Chicago Blues

The city's tough-love bosses set the standard for education reform in the '90s, turning a dysfunctional school system into a national model. So why are so many teachers miserable?

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Bonnie Jerome should be happy. After flirting briefly with a career as a social worker, she's found her calling as a 5th grade teacher in Chicago. The works nourishes her mind and her soul, challenging her intellect while filling her with a sense of mission. Teaching in a school near one of the city's notorious high-rise housing projects, she helps kids who desperately need the hope that education offers.

Jerome should be particularly happy that she's working in Chicago, home of education's comeback story of the '90s. At least that's what the newspapers tell her. A little more than a decade ago, the city's schools had little heart and even less soul. The system's finances were in tatters, its buildings were crumbling, and its teachers' union was perpetually at war with the administration. But today, after two gut-wrenching reforms, the nation's third-largest school system is born again. Test scores are up, the budget is balanced, and labor leaders are at peace with management. As state money pours in, almost every school has been renovated, repaired, or rebuilt. And the system's traditional chorus of critics--from editorial writers to posturing politicians--is singing its praises, hailing district leaders as miracle workers.

Despite all this, Jerome is despondent. In fact, she's grieving over the state of schools and talking about giving up the job she loves. Truth be told, she says, the city's new policies are tantamount to educational malpractice. And she'd rather quit than be an accomplice to something that hurts her kids. Especially kids such as Larry.

On the hottest day of early June, Larry sits at the center of Jerome's classroom, one of 25 5th graders hoping to catch a breath of the faint breeze from the windows behind them. Larry should be in 7th grade. He's two years older than his classmates and towers over some by a foot or more. But as part of the city's recent reforms, Larry and thousands of other students who scored poorly on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills have been held back. Never mind their grades, their attendance, their homework, or their class participation. These don't factor into promotion decisions until a student reaches a magic threshold on the exam. For in the new era of Chicago hope, test scores hold the key to a child's fate.

City school officials contend they're doing kids like Larry a favor by demanding that they meet high standards. But to Jerome, Larry symbolizes the danger of Chicago's new direction-a danger overlooked in the national buzz about the city's turnaround. Many kids will reject this blunt strategy to shame them into learning, she says. Thousands will drop out rather than be held back.

Jerome's canary-in-a-coal-mine warnings are echoed by others. Of the two dozen teachers interviewed for this story, many attacked the new reforms, claiming the central office is obsessed with test results. To boost scores, they say, school officials micromanage classroom instruction, smothering teachers with rigid rules, regulations, and curriculum. Those who speak out are quickly punished. Fear of reprisal is such that many teachers-including Bonnie Jerome-insisted that their real names not be used.

How deep does dissent run among the city's 26,000 teachers? To be sure, many who work in the schools-including the leaders of the city's teachers' union-applaud the new regime, saying the district in the past was too forgiving of failure. Still, the rumbling in the ranks reflects a tension that's felt in Chicago as well as across the country. "Accountability" has been the watchword of the decade, with states and districts embracing policies every bit as top-down and test-obsessed as those in the Windy City. Such tough-love strategies appear to work, and their allure is certain to grow in the new decade.

But wherever accountability is king, there is almost always insurrection, and it's often led by a band of teachers. Though their numbers are sometimes slim, these are frequently creative teachers who are tops in their field. They challenge leadership, question the validity of standardized tests, and rebel at instructional mandates. They also attack the philosophical underpinnings of accountability, pointing to weaknesses in what is now widely seen as America's best hope for improving schools. Most of all, they worry about their kids.

In the end, some of these teachers will ride out this wave of reform and hope for better things in the next. But others will quit in disgust. Which raises perhaps the most vexing question of all: How can accountability save schools if it drives out good teachers?

Chicago's first wave of reform, almost forgotten today, came in 1988. It was a revolution in the purest sense, an uprising by the people of Chicago. Since the early 1980s, the district had staggered from one crisis to the next, including bankruptcy, a state bailout, and repeated teacher strikes. Waste and mismanagement were the hallmarks of the central office, which was housed in three enormous warehouses that served as the perfect symbols of the system's bloat. Three superintendents had come and gone, none of them able to establish a new order. In 1987, William Bennett, then-secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, came to Chicago and proclaimed its schools the worst in the nation.

That same year, a bitter teachers' strike shut down the schools for three weeks and brought things to a head. After the walkout, parents, grassroots activists, and independent reformers persuaded state legislators to turn over control of the schools to the people who were in them every day. As part of legislation passed in 1988, councils of parents, teachers, and neighborhood residents were created at each school. These councils worked like small school boards; they hired principals and helped shape curriculum, manage budgets, and plan for the future.

Activists would later compare the revolution they had wrought to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the analogy was not too far off. Before the reform, the central office was a rigid bureaucracy that heaped one mandate after another on schools and teachers. Now, freed from such control, many school councils set an ambitious course of experimentation. By one researcher's count, 40 percent of the city's elementary schools were making wholesale changes within three years. These efforts soon became national news, as scholars and journalists hustled to Chicago to chronicle one of the country's most ambitious school reforms.

But like the breakup of the Soviet Union, the decentralization of Chicago'S schools spawned chaos as well as freedom. The district's central office often clashed with the councils, as it maintained a Kremlinlike defense of its right to decide policy. Nor did all the councils evolve into efficient engines of democracy; some split into warring factions that feuded as much over politics and egos as education. A dispute in the early 1990s at the Disney Magnet Elementary School became a citywide farce; meetings disintegrated into screaming matches, with the police called and audience members hauled away.

The reform's timing was also bad. The city's economy stagnated in the recession of the early 1990s, and the school system had to beg the state for money just to pay basic bills. By 1994, Mayor Richard Daley was demanding change. Frustrated by the decentralization he once supported, Daley knew the state of schools could weaken his 1995 reelection bid. If the mayor was to be held accountable for the schools, Daley argued, he should at least control them. And in the spring of 1995, he got his wish.

If the 1988 reforms gave power to the people, the 1995 policy shift gave power to the mayor. Under a new law passed by the legislature, Chicago's school board was disbanded, and Daley was given authority to appoint a board of trustees and a chief executive officer. Daley appointed Gery Chico, his former chief of staff, as president of the new school board. And he named Paul Vallas, his former budget director, CEO.

Vallas was a key choice. The son of an accountant, he was a finance and policy wonk, not an educator who had worked his way up through the ranks. As a result, he was not bound by the personal allegiances and ideological constraints that had hamstrung previous superintendents.

As the school system's most visible leader, he quickly proved an engaging character who disarmed critics with his earnest eccentricities. (On his first days on the job, he showed up for work with holes in his shoes.) Vallas also brilliantly wooed many of the same grassroots activists who had led the charge for decentralization, hiring some and dishing out contracts to others. And he managed to charm both the business community and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a frequent critic of past district chiefs.

Within a year, Vallas, Chico, and Daley had made undeniable progress. With help from the state, they eliminated a projected budget deficit and crafted a four-year spending plan that earmarked truckloads of money for school repairs. Officials also inked a new contract with teachers, bringing calm to the stormy relationship with the union.

The triumvirate's most important changes aimed to rejuvenate the district's academic performance. After taking over in 1995, they announced that schools could no longer use students' poverty to excuse academic failure. Test scores would improve-or else. Students who scored one or two grades below the national norm in reading or math on national tests would be forced to go to summer school. If they still "failed," they could be held back.

Officials also announced that they would put on probation any school in which the majority of students scored below national averages. Schools with more than 85 percent of their students below national norms would be "reconstituted." Principals and faculty would have to reapply for their positions. Any teachers not rehired would be sent downtown for training and a chance to apply for another position in the system. If no other school wanted them, they would be let go.

Chicago's new school leaders made good on most of their threats. In each of the last two years, about 50,000 students have attended summer school, often in sweltering hot classrooms (most schools in Chicago have no air conditioning). Ninety-one schools were put on probation; seven others were reconstituted.

Such hard-nosed tactics seem to have worked. Test scores have climbed four years in a row for elementary school students and three straight years for high schoolers. The latest Iowa test results show 35 percent of elementary students reading at above national norms-up from 26.5 percent in 1995-and 43 percent at national averages in math, an increase of 14 percentage points over 1995. The news isn't all good--only a few high schools have more than half their students above the norm--but Daley and Vallas are committed to more of the same. Next year, at least half of the city's 120,000 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders will attend summer school.

Once again, reporters and scholars are flocking to town. This time, they are writing flattering accounts of the tough bosses who whipped a dysfunctional system into shape. Meanwhile, mayors around the country are demanding Daley-like control so they can appoint Vallas-like CEOs. President Clinton mentioned Chicago's triumphs in his 1998 State of the Union address. And William Bennett returned to the city this spring and announced that everything had changed. Chicago, he proclaimed, now offers a parable of hope. "If you can turn up expectations and performance in Chicago, you can do it anywhere."

Ironically, the story of Chicago's success is told largely by outsiders who rarely set foot in a classroom. The story told by many teachers is much different. They claim that the Vallas administration has taken the district back to the bad old days before the 1988 reforms. Each week brings some new edict from the central office. Vallas has ordered one high school English teacher to remove the novel Coffee Will Make You Black from her required reading list; converted a well-regarded vocational school into an exclusive college-prep school; set earlier starting times at dozens of grade schools; and prohibited teachers from taking classes on field trips during the last two weeks of school. "It's a monarchy," says Bobby Steinway, a 6th grade teacher. "Long live the king!"

In each case, Vallas has offered justification for his moves. The book, for instance, was removed to satisfy fundamentalist ministers offended by one of its steamier passages. But teachers claim changes are imposed without discussion, upsetting school schedules and throwing lesson plans out of whack. "There's so much uncertainty," says Sharon Janice (not her real name), a 1st grade teacher at a magnet school. "They call the principals, and they say, 'This is how it's going to be.' And the principals tell us and that's it-no questions asked. The field trip ban is one small example. They say it's to make their record-keeping easier. But why? How? And who cares? Because they want easier record keeping, we're supposed to keep our students locked in a hot classroom?"

Some teachers resort to subterfuge. Bobby Steinway (not his real name) is a prime example. At 36, Steinway is a six-year veteran of the city schools, having landed his job at the height of the decentralization reforms. He relished the freedom given schools in the years before Vallas and fondly recalls school council debates over whether to spend discretionary money to reduce class sizes. The council weighed the pros and the cons--classes would be more intimate, but teachers would lose free time with less money available for pull-out teachers and clerks-and eventually decided that smaller was better. "We knew there were limitations," Steinway explains. "But we felt it was the right way to go. That's the beauty of decentralization. You have choices, and you make them."

Over the years, Steinway has earned prestigious awards as a top teacher. But he's frustrated by the district's efforts to standardize curriculum. "I don't follow the central office's script," he says. "I'm not doing things the way they want them done. I have my own style, my own curriculum." Recently, though the district's curriculum schedule called for a unit on Greek and Roman history and culture, his class wrote and staged a musical about Central American history. "There's nothing wrong with studying the Greeks," Steinway explains. "We should study them. But most of my students are Latinos, and Latino studies fascinate them. It inspires them to read. I can see the improvement in their work. But if I try to tell this to the central office, 111 be on the phone for days. They're trying to impose a one-size-fits-all plan for all schools. They want to impose uniformity. But shouldn't teachers be allowed to shape their classrooms? Don't you want to encourage creativity?"

Steinway doesn't flaunt his rebellion for fear of reprisals. "I'm lucky. My principal buffers me and lets me do my thing. I know she's vulnerable. So we keep quiet. It's this silly game they make us play."

Indeed, the central office has a reputation for punishing critics within the system. One teacher says district administrators reprimanded him after he wrote a letter to a local newspaper criticizing testing policies. "I don't care if you use my name," he says in an interview, "but I know they'll punish my principal to get at me. They play rough."

The biggest controversies of the Vallas administration have stemmed from its reliance on standardized tests. During elementary school, students take two standardized tests: a state exam and the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. High schoolers take the state test, the national Test of Achievement and Proficiency, and the twice-a-year Chicago Academic Standards Exam.

That's too many tests, some teachers argue. Each may only take up a few days, but with the district pushing hard for good scores, schools are giving over lots of instructional time to test prep. One recent study of high schools found English teachers at one high school on probation devoting as much as 63 percent of class time to test skills and preparation. "I'd like to know what's the relevancy of spending valuable class time teaching kids how to take a standardized test," says William Frost (not his real name), a high school English teacher. "What's that got to do with learning to read and write and think critically? That's time you could spend analyzing a good book."

Many teachers remain skeptical about the educational value of the tests-and the improvement that rising scores suggest. "I'm a Vietnam vet," says Larry McDonald, a high school math teacher (and one of the few critics willing to have his real name used). "I've seen the body count before; you tweak the numbers so the commander looks good."

To teachers such as Bonnie Jerome, the numbers game is one that disadvantaged kids can't win. Less than 10 percent of her school's students score above or at the national norm on the Iowas. More than half have been held back a grade, some more than once. "Some don't score high because of horrible family situations that you or I can't even imagine," Jerome says. "Kids are homeless; they witness unspeakable crimes. These are not excuses, these are facts. We're punishing them for something that's beyond their control."

"Setting standards is important," she adds, "and the push to end social promotions is good. But to base it all on a test is ridiculous. The Iowas weren't intended to be a gateway."

Controversy over testing boiled over in January when George Schmidt, a high school teacher, published parts of the CASE exam in Substance, a muckraking monthly put out by dissident teachers. Schmidt, the paper's editor, is the leader of a small but vociferous band of longtime critics of union leaders and central-office administrators. His experience with the 1988 reform was mixed: Schmidt briefly left his gadfly perch, signing on with the central office to write curriculum. Upon his return to the classroom, however, Schmidt tangled with his school council after members tried to prevent him from teaching John Del Vecchio's Vietnam novel, The 13th Valley, on the grounds that it was pornographic. (He was eventually transferred.)

Today, Schmidt is seen by some as too radical; he has twice run for union president, losing decisively each time. But he hammers hard at Vallas, Chico, and Daley. After Substance published excerpts from CASE, he told the Chicago Sun-Times that the test was "sophomoric," "mindless," and a "curricular atrocity." District officials charged that Schmidt had sabotaged the test; they fired the teacher and sued him for $1 million, the cost of creating a new test. The teacher, in turn, countersued.

Without a paycheck, Schmidt has become something of a martyr to the cause, holding fundraisers to pay his legal bills as he appeals to get his job back. "By beating up on George, they're sending a message to the rest of us," says Frost. "That message is shut up."

Teachers who criticize the Vallas administration acknowledge some ambivalence. "In some ways, this is a great time to be a teacher," says Frost. "The system's flush; I can make extra bucks working summer school. I don't even have to work as hard if I just follow the central office's mandated curriculum."

But these teachers are passionate in their opposition to a reform that they argue amounts to a sham. "The classroom gains they've made are artificial," Frost says. "Teachers know this. In general, we tend to be cynical. And this 'reform' feeds our cynicism because we know it's not real."

Teachers are not the only ones who question the reform's effectiveness. This winter, a handful of students at one of the city's top schools purposely flunked the state exam as a protest against what they say is excessive testing. A statement they issued later declared, "School students are disgusted by the overemphasis on standardized tests.... The tests reflect the cultural and intellectual biases of the people who write them. Standardized tests are often racist or classist."

Many reformers who pushed through the 1988 legislation credit the Vallas administration with energizing the system but question whether it is actually improving learning. "They will do everything in their power to boost test scores, short of educating the child," says Julie WoestehofI, head of Parents United for Responsible Education. "They're spending millions to make themselves look good, not to educate children."

"It's a crisis," she adds. "We feel that there's a crisis in our schools."

The Vallas administration fiercely defends its record. Officials reject the notion that they are stifling criticism or tying the hands of good teachers. While the district has standardized curriculum in core subjects, there is plenty of freedom to teach, they say. Curriculum scripts are optional tools designed chiefly to help teachers who might be struggling. "Not everyone can be a creative teacher," Vallas told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last year. "You have to institutionalize excellence."

Vallas also argues that while the district is demanding more of students and teachers, it's also giving them more support. The retention policy that Bonnie Jerome abhors offers one example. At elementary schools where large numbers of kids are held back, the district pays for smaller class sizes, test-related curriculum resources, and teacher workshops. Eighth graders who are retained, meanwhile, are not kept in their original schools but sent to "transition" centers for extensive remedial work. The district has also created an extensive afterschool program in which students get instruction in reading and math, tutoring help, and a hot meal.

Vallas and his aides say they know that mounds of research suggest that retention increases dropouts, not academic performance. But they contend that Chicago's strategy-holding kids back while helping them with summer school, smaller classes, and afterschool programs-has never been tried.

In an interview this spring with Catalyst, a local magazine covering Chicago's schools, Vallas said that changes were in the works for the district's student promotion policy. The district's reliance on standardized tests, he suggested, has been a necessary evil because rampant social promotion had made grades an unreliable indicator of students' abilities. "It's time to evolve," he continued. "I think three or four years down the road, grades will be the principal component for determining whether kids are retained. That's where we're going to end up."

The administration does not lack for allies who argue that Chicago is seeing a real turnaround. The powerful Chicago Teachers Union has backed the administration on key reforms. "Our relationship's good," says Tom Reece, the union's president. "I can pick up the phone and yell at them, if I have to. We're on the same page."

Some teachers hail the repairs and renovations undertaken by the new administration. "How can you not be excited when you see new windows installed or a playlot added?" says an elementary school teacher. "It sends a message to the kids. It says, you matter."

Pat Boland, an English teacher at Clemente High School, says the system needed strong leadership. Before Vallas took charge, Boland's school nearly imploded under the weight of feuding school council factions and alleged improprieties. Vallas put the school on probation and brought in a new principal and a team of educational consultants. It means more paperwork for teachers, but Boland says she's free to teach as she pleases.

"Vallas is cool," Boland says. "A lot of good things are happening; it's much better than before. He made teacher accountability an issue. You may not like it. It may be a pain in the neck; teachers can be as bad as kids if they don't want to do something. But it's good for us."

Boland also contends that the district has done a good job administering its multiple tests. Clemente's consultants worked with the faculty to build "a logical plan to prepare for all the exams," she says. "[The consultant] got it calenderized so you know what's coming and you don't find out on Monday that there's a test on Wednesday. She has a great emphasis on graphic organizers, colors, and boxes and charts. Every classroom will have some focus."

Still, despite the testimony of Boland and others, it's clear that dissatisfaction with the Vallas administration is interfering with the district's plans. A recent University of Chicago study of the district's high school reforms concluded that "teacher skepticism" threatens the promise of the Vallas reforms. Teachers in probation schools often don't see eye to eye with the consultants assigned to help them. One of the report's authors noted that "high school teachers are not willing to give up their control over the curriculum."

Perhaps the most telling sign of discontent came in the wake of a teacher contract extension announced in November by Reece and Vallas, giving teachers a 3 percent raise. Critics say union officials doctored the official vote count, which showed 42 percent of the rank and file opposed to the deal. Reece has refused their demands for a school-by-school tally--such information could be used for retribution, he says--and recent meetings of union delegates have seen dissidents and Reece backers yelling at each other. "It's a lousy contract; it doesn't even keep up with inflation," says Jay Rehak, an English teacher and union representative at Whitney Young High School. "Reece negotiates from the idea that we're weak and this is the best we can do."

Reece dismisses these accusations as the bellyaching of malcontents. He says the count is accurate, but he acknowledges that ratification support was at least 25 percentage points lower than on previous contracts. The more-divided vote, he says, was a byproduct of dissatisfaction with the Vallas reforms. "The union leadership pays a price for reform," Reece says. "It pays a price for cooperatively trying to improve the system. That price is you have some people who don't want change. I think this vote will be the low point and people will start to get more comfortable with the changes. Change is hard, even if it's for the better." In time, Reece continues, dissatisfaction will fade, and teachers will appreciate what they have.

But others say that's wishful thinking. The best and the brightest in Chicago's teaching corps are the most frustrated by the Vallas administration, says Raelynne Toperoff, executive director of the Teachers' Task Force, an organization that trains teachers to be school and policy leaders. Toperoff's staff works with about half of the schools in the city. "There's a huge amount of turnover, especially among good teachers," she says. "Talented teachers have one eye on the classroom and one eye on the want ads."

Teacher outrage at test-driven accountability is not limited to Chicago. "You've got thousands and thousands of teachers outraged by what the pressure of testing has done to their teaching," says Alfie Kohn, author of the new book, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards." Kohn, a longtime crusader against competition in schools, is leading what he calls a "loose confederation" of activists who are fighting standards and accountability systems in 35 states.

"The emphasis on testing has squeezed the intellectual life out of schools," he says. "Teachers have essentially been deskilled."

It's no coincidence that top teachers are the most frustrated by tough accountability systems, says Frederick Hess, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. Many such systems are built on the assumption that few inner city teachers-maybe 30 percent at best-are talented and motivated, says Hess, author of Spinning Wheels, a study of reform in 57 cities. Scripted classwork and top-down curriculum control are essentially features designed to bring along the middling teacher.

"But talented teachers," Hess argues, "are not going to like it one bit. They're the ones likely to leave."

Across the city from Bonnie Jerome's school, Sharon Janice is wrapping up her day. The 1st grade teacher was recently named one of the state's best early-childhood educators, but like Jerome, she doesn't know how much more she can take. She has offers from schools that would pay her much more. One day, she'll probably go. "It's hard to work for a system that has so little respect for teachers," she says. "I read where Vallas said you can learn to teach in eight weeks. OK, let him come and do it. This isn't something that can be scripted. This isn't something you learn in eight weeks. This is something you learn year after year. Every year, it's something new; every year you learn from your mistakes. They don't appreciate that."

As she talks, Janice sets her room in order, clearing crayons from desks and straightening out chairs. She arrived before 8 this morning, dismissed her class at 2:30, and spent several hours tutoring, grading papers, and hanging student pictures on the wall. Now, it's after 6, and she still has class plans to write.

"I got into this profession to teach children," she says. "The classroom's my refuge. Just let me shut my door and teach."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 58-63

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Chicago Blues
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