The summer of 2020’s anti-racist protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, empowered many students and gave them hope for a better future. And from an inclusive curriculum perspective, Illinois has been a national leader, including passing legislation in the last few years requiring the teaching of LGBTQIA history and Asian American history. Unfortunately, the right-wing backlash against COVID, inclusive curriculum, and equitable treatment for BIPOC people has played out intensely through the public schools.
Thirty-six states have already passed or are in the process of passing legislation that forbids schools from teaching anything ranging from “divisive topics” to subjects that make students feel “uncomfortable.” Some states have specifically banned “divisive” teaching, including the use of The 1619 Project curriculum. Many states will now allow parents to sue schools that don’t follow the law and can also withhold state funds from districts that don’t comply. Some states are passing homophobic and transphobic policies, as well.
Chicago’s overwhelmingly Black and Brown students deserve to go to schools where proactive and empowering policies replace the current school-to-prison pipeline evident in so many schools, and begin to promote curricula that respect and embrace our students’ lived experience in a nation that remains marred by racism and inequity. As a start, the CTU stands with parents and students who have gotten their Local School Councils (LSCs) to agree to remove police from their schools, just as we support decisions in staffing, curriculum and policy that address resource shortfalls, instability and core student needs in our schools.
It also is long past time for CPS to actually listen to educators when it comes to curriculum development that truly respects its students. We are the experts on the ground, yet our “input” is inevitably leveraged only when it moves in lockstep with plans that the district already has put in motion. That is not partnership. We need a partner in this work who respects our professional experience, our wisdom and our knowledge of what works — and what is needed on the ground.
Restorative Justice: Ending the school-to-prison pipeline
Restorative justice is a philosophy, rather than simply a curriculum, and it requires a holistic approach that involves the whole school community. At its heart, restorative practices are anchored in the belief that harms can and must be repaired.
Restorative justice is crucial in tackling the school to prison pipeline and its harms. Without restorative practices, schools have resorted to racist disciplinary measures, which escalate from suspensions and expulsions, to arrests and involvement in the criminal justice system. Schools cannot punish their way to restorative practices. Instead, we support the powerful preventive opportunities that restorative justice offers, through relationship building and keeping people in community with each other rather than relying on exclusion — and worse. That said, building restorative practices in schools takes foundational work in trust building — among students, parents and staff — along with ample resources, and a long-term commitment to the endeavor.
Restorative Justice Coordinators are the opposite of police. The RJC’s job is not to punish or accuse but to address harms and resolve conflicts through conversations and peace circles.exacerbate inequity.They support a positive and safe school climate, prevent bullying and reduce disciplinary incidents. The RJC empowers students to take responsibility, to hear and be heard, and to learn productive new ways to contend with frustration or anger. These practices often mitigate the negative effects of racist treatment and punitive discipline policies that
Among CPS high schools, 31 LSCs have voted in 2020 or 2021 to remove at least one of the two “school resource officers” (SROs) assigned to those schools. Three more schools followed suit in the summer of 2022, and now only 17 high schools will continue to have two SROs this year, and 23 high schools will retain one. Some, but not all, of the funds that would have gone to bankroll police are instead going to proactive programs like restorative justice, youth councils, and “peace rooms.”
Unfortunately, other schools were unaware of the process or did not receive funding information from CPS to support the effort. At the same time, while CPS has reduced the police contract from $33 million to $11 million over the last two years, only about $3.2 million has been given directly to schools that removed SRO’s. While CPS has said that schools are finally learning to deal with student discipline issues without calling the police, much work remains.
There has been an increase in the number of Restorative Justice Coordinators in CPS schools, thanks to pressure from the CTU. A clause in the 2019–2024 CTU/CPS contract allows 30 high-poverty schools a year to receive an extra staff member — a librarian, a counselor, or an RJC. As of the start of the 2022–2023 school year, 51 schools are currently staffed with an RJC as a result of this contract win. That is a start, but it can also be easily undermined at individual schools because CPS will not commit to sustained funding and real stability for this vital work. No RJC can support students if they are in place one year and gone the next because of chronic austerity and ongoing budget cuts.
Studies have extensively documented the racist nature of standardized testing, which warps curriculum, robs students of valuable instructional time and — in CPS — is simply out of control. In addition to annual required state tests covering reading, mathematics and science and including tests for bilingual students, Kindergarteners, and certain special education students, CPS is pushing out its own mandated tests. CPS also wants teachers to use assessments tied to their Skyline curriculum, whether or not teachers are using that curriculum.
CPS is also requiring teachers to give the computer-adaptive IReady test to children in grades K-2 three times a year, even though this test has not been piloted, and teachers have not been trained on it. Furthermore, most of what students need to learn at this age cannot be measured by a computerized test.
“Chicago gives twice as many standardized tests as rest of country,” Paula Barajas, Special education teacher, Ruiz Elementary
Standardized tests measure a very narrow set of knowledge and skills. Problem solving, oral communication, creativity, imagination, analytical thinking, sociability, and more are omitted from these tests.
Classroom assessments should be the choice of the teacher. One size does not fit all when it comes to measuring what students are learning. Educators use formal assessments to help determine how students are developing and who needs additional help in specific areas. This is not the purpose of required standardized tests.
CPS uses these tests to stratify schools, blame teachers and parents, and to categorize schools as failing, particularly in Black and Brown neighborhoods. The SQRP (School Quality Rating Policy) is heavily based on standardized test scores of students and contributes to school population decline as parents avoid sending students to schools with lower test scores.
This in turn means these schools have fewer resources, due to Student Based Budgeting. Instead of providing all schools with the resources their students need, standardized testing is part of a vicious downward spiral that further impoverishes the most impoverished schools.
In June of 2021, the Chicago Board of Education rolled out a $135 million “free” digital curriculum called Skyline, which was developed by consultants in Boston. This fully digital curriculum includes zero books or hands-on materials, unless a school fully adopts the curriculum and pays for the supplemental materials. Many CTU members are reporting that their principal is not approving the purchase of any of these supplemental materials, which is forcing teachers to scramble to find their own, defeating the purpose of this “free” curriculum, supposedly designed to simplify and reduce hours of lesson planning. Teachers also are frustrated that students are forced to spend additional hours staring at a screen, especially after two years of remote learning.
The Skyline lessons are 90 minutes long, when most CPS classes are under one hour. Skyline also is not modified for special education students or English Language Learners. Teachers are reporting that it is not culturally relevant, and some principals are not allowing teachers to submit the ready-made lesson plans — instead requiring teachers to completely rewrite them. CPS claims that this curriculum is all about equity, stating on the website that curricular resources have been incredibly uneven. But anecdotal reports from rank and file educators indicate that Skyline is not alleviating — and may be exacerbating — inequities. CPS also claims that teachers participated in content development, yet CTU members have reported that all of their critiques and suggestions have been ignored.
CPS should instead be embracing the approach taken by teachers like Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark of Washington High School, who have developed curricula embedded in the same principles of culturally responsive curriculum that CPS urges every educator to implement. Mayor Lightfoot sought — unsuccessfully — to fire these educators for supporting their students’ campaign to prevent polluter General Iron from relocating from affluent Lincoln Park to their Southeast Side neighborhood, which is already disproportionately burdened with environmental hazards.
Career and Technical Education
Career and Technical Education (CTE, formerly known as Vocational Education) is about much more than job preparation. High schools students in CTE take three courses over three years in a specific career pathway. These classes have reasonable enrollment sizes (capped per the CTU contract), allowing teachers to really connect with their students, which in turn helps improve students’ success rates.
Many CTE programs have Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs) which compete in statewide competitions and help students gain important leadership skills. CTE teachers help students find part-time jobs, either after school or through a work-study program. They also help students apply to colleges and universities, many times chaperoning school visits over spring break. Students enrolled in CTE programs have higher high school graduation rates and college persistence rates, even if students choose not to pursue the same career pathway. Most CTE programs lead to industry certification in a variety of fields, which allows students to work their way through college if they choose. This is key because lack of employment during college is a major contributor to the student dropout rate nationwide.
Like many other academic programs in CPS, CTE support and resources vary greatly across the district, with students at alternative schools particularly struggling for access. CPS has closed dozens of CTE programs over the last ten years, mostly on the South and West Sides. Fully equipped labs are locked and collecting dust because CPS has not approved reopening them. Schools called “Career Academies” are offering only one CTE pathway. These are some of CPS’ most struggling schools with low enrollment, but also located in communities with high unemployment rates that could benefit immensely from strong CTE programs. At the same time, CPS has some remarkable CTE programs that are a huge draw to schools, underscoring how popular these programs are — and how they could boost enrollment at under enrolled schools.
CTE must not be an afterthought or simply a ripe target for cuts — especially in our chronically under-resourced schools in Black and Brown communities, particularly on the South and West sides.
Our English language learners, including over 70,000 students from dozens of countries, need and deserve robust ELL services. Yet students continue to miss services, either because there are not enough bilingual education teachers at the school or because the English Learner Program Teachers (ELPT) is pulled away to provide substitute teacher services or assume other duties.
CPS says an English learner has received “adequate service” if that student sees a single bilingual/ESL-endorsed teacher in the course of the school day — with zero language support in all other classes besides the sole class that the ESL teacher provides to that student. CPS may be meeting the bare minimum with students, but more is needed. In addition, because of a chronic lack of resources, bilingual teachers end up having to translate their own materials or piece materials together from a plethora of different resources.
We have also fielded complaints that monolingual students are being put in bilingual classrooms — usually due to low enrollment or staffing issues. For example, a school that may have had two first grade classrooms — one bilingual classroom and one monolingual classroom — may combine classes into a single classroom, with the teacher expected to teach both monolingual and bilingual students.In classrooms that end up defaulting to English instruction, bilingual or monolingual non-English-speaking students will fail to get the services they need.
These issues are exacerbated for bilingual special education students. With very few bilingual special ed teachers, students may go without EL or diverse learner (DL) supports — or both. And for Pre-K bilingual students, CPS has failed to provide clear direction on how to implement bilingual ed in Pre-K.
In addition, there is little stability from school to school on when students should transition to English, with some transitioning in kindergarten, while others transition in first, second or third grade. In addition, that “transition” can involve privileging English rather than valuing students’ first language and culture, a dynamic we are committed to changing.
Instead, we seek to implement culturally relevant curriculum that values students’ language and culture, an approach that simply is not the norm right now across the district. That shift could augment some of the gains we have won for bilingual education in our last contract — including limits on class sizes (90% of general ed class sizes) and restrictions on pulling educators away from EL responsibilities — even as CPS has struggled to fully implement these improvements for students.
Staffing shortages and excessive paperwork continue to plague special education, robbing students of their legally-mandated educational support services and putting staff at severe risk of burnout. SPED staff do not have curricular resources or access to sufficient training, including on safety care. In addition, students with SPED services have borne the brunt of the district’s transportation issues, with hundreds of students with special education needs traveling up to two hours just to get to class for the 2022 – 2023 school year, if they are lucky enough to have access to transportation at all via CPS. At the beginning of the 2022 – 2023 school year, district officials were still encouraging families to accept a $500/month “stipend” for transportation — about $25/day, far from adequate for students with special education needs, particularly those who must be accompanied by an aide to tend to their medical needs.
“8th grader missed half a quarter because of no bus service,” Hilario Dominguez, Special education teacher, Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy
To compound issues, ODLSS — CPS’ Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services — has failed to respond to families’ needs. One parent struggled for months over the 2022 summer to place her child in an appropriate school, only to learn, on August 22, that ODLSS had finally assigned her child to the wrong school, based on an old address that the parent has not used for years. Both children of that parent remained unregistered after the first week of the 2022 – 2023 school year.
That kind of failure is unacceptable, particularly as CPS remains under a state monitor for failing to provide children with adequate special education supports to which those children have a federal right — and a desperate educational need.
The CTU has been urging CPS for years to appropriately fund special education, employ increased numbers of special education assistants and eliminate unnecessary special education paperwork to free up staff to more directly support students.
“We never filled two vacancies in our SPED department,” Hilario Dominguez, Special education teacher, Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy
- Prioritize the hiring and retention of BIPOC teachers and clinicians.
- Place an RJC in every school and remove Chicago Police Department officers from schools.
- Prioritize hiring parents of CPS students to work in schools, particularly under the SCS model.
- Greatly increase the number of Sustainable Community Schools.
- Provide more supports to immigrant students and families.
- Provide extra resources for schools with the highest percentages of low-income students.