Principled Opposition

Chicago Principal Troy LaRaviere is speaking out against the direction of education reform—and he hopes more school leaders will do the same…

LaRaviere at City HallJennifer Berkshire: I meet a lot of principals these days who express strong objections to policies and mandates that they think are harmful to kids—but few seem to feel comfortable expressing their opinions publicly. Why do you think that is?

Troy LaRaviere: I was at an event recently and someone asked *why are principals afraid to speak out?* One of my colleagues responded that *It’s not that we’re afraid; we’re just being strategic about how we move forward.* I’d never really thought about it this way before, and it hit me that the difference between being fearful and being *strategic* is meaningless because, if you’re scared, you avoid telling the truth because you’re afraid of the consequences. But if you’re being strategic, you fail to tell the truth because you’re trying to avoid the consequences. However you define it, fear or strategy, you’re not speaking your truth because you know there will be consequences from the governmental bureaucracy in charge of the public schools. There is no place for such a fear of government in a constitutional democracy.  That is part of why I tell my truth; the primary reason is to stand up for students, but a secondary reason is to test our democracy—to be an example of an ordinary citizen that believes that the First Amendment is both powerful and real.  It is a meaningful expression of my own patriotism.

Berkshire: You wrote a powerful op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times last summer in which you argued that principals in Chicago are both maligned and voiceless under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. How did your colleagues react?

Tribune PhotoLaRaviere: I’d say that 95% of what I got was gratitude. In fact, the day after my op-ed appeared, a woman called my school and insisted on talking to me personally—she wouldn’t leave a message. She said she wanted me to hear the joy in her voice that someone had finally put into words what she and so many of her colleagues had been feeling for so long. Most of the parents here at my school respect what I’m doing. In fact, a few principals told me that after my speech at City Hall, they got pressure from their parent groups to be more vocal as well. Because the city had just cut the budget. There are so many people with hidden agendas in this world that I think a lot of people assume I must want something—that I want to be mayor or alderman, or I want to be the new CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. It’s difficult for people to believe that I really just want for my colleagues and I to be able to run our schools and do what’s best for kids, the way the evidence shows is best for kids, in a system that supports our efforts to do that. That’s it.

Berkshire: So it sounds like you’re not going to be announcing your race for mayor here today. But you have some seriously harsh words for Mayor Emanuel. In fact, you delivered some of them right outside of his window at City Hall last summer. What’s your main criticism of him?

LaRaviere: The MO of this administration—and the one before it—has been to take services that the public pays for and benefits from and hand them over to a private corporation that benefits from our loss. You know, I used to wonder why Emanuel left the White House to come to Chicago. I thought *he must really love it here to leave the White House to come and be mayor.* I didn’t get the trade off, but now I get it. If you want to rob a bank and rob it blind, what better way to do it than become the bank president?  As mayor, he has created contractual relationships that direct the flow of tax revenue from services that benefit Chicago residents, toward schemes that enrich private corporations.  And it’s not just the current tax dollars; his administration also used the school district’s bond issuing power to borrow additional dollars that we’re going to have to pay back to venture capitalists, vulture capitalists and corporate CEOs.  The Chicago Tribune just exposed the fact that our schools will lose $100 million to banks and investors who will profit from this administration’s financial schemes.  Again, that’s their MO—whether it’s charter schools or risky bond issues—the residents of Chicago lose, and private corporations and investors are put in position to profit from our loss.

Berkshire: I should warn you that I have a serious weakness for gentlemen who aren’t afraid to use the word *privatization.* And you’ve been using it a lot these days.

LaRaviere: Because that’s what’s been happening in Chicago and in the Chicago Public Schools. I’ll give you a perfect example. CPS just spent $20 million that should be going to the children of Chicago and put it towards principal training to be provided by an organization called SUPES Academy. Now I don’t know a principal who hasn’t said that it’s horrible. It’s poor quality and it’s a waste of our time. I believe in training when it’s effective but this is ineffective. Our students and the people who dedicate their lives to serving them lose and this private company benefits from our loss. I just attended a procurement workshop put on by CPS and they told us about all of these scenarios that are unethical and exactly what you have to do in order to purchase something that costs more than $10,000. I raised my hand and said *and where does the SUPES contract fall in this?*

Berkshire: They must love you at headquarters… Have you gotten any pushback from either the city or CPS?

LaRaviere: None.

Berkshire: I want to talk a little about your school, Blaine Elementary in Lakeview. It’s one of Chicago’s top-performing neighborhood schools so I want to give you an opportunity to talk about how you came in and crushed the achievement gap with your bare hands.

Troy picLaRaviere: I’d like to be able to tell you that we improved because I came in with these wonderfully innovative ideas but that would be a lie. We grew because we came in and looked at the research in terms of systems around the world that outperform ours and we did what the evidence says should be done. For example, tracking. When I got here we had a gifted program which meant that some kids got taught a year ahead and others were in a *regular* curriculum track. However, when you have a curriculum gap, you’ve guaranteed you’ll have an achievement gap. No high performing system in the world tracks their kids in elementary school. Slowly but surely we gave the formerly low-tracked students access to the advanced curriculum, and we put in supports so that those kids who needed extra help with the increased challenge got the support they needed. We made several other changes as well, and they were all based on the research literature on the characteristics of high performing school systems.  When I got here we were at 79% meets standards, last year we were at 89%. That’s 50 kids who used to not meet standards who now meet them.  We have a pretty solid population in terms of the academic foundation they get at home, but we also serve students from two homeless shelters and over 35% of our students come from groups that are typically at the lower end of the achievement gap.  At Blaine, we’re working to narrow that gap.

Berkshire: Well that sounds straightforward enough: look at the research and the evidence, throw in some best practices. Hey—have you told CPS about this? 

LaRaviere: Unfortunately the *solutions* that principals at schools serving low-income students and black and Latino students are being forced to implement are in complete contradiction to what best practices and research says works for students. Here’s an example: putting students on computers. They’re in a school with teachers and basically you’re saying *take them away from the most important resource they have, their teacher, and put them on a computer.* This is the kind of solution you come up with when you don’t listen to education professionals or researchers who’ve studied this their entire adult lives but to hedge fund managers, venture capitalists and corporate leaders.

Berkshire: I feel like I’m reading my own blog! So if hedge fund managers et al are not driven by the fierce urgency of best practices, what is it they have on their minds?

LaRaviere: When you ask a venture capitalist about education reform the first thing on his mind is not a student. The first thing on his mind is the $5.8 billion that the Chicago Public Schools spends and how he can steer some of that towards his profit margin. And you can’t steer it towards your profit margin unless you take some of it away from students. The biggest expense in any school system is labor. You can’t have a professional teaching force and profit from it. You have to deprofessionalize teaching so that you can depress the wages. This is at the very heart of school reform: the depression of wages. And you can depress wages through many different schemes: charter schools that don’t require certification and pay lower wages, or this idea of virtual schools that don’t have education professionals who need to be paid.

Berkshire: Any last words of encouragement for your school leader peers elsewhere who have something to say but have been wary of speaking up?

LaRaviere: Tell your truth. If you don’t want to say what you know is right for fear that you’ll be fired by your government, which is who we work for, then go to your eighth grade social studies classrooms where they’re studying the Constitution and tell them that it’s all a lie. Tell your students that the First Amendment is an ideal, but we don’t have it. If you’re not willing to say that to your eighth grade students, than tell your truth. It’s as simple as that. Just tell your truth.

Troy LaRaviere is the principal of Chicago’s Blaine Elementary School and a leader of the Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy and Legislation in Education or AAPLE. Contact him at troylaraviere@gmail.com.

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com. Note: this post is part of my look into Chicago’s grand education reform experiment. You can learn more about my project and support my work here.

16 Comments

  1. Mr. Laraviere –

    Because I have much respect for you, I ask for more explanation about your comment here: For example, tracking. When I got here we had a gifted program which meant that the kids got taught basically a year ahead. But when you have a curriculum gap, you’ve already created an achievement gap. Slowly but surely we dismantled that program and put in supports so that those kids who needed extra help got it. When I got here they were at 79% meets standards, last year we were at 89%. That’s 50 kids who used to not meet standards who now meet standards.

    My concerns – I taught gifted students and don’t concur with your comment that gifted children are “taught basically a year ahead.” Besides the fact that there is more to it than that, you seem to see that as contributing to the achievement gap. I am also curious as to how dismantling that program helped to meet the needs of the lower performing population.

    I also always grimace when I hear success expressed in terms of % “meeting standards” which in my world (Louisiana) means standardized test scores i.e. more manipulation and phoney outcomes.
    I am not criticizing but seeking clarity and wonder if you can respond here as an addendum or through private email. Looking for solutions!

  2. To Lee: Gifted education certainly comes in many models. That’s the model I inherited when I arrived at Blaine–the year ahead model. I recognize that there are other, more meaningful and nuanced approaches. In terms of testing; I am not anti ALL testing. I do not believe in OVER testing or in the punitive consequences associated with testing in the United States. I do however believe that these assessments–particularly when looked at in terms of student growth over time–are useful, and give a good idea of how we’re doing on the particular skills they’re designed to measure.

    1. To Lee: My experience is that many–but not all–so called gifted programs and other tracking schemes contribute to the achievement gap to the extent that they serve as an excuse for limiting access to challenging curriculum and resources to a chosen subset of the student population. What we did at Blaine was evidence that far more students could handle more challenging curriculum when given access and support. More importantly, their achievement improved as a result. There may be legitimate programs out there for truly exceptional students but that’s not what we have in Chicago. We have a massive sorting system that denies thousands of students access to challenging curriculum and the accompanying resources associated with those programs.

  3. To Dienne:
    The presenter was not a high ranking official and had no idea what I was talking about. A few minutes after I asked the question another principal raised his hand and insisted we get an answer. She said she’d look into it. So far, we’ve heard nothing.

  4. Blaine has only 20% low income kids and 58% White kids. Compare to schools like DePriest in Austin where there are 97% low income and 97% African-American kids and you might see that Blaine is not some kind of miracle. In addition, based on the data here

    http://illinoisreportcard.com/School.aspx?source=Trends&source2=BySubGroups&Schoolid=150162990252087

    it looks like the achievement gap has actually been growing over the past few years. (Though I know next to nothing about Illinois state tests, so correct me if I’m wrong).

    It’s easy to decry efforts to improve schools when you look at school performance in wealthy neighborhoods with (mostly) privileged kids.

    1. To mathteacher – PART ONE
      Thank you for your comment. The school report card you cite is the same school report card that says Blaine has 59% white students (not the accurate 58% you cited). It also says we have 16% low-income students (not the accurate 20% you cited). You appear to be getting your demographic data from the district and your achievement gap data from the state. The state also understates our homeless population at 2.8%. As I mentioned in the article, we serve two homeless shelters, so I’m not certain where the state is getting its information.

      What I do know is that in 2011 when my administration arrived at Blaine, the demographic breakdown you cited had been in place since 2007, yet the percentage of students who met reading standards was at 79—and had stagnated around that percentage for five years (see chart below). That means that 21% of students were not meeting reading standards—most of whom were the low-income and minority students you mentioned.

      See graphs: http://blainecps.com/wordpress/?p=14883

      In less than two years we rose to 89%; meaning we reduced the percentage of students not meeting standards from 21% to 11%. In other words, we cut the percentage of students not meeting standards nearly in half.

      I’m not sure how a school can get more low-income students and students of color than ever before to meet standards, and the state reports that as an increase in the achievement gap. My guess is their achievement gap numbers are as about as accurate as the demographic numbers I cited above.

      Blaine is a neighborhood school with no selective enrollment component. There are other schools like us in Chicago with equal or higher percentages of white students and far fewer low-income students—and who do not have two homeless shelters in their attendance area. Yet—according to this years MAP assessment results—none of them has a higher overall percentage of students scoring above average than Blaine (see green bars on graph linked to below).

      http://blainecps.com/wordpress/?p=16632

      I worked most of my career on the south and west sides in schools similar to DePriest. I also attended five different all-black and 99% low-income schools as a CPS student. I am acutely aware of the differences because I have lived them. I do not compare Blaine to schools like DePriest and never will. The above graph measures our performance against schools with similar demographics to ours.

      My point in the article is that the performance depicted in these graphs is not the result of any of the so-called reforms being pushed on schools, but through a simple and consistent focus on implementing what the research and evidence has shown to work.

      It is also interesting to note that—although our math and overall percentages are the highest among neighborhood schools—if you look at the red bars on the graph linked to above, there is one school with a higher percentage than Blaine in reading. That school is Edgebrook. The current principal of Edgebrook just happens have been my assistant principal at Blaine during my first two years here. He took the same evidence-based practices that were responsible for Blaine’s increase in students meeting standards, adjusted them to fit the context of his new school, and his students reaped the benefits. Once again, simple evidence based practices—not the national school reform agenda—are working for kids.

    2. To mathteacher – PART TWO

      The following is a link to the state assessment data the year before we arrived at Blaine and the two years following our arrival.
      https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1HN7TWmliWRPvwdBOOA4dBx6gCQLbqXZUFYssKzcnYeQ/edit?usp=sharing

      CPS has not included 2013-2014 data in its file as of yet, which is a source of a much larger controversy in Chicago. See this link for a related story
      http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/notebook/2014/11/12/66205/school-quality-ratings-delayed-no-details-why

      Even when the data is released, last year’s state assessment was completely revamped for common core purposes and will not be a good source for comparison to previous years since the test itself is far different than previous ones.

      The state assessment data linked to above clearly shows a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap at Blaine, particularly for African American students. The year before we arrived, only 43% of African American students met state standards. The next year that percentage rose to 54% and after our second year that number was near 80%. Again, we nearly doubled the number of African American students who met state standards. The numbers for Hispanic students rose as well, from 77% to 82% over the same period. The percentage of low-income students meeting state standards rose from 69% to 75%. At the same time, our efforts to raise the achievement of students who have historically been at the low end of the achievement gap also had positive effects on the majority white student population. 90% of these students were meeting state standards when we arrived and 95% of them were meeting those standards just two years later. It seems that evidence based practices work for everyone.

      1. Troy,

        Thanks for your thorough response. All of the inconsistency between the data must be really frustrating. I have no doubt that you are doing outstanding work at your school and don’t get me wrong – the evidence-based reforms you’re instituting at Blaine are important and seem like excellent ideas to me without even seeing the numbers. I guess I just wonder if you have the luxury of only instituting those changes because of your demographics. Or maybe to put it another way, would those changes be enough to significantly improve outcomes at schools like DePriest?

        1. Great question mathteacher. That question deserves a book chapter, or at least a lengthy article. I’ll try to be a bit briefer than that. The answer to your question is both yes and no—but mostly no. As I stated earlier, for most of my career I worked in schools with a majority African American or Hispanic low-income population. Schools whose students came to the classroom with low academic performance for reasons having very little to do with the schools themselves, and everything to do with the failure of our city and state to address the conception-to-kindergarten factors that have such a tremendous impact on student readiness for the academic expectations of school.

          Yet these schools—and their principals—were far less likely to have the autonomy and freedom to do what works. I have been contacted by three principals who’ve told me they’ve been forced to put their students on a computer-based learning/assessment program. Two of them were threatened with a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) if they refused to comply or if their students didn’t show growth. A CAP is a precursor to a principal being disciplined or fired. You would think that the district officials should be the ones to be fired if the students don’t show growth from the computer-based instruction since it is those officials who are forcing the computer based instruction in the first place. However, to your question, principals and teachers in these schools are less likely to have the freedom to do what works the way we did at Blaine.

          This works in other ways that are less intrusive but far more powerful. For example, another thing we did at Blaine was to put together an intensive process for recruiting skilled teachers to fill vacancies. As a result, over the last three years we have assembled what I believe is the most talented teaching staff in Chicago. We were able to do this—in large part—because teachers WANT to work at a school that serves the kind of neighborhood that Blaine serves. Our district has built in incentives for teachers to leave schools in low-income neighborhoods by labeling their schools as “failing,” reducing the professional autonomy, and failing to provide them with the supports they need to effectively address the myriad of issues that are present in schools and communities in low-income neighborhoods; issues that are either non-existent or far less prevalent in neighborhoods like the one Blaine is located in.

          There are other more insidious ways that CPS robs low-income students of talented teachers. For example, just a few months ago, a math teacher came to us looking for a job at Blaine. He was a solid teacher who was coming to us from a school serving a low-income African American community. When I asked him why he wanted to leave his school he responded, “They just cut our budget and opened a charter school across the street, so I can see the writing on the wall. They don’t support neighborhood schools and it’s obvious they want to shut us down, so I’m trying to get another position before I get let go.” Here was an effective teacher; the kind of teacher that the students in that neighborhood needed to stay and teach them. Yet CPS’s irrational and unfounded push for low-performing privately managed charter schools was forcing this man to leave the students who needed him most, in order to get a job at Blaine, where most students were going to be okay with our without him. So, will the principal of his school be free to recruit highly talented teachers like Blaine did? How could he recruit great teachers when the most talented teachers out there will be certain to steer away from a job at a school that CPS seems intent on undermining?

          In essence, you are certainly correct in your belief that there are elements of the system that make it far more difficult for a principal in a school serving a low-income neighborhood to implement simple effective evidence-based practices. The deck is stacked against those schools; stacked against their principals, stacked against their teachers; and stacked against their students.

          I know all too well what it was like to be a teacher and administrator in a school serving low-income neighborhoods—to see your student’s success undermined by the system’s political and bureaucratic leadership. So I use my position as the principal of a school that is relatively “safe,” to advocate for those schools, their teachers, their leadership, and their students. I also fully understand that Blaine is a part of the same system that those schools are a part of—that although we may appear “safe,” we are not shielded from negative effects of this backward school reform movement. For example, no matter what neighborhood we serve all schools suffer from the negative effects of our Mayor’s “longer school day” and its impact on our ability to do something as simple as meet with our entire staff on a regular basis. In another example, although charter schools are not taking any students from neighborhoods like the one Blaine is located in, the massive amount of wasted resources being channeled to those schools is certainly taking away from all of our budgets and therefore limiting the kinds of best practices we could have implemented had we not been robbed of those resources.

          I could go on for at least 50 more pages, but I think I’ll just stop here. I hope this answers your question.

          1. Mr. LaRaviere,

            Thank you for such a thorough and well-reasoned reply.

            How can Chicago parents support your efforts?

            (I have one child at Galileo Elementary–our principal Mr. Matthias–is leaving for CPS Administration, I hope that he can be an advocate for sensible reform. He seems like a sensible guy.)

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