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Bravetta Hassell/MEDILL

Chicago Public Schools parent Josephine Norwood, who spoke at Tuesday's forum on Chicago school reform, told an audience of more than 200 people that multiple transfers had affected her children's social and academic success.

Education expert calls Emanuel’s schools plan ‘sewage’ and offers alternative

by Bravetta Hassell
March 02, 2011

School reform advocates outlined a vision for Chicago schools this week that they would like Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to embrace.

More than three dozen local academics and researchers blasted what they call educational myths, including reliance on standardized tests, use of stiff disciplinary measures and rigid curriculum.

During remarks at a Tuesday panel to discuss the group’s manifesto, William Watkins, a professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago, called Emanuel’s plan a piece of sewage, drawing laughter from the audience of more than 200 teachers, education students and school reform advocates.

“When I read this,” he said, waving Emanuel’s document, “I thought someone had resuscitated King Louis the Fourteenth and that we were bringing back feudalism. This is a document that will relegate principals to feudal lords and make those feudal lords subservient to the king.”

The group, calling itself CReATE – Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education – released its proposal in January ahead of the mayoral election. It summarizes the conclusions of their work investigating the general problems of schools in Chicago and nationwide.

At Tuesday’s forum, speakers attacked myths including that students benefit from the support available in large schools, passion alone can make a great teacher, and standardized curriculum and tests can raise standards.

“Every measurement expert worth their salt is horrified by the level of consequences we are attaching to single test scores,” panelist Isabel Nunez of Concordia University said. “Even if these were appropriately constructed and marginally valid, the fact remains that the score is guaranteed to contain error.”

Billionaires in this “new social order” where the digitization of production had eliminated physical manpower, Watkins said, have an agenda and policy in opposition to quality and accessible public education.

“We the people, the working class people, the common people, whatever you want to call us,” Watkins said, “We have our own agenda.” One, he went on to say, that was about living, democracy and opportunity.

Bronzeville parent Josephine Norwood has three children enrolled in Chicago public schools. Two of them have transferred to four different schools between them, due in part to school closings.

“You will listen to me speak and I might not say it how you would, but my voice and my involvement as a parent and a CPS customer should be equally if not more mportant, but it’s not,” Norwood said.

“We should not have to catch the bus in order to find a halfway decent school,” Norwood said, identifying herself as a low-income resident. Norwood, long vocal about her opposition to school closings and turnarounds, said one of her sons, who is autistic was moved from one school because it did not have a program for autistic students to another that did. She was impressed by the way the school supported her son, but the school closed soon after.

“CPS can keep their word and keep their side of the bargain to make our neighborhood schools quality schools,” said Norwood, a member of the Peer Parent Education Network.

Chicago Public Schools spokesman Frank Shuftan said in response to some of the comments at the forum that the school system is committed to offering a choice of educational environments and school communities from which families may choose.

“These choices are especially important in a time of significant budget challenges faced not only by CPS, but school districts throughout the nation,” he said.

But for Jitu Brown, 44, a school reform organizer, “school choice” is a cowardly response to the inequality in schools across the country. Everyone in the audience just had to be courageous enough to say it, he said.

“We no longer need advocates, we don’t need anyone speaking for us, we need organizers.”