April 17, 2019

Memo to Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot & the Education Transition Committee

TO: Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot & the Education Transition Committee
FROM: Educators for Excellence-Chicago

Initiative: Work hand-in-hand with educators to shape and implement policies that set students and teachers up for success in our schools.

How the new administration can infuse the values of equity, transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion, and transformation in this initiative 
In Chicago, experienced educators have primarily been subjects, rather than agents of change in our schools. Despite their on-the-ground experiences and expertise, their ideas have too often fallen on deaf ears, with just 35% of Chicago teachers saying their perspective is represented in their school, 32% saying this is true within their union, and a mere 24% saying this is true within the District or their charter network. It is no wonder that a staggering 93% of Chicago teachers wish there were more opportunities to influence education policy.

Partnering with educators to shape and implement education policies can bring transformative change to CPS, as educators are uniquely positioned to know what students most need across our city. Their policy preferences demonstrate that they prioritize equity, transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion. Among the bold ideas Chicago teachers support:

  1. Offer innovative compensation to recruit, develop and retain talented, diverse teachers and encourage their leadership
    Chicago educators want students to have access to great teachers and classes, regardless of where in the city they live and overwhelmingly favor structuring compensation to incentivize educators to teach in hard-to-staff schools (90%), serving the city’s most vulnerable students. Educators also want to encourage their peers to take on leadership roles, with 88% in favor of offering financial incentives to teachers who, for example, take on mentoring roles, serve as model teachers, develop curricula or become peer evaluators. Not only would these leadership roles help retain the 92% of Chicago teachers who wish there were more opportunities as a teacher to further their career and professional skills in the classroom, but they could also provide principals with added support and build a shared sense of community. In addition to salary incentives, teachers are interested in exploring creative benefit options that would lend them more financial flexibility, such as deferred compensation (i.e., a 12-month salary schedule).

  2. Ensure schools have the staff to support their unique student populations
    Staffing specialized positions throughout the city is critical in order to ensure success for every student, as well for educator sustainability. Focus group participants across Chicago indicated that these unfilled or inequitably distributed positions, such as diverse learning teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, psychologists, and social workers, are a major concern to Chicago educators. For example, with only one social worker for every 1200 students in CPS, educators often take on the additional responsibility of being the primary responder to student trauma. Tasked educators with the full weight of students’ social, emotional and academic wellbeing can create secondary trauma and ultimately impact educators’ own mental health and sustainability in the classroom. Not only should the District continue to focus on hiring the specialized staff our students need, but they should also ensure these positions are distributed to schools based on unique student population needs.

What is happening today that we need to keep
While there is much work to be done, the District has made some progress in partnering with educators in the interest of equity, transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion, and transformation. The Office of Social Emotional Learning has hosted Problem-Solving Forums, which brought together educators, District staff and community stakeholders from across Chicago to discuss issues impacting students and the teaching profession. The CPS Talent Office and Office of Safety and Security have begun to prioritize implicit bias trainings for new principals, which is an important step in ensuring students have an equal opportunity to succeed in our classrooms. The creation of the CPS Equity Office demonstrates a commitment to equity and inclusion, which holds the potential to be a critical lever for the success of teachers and students alike. Additionally, CPS’ Teacher Advisory Council (TAC), which provides a platform for current classroom teachers to interact with District staff and help shape policy, is the embodiment of what it looks like to elevate and value teacher voice, and should continue to serve as a driver and sounding-board for District policies. 

What we need to implement in the next 100 days 
The first 100 days provide an opportunity to demonstrate a genuine commitment to bringing historically underrepresented stakeholders to the table and shape the future of our schools. These could include:

  • Creating a Mayoral Educator Advisory Council that is made up of current classroom teachers and school staff, who could share ideas and provide feedback on current initiatives, would signal a more inclusive approach to education policy-making;

  • Appointing a current classroom teacher to the Chicago Board of Education would ensure educators’ invaluable perspectives are reflected in Board decisions; and

  • Seizing opportunities presented by the upcoming contract negotiations with Chicago Teachers Union in order to move beyond the status quo and embrace innovative ideas broadly supported by Chicago educators.

What we can plan for longer-term implementation 
Teachers are ready for transformational change, but they must be partners in this work. Longer-term implementation will require bringing teachers in at every stage of the policy-making process, allowing your administration to craft strong, effective policies and sidestep pitfalls. Simultaneously leveraging teacher expertise and cultivating their buy-in will ensure smoother and more consistent implementation across the city. 

Beyond a single policy idea, program, or initiative, teachers must be authentically and consistently engaged as partners and leaders in this work. A collaborative approach would reduce historical tensions between classroom educators, District officials and the mayor’s office, as well as create a shared vision of how all can work together to serve our city’s students and strengthen our schools.

What challenges we might encounter in executing on this initiative 
Transformative change is difficult. The very idea is often threatening to those who are invested in the status quo. But speaking directly with educators, early and often, gathering their ideas and feedback, and promoting policies that are broadly popular with those in the classroom will foster the needed buy-in to move past “what is” into “what should be.” The values of equity, transparency, accountability, diversity and inclusion, and transformation are driving forces behind what brings educators into Chicago’s schools each day. Ultimately, those same values should be the yardstick by which you measure your success; if that is true, then educators will be behind you.