The demand for top-notch teachers in Chicago is soaring, as the nation’s third largest public schools system expands its controversial, high-stakes strategy for fixing ailing schools.
Next fall, if all goes according to plan, five Chicago elementary schools and one high school would go through so-called turnarounds. It’s the second year in a row CPS has tapped six schools for the educational equivalent of tough love. In the world of education reform, that’s called “scaling up” and success or failure hinges, in large part, on a steady supply of top-flight personnel.
“The quality of the teacher is one of the biggest leverage points we have in order to change the experience that kids have in school,” says Lisa Vahey, who runs the Chicago New Teacher Center.
“I think they’ve (district leaders) recognized that a key part of doing turnaround schools to scale is to attract talented teachers to that type of innovative setting," she says.
A turnaround is one of the profession’s toughest assignments, the educational equivalent of transplanting all of a patient’s vital organs at once. First, comes the purge, the firing of the school’s entire staff.
Then, new principals, most likely graduates of one of a growing number of hot-shot school leadership programs, come in and take charge.
“And the leaders of the schools need to find teachers who understand what’s being measured," Vahey says.
AUSL, the non-profit Academy of Urban School Leadership, will again take on a lion share of the pressure and high expectations.
The teacher-training group and would-be savior of troubled schools could end up overseeing as many as four of next fall's turnarounds, after CPS failed to reach agreements with charter operators to overhaul two schools.
The group’s urban teacher residency program provides up to 50 percent of the teachers at an AUSL high school and 60 percent at a turnaround elementary building.
The district is responsible for coming up with the rest, along with teachers for its own turnaround schools. Vahey, at the New Teacher Center, believes CPS is up to the challenge.
“There is growing national attention on the work that Chicago is doing,” says Vahey, “and there are human capital providers, like Teach for America, like the New Teacher Project that are working closely with the district to make sure talent is there.”
But some experts caution that relying on existing teacher pipelines won't be enough, if the overall number of turnaround schools continues to go up.
“You need a larger strategy to scale up number of organizations like AUSL and the University of Chicago that are doing the lead turnaround partner work,” says Bill Guenther, turnaround researcher and president of the group Mass Insight Education.
It's a call that doesn't sit well with the leadership of the city's largest organization of teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has vigorously opposed the turnaround strategy, arguing that the best way to fix struggling schools is through its Fresh Start partnership with CPS.
Union leaders are supporting a grassroots push to halt the turnarounds. With a series of public hearings now complete, the Board of Education will decide Feb. 25 whether to move forward.
If the turnarounds are approved, the hard work begins immediately. In addition to the herculean challenge of reversing a culture of entrenched failure, there are often skeptical, sometimes hostile, parents and community members to win over.
Some may be angry their familiar school down the block is being turned upside down and are not yet convinced the new one taking its place will be any better.