Future of Schools

How Chicago teachers really feel about safety, discipline, and school choice

PHOTO: Educators for Excellence
Kallie Jones (center), a Chicago Public Schools teacher, discusses results of E4E's first nationwide teacher survey

More than four in 10 Chicago teachers feel unsafe at school, a markedly greater percentage than teachers nationally — but at the same time, Chicago teachers also feel better prepared to deal with violence and oppose arming teachers — more so than do their peers across the nation, a newly released survey shows.

These are some of the findings in the first nationwide survey commissioned by the teacher-advocacy organization Educators for Excellence (E4E) that was released on Wednesday. Educators for Excellence, a group of over 30,000 teachers nationwide, partnered with Gotham Research Group to develop the survey questions, and Gotham administered the survey online. They queried 1,000 teachers across the country plus an additional 100 teachers in Chicago. 

Jeffrey Levine, president of Gotham, said that the teachers surveyed in Chicago reflected the geographic distribution of teachers in the city and reflected the city’s ratio of charter to district teachers.

These are some of the main findings:

While 31 percent of teachers nationwide fear for their safety in school, the proportion was 42 percent in Chicago. At the same time 67 percent of Chicago educators said they feel their school has prepared them to address school violence, surpassing 54 percent of teachers nationwide. The top three ways teachers nationwide say they may feel unsafe are gun violence, in-person bullying, and fighting among students.

Stacy Moore, the interim executive director of E4E-Chicago, said that this pair of findings “was actually not all that surprising.” She said that because many Chicago teachers feel unsafe, they have also have pushed their schools and the district to provide more training on how trauma affects students and on how to address school violence. Moore noted that in past years, several Chicago schools received federal Healing Trauma Together grants that helped them provide specialized care for students impacted by violence.

“The idea that educators would feel more prepared is the result of the fact that they are seeking those resources,” Moore said.

Math teacher Drew Heiserman said that at his former school, TEAM Englewood, “many students were coming to us with trauma from home and the neighborhood.” In one of the last years he taught at TEAM, “there was a string of seven or eight weeks in row where one staff member was reporting being assaulted by a student.”

He agreed with the findings that Chicago teachers may be more  prepared to address violence. He said that teacher training programs in Chicago, such as the one at the University of Illinois Chicago which he graduated from, “gives you a heads up” for what to expect when teaching in the city.

Heiserman also proactively sought resources to address violence when he taught at TEAM. He and his colleagues used resources from Umoja, a Chicago-based organization that develops restorative justice curricula, to implement practices that attempt to resolve conflict rather than punish students for acting up.

Those practices appeared to be effective in changing students’ perspectives, Heiserman said. He found that afterward, many students “didn’t see us as someone to vent to. …They would see us as human beings again.”

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A larger percentage of Chicago teachers believe in restorative ways of addressing discipline than teachers nationwide. For example, 71 percent of Chicago teachers compared with 64 percent of teachers nationwide believe that restorative practices (requiring perpetrators to address the harm caused by their actions) are effective at improving student behavior.

Still, 49 percent of Chicago teachers believe in the effectiveness of expulsions and 54 percent support suspensions. Both surpass the 39 percent of teachers nationally who support each of those two punitive measures.

Writing teacher Melissa Hughes from Michele Clark Magnet High School in Austin offered an explanation for those seemingly conflicting findings. She said considering that Chicago might have more instances of school violence than other cities, then “in areas [in Chicago] where trauma-informed professional development is lacking, it’s very challenging and hard for teachers to know how to address discipline.”

Still, she said that many teachers in Chicago “see that punishments are actually not effective.”

“Teachers are in it because we love our students, and we want to do what’s best for our students,” she said.

She brought up an instance in a “peace circle” — a mediating session —  in which two students who had previously fought came up with a code word that indicated when their play-fighting escalated too far into real fighting. The code word allowed them be more cognizant of their own physical behavior in future encounters.

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Chicago teachers and teachers nationwide overwhelmingly believe in their unions, 89 percent and 85 percent respectively, and would opt in their union if not automatically enrolled, 80 percent and 82 percent respectively. But only 32 percent in Chicago and 28 percent nationally feel well represented by their unions.

Moore said that this finding is especially important to consider in light of the Janus Supreme Court case in late June, which ruled that members can choose whether or not they pay union dues. “It’s more important than ever that unions are being democratic and listening to all the perspectives of their members,” she said.

But only 18 percent in Chicago feel greatly represented at the state level. The report states that nationwide, “the further teachers are from the decision-making body, the less represented they feel.” This is also true of Chicago teachers.

Kallie Jones, a first-grade teacher at McDowell Elementary School in Calumet Heights and one of the teachers who helped draft the survey questions, said that policymakers need to start with “actually going out and talking to teachers. They need to ask what we want, not guess what we want.”

Moore said that policymakers also should let teachers draft legislation on education policy. For example, she added, E4E-Chicago teachers helped draft two state resolutions that passed this year: HR0795, which urges the state to prioritize school climate and culture and HJR0115, which urges the U.S. Department of Education to sustain an equitable school discipline guidance.

“That was incredibly impactful,” she said. “Teachers continue to want the opportunity to be heard beyond their classroom.”

***

On ways to measure school effectiveness, 67 percent of Chicago teachers prefer using academic growth, compared with 74 percent of teachers nationwide. Both locally and nationally, teachers also want school culture and climate, such as disciplinary data and feedback from students, included in measures of school effectiveness.

Moore said that using growth and non-academic measures of school culture and climate “is something we’re seeing our state take major steps towards.”

Moore noted that in Illinois’ Every Student Succeeds Acts plan, academic indicators make up 75 percent of a school’s rating. Half of the academic measure for elementary schools is based on academic growth. The remaining 25 percent of the a school’s rating is focused on non-academic indicators, which include a measure of school climate and culture.

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40 percent of Chicago teachers support school choice in the form of universal school vouchers, compared with 21 percent of teachers nationwide. But Chicago teachers condition their support on charter schools being equally accessible and not shifting funds away from district schools.

Read more about the national findings here and the summary of Chicago findings here. Detailed findings about opinons on unions from Chicago teachers are here and from teachers nationwide are here.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the percentage of teachers nationwide who would opt into unions if not automatically enrolled, according to survey results, is 82 percent, not 60 percent. 

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.