The Board of Education's Circus Act Doesn't Help Kids

The December 14th takeover of the Chicago Board of Education meeting by parents and educators was at the first meeting after CPS announced its desire to "turnaround" ten schools. Immediately following, there was blowback from the mainstream media.
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I blogged about the December 14th takeover of the Chicago Board of Education meeting by parents and educators where I described the feeling of being dismissed by powerful people while presenting cold, hard facts. This was the first Board meeting after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced its desire to "turnaround" ten schools next school year. Turnaround is a process where an entire staff is fired and in most cases an outside vendor is contracted to take over management of the school. Most of those contracts are proposed to go to the Academy for Urban Leadership (AUSL).

Video of the December 14th Board of Education Takeover

Immediately following the meeting, there was blowback from the mainstream media. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote an editorial calling the act of civil disobedience a "circus act." The piece read like the grown-ups in the room scolding their petulant children.

Despite the union's contention that turnarounds don't work, a report due out next month by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research on the early years of turnarounds shows elementary turnarounds managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a private non-profit, made "significantly greater" gains in reading and math than did comparable schools.

The Sun-Times printed this long before the actual study was released. It is unclear if the early leak of the study's findings happened before or after the federal government pulled its name from the study.

"Parts of the report were written in a way that could suggest the study was intended to answer more complex questions than was judged to be possible with the available data," said Rebecca Maynard, the commissioner [of U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences].

So did this study actually point to AUSL making "significantly greater" gains?

It's hard to tell because the study itself did not target AUSL turnaround schools, instead it culled data from multiple reform efforts. In Chicago, these efforts ranged from keeping the staff and replacing the principal to a complete closure and restart as a new school -- some as select enrollment schools or charters where almost the entire student population changed.

When schools close and are replaced with charter schools, they tend to attract better-performing and more economically advantaged students from further away. Charter schools also re-enroll fewer of a school's original students. For instance, when Howland Elementary in North Lawndale became Catalyst-Howland Charter School, just 16 percent of students eligible to re-enroll did.

Even the study's authors maintained that this study did not point out to significant gains for specific programs like AUSL turnarounds:

The study did not reach any conclusions about which reform measures worked best, in part, [CCSR Researcher Elaine] Allensworth said, because "there aren't enough schools in each of these reform models to make sweeping generalizations that one model worked better than another."

Even though the study conflates several different reform initiatives, it still only shows a "small effect" according to Dan McCaffrey, a statistician at the Rand Corporation.

I assumed that after the release of the report, the Chicago Sun-Times would have changed course and maybe shown some humility for labeling AUSL critics as being part of a "circus."

However, the Sun-Times in its February 9th editorial skated around all of the limitations of the study and forged ahead with the Board of Education's party line:

Dramatic reforms at failing schools are starting to pay off, a new U. of C. report found...

The newly devised reforms include "school turnarounds," in which students remain but most staff are replaced over the summer. Turnarounds account for about half of the 22 schools studied. This is the highly controversial strategy embraced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, since 2006, by CPS. Turnarounds are mostly done by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a private nonprofit. CPS also does a smaller number of turnarounds itself.

You see what they did there?

This makes me think about cognitive scientist George Lakoff's concept of framing outlined in the 2004 book Don't Think of an Elephant! where he made the point, "[I]f a strongly held frame doesn't fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept."

The Sun-Times framed the debate by implying AUSL is synonymous with reform. The CCSR releases a study that states "reforms" show improvement. CPS asserts, "The alternative is the status quo." Therefore, the only choice is to go with AUSL, right?

This looks like all three rings of a circus and just in time for the February 22nd Board of Education meeting where the Board will vote on turnarounds and other "school action" proposals like phase-outs and school closings.

Perhaps the Board will continue with their circus theme and rent more protesters to pretend that the public supports AUSL turnarounds.

I fail to see how this process helps kids.

CTU's Jackson Potter and Chicago Board of Education's Noemi Donoso debate turnarounds and the CCSR study.

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