CONTEXT AND BACKGROUND
I’ve been asked for my thoughts in response to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education issuing a “warning resolution” against me for opposing their backward education policy and corrupt fiscal management of our school district. Before responding, I have to write a few words about who I am.
I have never written about myself, and I don’t discuss myself in interviews unless the reporter asks a question that requires that I do. This is why it baffled me that the Tribune story on the warning resolution stated I worked to “raise [my] profile.” I work to raise the profile of CPS’ and City Hall’s incompetence and mismanagement. When I write and post, it is always about CPS policy; never about myself. However, it seems that it might now be helpful to tell you a few things about my record. After all, who am I to criticize CPS’ management, and why should anyone listen to me?
I am the principal of Blaine elementary school. When I arrived at Blaine in 2011, 79% of students were meeting standards—one of the highest percentages in the district among neighborhood schools. Just two short years later 89% we’re meeting standards—remarkable growth for an already high-performing school. Only 43% of African-American students were meeting standards on the ISAT test before I began my principalship. Just two years later almost 80% were meeting those standards (The ISAT was discontinued after two years).
Most importantly–according to criteria established by Rahm Emanuel himself, as a part of his principal merit awards–only three schools in the entire district have consistently met three or more of his four school excellence criteria—for three consecutive years.** That’s three schools out of more than 600. Blaine is one of those three schools. Although he calls it a “principals” award, Blaine’s progress has been the result of the collaborative work of a strong team of people. I lead that team.
One would think CPS and City Hall would pay more attention to the critiques of a principal whom their own criteria has identified as one of the district’s three most effective school leaders.
One would be wrong.
CPS is not interested in anything that contradicts its ideologically driven anti-public-school privatization agenda; an agenda which includes, among other things, over-testing students, and the diversion of public education funds away from students into the hands of private interests. It was action I took against both of these backward elements of the CPS reform agenda that led to the Board’s warning resolution against me. The resolution contains two warnings.
SUPPORTING PARENT CHOICE IN OPTING STUDENTS OUT OF TESTING
The first warning is in regard to actions I took in response to a PARCC testing Opt-Out movement initiated by Blaine’s PTA. It was the most successful elementary school opt out movement in Chicago, with more than 80% of our parents opting their children out of taking the test. It was a parent-driven effort and I fully supported their right to opt their children out.
Parents submitted forms directing us not to give the test to their students. CPS responded by telling principals that we must defy parents and sit the student down in front of a test—that only when the student refused it, could we allow him or her not to take it.
I know of no other field in which the professionals are ordered to disregard parents’ choices and force children to refuse to participate in what their parents have already refused to allow them to participate in. If a parent tells a doctor that she does not want her child to take a particular prescription, the doctor is not ordered to disregard the parent and put the medicine in the child’s hand and make the child refuse it himself.
CPS’ directive appeared to be a thinly veiled effort to pressure students into taking the test in defiance of their parents. It is blatant hypocrisy for a district that promotes itself as supporting “parent choice” to go to such great lengths to get children to violate the choices their parents make for them. I responded in an open letter to CPS stating:
“I will not be following ISBE’s ridiculous directives aimed at intimidating children and families into taking tests they do not want to take… No child under my watch whose parents have opted him or her out of the PARCC will be sat in front of any computer to take it, nor presented with any materials. The test wastes enough time on its own. We are not wasting even more learning time by engaging in CPS’ and ISBE’s test-driven political theater.”
This is the stance for which I was cited in the warning resolution.
Within the resolution the board plainly states that their reason for issuing the warning is because, “You publicly supported the Blaine PTA’s Opt Out initiative for the PARCC test.”
In response I return to my analogy with medicine. Doctors have the right to advise patients against taking unnecessary prescriptions and medical tests promoted by the hospital and the pharmaceutical companies that profit from them. Not only do they have that right, they have that obligation as medical professionals. As education professionals, we not only have the right, but we have the obligation to give our professional assessment of the worth and value of the tests promoted by our district and by the private testing companies that profit from the administration of those assessments.
In each situation there is a company that stands to profit, and an institution allied with that company. There to protect the interests of the child in either situation is the professional judgment of the doctor and educator. As they do in most aspects of their management of this district, CPS officials and the Emanuel administration are attempting to eliminate the professional judgment of educators from all major district decision-making.
In the end, parents must choose for themselves and the board of education certainly has an obligation to insist that principals administer the assessments to all who choose to take it. However, the board and CEO have overstepped their executive authority when they give directives to principals that prevent us from meeting our professional responsibility to speak openly to students and parents about the worth of these tests. If you believe doctors should not be prevented from advising parents to forego an unnecessary medical test for their children, then the same logic must apply for educators. In fact, that logic is even more applicable to educators since we work for the public, not private sector interests.
The only way to test the legality of an unjust policy or law is to break it. The classic examples are from our nation’s civil rights struggles. In order to fight segregated busing in Montgomery, Alabama for example, Rosa Parks had to test the law by deliberately breaking it. So let me state it clearly: I am deliberately testing the legal soundness of a policy that forces educators to violate parental choice, and prevents us from meeting our professional obligation to advise parents and students regarding the wisdom and need for them to subject themselves to an increasingly onerous load of unnecessary testing.
INSUBORDINATION: VIOLATING THE NO-QUESTIONS POLICY
The second thing I was cited for was insubordination when I violated a “no questions” policy at a district principals budget meeting. I sat there at the meeting listening to CPS officials blame Springfield and teacher pensions for the budget woes, while they completely ignored their own well documented corrupt and reckless spending (e.g., $20 Million Supes Contract, $340 Million Aramark Contract, $10 million central office furniture purchase, etc. etc.). So I stood up and asked the question anyway, citing several questionable expenses. Then CEO, Jesse Ruiz, stood up and told me that I was being disruptive. It is a profound moment of truth and clarity when a CPS official gets up and makes it clear that he considers asking relevant questions “disruptive.” I have already written extensively about the details of this encounter in a post entitled, “Adding Insult to Injury: A Look Inside a CPS Principals Budget Meeting.” In the resolution, the board cites me for insubordination, in part, because Ruiz asked me why I worked for CPS if I were so unhappy with its leadership, and I responded, “To save it from people like you.” It is important to note that Ruiz asked me to come into the hallway where he called me a “loud-mouthed principal” and asked me that question. In essence, the board is attempting to discipline me for answering his question. If he didn’t want an honest answer, he should not have asked the question.
Another disturbing thing about this resolution is the way I was informed about it. I received an email on Monday telling me I could come in on Tuesday at 1pm to respond to the allegations on a resolution that the board would be voting on the next day. The board clearly knew that I was scheduled to speak at the City Club of Chicago’s panel on CPS Bankruptcy at that time since one of their own—Jesse Ruiz—was also on the panel. I chose to keep my appointment on the panel and thereby miss my opportunity to respond to this absurd resolution.
Yesterday, I drove by Washington Park to see if there was any organized activity at the scene of the Dyett School hunger strike. There didn’t seem to be, so I pulled away and headed toward 43rd and Vernon, about a block east of Martin Luther King Drive. The entire part of the block facing 43rd street is an empty lot on which once stood a fire-damaged slum I lived in as a child; where my brothers and I slept on floors and cots for months until the owner of Moore’s Furniture and Piano Mover’s donated a bunk bed to my mother. I go back there often to remind myself of the road I have traveled, and of the awesome responsibility I have been given. I came here from nothing. By any reasonable odds, I was not supposed to be here. And yet, here I am. I am not an overtly religious man but circumstances leave me no choice but to believe that whatever power put me on this earth—and in this position—did so for a reason. While I am here, I have a responsibility and a duty to use this position to advocate as strongly as humanly possible for the betterment of our city and its schools. That includes advocacy for sound evidence-based education policy and prudent fiscal management of district resources—the advocacy that led to the current warning resolution.
I will continue to support all of my PTAs efforts on behalf of the children and families of Blaine and I will continue to call out CPS on its reckless fiscal operational and educational mismanagement of our district at every opportunity they give me. Unfortunately, for our teachers and the students they serve, those opportunities abound.
I have been called a hero many times; and sometimes a saint. I am neither, by a longshot. Like all of you, I have my personal flaws and my ominous fears. However, each day I work to rise above those flaws and to rise above the foreboding limitations and restrictions of the corrupt system in which we find ourselves living and working.
Cord Jefferson and Hampton Sides once stated: “It is self-defeating to want our heroes to be perfect, because we aren’t perfect ourselves. By calling our heroes superhuman we also let ourselves off the hook: Why do the hard work of bettering the world if that’s something only saints do?”
We don’t need heroes, and we don’t need saints. We need a movement. A movement of hundreds of thousands of people across this city who stand together to retake it from the grips of the corrupt and inept elected and appointed officials who hold the reigns of power. The hero we need is the public itself, awakened and ready to change our collective reality; ready to serve as examples to our children—examples of citizens who come together to work and change our city for the better.
On a related and somewhat humorous note, one of the Board’s “Directives for Improvement” was for me to “Conduct yourself as a role model for students.”
I don’t imagine they’ll ever get the irony.
**I have confirmed three schools. There are two others that may have met the criteria but the district has stalled on releasing the data on the last issuance of the award. If those two schools met the criteria, then the total schools would be five–out of more than 600. The three confirmed schools are Blaine, Hefferan, and Ward. The two other possibilities are Keller and Chavez. All five are public schools. None are charter. It is also interesting to note that only one is a selective enrollment school (Keller). Blaine, Chavez, Hefferan, and Ward are all regular neighborhood schools.
Link to the a draft of the warning resolution (I have not been provided with a final copy).
Letter to my staff regarding how to conduct themselves during PARCC testing