rare event in Chicago.

• Seniority and layoffs. A strong majority of respondents (71.9 percent) favors laying off ineffective educators, regardless of their seniority, if the teaching staff needs to shrink. When CPS tried to do that in 2010, the union hauled the school board into court to block it. The new teachers contract negotiated last fall introduced the refreshing concept of exempting the best educators from layoffs. But even then, excellent probationary teachers — who don’t have tenure — will still be dismissed before tenured teachers who don’t perform as well. Sacrificing good young teachers is no way improve education in Chicago.

• Tenure. Across the nation, some states have moved to curb or end tenure for teachers because the job protection extends to excellent and inadequate educators alike. Illinois hasn’t tackled that issue yet. But the poll finds wide support for an end to tenure in some cases: 73.8 percent of respondents say teachers should lose tenure if they’re judged ineffective in the evaluation process.

About those evaluations: In Chicago and across Illinois, new teacher evaluation systems are rolling out that will hold teachers accountable for student learning. Just how much student performance should count for a teacher’s evaluation has been fiercely debated. In Chicago, student growth accounts for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, going up to 40 percent in five years.

Chicagoans approve. More than 6 in 10 respondents (62.9 percent) say improvement in student achievement should carry more than 30 percent weight in a teacher’s evaluation.

What parents want

What trait do parents seek most in their child’s teacher? It isn’t years of classroom experience. Or an instructor’s advanced degrees. No, almost 4 in 10 of the parents we polled (38.1 percent) say “evidence that teacher’s students are learning” should be the most important factor in deciding which teacher will instruct their child. That’s almost twice the number who say the most important factor is “knowing that the teacher would be caring toward your child.”

Last fall, Chicago parents and students suffered through the first teachers strike in 25 years. We opposed the strike and urged lawmakers in Springfield to ban teacher strikes because they rob children of valuable class time. The notion of forbidding strikes by teachers could hardly be more divisive: The Joyce-Tribune poll found that 45.1 percent of Chicago public school parents and 46.2 percent of all respondents say teachers should not have the right to strike. Yet more than half of survey respondents (53.2 percent overall) say teachers need the right to strike.

That shows a sharp split in Chicago. Yet 75.1 percent say the union’s primary responsibility shouldn’t be advocating on pay issues or benefits for its members. It should be to improveschools and help teachers get better.

Chicagoans say they want the Chicago Teachers Union to cooperate with the school district on an array of issues. Here’s one opportunity:

CPS has just announced a list of 61 school building closings to help reduce a looming budget deficit. Almost half of the public school parents, 46.8 percent, and a solid majority of other survey respondents, 55.5 percent, agree that underenrolled schools should be closed to help balance the system’s budget.

Chicago Teachers Union officials threaten massive demonstrations and “civil disobedience” to thwart those closings. That confrontational approach would make this process even more agonizing than it already is. It would frighten children and disrupt thousands of educators and students at those welcoming schools. Teachers have a better choice: Work with CPS to smooth the transition of 30,000 students to better performing schools.

We’ll be writing more about these compelling poll numbers in the days ahead. We encourage readers to read the full survey at chicagotribune.com/schoolreform.

Remember, behind these numbers is a strong impatience with the status quo, a strong desire for reform. The unit of measurement for gauging progress: The prospects, strong or weak, for a Chicago child’s education. For every child’s education.

Monday: Unchaining charter schools.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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