Lessons from CPS’ Attempt to Remove an Award-Winning Principal
for my mother, Kay
According to standards used by the Mayor’s office, there are only four schools that consistently and substantially raise student performance year after year after year. For the past five years, I’ve led one of those four schools: Blaine Elementary.
We have an incredibly simple philosophy for success: Take the things that have been proven to work, and implement them, while giving your staff the freedom to improvise to fit the unique circumstances of your school. Unfortunately, that’s not this administration’s strategy. Their education policies have been ideologically driven, clumsy, and scientifically baseless.
I’ve talked with so many principals who are deeply troubled by the obstacles this administration puts in their way: underfunding; a flawed school rating system; a lack of support for schools that serve the most vulnerable children; a lack of respect for their work and their time; a culture of fear and intimidation; and burdensome compliance driven paperwork. This list goes on. Under this administration, teaching, learning and leading are far more difficult than they have to be. This is a direct result of the fact that this administration has focused on creating financial relationships that ensure their rich donors profit from our children’s losses. It is inherently corrupt, and corruption breeds incompetence.
Instead of being guided by self interest, we must see the city as our family, and decide that the well being of everyone in that family is our priority. That must be our vision, and we must act to make it so. I made that decision three years ago. That my Chicago family would be the priority. And I based my actions on that decision.
Those actions, in defense of our family, led my colleagues to nominate me for the presidency of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. If elected I made it clear that I would work to develop systems and relationships that end the isolation of principals and administrators and brings them together to have a collective voice for policies that support student development, instead of undermining it.
When I was a lone voice the administration tolerated me. But when faced with the prospect of an organized group of education leaders speaking as one on behalf of students, they’ve moved with haste and reckless abandon to prevent that from happening.
The Charges: An Exercise in Projection
I’ve already written about this administration’s hasty, effort to remove me. Today I’m here to respond to the politically motivated charges they assembled as a false justification for that removal. When I read the charges I had the distinct feeling that the mayor’s office was projecting. That’s when you attribute your own shortcomings to someone else.
The broad categories of the charges are insubordination, ethics violations–which are all about supporting Chuy Garcia and Bernie Sanders–and dereliction of duty. Each of those has a number of sub-charges, some of which are vague and others more specific.
A Responsibility to Speak
The charges under insubordination have to do with supporting my teachers, my opposition to PARCC testing, and speaking out against corruption. I spoke out in part, to meet my professional obligation to speak out. I spoke out because the National Policy Board for Educational Administration sets professional standards for principals and one of those standards states that principals must, “Act to influence local, district, state, and national decisions affecting student learning.” In other words, public advocacy doesn’t distract us from our job. Public advocacy is our job. I also speak out as a veteran who put my life in harms way to defend our free speech rights. I resolved there was no way I was going to travel 5,000 miles away and risk my life to defend the freedom of speech against the likes of some foreign dictator, only to return to my own country and have to relinquish that freedom to the likes of a municipal elected official. The best way to protect your rights is to exercise them, and so I did.
A Corrupt Contract
In May of 2014, I was the first and only active CPS employee to publicly question a $20 million contract for a company called SUPES academy. And last July I questioned this administration’s own corrupt and reckless fiscal management. Once again I cited the SUPES contract. In response, the mayor’s hand picked board of education issued me a warning resolution that served as a prelude for their current attempt to fire me. Right after I received that warning resolution, Barbara Byrd-Bennett was indicted and later convicted for her role in the SUPES contract scandal–the very contract that they punished me for criticizing. If you value responsible management of tax dollars then you’re supposed to commend the people who point out waste and fraud, not punish them. But punish they did.
In fact one of the things that got lost in the efforts to force the Mayor’s Office to release LaQuan McDonald emails, is that they’re still refusing to release the emails related to his involvement in the SUPES scandal. So when you leave me today I respectfully suggest you stop by City Hall and remind the Mayor’s Office that they owe us something. And remind them repeatedly.
REACH: Incompetent Education Policy at its Worst
Another one of the charges was dereliction of duty. They charged me with not completing my REACH teacher evaluation ratings. They are right. I’ve never finished them all. And that is one of the reasons our school is so successful.
REACH is based on a framework developed by Charlotte Danielson for teacher observation. It is noteworthy that the most prominent critic of rating systems like REACH is none other than Charlotte Danielson herself.
She says that the vast majority of teachers need a focus on professional development. In other words we need to replace the current emphasis on rating with an emphasis on learning, because one leads to better teaching, while the other does not.
REACH is extremely time consuming. It takes up more time than anything else principals do. So I asked my boss what the consequences would be if I didn’t finish REACH. He said I’d get a lower score on my personal evaluation. I told him I was fine getting a decrease in the evaluation of my performance if it meant we could have time to do the things that increase my students performance. So that’s what I did. And it worked. So for the past three years I’ve accepted the lower evaluation without complaint. But somehow this year, now that I’m running for president of the principals association–the penalty has somehow jumped from a lower evaluation to termination, without any warning or notice.
The more important point however, is that this system is so backward that they put principals in a position to have to decide between doing what’s good for their rating or doing what’s good for their students. No educator should ever be put in that position. But it happens all the time in CPS, under this administration.
What Dereliction of Duty Looks Like
Other charges have to do with how I use my time and CPS resources, but they don’t mention anything specific. What I do know is that you don’t get the kind of results we’ve gotten without spending a massive amount of time on the business of teaching and learning; and that’s certainly what I’ve done at Blaine.
But when I thought about this administration’s focus on how I spend my time, it brought to mind a February 2015 Chicago Tribune analysis of how the mayor spends his time. They found that in 2013 and 2014 he had over 376 meetings and appearances with his donors. That means that well over half of his days were spent catering to the greed of his campaign contributors instead of tending to the needs of Chicago’s residents, neighborhoods, and schools. In other words he was derelict in his duty to everyday Chicagoans. In the final analysis the best indicators for how I’ve spent my time are the results I’ve gotten for Blaine. Likewise, the best indicator for how the mayor’s office spends its time is the lack of results they’ve gotten for our neighborhoods, our residents, and our schools.
A Lesson in Managing Public Money
Another one of the charges is related to a routine audit of our internal accounts. The only thing specific they mention is a late report. Anything else is likely a minor violation like a teacher not completing a payee list for a student field trip. What’s important to note is that before I arrived Blaine’s audit came back “unsatisfactory.” I’d inherited one of the most poorly managed internal accounts in CPS. But each year we made improvements and there’s never been an unsatisfactory audit under my watch. In other words–unlike this administration–I took control of an institution whose financial accounts were in shambles and have a continuous record of improvement. It’s not perfect, but it’s in better shape than it was when I inherited it. The Mayor’s Office however took a city whose credit rating was AA- as recently as 2010 before he came into office. And after five years of mismanagement Chicago’s bond rating has sunk to Junk status. While my fiscal record has been one of enhancements, this administration’s record has been one of regression and failure.
Like nearly every school in our district, Blaine has been cited for minor paperwork issues before; but I’ve never had any discipline or threat of discipline. But somehow this year–now that I’m speaking out and running for president of the principals association–its being elevated to grounds for termination.
An even more important point is that there has never been an audit finding under my leadership that a single dime has been diverted to anyone that it shouldn’t have gone to. Unfortunately we cannot say the same about CPS under this administration.
A Note of Thanks and a Life of Faith
Even under my current circumstances I am more hopeful than ever. The life that I’ve lived, and the path that I’ve taken gives me no other option than to be hopeful. Thank you to everyone who has supported me, and in particular the entire community at Blaine Elementary School. The Blaine community is a central part of the events of my life that make me so incredibly hopeful.
You see, my mother–who has passed on–was white. And more than 50 years ago she was banished from her family and had to leave her north side neighborhood because of the color of her firstborn son, my brother Michael. I remember the pain in my mother’s voice as she told us the story of how she was banished from her family and her neighborhood. And for my mother now, to see this north side community–50 years later–bring her son in and give him one of the most important responsibilities a community can give someone: the responsibility for the education of their children. Then to see that same community rally around her son, wielding signs that support him, and chanting “Stand with Troy!” I would give everything I own to bring her back to see this, if only for one moment.
Our family’s story–from Michael to me–was impossible. And yet, it happened, right here–in our city.
I lived that life.
You can’t live that life and be cynical. You can’t live that life and not believe that their is a way for Chicago to come together and end the corruption and incompetence that plagues our government and debilitates our school system. You can’t live that life and not have faith in Chicago and its people.
We have to make an ethical decision about what kind of community we want to be, because Corruption and Incompetence have consequences. They’re not these vague ideas that we just have to get used to–that are just part of the way things get done. Corruption robs us of the resources we need to help students realize their full potential as human beings. Incompetence steals from us the time that’s needed to ensure students develop the knowledge, skills, and civic disposition necessary to make better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. Corruption steals that from them, and–in doing so–it steals them from us.
But like I said; I have faith in Chicago. I know we can do better. This administration’s effort to keep principals isolated only serves to affirm for me the power of our collective voice, and united action. So I move forward more determined than ever not only to unite education leaders across our schools, but to unite those leaders with parents, community members, and organizations all over Chicago that share our desire to do right by our students. I know that if tens of thousands of Chicagoans join with us, we will be victorious, and together we will create the city we deserve.