HOW CATALYST LIES... Catalyst school closing list is more fiction than fact, with oversimplifications, out of context claims, and simple mistakes... How do you spell anachronism?

PART ONE: A look at how Chicago distorts its history, courtesy of media subsidized by the corporations behind Chicago "school reform." This week, Catalyst magazine teamed up with WBEZ radio to purportedly provide Chicago and its readers with a comprehensive listing and map showing where the school "closings" in Chicago had become. Since Catalyst's materials have a nasty way of going toxic, no matter how inaccurate they are, it's really important to call out the lies, big and little, that are going into this corporate version of "history," Chicago-style, at this point in history.

Since the carefully staged inauguration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May 2011 in Chicago's Grant Park (designed to recall for the masses the November 2008 appearance of Barack Obama in Grant Park), the Emanuel administration has staged more media events and held more press conferences that all of Chicago's mayors of the second half of the 20th Century. Hardly a day goes by without Chicago's corporate media editors ordering reporters and camera crews to line up and "cover" another carefully staged Emanuel event. Above, on November 14, 2011, Emanuel stated a "conversation" with parents at Manuel Perez Elementary School in Chicago the day he and CPS unveiled the "School Report Card" that showed most Chicago public schools, once again, "failing." Parents expressed mystification at the report card, despite prodding from Emanuel and Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, while reporters (above right) dutifully sat in their assigned seats and took notes. Only Substance covered the fact that the library that served as the stage setting for the mayor's media event that day didn't have a librarian, so that the books that appeared prominently on the TV screens were not regularly available for the children of Perez. Day after day in Chicago, the photo above is replicated, as the CPS and City Hall press teams (most of whom, a half dozen in all, at to the rear by the door), which some times outnumber actual reporters, arrange the chairs for the next thing. Emanuel's imperial and imperiously careful staging and media manipulation have been, to date, superb, even in the eyes of skeptics such as Substance's reporters. And for a mayor who actually hasn't had a record of measurable achievement (how can anyone claim that a reorganization of the police has improved public safety, or a bizarre reorganization of the schools improved education when there hasn't been enough time to provide any information?), Emanuel has managed to get his version of the story told in national (currently, Fortune magazine) and international (The Economist) magazines, which simply repeat his version of events the way Chicago reporters like those above are expected to during each daily media event. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Catalyst's rendition of the past ten-year history of the "closings" is basically filled with lies, half-truths, inaccuracies, and curious and dangerous anachronisms. it's as if an American Army ambulance pulled up to treat the bodies on stage in the final scene of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Somebody might notice that the thing had as much business being there as a turd in the punch bowl at your holiday party next week. But since Catalyst has been leaving these objects behind for years, and polluting the historic record with them, a Truth Squad is going to be necessary to fish them out, cleanse the record, and move forward without all the hype and mendacity that has been fuming out of Chicago since Arne Duncan laid that first turd back in 2002.

This isn't the first time that Catalyst has pontificated on the side of corporate Chicago about Chicago's corporate "school reform," and it doubtless won't be the last.

But since this year there is likely to be a bigger storm over this year's Hit List, it's important to separate fact from fiction early, and repeated the truth often. Hundreds of people have already protested, by next week that number is likely to be in the thousands, and if there aren't at least as many arrests as have already been ordered by Rahm Emanuel at Occupy Chicago, I'll be surprised. So the facts are going to count a lot, and Catalyst's lies are going to confuse some people who should be more skeptical.

Let's start with Catalyst's version of how to cover the news about public school closings since Arne Duncan began the process in April 2002 with his first Hit List, the attacks on Williams, Dodge and Terrell elementary schools.

Was Catalyst at the hearings or at the schools? if Catalyst was, I didn't see them. I visited all three schools, covered an important meeting of Williams teachers in the school library, covered the Williams hearing, and was at the picket line of students at Dodge when they learned they were attending a "failing" school. Maybe Catalyst had someone there, but they weren't really visible.

The closing of Williams, Dodge and Terrell formed the basis for the Big Lie that grew as Arne Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley, in a script written by R. Eden Martin of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, began "Renaissance 2010" in 2004. So let's look at the first "closings" in 2004.

Catalyst was not at the hearings on the closings of Austin High School and Calumet High School. I was. At the time, in fact, I had helped organize the parents, students and teachers of those two schools for those important hearings. I was serving as Director of Security at the Chicago Teachers Union, and the reason why I had been working with the teachers and other staff at Austin and Calumet was that the pretext for "closing" them was not --- repeat that, NOT -- "poor performance", as Catalyst says in its chart, but security concerns. Austin and Calumet (like Collins and some others) were "phased out." That was not admitted the first year it was done, and performance was not mentioned in 2004. What was said, by former Board of Education President Michael Scott and others, was that the Board needed a respite from the gang problems at the two schools, so they were temporarily not taking new students so the situation could be cleaned out.

The end of ninth grade, however, was repeated years after year, until there were only a handful of students left in each of the buildings. The gang problems from the two schools, as widely noticed at the time, was exported. The Austin gang problems landed as far east as Wells High School, while the problems from Calumet landed as far away as Hyde Park High School. Had Catalyst paid attention to the facts, rather than continuing their ex post facto apologetics for corporate "school reform," Chicago style, they would have known that.

But it's not really facts Catalyst is reporting here, it's a slanted and generally a-historical version of reality designed to bolster the present version of corporate accounting — the "Performance Levels" being assigned to the schools today. As a result, the charts provided are probably worse than nothing at all, because they provide information out of context, without history, and based on dozens of stories affecting thousands of teachers parents and children that Catalyst chose, between 2002 and today, not to cover at the "grass roots" where the reality was taking place.

This story is the beginning of a series on this topic to be published first on line and then in print in Substance. This morning's contribution deals with two of the major inaccuracies in the Catalyst version, Austin and Calumet high schools, on the one hand, and Grant Elementary School, on the other.

As noted above, the "closing" of Austin and Calumet began in June 2004 as a proposed "phase out" that wasn't even a "phase out." Depending upon which CPS official was speaking, Austin and Calumet, which had major gang problems, were going to get a breather by not having 9th graders in September 2004. That version of the reality had nothing to do with the "Poor Performance" cited in the current Catalyst chart. But the following year, again CPS said no 9th graders for the two schools, and it became evident that CPS was pushing to destroy the schools. A high school that's not taking 9th graders can't plan its own future.

As early as 2004, the usual suspects were on the attack. Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina's church avoided the hearings in June 2004 about Calumet, but provided the media with a statement saying that Calumet was "not a school of choice" for young people in his community. Pfleger is generally quoted as an authority on many things, and reporters never ask him how many contracts, corporate and city, his various operations are receiving while he supports the latest version of the Chicago Party Line. But Pfleger's explanation of how he knew what was going on inside Calumet was one for the books: He told the press he knew because he had served as "principal for a day" at Calumet.

The transcripts of the June 2004 hearings on Austin and Calumet are available from Substance. Catalyst and the other Chicago press did not cover them. Substance did.

Over the years since 2002, there have been hundreds of hearings and meetings over the proposed closings, consolidations, phase outs, and turnarounds that began when Arne Duncan was CEO of CPS. Most of them are reflected in the Catalyst chart. But the reality behind the inaccurate summary is not. Catalyst rarely had a reporter at the hearings (even Substance, which covered more than anyone else, didn't cover all of them) and almost never bothered to talk to the teachers, parents and children who objected to the annual ritual that eventually became known as the "Hit List."

COMING NEXT: How the Dodge "Renaissance" replaced the children of Dodge to set up for the AUSL miracle, and in the process undermined Grant Elementary School (which was "closed" for "poor performance" three years later).


December 9, 2011 at 6:26 AM

By: John Kugler

Drastic School Turnaround Strategies Are Risky

Drastic School Turnaround Strategies Are Risky

Jane L. David

October 2010 | Volume 68 | Number 2

Interventions That Work Pages 78-81

States and districts need to step up and have the political courage to close failing schools and let others try," proclaimed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2009), announcing a $3.5 billion federal investment to turn around the 5,000 worst-performing schools in the country. But can this kind of intervention work?

What's the Idea?

School turnaround strategies aim to improve student achievement in chronically low-performing schools. Borrowing the "turnaround" lingo from the business world, education policymakers claim that only drastic action, from firing the principal to closing the school entirely, can get quick results and rescue failing schools.

What's the Reality?

Efforts to improve low-performing schools are not new. What's new is the call by policymakers to impose such draconian interventions on 5,000 of the lowest of the low performers. To get a piece of the billions authorized for the federal School Turnaround Grant program, states must ensure that districts use one of four strategies for each target school: fire the principal and at least one-half of the staff; reopen the school as a charter school; close the school and transfer students to better schools in the district; or fire the principal and overhaul teacher evaluation, schedules, and instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 2009).

What's the Research?

Strategies to turn schools around are modeled after turnarounds in the corporate world, where it is easier to fire and rehire staff and leaders. Yet even in the business world, results are rarely positive. One review of the literature found that only about one-fourth of businesses that undertook turnaround initiatives were able to institute major changes in their structure and management, and even those businesses did not show increased economic performance (Hess & Gift, 2008).

Studies that have looked at attempts to replace entire school staffs—referred to as reconstitution—agree that merely replacing teachers does not lead to improved instruction. Case studies of three reconstituted schools in one large urban district found that replacing the staff had little effect on quality, school organization, or student performance (Malen, Croninger, Muncey, & Redmond-Jones, 2002). Even a U.S. Department of Education guide shares this conclusion: "The school turnaround case studies and the business turnaround research do not support the wholesale replacement of staff" (Herman et al., 2008, p. 28).

An exception occurred in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Under a court order to desegregate, teachers in four schools were transferred to other schools with an option to reapply to their original school under new leadership. Test scores improved in these four schools, but scores did not improve in later rounds of reconstitution because the conditions could not be replicated. Increased scores appeared to be the result of the combined effects of extra money, reduced class sizes, planning time, professional development, new materials, and parent choice and commitment, along with a national search for teachers (Ricke & Malen, 2010).

If replacing the staff is not effective, what about closing low-performing schools entirely? Do students transferred from closed schools perform better in their new schools? Chicago researchers tracked students from closed schools and found that most ended up in academically weak schools and, except for the few students attending high-scoring schools, were no better off academically one year later (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009). Because the strategy is likely to work only in districts that have other schools with higher academic achievement and space for more students, the results of this Chicago study are not surprising. Meeting these conditions is difficult in most urban districts, and impossible in rural districts.

The strategy of turning low-performing schools over to a charter organization or other outside agency has not fared well either. Taking over an existing school is much more difficult than building a new school from the ground up. Philadelphia's experience with outsourcing the management of 45 schools showed that even with additional expenditures, student achievement gains were no greater in those managed by outside organizations than in those remaining under district management (Gill, Zimmer, Christman, & Blanc, 2007). Even "turnaround specialists" are not successful across the board; Maryland gave up on using such organizations in 2007 because of poor results (Neuman-Sheldon, 2007).

In case studies of schools in six states required to restructure under No Child Left Behind, neither replacing school staff nor contracting with an outside agency showed promise. Instead, schools that improved used multiple coordinated strategies tailored to their particular circumstances and continually revised their practices (Scott, 2009).

The theme that no single strategy can succeed echoes throughout research on school reform. Invariably, improvements occur when multiple elements are in place, including strong school leadership, links to parents and the community, development of teachers' professional capacity, a safe and stimulating learning climate, and instructional guidance and materials (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010; Payne, 2008). Yet the lowest-performing schools are where these elements are the least likely to be present.

What's One to Do?

Walking through schools in which students wander the halls and teachers have given up teaching, it is not hard to understand the desire of policymakers to shut these schools down. Drastic actions are needed. Yet, the proposed turnaround strategies run counter to what research tells us about all the pieces needed to create and sustain improvement—particularly in the lowest-performing schools, where hope and trust are scarce.

A realistic approach would include key components identified by researchers: carefully determining the starting place with the most promise and building the skills and knowledge of those responsible for student learning. It would also, from the beginning, seriously engage teachers and the community in setting goals and putting them into practice. And it would acknowledge the importance of resources and patience. Replacing staff or redefining their roles may be necessary, but starting with a presumption that communicates contempt for the practitioners responsible for carrying out the work will undermine whatever follows.


Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. O. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

de la Torre, M., & Gwynne, J. (2009). When schools close: Effects on displaced students in Chicago Public Schools. Retrieved from Consortium on Chicago School Research at

Duncan, A. (2009, June). States will lead the way toward reform. Remarks at the 2009 Governors Education Symposium, Cary, North Carolina. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education at

Gill, B., Zimmer, R., Christman, J., & Blanc, S. (2007). State takeover, school restructuring, private management, and student achievement in Philadelphia. Retrieved from RAND at

Herman, R., Dawson, P., Dee, T., Greene, J., Maynard, R., Redding, S., & Darwin, M. (2008). Turning around chronically low-performing schools: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4020). Retrieved from Institute of Education Sciences at

Hess, F. M., & Gift, T. (2008). The turnaround. American School Board Journal, 195(11), 31–32.

Malen, B., Croninger, R. Muncey, D., & Redmond-Jones, D. (2002). Reconstituting schools: "Testing" the "theory of action." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(2), 113–132.

Neuman-Sheldon, B. (2007). Making midcourse corrections: School restructuring in Maryland. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Payne, C. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ricke, J. K., & Malen, B. (2010). School reconstitution as an education reform strategy: A synopsis of the evidence. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Scott, C. (2009). Improving low-performing schools: Lessons from five years of studying school restructuring under No Child Left Behind. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

U.S. Department of Education. (2009, August 26). Obama administration announces historic opportunity to turn around nation's lowest-achieving public schools [Press release]. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education at

Jane L. David is director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California; She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: The Essential Guide to School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2010).

December 11, 2011 at 4:56 PM

By: Russ Tracy

Need address for Davis Turnaround article

Hey, John, thanks for this great article! Ms. David sounds like the real deal--someone both knowledgeable and unafraid of speaking truth to power. Please give us the reference or URL for David's piece.

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