Chicago to Add Gym and Art Classes Recommended by VIVA Teachers Two Years Ago

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will require its students to have daily physical education. Two years ago, 600 CPS teachers participated in online VIVA Idea Exchange™ about how the district’s students spend their time in school. Among the six recommendations that came out of the Idea Exchange, two specifically focused on physical activity:

  • Ensure all CPS students a well-rounded education, including art, music and physical education.
  • Ensure all children have time for free play in the school day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Chicago Board of Education will vote on new policy mandating 30 minutes of daily PE for elementary school students, and an average of 42 minutes of daily PE for high school students.

Currently, elementary school students average 60 minutes of PE per week. High school freshmen and sophomores have one semester of PE per year.

The VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers called for doubling physical education minutes for all grades to 180 minutes per week. Under the new CPS policy, elementary schools will provide up to 150 total minutes of PE per week.

These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators.

Citing obesity rates among CPS students, which have only gotten worse over the last two years, the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers wrote: “We cannot morally neglect our students’ physical health. Many students also suffer from chronic stress, fatigue, lack of focus and disruptive behavior. Research shows that an increase in physical education can alleviate all of these problems as well as support student learning.”

New Voice Strategies, the nonprofit operator of the VIVA Idea Exchange™, applauds CPS for its action to increase physical education in its curriculum.

Xian Barrett, national program director for New Voice Strategies, participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange when he was teaching in a CPS high school. He said, “We are gratified that the CPS board is implementing a solution that VIVA Teachers and our parent and community allies have advocated for years. We also would urge CPS leadership to invite educators to lead the discussion as how to best implement this needed change.”

The new physical education policy will roll out over three years. CPS will use TIF funds to cover 75 percent of the cost to hire new teachers in the first year and 50 percent in the second. Schools will cover their own costs in year three. TIF funds will pay for 84 new PE teachers. Schools with the highest needs will be staffed first.

VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers also recommended that each elementary school week should include 90 minutes of art. CPS has announced it will use TIF funds to hire 84 new art teachers, as well.

“VIVA Teachers have emphasized the importance of a well-rounded curriculum; especially in the face of the growing focus on standardized tests and tested subjects. There are many students whose joy of learning depends on access to rich opportunities in the arts. We hope that CPS considers further reforms to how time is used in school that place student needs before bureaucratic and political priorities.  These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators and the parents, students and communities we serve,” said Barrett.

CPS has already implemented other recommendations that were outlined in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange report, Time, Teachers and Tomorrow’s Schools, which was presented to the district, Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor’s Office in December 2011. For example, CPS reduced the amount of time spent on tests and called on VIVA Teachers to develop a plan for implementing recess in all elementary schools.



Teacher Evaluation at Chicago Public Schools

By Allan Fluharty

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is now into the second year of implementing a new teacher evaluation system called REACH (Reorganizing Educators Advancing Chicago) Students. This new system is comprised of several components, including a teacher observation process (based on the CPS Framework for Teaching), a ‘value added’ measurement intended to determine student growth, a self-reporting mechanism that allows teachers to provide evidence of their good teaching practice, and, potentially, a survey that lets students rate teachers. The question is whether this new program, one of several major changes CPS has rolled out in recent years, will improve student outcomes.

I think most would agree that the previous evaluation system was broke. It was based on an observation done by the principal using a complicated checklist. As the “educational leader” of the school, it is the principal who is responsible for developing teacher effectiveness and “weeding out” poor performers. However, my impression was that many principals showed up to observe without warning and filled out the form during an observation that lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes. There may or may not have been a post-observation interview. Most teachers were rated with no real mentoring on what they did and how they could become better teachers. Many principals rated teachers proficient or superior in order to get the evaluations in on time. The effectiveness of the old system depended on whether principals took the time (or had the time) to provide mentoring to novice teachers. It was my experience and is my observation that there is little to no organized mentoring for teachers. This was unfortunate, because teaching is a highly reflective profession that is mostly learned through experience. Studies show that most teachers don’t feel competent until five or more years of teaching experience. And, most teachers agree the first couple of “sink or swim” years prior to making tenure are especially stressful.  Hopefully, the principal likes you or you are out the door.

While I was not a member of the Chicago Teachers Union negotiating team, I did participate in several discussions on a new evaluation system with a group of teachers at the union hall. I was excited that CPS was planning to assess teaching skills using the Danielson Framework of teaching. This framework is based on four domains of effective teaching, including Planning and Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction, and Professional Responsibilities. Each domain includes several elements, which succinctly outline what teachers need to do to improve their practice. The domains align closely with the standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

The Danielson Framework and the NBPTS processes include a comprehensive process of mentoring with a master teacher who collaborates with the principal to design an evaluation “intervention” to improve the practice of the teacher. Attaining national board certification requires mentoring by master teachers and the submittal of extensive portfolios that provide evidence of superior teaching. Teachers who attain national board status are recognized as superior teachers through careful analysis of their peers. Unfortunately, CPS decided NOT to keep the mentoring part of the Danielson Framework. This was a mistake. I feel that not including mentoring makes the CPS Framework for Teaching only a half-measure.

Evaluating teachers requires extensive training and experience. I do not feel that most administrators are qualified to do evaluations. They are not receiving adequate training, and there is still potential for favoritism, particularly for teachers who are good at self-promotion. Furthermore, CPS is ignoring a crucial part of teacher improvement, which is the use of highly trained and skilled mentors who consult with principals and spend significant time with novice teachers to reflect on their practice. To its credit, CPS has created “Framework Specialists,” who could fulfill the role of mentors. But it seems doubtful that this relatively small group of teachers could support the entire district in the manner required by the Danielson method of teacher development.

The CPS evaluation system also incorporates a ‘value added’ measure of student growth. Basing teacher effectiveness on student growth seems reasonable. After all, the basic function of teaching is to teach. CPS has implemented this part of teacher evaluation by creating REACHStudents performance tasks that teachers are required to administer to their students at the beginning and end of the school year. I feel that basing teacher effectiveness on a few standardized tests to determine a ‘value added’ metric is unfair for several reasons:

  • The CPS REACHStudents performance task is based on assessments that are administered by the teacher being evaluated, which creates a potential for ‘teaching to the test’ or outright falsification.
  • CPS uses a system of ‘tracking’ to segregate low and high performing students. It seems unfair to use the same assessment to compare teachers at a magnet school—whose students tend to be better prepared to learn—to teachers at a neighborhood school.
  • In parallel, because the higher resourced magnet schools have an instructional advantage, they are superior to neighborhood schools.

A better assessment of ‘value added’ would be to include consideration of the large number teachers who work in challenging situations such as classrooms with high absenteeism and turnover, and poor facilities such as a lack of lab facilities or air conditioning.

Finally, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of using student survey results to rate teachers. Basing teacher performance on the opinion of children is problematic for many reasons: Children’s brains are not mature and they do not think like adults. Children will say things with no understanding of their ramifications, as portrayed by Arthur Miller in his play “The Crucible.” It seems to me that online applications that give students a venue to rate their teachers contain too many comments of disgruntled students. Maybe the idea that students should rate good teaching comes from the corporate idea that businesses serve the customer. I agree, but do not feel that children are the customer in education.  The real customer is society as a whole.

Overall, I think that the CPS Framework is far superior to what was done before, although there is significant room for improvement. In particular, CPS needs to create a more extensive program of teacher reflection and mentoring. Hopefully, in collaboration with the Chicago Teachers Union, we will see the REACHStudents program evolve to be more equitable and able to develop superior teachers who can meet the needs of all students. This effort MUST be done in partnership with teachers.

Allen FluhartyAllan Fluharty teaches high school science for the Chicago Public Schools. He was a member of the VIVA Chicago Writing Collaborative and is a National Board Certified Teacher.


Teacher Talk on School Climate: Armed and Pedagogical?

By Kori Milroy

The recent Sandy Hook school massacre has brought about a nationwide focus on school safety and security.  Ideas for improving security range from an across the board ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, to placing an armed guard in every school building.  Some groups have called for teachers and/or administrators to be armed with guns or Tasers. What do teachers think about all this? [Click to download]  Are they ready and willing to be armed?  The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions released a statement opposing arming teachers, but some teachers have embraced the idea, filling up free firearms training sessions being offered in Ohio, Utah, and Texas.

On this episode of Teacher Talk, Chicago Public Schools teachers Conor Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Christiansen share their opinions on school safety and security, and the prospect of teachers carrying guns. Download the episode here or stream it below. to listen in on Kori, Conor’s, and Jennifer’s conversation about the vision, and add your own voice to the mix by leaving a comment here on the VIVA Teachers website, below this post.

This is the third installment of Teacher Talk, an ongoing series of conversations between teachers talking about education policy.

The Myths of School Closings

We might have a genuine opportunity here in Chicago to learn from our decades-long effort to raise the floor in our public schools by “closing” tens of schools and replacing them, often in the same building with the same kids, with “new schools.” The Commission on School Utilization gives all of us an opportunity to deepen the understanding about what happens to students, teachers and a neighborhood when a school is “closed,

What we have here is a failure to genuinely communicate and a chance to change that. In my personal experience everyone new in the building means you have lost years of experience and knowledge and social capital, people who know how to handle the minutiae and the mundane of running a complex ship. We spent that first year reinventing every wheel you could possibly think of: testing protocols, how to manage advisory, bell schedules, how to handle truancy, how to program students, how to manage security, how to handle discipline, how to handle tardies, how to handle parents, how to handle the students who are pregnant and parenting, how to handle 18 year old students who have 2 credits, how to handle the students who just got out of jail, how to handle 30% plus special education population, how to handle angry kids and angry parents, how to handle depressed and hungry and homeless kids, how to handle staff meetings, how to handle professional development, how to handle external and community partnerships, how to handle service learning, as well as the pressures of the Chicago Board of Education and visitors and Principal for a Day.

CPS loses students because we push out kids instead of instituting indispensable programs such as Restorative Justice and wraparound services that these students need to help them build skills.

You want parental involvement? Study the schools that have parent resource centers and successful models of welcoming, supportive culture
for parents, and spend time on making that happen system wide.

The fact is, it’s not an exaggeration that in some Chicago neighborhoods, schools are the main community asset. We have to build on that asset if we are going to begin to address the other challenges facing these neighborhoods and their residents. Instead of “closing” and “opening” schools year in and year out, we need to take a broader, longer term approach to making sure we are making all schools work. Study what works! Make it happen in every school, not piecemeal and only if a school is lucky and has a high functioning administration. Make parents feeling welcome and a part of the school a highly valued metric, especially in high school.

The Commission on School Utilization may be our last chance to get this right. There’s a lot of “transformation” fatigue out here. Let’s not waste this chance.

The author teaches art in the Chicago Public Schools.

One Teacher’s Take on How to Stop the Violence

VIVA Teacher Leader Karon Stewart is a middle school math teacher in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Her students face significant challenges, not the least of which is surviving the violence in the neighborhoods. Stewart talks eloquently about the violence and how it affects her students and herself. It was the centerpiece of her speech when she was invited to introduce Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of Stewart’s students was shot  while Duncan still served as head of the Chicago Public Schools. She reminded him of that incident and told the audience of Duncan’s personal response to her email asking for help in getting information about the condition of the student, who at the time he was presumed dead. After his speech, Duncan asked Stewart to share her ideas for combating the overwhelming and seemingly intractable challenge of ending violence against youth in America. This is what she told him:

Dear Secretary Duncan,

It was an honor to introduce you to the “Teacher Voice” conference participants.  At that time, you charged me with the task of suggesting ways to stop the violence in the Chicago. I really wish I had the answers. We feel each other’s pain. I am always devastated by the level of violence I see. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my emotions to sidetrack me from what I am paid to do: teach middle-school math. Even in saying that, I am in danger of becoming as anesthetized as my students, and I applaud you for always bringing this travesty to the forefront.

I will share my opinion.

Urgent /Long Term

Parents are the key factor and we have to find ways to support them in their efforts to raise their children.  I also believe that when students have chronic behavioral or discipline issues, their parents should be mandated to attend regular conferences that include a community service component. Finally, something has to be done to help children in homes with parents who are substance abusers. It appears that children who commit violent acts are more likely to be in this demographic.

Short Term

Expand the Chicago Park District programs, but you have to make it a safer place in some areas. Increase police presence in more positive ways. For example, have Police District teams challenge teams of teachers from the schools in their district to bi-annual basketball games. The “MVP’s” from these teams would then play student stars.

Expand the G.R.E.A.T program (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It was very effective at my school. The woman officers squashed a really violent series of altercations between about 16 7th and 8th grade girls.

Bring back Camp Hastings, the YMCA camp that gave students a chance to get out of the neighborhood for a week and participate in a plethora of outdoor activities.

Mentoring Programs

One of my students was selected in the Barbie I Can Be…Mentee Search and attended the White House Project awards ceremony in New York. She returned more purposeful. She became a classroom leader and inspired several other students to be successful.

I have also heard very good things about the Steve Harvey program. That program offers a Mentoring Weekend to break the misguided traits of manhood and introduce role models who provide positive examples of manhood.

Socio – Emotional Learning and Arts Programs

Parents, students, and teachers in challenging communities need to participate in programs that include an effective conflict resolution component.

Empower Communities

Campaign to end the “Snitches get Stitches” mentality so people will not be afraid to fight against abusive conditions. Utilize veterans in these programs. They are not afraid of the gangs and they push back!

Challenge potential gang members to make a positive impact on their communities. Penalties for petty crimes should include more extensive community service options, like cleaning vacant lots, assisting victims of violent crimes, etc. Many students, unfortunately, identify with a gang without actually participating in criminal activities. I understand this, but the gang mentality has to be replaced with something positive.

Update on my student who was shot:

My concern for this student began right after I added a picture of him and  two other boys to my Donors Choose web page. Another teacher said he was going to be a hoodlum. Unfortunately I understand why the teacher said that. But my student was facing major obstacles. His mother was sick (she has since died and while his family was at the memorial, his house was robbed) and he had an enormous amount of unsupervised time. This is the biggest problem with children in depressed areas. I began tutoring that student and another Bond alumni every Wednesday, after school for three years. I, along with several other teachers in the building began rewarding them with gift cards when they received good grades, and eventually, making the honor roll.  They were successful at a school that was voted one of the worst schools in the US.  I am very proud of him. He overcame tremendous obstacles and setbacks, but it took THE WHOLE VILLAGE.


Karon Stewart, National Board Certified Teacher