By: Nicholas White
Readers deluged the newspaper with supportive letters, calls, and e-mails. Talk radio and TV shows lit up with buzz. State policymakers and educators squawked, then considered major changes. Even the cross-town rival Chicago Tribune published a tip-of-the-hat editorial.
It all began on Sept. 6, 2001, when the Chicago Sun-Times, a news tabloid known for its screaming front-page headlines and film critic Roger Ebert, started an investigative series titled “Failing Teachers.” Three days of findings revealed that 5,243 Chicago public-school teachers — who taught 180,000 children last spring — had failed at least one basic-skills or certification test. Four FOI requests, filed to the state Board of Education from January to April 2001, had unearthed the information, assembled by reporters Rosalind Rossi, Becky Beaupre, and Kate Grossman.
Although about 90% of teachers eventually passed, a group of 635 teachers, often career substitutes, was repeatedly failing. Worse, the “failing teachers” were disproportionately bundled in the city?s poorest areas and bilingual classrooms. The worst taker failed 24 out of 25 tests, including 12 of 12 to test proficiency teaching learning-disabled children — the teacher?s specialty. Another taker failed 19 of 19, including a 12% on a recent test.
Rossi, credited with the series? idea, says the impact came from serendipitously combining teacher test scores, previously unavailable to the public, with student poverty percentage by school district. Poor students were much more likely to get bad teachers than wealthier students — 12 more times likely to get a teacher who had failed a basic-skills test at least once and 57 times to get a teacher who had never passed one.
No Chicago media outlet — or government or education board, for that matter — had evaluated, by test score, the teachers that poor students get. “No one had ever looked at how many times those teachers were failing those tests,” Rossi says.
Grossman, the general assignment reporter who came onto the series in April 2001, says many Chicagoans showered the series with attention because it brought to the forefront concerns that parents had about schools but had not voiced. “Everybody knew that there was a problem with a subset of the teacher population,” Grossman says. “And somebody was saying it out loud.”
Rossi, in addition to covering criminal and federal courts since coming to the Sun-Times in 1980, has been the education beat reporter for nine years. She says covering schools did not initially interest her, but the beat?s potential for “everything” — crime, corruption, political infighting and fraud, namely — grew on her.
When Rossi started the eight-month “Failing Teachers” reporting process in January 2001, it was just a teacher-test-score story. The scores were kept confidential, even to the principals of the schools where the teachers worked, but were eventually granted though FOI requests. Beaupre, who was a computer-assisted-reporting specialist, began crunching teacher pass/fail test records that went back to 1988.
Rossi and Beaupre then compared listings of which subjects teachers were certified to teach and what they were actually teaching. Because Illinois has policies that allow teachers to teach on temporary licenses, teachers were teaching “out of field,” or subjects that they were not certified to teach. Some states forbid this outright.
After analyzing the data, Beaupre says, they matched up school district wealth with where teachers were failing the most. When their findings began to point toward signs of social inequity, the story became a series.
“The data turned out to be far richer than any of us had imagined,” Rossi says. “We were finally able to draw a portrait of the kind of teacher needy kids were getting.”
The basic-skills test that so many teachers had failed is intended for an 8th- or 9th-grade reading level, asking multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank grammar questions: “Both storms were bad, but Friday?s was ——– than Sunday?s. A) worse, b) worser, C worst, D) worstest.”
Don Sevener, the state Board of Higher Education spokesman, says the test is now more difficult than before September, pegged at a college freshman or sophomore level, though plans to make it more difficult were underway before the series? publication.
Series spawns action
Developments continue seven months later that can be directly or indirectly traced to the series. The Illinois Colleges of Education, which train many of Chicago’s public-school teachers, have implemented a new rule that requires all teachers to pass the basic-skills test before graduating with a B.A., Sevener says. Illinois’ teacher education system has been letting unqualified teachers slip through the cracks. “Many of them had graduated from Illinois colleges and universities. We do have some responsibility in that area,” Sevener says.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan said immediately after the series? publication that the findings were “unacceptable.” One subject of the Sun-Times series was a full-time substitute teacher for 26 years. Duncan began a “teacher quality crackdown” to keep track of out-of-field teachers, saying all full-time substitutes must be fully certified within two years. Also, Duncan decreed that any new teacher who applies to Chicago Public Schools must disclose how many tries he or she took to pass the tests.
In the state legislature, a Senate bill that would stiffen teacher-testing restrictions is making headway, having passed out of the Education Rules committee and awaiting a third reading. The bill would cap substitute-teacher licenses at three years and require all teachers to pass a basic-skills test within one year. Illinois Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Cronin, who sponsored the bill, initially called the Sun-Times findings “appalling.”
Illinois Governor George Ryan acknowledged the series at a special education summit he held in September 2001, saying, “It’s not fair for our children who are most needy to be taught by teachers who are also struggling.” Ryan called for a hefty increase in school funding in his February 2002 State of the State speech, announcing plans for schools to get more than half the state?s new revenue in 2002, or about $245 million, on top of the $222 million in new federal funds from the recently passed, President Bush-backed “Leave No Child Behind” Act.