When I began teaching on Chicago's South Side in the fall of 1990, with no education coursework or certification under my belt, I struggled just to keep my head above water. Occasionally, I'd leave school at the end of the day feeling that I'd been productive, that the students had been engaged and had learned something meaningful. But most of the time, I was bumbling and ineffective.
Unfortunately, Chicago's school system was in pretty much the same shape. Decentralization reform passed by the legislature in 1988 was under way, and dedicated people across the city were pushing to make it work. But with little support from the central office, many schools still floundered. I felt small, lost in a system that seemed to have no conscience or compassion.
By 1993, I'd changed schools, earned my credentials and a master's degree, and begun to feel more confident as a teacher. Reform had kicked in by then, and local school councils were handling many curriculum and budget decisions. Two of the reform's provisions benefited me directly: The first, which gave principals more leeway in hiring nontenured teachers, made my switch to a new school possible. The second handed schools control over Title I money. With this new authority, my principal and school council approved my plan for a student video-production program, forking over money to buy cameras, microphones, and editing equipment. They gave me the freedom to run with the idea, and I dashed off like a madman.
Before long, the video program had become an integral part of our school's mission. We added media studies classes to the curriculum, and students began cranking out award-winning videos. I loved going to work every day. Reform was proving to be empowering and liberating.
The landscape shifted again in 1995 with a second wave of reform, ushered in by Mayor Richard Daley and the system's newly appointed chief executive officer, Paul Vallas. Determined to bring widespread respectability to the system, the new administration promised to focus on accountability and high standards-goals with which no one could argue. But the board's rhetoric quickly translated into regressive measures: an almost reverential respect for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; lesson plans that had to be cross-referenced to three separate sets of standards; and scripted summer-school classes that strictly prescribed what to teach, how to teach it, and for how long. (In a much-appreciated goodwill gesture, the new regime allowed teachers to continue dressing themselves and choosing what to eat for lunch.)
In the last two years, the hysteria over the Iowa tests and "accountability" has become even more intense. Because schools-and by extension principals and teachers-are judged solely based on their students' Iowa test results, there is enormous pressure to boost scores. As a result, there's less creativity, more coercion, and more conformity. In my reading class, I had to ponder ridiculous choices: Should I teach reading as I believe it should be taught, or should I teach to the almighty test? Should I spend a month with the kids on a good novel or hammer them with test preparation? Should we do independent projects or practice filling in bubbles on answer sheets?
Discouraging as all this has been, you'd never know it by reading the papers. They simply trumpet the system's "progress." But most Chicago teachers I know are at best ambivalent about where we seem to be headed. They're glad to see the district back on its feet financially, and they appreciate the public's renewed respect for the schools. But they feel their freedom, individuality, and professionalism being stripped away.
Asked recently about the future direction of Chicago's schools, Paul Vallas said, "It's time to evolve." High time, if you ask me.
Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 63Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Reform Two-Step