Chicago Public Schools has just seen its biggest ISAT score increases in years, but enormous achievement gaps remain, Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso told the city’s school board on Wednesday. Continuing these gains will be key priorities for new schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard moving forward – especially if he is to achieve the bonus of up to 15 percent set out for him in a contract the board approved on Wednesday. 

Brizard’s contract marks the first time a CPS leader has been up for performance bonuses. It comes at a time that CPS is in the process of developing a merit pay system for teachers.

It’s not clear what caused the increase of nearly 4 percentage points in the proportion of students meeting or exceeding state standards. More than three-quarters of students now meet or exceed state standards on the composite ISAT assessment. 

Under Brizard’s predecessor, Ron Huberman, there was not a specific reform effort, but a premium was put on data-driven instruction and paying close attention to benchmark test scores.   

“They are preliminary scores; they have not been fully analyzed by the district,” school board president David Vitale said.

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said that official state ISAT scores won’t be released until late August. The test has not changed since last year, Fergus said. (Changes to the test in other years have contributed to large score increases).

Despite the gains, African Americans lag behind White students by about 20 percent percentage points and Latino students lag by nearly 11 percentage points. Nearly 45 percent of white students exceeded state standards, but just 11 percent of African-American students did.

Also, at the board meeting, members handed Brizard a three-year contract with a $250,000 base salary – $20,000 more than the salary of previous schools CEO Ron Huberman. The contract also offers him a bonus of up to 15 percent that is contingent on his meeting a number of goals. (Click here to view a copy of it).

“It’s not just test scores,” Vitale said. “It deals with the culture, the environment of the system.”

Some of the goals include increasing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards; upping the district’s five-year graduation rate from 55.8 percent to 60 percent; and increasing enrollment in preschool and full-day kindergarten programs.

He is also being tasked with bringing CPS curriculum in line with the Common Core Standards, measuring and improving the district’s organizational climate, and establishing a five-year facilities plan that addresses overcrowding and underutilized buildings.

It’s not clear how Brizard will meet those goals, but in a presentation recapping his first 25 days on the job, he said he heard on his listening tour that it was important to give principals more autonomy; provide district-wide transparency on resource use; improve neighborhood schools; and engage community members “on the front end, especially around school actions.”

He also noted the importance of addressing students’ social-emotional and health care needs, and said students need a longer school day. But, he said, a longer day must be tailored to the needs of each particular school and wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Board of Education will decide whether Brizard qualifies for a bonus by reviewing Vitale’s evaluation of Brizard as well as the CEO’s self-evaluation. However, Brizard has pledged not to take a bonus this year on account of the district’s financial crisis. Vitale noted that Brizard may also have to take furlough days.

In addition, Brizard is also getting up to $30,000 to cover moving expenses. Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso was hired with a two-year contract that includes up to $21,000 for moving expenses. Her contract does not include bonuses, but it will include goals that Brizard will set for her and reveal to the board by the end of July.

Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley and communications chief Becky Carroll were both officially hired by the board, as well.

Brizard is the first schools CEO to have a contract since a state law shifted control of CPS to Chicago’s mayor in the 1990s, said school board president David Vitale.

“Competitively, it was a standard requirement that if we wanted to hire somebody from the outside, they’d have a contract,” Vitale said. “We didn’t give any raises; we hired people today, at salaries we thought were appropriate.”

Even so, the Chicago Teachers Union, which brought hundreds of teachers and other supporters to protest the board’s decision not to pay teachers their contractually agreed 4 percent raises, immediately slammed the new contracts as raises.

In another agenda item passed Wednesday, the district reaffirmed last year’s controversial decision to lay off teachers according to their performance ratings before considering seniority, although the layoffs that resulted last year are still tied up in legal wrangling.

The move is already drawing a negative reaction from the Chicago Teachers Union because it does not give laid-off teachers preferential access to new jobs that open up.

“You can’t have a layoff policy unless you have a recall policy,” union spokeswoman Liz Brown said. “Layoff means you have a way of calling them back in.”

When economic layoffs hit a school building, the district will lay off teachers without appropriate certification first. Teachers whose last performance rating was “unsatisfactory” will come next, followed by retired and temporary teachers.
Only then will CPS dismiss probationary teachers (who have not yet earned tenure), followed by tenured teachers.

However, the number of teachers affected by the changes last year was small. According to court papers CTU filed in August 2010, just 6 percent of the 426 teachers laid off at Track E schools had received unsatisfactory evaluations.

District spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that the measure “is not a new layoff policy,” but rather codifies the district’s layoff procedures into one document. “Annual layoffs due to school actions, enrollment drops and other [reasons] are not final as of today,” she said in an email.

The policy also outlines the employment opportunities the district offers laid off tenured teachers, such as career fairs, substitute jobs, an online hiring profile and resume writing workshops. That may be a move to head off future legal challenges to the policy.

A district court judge granted the union an injunction against future layoffs without a right to recall, and the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision (though at the time, CPS also claimed victory). But on June 13 vacated its own opinion, saying that there were unanswered questions about how to interpret Illinois law on tenure and layoff rights.

CPS contends that existing school law allows it to set layoff criteria, but the union claims that the district must offer laid-off teachers an opportunity to be recalled into any new positions that open up.

The court battle will not be affected by changes to teacher layoffs in Illinois Senate Bill 7, recently signed by Illinois governor Pat Quinn. The section of the law that governs layoffs doesn’t apply to Chicago.

“Statute already requires Chicago to do performance-based layoffs,” said Jessica Handy, policy director with Stand for Children-Illinois, one of the groups that pushed for the bill. “It was an area that CPS and CTU didn’t want to mess with” because of the pending litigation.

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