When the Chicago Public Schools’ high school transition plan was first launched in 2006, CEO Arne Duncan confidently addressed the media, voicing his optimism about the program.
“It will improve classroom instruction and make school performance more accountable to parents,” he said at the time about a plan that would allocate $80 million in resources to “transform” poor performing schools and improve student achievement.
However, according to the new Transition Plan Annual Report Card issued by independent educational news magazine Catalyst Chicago, the plan, which is currently in 25 schools, is having problems.
Among the issues of concern found by researchers: “enrollment creep,” which is the tendency of schools to admit late registering students into classes. Other concerns are truancy, teacher retention, and unaddressed mental deficiencies by students with special needs.
The project began in April 2007, when Catalyst magazine associate editor Sarah Karp, and editor-in-chief Veronica Anderson, decided to look at the impact of the transition plan on schools where it was implemented. Karp spent May, June and September interviewing teachers, students and the principal of Marshall High School, 3250 W. Adams St., about their thoughts about the curriculum changes of the school.
“Some teachers I spoke with welcomed the changes because it was not a major adjustment to them,” said Karp. “They were happy to have new laptops for the math class, new lab equipment for science and new books for English. Some felt it was like starting over but in a good way.”
However, according to Karp, some teachers also voiced concern over their inability to plan two-week long projects for their students because they were afraid new students would be enrolled within that time frame and throw the project off. She also spoke with students, some of whom had disciplinary issues that mostly were not being addressed.
“I met this one 14-year-old young man who was smart and bright, but he had been suspended a lot, mainly for being argumentative with teachers,” Karp said. “It turns out that his father had recently died in prison and he still harbored anger because of it. I was thinking: he doesn’t need suspension, he needs counseling.”
Some students also required special instruction due to developmental problems but the curriculum needed to teach them is made available only to a select few of instructors. The result is the students are on a waiting list before they can be entered into the appropriate class. Additionally, diagnosing their conditions comes later than it should.
“Well, I do want to add that the CPS does want to improve on these areas because they were very forthcoming about providing data that support these issues,” said John Myers, data research editor of the report. “However, changes need to be made to help prevent these problems.”
Myers suggested implementing a specific deadline for student registration and sticking to it.
“It’s hard enough telling teachers to use a different teaching method and lesson plan as part of the Transition plan curriculum, but now they need to accommodate all of these students who waited until a month into the semester to register for the class. It presents a real challenge.”
Karp also suggests that making earlier evaluations of the students’ progress so that special needs can be handled at the start of the semester would also be helpful, as well as placing more teachers in positions to specifically teach them.
It is still too early to assess whether these points of concern are merely kinks that will soon be worked out or a sign of the long-term ineffectiveness of the transition plan. Nevertheless, CPS is aware of the concerns, according to Karp, and vows to make changes.
For more information about the Transition Plan Report Card, visit Catalyst Chicago at www.catalyst-chicago.org.