With a longer school day, the new Common Core curriculum and the teachers' contract negotiations, Chicago parents have much more to wrap their head around at the start of this school year than just buying school supplies and getting to know a new teacher.
To help you prepare for the year ahead, Chicago Parent sat down with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard to hear more about what the upcoming changes may mean for Chicago families.
The longer school day
While the longer day may mean a shifting of family schedules around new pick-up and drop-off times, it also means more time for recess, art and music, as well as larger overall curriculum changes.
"The goal behind (the longer day) was the implementation of a new curriculum, a much more rigorous curriculum for kids," Brizard says, referring to the Common Core State Standards, (corestandards.org) a new set of standards adopted by most states that clearly outlines what students across the country should know to be successful. Brizard says the new Common Core should mean kids are doing reading, writing and math at a much higher level.
Common Core rollout
The full transition to the Common Core will take place over a few years, but in the first year, the focus will be on math and reading.
Brizard says students should expect to see "much more nonfiction, much more expository reading and writing, much more conceptual mathematics teaching versus just plugging numbers into an equation."
"The implementation and the execution may be uneven across the city-I've got schools that have been ready for this, that have been doing this, honestly, for years," Brizard says. "And I've got schools in the city that missed the reform movement of the 1990s that need to really do a leap across."
Parents should notice a shift to the Common Core immediately, "but we all know that teacher training is at the crux of this work. And as we get more and more teachers who really understand how deep the Common Core goes, you may see it progressing over time."
How do we prepare our kids for the changes?
"I find kids to be really resilient," Brizard says. When a group of schools signed on to extend their school day last year, "people worried about kids being tired, and I have to tell you the kids adapted to it in a second. The adults have much more difficulty in transitioning than the children," he says.
Will we see improvement in school performance?
Changes to state tests over the next few years may create confusion for parents, as it will be difficult for parents to compare one year's performance to another, Brizard says. He points to moves at the state level to raise the bar for scoring the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), coupled with the rollout of a new assessment developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). But Brizard says the testing changes should ultimately give parents a more accurate picture of how students and schools are doing.
"The ISAT right now is calibrated very low. The definition of proficiency is not exactly good," he says. "It's not the test that's the problem. It's where we set the bar for proficiency that's the problem."
With the changes, "ultimately what you will begin to see is maybe a lower advertised proficiency number, but the kids who are at proficiency really are at proficiency," Brizard says.
To help parents better gauge how their school is doing, the district is moving to the use of assessments that measure student performance throughout the year, not just once, like the ISAT, he says.
Should parents worry about a strike?
"The good news is that nobody wants an interruption. No one can afford-especially our kids-an interruption," Brizard says. "We certainly don't want one, nor does city hall, so you have three parties who are working very, very hard to avert a strike, to come to a resolution. I am still optimistic that we are going to get there."
Long term, Brizard says the city as a whole has to come up with a process that does not leave parents anxious in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. "Where I lived and worked for a very long time, public employees could not strike. It was against the law. But there were protections within the law to make sure the bargaining remained in good faith," Brizard says. "There was always a contract. At times, there were protests and it was contentious, but we always came to a resolution. I think the same thing can be done here. I'm not looking to take anyone's bargaining power away. In fact, I want to strengthen it. But at the same time, the idea of a strike does not bode well for a profession like teaching."
Should we expect budget cuts this year?
Brizard says he is most concerned about Fiscal Year 2014, when CPS will face significant increases in its pension obligations. He says the district could see a shortfall of nearly $1 billion.