A mathematician on a local school council
John Baldwin: Local School Council member 1989-93
February 22, 1998

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Mathematicians in Math Ed
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This retrospective is written 4 years after I completed 4 years as a member of a local school council. I was asked to describe some of the roles of the council and the extent (rather limited) that my mathematical background came into play.

In 1989, the Illinois State Legislature passed a school reform act which gave unprecedented but strictly circumscribed control to a council at each school in the city of Chicago. Under this act a council composed of 6 parents, 2 community representatives, 2 teachers, and the principal was given limited governance power over the school. The chief power of the council was the ability to hire or fire the principal. Additionally, spending large sums of `State Chapter I' money (scalingup in my school from roughly 150,000 to 600,000 dollars in 4 years) was largely at the discretion of this council.

At that time I lived in a working class neighborhood in central Chicago. The area was nominally Polish but in fact more than half the students in the public schools were of recent Mexican descent. I took this opportunity to run for the council as a community representative. My daughter attended a public magnet high school but had for six year attended a parochial school in the neighborhood. I was elected for two reasons. I distributed to each house in the area a printed circular listing my qualifications. (I wrote these in TeX. It cost about $100 and was far more professional than any of the other campaign materials.) More important, thepriest in my wife's church endorsed me, which brought in the senior citizen vote.

Five of the six parents elected were Spanish speaking (all but one bilingual); the two community reps and the teachers were English speaking. I never noticed any polarization on these ethnic lines within the council. Only the teachers and I had college degrees. Most of the parents were unfamiliar with running meetings and one of my first contributions was just to bring a notion of the techniques of holding meetings, the uses of minutes etc. to the group.

In addition to the immense tasks of getting organized, the main project the first year was to spend the 'Chapter I' money. The first year we bought text books, replacing books that were up to a decade old and providing each student with a book. (Actually this may have gone into the second year.) We also bought some furniture; mostly for students, some teacher desks. I spent some effort avoiding reckless purchases of computers. In later years, when we had enough space, much of this money was spent on additional teachers.

More significant than these activities engaged in by each council was our unusual attempts to deal with the severe overcrowding in the school. A temporary solution to this problem was reached in principle by a deal the local council was largely unaware of. An arrangement was made to close one of the Catholic schools and rent it to the Chicago Board of Education. The local council played a large role in implementing this plan by determining the actual allocation of students (electing to use the new building as 6-8 grade center and making our school a primary). Some limited mathematics came into play here as I analyzed various possibilities. My ability to provide clear typed descriptions of various scenarios supported by tables helped form the consensus.

The incumbent principal was well-liked but not terribly energetic. He came up for review during the second year and we voted not to retain him. He was replaced by the assistant principal. She was not my first choice in terms of reform but she was energetic, devoted to the job, and very able at mobilizing support among the parents.

Here are a couple of other vignettes and issues. I succeeded in getting the school connected with the Teaching Integrated Math and Science Program (an NSF-funded curriculum development project run out of UIC). The actual program was less than successful (in my view) because although every teacher was nominally involved the actual commitment was not deeply enough based.

I was astounded early on by the guidance counsellor explaining the poor scores on state testing by complaining that these tests required students to choose more than one multiple choice answer. Much discussion was directed to test scores. Under the new city-wide administration this test-centered attitude is even more emphasized. The understanding by both teachers and parents of the relation between test and curriculum was weak. (In fact, my understanding is weak - I have seen some standardized tests in other contexts; we didn't actually review them in the council.) My general impression from this experience and several others is that these scores are used ineffectively in school policy. Here are three problems:

A last point on bilingual programs. One of the achievements of the time I was on the council was the beginning of pre-kindergarten classes. One of the battles I lost was to try to make them all be in English. 'Experts' from the board convinced the council that 4 year olds whose primary language was Spanish should continue to improve their Spanish and learn to read in Spanish before English because they didn't have the English phonemes. In my view, 4 year olds aquire phonemes quickly; if they are exposed.

I felt I spent a productive 4 years on the council. Certain major problems had been addressed. There had been a major improvement in morale and direction at the local school. The many problems that remained required a much closer involvement in the politics of the school than I was able to provide as I had taken on major responsibilities in a high school mathematics reform project, the College Preparatory Mathematics Program.

I have written some papers on that project, which can be found at http://www.math.uic.edu/~jbaldwin/mathed.html

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6 April 1998