Why Can Only 6 Of Every 100 Chicago Black Students Do Math At Grade Level? Chicago Mayoral Candidate Johnson Offers Some Clues
By Ted Dabrowski of Wirepoints
If you’re looking to make sense of why so few Chicago Public School students can read and do math at grade level, you’ll want to listen to Brandon Johnson’s words from a 2018 talk he gave along with author Mark Warren, a former professor at Harvard, and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground.
Johnson’s views on education matter because he could be the next mayor of Chicago. Equally important is that the Chicago Teachers Union has donated more than $2 million to his campaign. It’s the CTU’s philosophy, in part inspired by Johnson’s ideology, that for decades has run CPS schools. Today just 1 in 10 black CPS students can read at grade level and only 1 in 20 are proficient in math.
If Johnson – a former CPS teacher and now a CTU organizer – takes control of City Hall, you can count on even more of the union’s influence. Less testing, less homework, lower expectations and more passing of kids along to the next grade, whether they’re ready or not.
Brandon Johnson has already told us he wants to rebel “against the structure.” The talk in question was published on YouTube by Midwest Socialist, a publication of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. Johnson is asked a question (45:38) regarding the politics around education and how he handled conflicts between his personal philosophy and the requirements of the education system – in particular because Johnson taught at a selective enrollment school. His response:
I taught at Westinghouse. Westinghouse was a selective enrollment school. That is in conflict with my philosophy. It’s actually a contradiction, it’s hypocritical. I’m teaching in a structure that actually weeds out a certain element of my neighborhood.
One of the ways I would deal with it, was, I believe I had an additional responsibility to challenge those of us who taught in selective enrollment schools. So one of the things that I did personally, it’s why I began to really push for opting out and not buying into the standardization of our public schools. Sometimes my colleagues actually had a tough time with the way I taught. I spent less time offering tests to my students. They were frustrated. I taught at a selective enrollment school much like I taught at a neighborhood school, I used a lot of inquiry based and I would challenge my honor students in particular to think beyond whatever it is they’re able to remember, they’re ability to just regurgitate.
But I also had to challenge myself. Seeing a school within a school system that provides more for a particular segment of our population is most frustrating because when those students succeed at a selective enrollment school, particularly black students, what ends up happening is, all other black students who don’t meet those same standards get shamed. ‘See, so and so made it out, what’s your problem? How come you can’t do it, these students are doing it?’
And so what it taught me, though, was pushing to eliminate some of the standardization of our public schools. My students, sometimes, would get frustrated. I didn’t offer any of the test prep that my other colleagues were pushing at the time. I was pushing our administration to move away from it.
To be quite frank with you, I didn’t issue a lot of homework for students. That was my own way of rebelling against the structure. I don’t think I ever gave a kid an ‘F.’ I don’t know how a student sits in front of you and fails. I know some professors may find that slightly troubling…”
I think the last thing is, it actually gave me that much more motivation to actually leave the class and become a full-time organizer with the CTU…
First, you can’t disagree with everything Johnson says. Too much standardization in schools isn’t good, especially if it overtakes the system. And who can disagree with inquiry-based thinking?
But this isn’t some idealistic teacher talking about improving his students’ chances by challenging them on the virtues of merit, achievement and excellence. Rather, it’s a CTU organizer talking about how “troubling” it is to hold children to specific, measurable standards. Forget testing, forget grades, forget homework. He was a teacher willing to undermine the selective enrollment school where he worked at the expense of his own students.
It’s a destructive mindset. Instead of raising all students up, Johnson would rather tear down high-achieving students for the sake of “equity.”
For more evidence, Johnson said in 2020, “part of it is removing ourselves away from this, you know, state-sponsored policing, but also the tools that have been placed against Black folks that have been used violently, whether it’s policing, or administering standardized tests, or … around how white supremacy finds its way in every facet of our lives, that we have to fight and resist that.”
His type of thinking is what for decades has led to a dismissiveness of standards, leaving the overwhelming majority of black 3rd-grade CPS students unable to pass basic reading tests.
Less than 10% of black 3rd-graders read at grade level based on the most recent Illinois Assessment of Readiness test. It’s even worse for math readiness.
And if standards don’t matter – as Johnson appears to imply – then it’s no big deal for schools to just move kids through the system, whether they can read or not. Social promotion, it’s called. If teachers can’t and won’t fail a student for a lack of performance, then they’ll just automatically move students on to the next grade.
Which is exactly what’s happening. Check out reading ability grade by grade for Chicago’s black students. The system fails them year after year after year after year. By 11th grade, just 10 percent of black students can read at grade level on the SAT.
The rejection of standards doesn’t end there. Nearly 80% of those black students in 11th grade end up graduating – accompanied by the self-congratulations of Chicago’s leadership.
And that’s not the only way accountability is bastardized and the failure covered up. The CTU makes sure its members and schools are protected regardless of student outcomes.
98% of CPS teachers were rated “proficient or excellent” in 2020. 100% of teachers got the same rating in 2021. And in 2022, 84% of all evaluated CPS teachers were rated either “proficient or excellent.
Schools, too, get protected under updated state board of education measurements. School ratings aren’t based on whether kids can read or do math but instead on “improvements.”
It’s how black-majority schools in Englewood and Bronzeville can have zero students reading at grade level – not even one student – and yet still get “commendable” ratings from the state board. A commendable rating is the state’s second best rating and is for “a school that has no underperforming student groups, a graduation rate greater than 67%…”
No, Johnson alone doesn’t own the mess the CTU has made for decades, a mess we reported on in detail in Why the Chicago Teachers Union Always Gets What It Wants.
But based on his own words, Johnson is ready and willing to take the union’s extreme positions even further.