Monday, March 13, 2017

Not buying this NYT piece about how Rahm's principals fixed Chicago schools

The principals that are making gains are making them, not because of the system, but in spite of CPS. -- Principals Assoc. Pres. Troy LaRavier 
I'm not sure who in Rahm Emanuel's oversized City Hall PR Dept. planted this story in the New York Times, but kudos to them for getting this piece of fluff  past the fact checkers and custodians of common sense. Peter Cunningham swears it wasn't him, but I congratulated him anyway.

The Op-ed by David Leonhardt, "Want to Fix Schools, Go to the Principal's Office" focuses on Chicago and gives all the credit to the mayor and CPS super-principals for the district's supposed "fastest in the nation" gains in student achievement, rising graduation rates and lower dropout rates.

Using cherry-picked data, he makes a case that Chicago is on or near the top of the nation's public schools, even while 85% of its students continue to live in poverty and the entire district teeters on the brink of financial collapse.

In other words, Leonhardt is whistling past the graveyard. He's over his head when it comes to writing about education in Chicago.

All this reminds me of the Arne Duncan, Chicago Miracle  in 2008, when no success claim about turnaround schools was ludicrous enough to be challenged by a compliant media.

As for fewer dropouts and spiraling graduation rates, I'd love to believe the reports but don't know how anybody can, given CPS's history of deception in reporting such data.

Remember when in 2015 they were forced to lower the official high school graduation rate following revelations that thousands of dropouts were being misclassified as "transfers"?

According to the NPR report:
At just 25 CPS high schools, more than 1,000 students were mislabeled as moving out of town or going to private schools. But they had actually dropped out and were attending CPS alternative schools, the investigation found. More than 600 were listed as getting a GED. State law is clear that students who leave school to enroll in GED programs or attend alternative schools should be classified as dropouts.
Now they claim that the percent of students graduating CPS schools has hit an all-time high of 73.5%, outpacing  national average gains and representing "a monumental 16.6 percentage point increase since 2011."

Makes me wonder how they even know what the rate was in 2011 since that year marked the beginning of four years of inflated high school graduation rates. Little has changed since then. Students who transfer to privately operated "alternative schools" within the CPS system still won't count as dropouts — and the district still continues its practice of crediting a student's graduation from an alternative program back to the school they originally left.

The reason they like to use average-gains data is that it masks the effect of the great decline in CPS student population over the past two decades, matching the out-migration of Chicago's quarter-million mostly-black residents.

One scenario has it-- get rid of your poorest African-American kids, close their schools, and your test scores (if you use the same test) and other selected performance data is likely to go up -- right alongside your neighborhood crime statistics.

Crediting principals for these "amazing" gains, Leonardt claims the progress has "multiple causes, including a longer school day and school year and more school choices for families. But the first thing many people talk about here is principals." He offers not one shred of evidence to back up the claims. This while Rahm is now threatening to shorten the school year by three weeks.

He then quotes Rahm:
“The national debate is all screwed up,” Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, told me. “Principals create the environment. They create a culture of accountability. They create a sense of community. And none of us, nationally, ever debate principals.”
Ironically, Leonhardt's pat on the principal's head comes at a time when Chicago principals are threatened with 30% budget cuts and are being hard hit by the board's privatization scheme's which have left their buildings in shambles, massive staff cuts and exploding class size. Not to mention the fact that CPS principals are rarely in a school long enough to lead any substantial school improvement effort.

I raised the issue with Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association

Here's what he had to say:
One of the things the article talks about is test scores. But I recently was in Madison Wisconsin where I had a conversation with the mayor. He told me test scores there had dropped significantly and they couldn't figure out why until they dis-aggregated the scores of the kids who had always attended schools in Madison and the kids who had moved to Madison from Chicago. The first group were testing at about the same level as they always had. But the kids who had migrated from Chicago, many of them public housing refugees, tested so poorly, they dropped the average of the Madison school district. So it would make perfect sense that the averages in the district that they left would climb. 
I then put Troy in a tough spot by asking him about attributing the reported gains to star principals. But Troy got right to the point:
Chicago principals are working in a district that continues to make it far more difficult for them to do their jobs. They pull one resource after another. For example, if you're a CPS principal now, you may not have an assistant principal. If you really value the position as the article claims, then you invest in the position. The words don't line up with deeds.
Finally, we're all not making the gains we could be making if they invested in us and in the schools. The principals that are making gains are making them, not because of the system, but in spite of CPS.  
CPS principals are also competing for jobs and credibility with an invasion of newbies coming out of private leadership training programs. These TFAers and New Leaders often are hired by district charter schools while having little or no teaching experience and are willing to work for less money.

So yes, principals deserve lots of credit for trying to "do more with less" using tricks like leasing out their buildings or their parking lots, charging student fees each year, or asking parent to raise money for school operations. But to single them out over classroom and special-ed teachers, who have been steadfast, even while baring the brunt of cuts, losing their planning time while class sizes explode, is is divisive and misleading at best.


  1. I couldn't believe that the Times ran that piece-and on the front page of the Sunday Review section! And did you see that apparently Rahm worked in a pre-school? But they forgot to mention 50 school closings.

  2. I recommend you ask professor Sarah Reckhow, of Michigan State University, author of Follow the Money to help sort this out for you. She is not intimidated by anyone. I still hope that she and her husband, Matt Grossmann, author of Asymmetric Politics work together and bring clarity to the terrible things regarding public education, and urban politics.

  3. At least something good came out of Leonhardt's article. Over 500 Times readers responded with mostly thoughtful, critical comments. That's the kind of discussion needed if public education is to be saved and improved.

  4. Saw your piece today. Nice job. One point. Many principals are being told they cannot have an assistant principal, but not all of them. The current wording seems to say all of them are barred from having one.

  5. Thanks Troy. Going back on my notes, I misheard your quote. I went back and corrected it.

  6. I know that probably no one but you will see this comment, Mike, but I just wanted to write that it's ironic this article appeared in the Sunday NYT while, on the same day, the headline article (which was 2 pages on the inside, by the excellent Mick Dumke) in the Chicago Sunday Sun-Times was, "Postcards from the Mayor: in wake of Trump's election, Rahm has been hitting the road in a return to his role as a national political power player," and it was a less than flattering "puff-piece," I can tell you. Inside, "Rahm the Road Again" tells readers that "The flurry of travel--paid for through a 'mixture' of taxpayers' money, campaign cash & private funding, according to City Hall--coincided with a stepped-up campaign fund-raising effort. His political committees took in $1.4 million during the second half of 2016--nearly three times the $500,000 raised in the same period a year earlier, campaign-finance records show."
    That's because last year, he was dealing with the fallout from the November, 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald video, which prompted him to fill his schedule visiting black neighborhoods, to resurrect his image. So--this year--problem solved! All is forgotten and forgiven, & the mayor was around the country, "advising" Dems on how to better promote their message, & how to work "with the new administration on some issues, rather than simply trying to obstruct it"...according to none other than, well, the New York Times.

    And Chicago is to simply forget Laquan McDonald.
    And believe that Chicago schools are "fixed."


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.