Rahm Still Believes in Texas 'Miracles'

Adding minutes of classroom time might be helpful, depending on how that extra time is used.
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"The data shows that the longer you stay in the classroom learning, you'll learn more..." -- Rahm Emanuel

While you mull that one over, I want to know who the genius was that told Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to model his school reform initiative after Houston, Texas? It's one thing having the mayor in charge of public education turn CPS into a wing of City Hall. It's another to have that same mayor taking advice from a group of hand-picked, politically loyal, billionaire "expert" members of his new corporate-reform education team.

Was it David Vitale? Penny Pritzker? I'm sure they both know Houston quite well. Penny owns a few Hyatts down there and David probably has a bank or two.

Or maybe Emanuel ran into George Bush's former ed secretary Rod Paige back in D.C., who may have told him about the "Texas Miracle." That questionable story actually propelled the former Texas governor Bush into the White House in 2000 along with former Houston superintendent Paige as his ed secretary. In any case, everywhere Rahm goes these days, and whenever anyone asks him for an example of what he wants to do with Chicago schools, he answers, "Uh, Texas -- Houston, Texas."

At a recent forum at Malcolm X College, students got to question Rahm mayor about how he might run the schools differently than outgoing Mayor Daley, and how he plans to improve the city's dropout rate. Obviously prepped by one of his experts, Rahm offered his now-stock answers: charter schools, merit pay, and most important, a longer school day. He also threw in empowering principals, who he calls the "franchisee owner of the school building." And, oh yes, Houston Texas.

"If you start in the Chicago Public School system in kindergarten," offered Rahm, "and your cousin lives in Houston, and you both go all the way through high school, the cousin in Houston spends three more years in the classroom."

My god! Is this true? Three years more in the classroom? That cousin must be a genius (or bored out of his or her freakin' mind). Well, at least his or her ACT score may be a little higher, if -- and this is a big if -- they're not poor.

The average ACT score for Houston's public high school students is 19.7, compared with 17.3 for Chicago, writes Tribune columnist Eric Zorn. But that 2.4 difference doesn't seem like much of a miracle when you consider the three years of extra time in the classroom. Besides, who is this "average" Houston student they keep talking about anyway? Whose cousin is it? I've always wanted to meet them.

What I do know is the gap between white students in Houston and the district's students of color is about the same as in Chicago. And that's not good. Not only that, but HISD schools have failed to make AYP ("Adequate Yearly Progress") under No Child Left Behind standards for three years in a row. Funny, Rahm failed to mention that.

Zorn adds that, "87 percent of Chicago's pupils are classified as 'low income,' compared with 79 percent of pupils in Houston labeled 'economically disadvantaged.'"

If only Rahm's team of experts had thought of that. Get 8 percent fewer poor kids in your school and your scores will go up by a couple of points. As Houston Supt. Terry Grier told his board of trustees last week:

"We want all of our schools to be on an upward trend. We have kids in our very best schools that need help. But I can promise you it's a lot easier to get help when you're surrounded with children with means. Our biggest challenge in our district is fighting poverty. You look at the achievement gap between free and reduced and non free and reduced. "

And it's not like anyone is actually arguing against lengthening the school day. The Chicago Teachers Union is all for it. The problem is, the system is bankrupt and it costs money to heat and cool school buildings and pay teachers. What a concept! In Houston, the state board allows schools to open a few minutes early, provided they don't have to pay for it.

Chicago's elementary school day generally begins for students at 9 a.m. and ends at 2:45 p.m., with no recess and just 20 minutes for lunch. Well, there it is. Just restore recess and adequate time for play (lots of learning goes on during play, Rahm) and bodda-bing, you have your 3 more years of learning. And kids will do better.

As for your cousin in Houston -- well he's probably already dropped out. You see, Houston's dropout rate matches Chicago's. Educators could have told the new mayor that huge dropout rates may have much to do with the disconnect between the test-driven curriculum and the lives of students. They may have pointed out that dropouts often arise from things happening to kids outside of school, rather than in school. Educators might have said many things, had they been consulted.

Adding minutes of classroom time might be helpful, depending on how that extra time is used. For example, if students are bored silly from 9 to 3, doing more of the same probably won't help. Neither will spending more time in racially segregated, overcrowded classrooms doing mostly test prep.

Oh, and by the way, the Houston school board has just announced that they are cutting the district's summer school week down to four days as a budget-cutting measure. The reason -- the district will lose $173.6 million in state funds in 2011-12 and $217.3 million in 2012-13.

So when you get right down to it, there are no miracles happening these days in Houston's schools. And yes, Mr. Mayor, it's true. The more time you spend in the classroom learning (and outside of it too), the more you are learning. True enough. Try it!

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