Thursday, July 14, 2011

OUTSIDE EXPERTS PUT CHICAGO SCHOOLS UNDER MICROSCOPE: Team looks for ways to improve teaching and learning

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter |

July 11, 2011 - A panel of education experts from across the country will delve deep into Chicago's public school system over the next two months, looking for weak links and hoping to offer the district's new leadership team advice on how to improve teaching and learning.

Tasked by new schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard and Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso to determine how best to deploy teachers and resources, the panel has already begun meeting. It's expected to have recommendations at the beginning of the school year.

The group will be digging through such data as testing and graduation statistics as well as observing summer school classes and talking to teachers, principals and administrators. One key charge is how best to structure the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Teaching and Learning, which oversees instruction, curriculum and assessments. But already that mission and the resignation of the office's director, Katherine Volk, is creating angst about changes in the department and instruction districtwide.

"It's like a forensic audit of the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning," said Robert Peterkin, professor emeritus at Harvard Graduate School of Education, the advisory team's chairman. "We'll be poking around, and I'm sure we'll make some people nervous, but this is an examination of how to make teaching and learning better in Chicago, not to go after the adults."

An outside look of this sort is nothing new. Incoming school district leaders often ask for an analysis to determine a baseline from which they can move forward and help set priorities.

Brizard says he decided to focus on teaching and learning because the district has not had a chief education officer since Barbara Eason-Watkins left in June 2010. University of Chicago professor Charles Payne served as interim chief education officer, but only for a few months. Brizard says many principals have complained about the lack of uniformity in curriculum and testing assessments for a while.

The group will also determine how far the district is from implementing new national Common Core standards, which must be in place for 2014; review CPS' current portfolio of charter and magnet school options; and determine professional development opportunities available to teachers and principals. While the panel won't necessarily look at what to add in an extended school day, it may look at how effectively time is used in the classroom.

Brizard says he hopes the group also will look at areas where stronger teachers need to be targeted, such as for the middle school years. Or what sort of incentives to offer good teachers who serve in the toughest schools.

Brizard and Donoso selected members for the team, which includes them and Jonathan Brice, who heads the Office of Student Support and Safety in Baltimore City Public Schools; Jaime Aquino, a former bilingual teacher who worked in the New York City school system with Brizard then went to Denver and is now the deputy superintendent of instruction at Los Angeles Unified School District; Washington, D.C., lawyer Maree Sneed, whose firm advises school districts; and Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, who helped Rahm Emanuel create his education platform as a mayoral candidate.

Brice will be delving into issues related to school climate, student engagement and anti-violence initiatives like Culture of Calm.

"We'll look at the early results and see if it's working for schools and how we should expand it," Brice said. "If it's something that's not working, then what are the tweaks that need to be made."

Aquino says while he was with Denver's schools, he helped design school performance criteria that assisted parents in evaluating their schools, making it easier to track school growth. He'll be taking a closer look at CPS' English language learners.

"We're going to offer them a menu of best practices that are working across the country," Aquino said. "It will then be up to (Brizard) and his team whether to implement it, given the political reality."

Barbara Radner, director or DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, said she's impressed with the group that has been assembled.

"We need people to think this through, not just say, 'Let's go do more charter schools or have a longer school day,'" she said. "What this group has is voices representing different parts of the challenge."

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