Transcript

275:

Two Steps Back
Transcript

Originally aired 10.15.2004

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/275

Prologue.

Ira Glass

At the end of last school year, I got some surprising news, that a public school teacher that I knew named Cathy La Luz, was thinking of quitting teaching. It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass, by the way. I knew Cathy because before This American Life started, I was a reporter for NPR's news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. And the thing that I reported on more than anything was education. Back in the 1990s, Chicago was going through the most ambitious school reform in the country. And as a reporter based out of Chicago, I spent lots of years in lots of classrooms all around the city.

And I can say, hands down, that Cathy La Luz was the single best classroom teacher that I ever witnessed, and she taught at a great school. So last Spring, when I heard that she might quit, and that she might quit out of frustration, frustration with changes at her school, I visited her classroom. It was the day after school ended. She was packing up.

Man 1

Seven, eight. There you go.

Ira Glass

And I barely walked into her room and turned on the tape recorder when this happened.

Cathy La Luz

I was saying that I told all my students that I might not be here next year, so if they wanted a letter of recommendation, they have to give me a letter now. So few of them took advantage of this. But what's funny is a domino effect, is they did it for every teacher. Just in case. They went to my partner. They went to the writing teacher. It was cute. It was cute. Excuse me. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. Give me a minute.

Ira Glass

Cathy, we haven't even started to talk.

Cathy La Luz

I know. I know. I know.

Ira Glass

Is it just the thought of just not being back at all?

Cathy La Luz

It is the thought of not being back, because I really love teaching. And then the other thing is I'm sad because I don't understand really how this could happen, in just a year, nine months. I don't see how this could happen so fast.

Ira Glass

For the changes this past year, Cathy's school, Washington Irving Elementary, was special in a couple ways. They weren't a magnet school, or charter school, or anything fancy like that. The staff at Irving wanted to prove that you could make school reform work at just a regular neighborhood school. At the start of reform, in fact, Irving was one of the worst schools in the system. But they moved into a brand new building, got an energetic new principal, and it doesn't get more symbolic than this, in 1988 the governor of Illinois signed school reform into law in the Irving gymnasium. TV coverage that night showed him under the unflattering fluorescent lights of the gym with a stack of pens and the thick legal document that was the school reform law.

Man 2

Governor Thompson signed the measure into law in a special ceremony at the new Washington Irving Elementary School on South Oakley. When the reforms go into effect next July, one, school administration will be decentralized. Some of the power goes to parents and local school boards. Principals will be gaining more control over their own schools.

Ira Glass

OK. Fast forward five years. At the height of school reform in Chicago, I spent a full year at Irving Elementary, filing a story every few weeks for All Things Considered about how things were going there. In lots of ways, Irving became a real symbol of what could be done under reform. Test scores were moving up. Everything was getting better. They started with only a tiny fraction of their students, 15% doing reading and math at national standards. And it got to a point where 2/3 of their students were regularly at or above national standards. This is considerably better than most Chicago schools.

But things soured at Irving in the last year or so. The program that the Irving teachers created, the one that was so much more successful than the rest of the school system, was getting dismantled, piece by piece. Cathy started talking about quitting. Here's the reaction she got from a former principal at Irving, Pat Mizerka.

Pat Mizerka

I cried. I was so sad. I mean, Cathy is probably the best teacher that I've ever seen. And if she leaves, what hope is there, then, for the others?

Ira Glass

Cathy's classroom window looks directly out onto a commemorative plaque that says that this was the place where the nation's biggest school reform law was signed. Now that monument seems more like a tombstone.

Cathy La Luz

School reform is dead. Everybody in the building, that's just what we say now. It's like if somebody has to complain about it, the way it is, someone will say, school reform's gone. Relax. It's over.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio program, I'm going to take you back in time 10 years, and explain how Irving Elementary accomplished this thing that is so rarely accomplished in our country. They took a lousy inner-city school, and they turned it into a great school, with no special money, no special anything. They just did things smarter. And I'll explain what happened in just a year to set it back, how things got to a point where an exceptional teacher is now thinking about quitting. From Chicago Public Radio, you're listen to This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Our show today in two acts. Act One, 1994. Act Two, 2004. Act One kind of gives you faith and hope in everything good. Act Two sort of, kind of, does the opposite. Stay with us.

Act One. 1994.

Ira Glass

Act One, 1994. OK. Let's roll some of the old tape from back in the days when I was a little sir.

Robert Siegel

This is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. This year, we're following the story of one school, Washington Irving Elementary, on Chicago's west side. Over the past few years this school has boosted reading scores with an innovative program. NPR's Ira Glass has our report.

Ira Glass

The most striking thing about Washington Irving is that it's an unusually happy school. There's no other way to say it. Happy. When I ask eighth-grader Bianca Cannon to give me a little tour of the building--

OK, I'm just going to stop that right there. This is me in the present. I'm just going play you some old clips and some old stories right now. And a little background first, though, might be helpful. The idea behind the Chicago school reform was to let each school set education policy for itself, instead of some bureaucrats at the central office dictating everything the way they had in the past.

And at Irving, they used that freedom to put in place a great reading program, and a great writing program. Both of them were based on a very common sense idea, that they should have kids read lots more than they were and write lots more than they were. More about that in a minute.

The other thing they did was institute this kind of teaching that goes under different names. Student-centered curriculum, hands-on learning, holistic learning. The idea is, instead of a teacher standing at the chalkboard, lecturing and assigning chapters and questions from the textbook, and handing out dittos, students are more actively doing stuff. They're working in groups. They're doing projects. It's the kind of thing that good teachers do anyway, when they can. But at Irving, they went further with this idea than any school in Chicago. Teachers worked in teams. They had an hour of planning time every day to scheme out inventive lessons. And it worked. Kids liked it. Here are some eighth graders in Mr. Pearlstein's class back then.

Ira Glass

In the back of the room, the two Veronicas sit next to each other. The Veronicas remember what it was like years ago at Irving, before they changed the curriculum. You read from a textbook. You answered questions in the back.

Veronica 1

Read the books. Do the work in the books. It was mostly that. They gave you handouts and everything. So, I didn't really like it.

Veronica 2

Me neither, because it gets boring. It was boring every day. It's like the whole thing you did the day before. It was over and over and over every day. I hated it. But now every morning I really want to come to school. I want to come to school. I can't miss school.

Ira Glass

It wasn't always this way at Irving. Just a few years ago, it ranked in the bottom 100 schools in the city. Eighth graders who did their homework and participated in class were ridiculed by the other kids. And as in most Chicago schools, the longer a child stayed in school, the worse he was likely to do.

Madeleine Maraldi

Everyone always used to say, oh, God, by third grade, man, the glaze has come over the eyes.

Ira Glass

Irving principal, Madeleine Maraldi.

Madeleine Maraldi

They've shut down on hearing, and speaking, and listening, and they don't care anymore.

Ira Glass

Madeleine Maraldi began with the Chicago schools 33 years ago. She's the kind of principal that nearly everyone, even the school secretaries, calls by first name. Her management style tends toward group discussion and consensus building. In her six years at Irving, she and the faculty have rebuilt the curriculum around two main pillars. Students here read a tremendous amount each day in class, and students here write a tremendous amount each day in class. Writing, in fact, was the first thing the staff decided to tackle.

Madeleine Maraldi

I asked the teachers to come to consensus, to meet and come to consensus on what was the worst subject for the children? And they came up with writing, because they said, oh, they don't want to write, and when they write it's terrible, and they hate it, and it's too much work, and you don't get anywhere with it.

Ira Glass

The principal and teachers got retrained in a different style of teaching writing. Instead of emphasizing the mechanics of writing, like they used to, punctuation and paragraphing, and so on. The new method had kids first do lots of writing, learn to enjoy and invest in the writing, before they worry about mechanics.

Madeleine Maraldi

You can't be a writer unless you write. So when I say, then, let them write. They have to write every day. Let them write for journals. Let them write about their reaction to a math lesson. Write all kinds of things. Do writing all the time. And people would say, but I can't grade all of it. And I say, well, don't grade it. OK? Don't grade it.

Ira Glass

In fact, teachers were told emphatically, do not red-line every error in grammar and spelling. Do not discourage the kids. The results of the new program were immediate and dramatic, an outpouring of writing from Irving students.

OK. It's me again, in the present. Once the students got to sixth grade, that's when the teachers started grading them and teaching them the traditional mechanics of grammar and spelling and all that, in a very aggressive way. Then there was the reading program. There were studies showing that kids do better in school if they come from homes where people read to them, homes where they're encouraged to read themselves. Since most kids at Irving didn't come from homes like that, the staff decided to give them that experience during school time.

Ira Glass

One afternoon, I happened to be sitting in Mr. Pearlstein's classroom, when his eighth graders came back from lunch. Watch this, he said. And I saw something that would be unimaginable in many city or suburban schools. Without any instructions from their teacher, the students filed into the room, quietly took out books, and read.

Joe Pearlstein

They're on automatic pilot, and they just simply read because they enjoy reading. You'll notice that around the perimeter of the room we have hundreds of pocketbooks. You can see the bookshelves on the right hand. And whenever they feel the compulsion, they can simply get up and go and look for a book.

Ira Glass

Every day, every class in this school does between 30 and 50 minutes of silent reading. Each of these eighth graders is required to read 2,800 pages, per semester, minimum. An A requires twice as many pages. It's a dramatic change from the old days. Principal Madeleine Maraldi says that when they first tried this approach five years ago, they learned just how little students had been reading, when one teacher received this complaint.

Madeleine Maraldi

This is painful. I can't take this. She says, what's the matter? Are you sick? And he goes, no. You're making me read for 50 minutes a day, all by myself. I can't do this. She says, you're in eighth grade. Get real. You can't read for 50 minutes a day? Kid says, no. I've been at Irving for eight years. Reading is you sit in your reading circle. You read a sentence or paragraph when the teacher calls on you, and you are finished with reading for the day.

Ira Glass

The only way to become comfortable reading is to practice, and this is why so many schools put so much effort into trying to change students' attitudes about books and reading. At Irving, this achieves the scale of a cultural war. Pro-reading propaganda posters and bookworm club certificates line the hallways. The phrase "Read, read, read, to succeed" is the school's mantra and its war cry, repeated so often that even the day before Christmas vacation, as kids said goodbye to their principal at the front door, they knew what she wanted to hear.

Madeleine Maraldi

Can you say Merry Christmas to me?

Students

Merry Christmas!

Madeleine Maraldi

And read--

Peter

Read, read, read!

Madeleine Maraldi

Thank you, Peter.

Ira Glass

Everything a book-loving parent would do for his child, teachers do here for these children. They read to the younger kids each day. Grant money buys each child books as gifts to keep. There are frequent trips to the public libraries, and regular class trips to bookstores, where students choose the books that they will share in their classrooms.

Student 1

This one, please. Could I get this one?

Teacher 1

All right. This is by the same author that wrote Bunnicula. I think that's fine.

Student 2

And can I read this one?

Teacher 1

You're interested in Power Rangers, Joe?

Ira Glass

On a trip to a big Barnes and Noble store, the Irving third graders are allowed to spend $4 each on a book. They check with their teachers.

Teacher 2

Yes.

Student 3

Is this $4?

Teacher 2

No. See? The price is right there. What does that say?

Student 3

$17.95.

Teacher 2

So, no. It's not $4.

Ira Glass

The third graders aren't choosing great literature. It's Power Rangers and joke books, scary books, and mysteries. Older classes tend toward horror and teen romance. Their teachers point out that in addition to these trashy pleasures, the kids do read decent books in a regular literature class. The principal says that the fun of choosing books for themselves is part of what will turn them on to reading. Also--

Madeleine Maraldi

They see other people in the bookstore. They see adults purchasing books. That's why I like to send them to the public libraries, also, because they see adults in the public libraries borrowing books. I think it's important that they see that there are other people out there doing these things.

Ira Glass

Since they began this program, reading scores have been climbing steadily at Irving. Depending on which standardized test you look at, the number of students reading at grade level has either doubled or quadrupled in five years. And it's instructive to note that in an era when politicians and educators often look for the quick fix for schools, teacher Joe Pearlstein says that it took three years of tinkering with the program and pushing kids, before he was seeing the kind of results he wanted.

Joe Pearlstein

At times it was like hell. It was very difficult to do. You have to really be willing to invest the energy to overcome the storm.

Ira Glass

Hi. Me, again, today. This is one of the most interesting things that I found it Irving, was that even doing everything right, fixing the school was just incredibly slow work. They'd been at it for five years when I was there, and their test scores were only half of what they'd eventually become. It took another five years for them to get there. Remember, this is still an inner city school, with all the problems of any normal inner city school. Over 90% of the families were below the poverty level. Lots of kids in tough home situations. Absent parents. Gangs. Lots of Latino kids who enter kindergarten at Irving speak Spanish, not English.

Judith Mensch

Well, of course, there's some kids who are better than others. Who do you want to see? You want to see a medium-type student?

Ira Glass

To give you a sense of just what these teachers were up against, and how hard it was to make up for how badly these children had been taught in the past, here's the writing lab teacher, Judith Mensch. I asked her in one of my stories to show me a typical essay from one of the older students.

Judith Mensch

OK. This is a first draft in a longer project from the first marking period. Do you want me to read it?

"One day me and my friend was walking to the store. Then a big pit bull jumped out and started to chased us to the store. then he went back. I said, I hope that dog stay where it was. As soon as I said it, the dog chased us to my house. Then my auntie said, Get on away from here. The we don't see the dog, and dog don't see us. Come to find out, the was me Kisha dog."

Ira Glass

Aside from the grammatical problems in the early sentences, and the pure mystery of that last sentence, there are punctuation problems. No quotation marks, no indenting of paragraphs. She's only able to move these students so far, so fast.

And overall, when Ms. Mensch tried during the first marking period to hold these students to tougher standards in their mechanics, it didn't work. They didn't perform.

Judith Mensch

Madeleine was saying that the sixth grade hit the wall. They hit the wall. And I gave out a lot of incompletes, and stuff, and I caught a lot of heat for it, from the parents. And Madeleine basically said, back off. You're expecting too much. It's just too hard. Because they have so much to relearn.

Ira Glass

It's an interesting question, why, in the end Irving had so much more success than other public schools in Chicago. And a lot of the answer has to do with the way the principal, Madeleine Maraldi, implemented the changes. First off, she didn't force the changes on her teachers. When there was something new to try, she took volunteers. If it worked, other teachers signed up. And as reform progressed, the teachers met and they decided on the curriculum changes together, with Madeleine.

The teachers felt like they were in charge of what was happening. Now this might not sound like a very big deal, but one of the most common reasons that school reform fails is a reason that you never hear about, in the press and in the normal political debate about how to fix schools. School reform often fails because teachers kill it. The teachers don't want to do it. They don't agree it'll work. They try it, it doesn't work at first. They fight among themselves, and it dies.

The year before I was at Irving, I spent a year at a Chicago high school, Taft High School, where the teachers started all kinds of changes, spent three quarters of a million dollars in grant money, but never came to agreement in four years about how to fix this school. And the bitter politics of all that wiped out the reform there. At the end of four years, the principal resigned. A lot of the pro-reform teachers resigned.

And it's not like Madeleine didn't face this problem at first. Remember, when she began, Irving was like any other public school, only a little worse. When she initially suggested making some changes at the school, teachers openly laughed at her. They said the reason kids performed so badly at Irving had nothing to do with the way that they were teaching.

Madeleine Maraldi

It was everything out there. It was parents. It was the community. It was it was drugs. It was teen pregnancies. It was violence. It was gang activity. It was everything outside this building. Those were the reasons why. So that's how it started.

Ira Glass

As the reforms progressed, three Irving teachers transferred to other schools. It took the rest of the teachers, Madeleine says, a year before they even started to trust her. And she slowly won people over and built her team, to the point where word got out what a special place Irving Elementary was. A place where teachers were encouraged to try new things. A place that set higher standards than the school board had. Really good teachers started to transfer to Irving when vacancies came up, like Cathy La Luz, who we started this program with. She was such an interesting teacher to watch that one of my stories for All Things Considered was simply a typical Friday in her classroom. Here's a big chunk of that story.

Ira Glass

Great ball players, and great musicians, make the remarkable look easy. And great teachers do that too.

Cathy La Luz

Do you like my hair today? I thought you would, Tracy.

Ira Glass

The school day begins at 10 minutes before 9:00. Miss La Luz picks up her kids in the gym and then brings them to the classroom.

Cathy La Luz

No, we don't need the lights today, do we, guys?

Ira Glass

Part of what makes Miss La Luz such a good teacher is her classroom manner. She seems utterly relaxed, happy, in control, calls the kids baby, sweetheart, angel, and, in Spanish, miho and miha. Most people seem to become someone else when they stand in front of a classroom, like they're playing a character in a drama. Miss La Luz seems like herself.

Cathy La Luz

What did I do?

Kendel

You got some different earrings on.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Student 4

You got a new hairstyle.

Student 5

New shirt!

Cathy La Luz

Everybody's right. New shirt. Kendel noticed my earrings. And somebody noticed Miss La Luz's new haircut, which is only going to last for today. All right, take our seats.

Student 6

Very sharp. Very sharp.

Ira Glass

The philosophy of this school is to motivate students with all sorts of active lessons, where the children do projects and express their ideas. The fifth graders' day usually begins with half the kids going to writing lab, where they each write on computers, and half the kids staying for literature, where they read and discuss books in groups of four. Next is math. Last Friday, Miss La Luz had a hands-on activity to help students understand one of the hardest and most abstract ideas in fifth grade math, fractions.

Cathy La Luz

OK, you cut it into two pieces, OK? Now, do you understand why this is a half? What does half mean?

Ira Glass

Students spent an hour cutting construction paper into fractions, halves, quarters, eighths, and sixteenths, preparing actually for a fractions game. Miss La Luz circulated, and helped kids one-on-one.

Cathy La Luz

What is this? This number means this is one piece out of two, that there's two pieces all together, and this one says here's one piece out of two. If I showed you something and said one piece out of 16, how many pieces are there altogether? How many slices were the pie cut into?

Student 7

16.

Cathy La Luz

Right.

Ira Glass

Now, as good as all this sounds, Miss La Luz says that about a third of her students aren't doing math as well as they should. And however wonderful a teacher she is, keeping everyone on task still means prodding the stragglers into action here and there. There aren't too many, one every five minutes or so.

Cathy La Luz

This doesn't look finished.

Student 8

What do you mean?

Cathy La Luz

Come to the hallway. You are clearly not paying attention, all right? What are you supposed to do once you fold those pieces?

Student 8

Cut them.

Cathy La Luz

Have you done that, darling?

Aw.

Cathy La Luz

No. And, if you don't know what to do next--

I pretty much know who needs the nudge, but as long as I don't do it in a disrespectful manner. It has to be a nudge. It has to be, come on, you know what to do. That's why I say "you know what to do." You know. It's not, "Do it! You're supposed to do it!" It's "You know what to do. Do it."

Baby, did you do something inappropriate? What'd you do?

Student 9

[INAUDIBLE]

Cathy La Luz

If I was aggressive, if I was saying, come on, you're not doing your work. What's wrong? What's wrong? They won't get involved at all. They totally disengage. They do what they're supposed to do, only, and they won't get involved in the process. It's meaningless. It's, OK, what steps do I have to follow? You're making me do it, I'll do it, fine. If you make me. I'm not interested in making you. I'm interested in-- almost like-- this is going to sound funny, but almost like a seduction. Almost like a, come on, come on, luring them. You know what you're supposed to do, and appealing to the good in them.

Now, baby. Now I'm really concerned about something. Turn around, my angel. What am I concerned about [INAUDIBLE]. Can you tell?

Student 9

About what I said. I would talk [INAUDIBLE].

Cathy La Luz

Yeah, I know you weren't really talking to me. And I also know you would never be rude on purpose to me. I know that you're a sweetheart. I know that. But--

I think that's the mistake a lot of teachers make. They don't appeal to the good in the kid. You know what to do, sweetheart. Do it. That's way more powerful than, you better do it because you have to. You're going to fail. Fine, I'm a failure. Fine. Leave me alone.

Ira Glass

With some prodding, most of the class is energetically engaged for most of math. As they cut their fraction strips, the kids nearest to me happily chatter away about the Forrest Gump episode of Blossom, and whether Montel Williams is better than The Richard Bay Show.

Miss La Luz herself is a graduate of the Chicago public schools, grew up in a tough Puerto Rican neighborhood, and says that she wanted to teach partly because she had so few good teachers herself. At the heart of Miss La Luz's classroom practice is the notion that she wants her students to feel respected, and to feel that their ideas are worthwhile. The day I visited, during their discussion of the book The Bridge to Terabithia, she tried to get them to talk about a point in the book that struck a chord with her, but realized after a few minutes that they weren't going with it. And listen to where they were taking the discussion, namely some alternate endings that they would prefer to the book. She changed their writing assignment to accommodate this.

Cathy La Luz

I was going to do a journal response about something else, but you guys already know where you want to go. So if you know want a different ending, or more information, why don't you put down what you wished you could see next in the story.

Student 10

All right!

Student 11

[INAUDIBLE] journal response.

Ira Glass

Studies show that only 40% to 60% of a school day, in cities and suburbs, is spent in actual instruction. The rest of the time is spent settling down, getting materials ready, giving instructions, taking attendance, moving through the halls, lunch, you can imagine. Miss La Luz is as efficient as any teacher. The day I visited, her class spent about two and a half hours on hard core academic subjects, and another hour and a quarter on various other subjects, band, media arts, gym, counseling. Anyone who learned their fractions in grammar school could tell you that this works out to about 2/3 of the school day spent in instruction. It was low for Miss La Luz, because she decided to forego the usual hour of project time that ends the day, so the kids could end their week joyfully, singing, and then playing outside.

Cathy La Luz

I hope we're ready. De Andre? Looks like you need a partner, baby. Come to me.

Ira Glass

It was the kind of song with funny choreography that went with it. Even the most reserved of the boys played along, sang and danced, and left school last Friday wanting to come back, just as their teacher hoped for. I'm Ira Glass, in Chicago.

Class

[SINGING]

Ira Glass

OK. What kind of moronic policies would you have to put in place to make that teacher think about quitting? We jump forward 10 years in just one minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. 2004.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. If you're just tuning in, all this hour we're hearing the story of an unusually good public school. But in the last year or so that school has gone through some changes. Parts of the program that made it one of the most successful schools in Chicago are being dismantled, and it's gotten to the point where one of the best teachers in the school, who you heard just before the break, Cathy La Luz, is thinking about quitting teaching.

So, what happened? Well, a couple things changed in the 10 years since I first visited Irving Elementary. First, the matriarch behind the changes at Irving, Madeleine Maraldi, retired. Fortunately, there was somebody on staff who was trained and ready to step in as her successor, Pat Mizerka, who'd been a seventh grade teacher in the school, then Assistant Principal. She'd been there through most of the changes. If anything, the school got even better under Pat Mizerka. Test scores climbed higher, partly thanks to a tutoring program that the central school board provided the school, and partly, she says, for a reason that is completely surprising.

Pat Mizerka

Glasses.

Ira Glass

That's right.

Pat Mizerka

Glasses. Unbelievable, right? Unbelievable. We had a dean of students, Mr. Pearlstein, and he was on top of this. Every child who should be wearing glasses will be wearing glasses.

Ira Glass

How many kids ended up having to get glasses?

Pat Mizerka

Oh, I would say between 30% to 40% of our student body wore glasses.

Ira Glass

At the end of the process, that is. Grant money paid for the glasses. But during Pat Mizerka's time as principle, the central office of the Chicago Schools started to issue orders, each of these orders small, each of them well-meaning, each of them in a certain way so tiny that, by themselves, they didn't mean all that much. But added up together, they pulled down some of the underpinnings of what Irving Elementary had built.

One of the first things to go was the Irving report card. Over the course of a decade, Irving teachers had designed this report card that, in addition to all the regular grades, had a space where students evaluated themselves. Which most kids took very seriously, which was part of getting them to take responsibility for their own work. Pat Mizerka had to deliver the news to the Irving staff, that they'd been ordered to do a report card like the rest of the school system.

Pat Mizerka

Oh, they were very upset. And so then I had to relay that the board was looking for uniformity, and they wanted all schools to have the same report card, because when children transfer from one school to another, it's hard, then, for another school to-- if they're not using the same report card-- then to mesh the grades together.

Ira Glass

This wasn't so convincing to the Irving teachers. The Irving report card evaluated students on the specific things being taught, the number of pages they read, the specific reading skills they did and did not have, in much more depth than the standard Chicago report card. The Irving report card didn't have a D grade. Irving teachers didn't believe in the D, that there should be a grade that admits that, you didn't learn the material, but you should still pass. In short, Irving teachers were giving up a tougher report card for one that held kids to lower, vaguer standards.

Cathy La Luz

I remember the shock, and we just sat there. It was just this quiet.

Ira Glass

Which brings us back to Cathy La Luz. She remembers when Pat Mizerka gave them all the news.

Cathy La Luz

I was just, this just can't be. Just erase this? We've been making this report card for, what? 12, 13 years? And we couldn't believe we didn't have a choice. There's that weird feeling of all of a sudden, there's no choice. There's no negotiating, no how about if we say this? And I remember Pat just saying to us, just, no.

Ira Glass

Before long, the Irving teachers lost something else, something that was at the very heart of their education program.

Mr. Pearlstein

And number 4,732. Who's next? What number are you? Number seven?

Ira Glass

Over the course of years, the Irving teachers had developed a system where three times a year, every parent had to come in with their child, for an appointment to meet with the teacher and go over their report card. It took a full day and a half, each time they did it. But, the teachers said, it meant everything to get to know the parents this way, and to get them this involved in overseeing their children's education. Seeing it in action, it was hard to imagine why every public school didn't do it. Here's a section of a story that I did 10 years ago about it.

Ira Glass

In room 306, the two eighth grade teachers sit at separate tables. The teachers' strategy is this. Do not blame the parent, but make the child realize it's his responsibility to do the work, and get the parent to reinforce this. Mr. Paul begins his conference with Cornell Miller with a time-honored teacher technique you may remember from your grade school days. He tells Cornell to explain his bad grades to his mom.

Mr. Paul

Reading. What didn't happen for you to get an incomplete?

Cornell Miller

I didn't read. Well, I read, but I had [? an intermediate ?] for the second marking period, and I had to read for this marking period.

Mr. Paul

Was there a different way you could do this?

Cornell Miller

Yeah.

Mr. Paul

Would you share that with us?

Cornell Miller

I didn't read all the books. That's all.

Mr. Paul

You didn't read all the books. OK, well, why didn't you read all the books?

Cornell Miller

I don't know.

Mrs. Miller

He never have a answer for that.

Cathy La Luz

Those three report card pick-ups, where parents have to come in with their child, that structure matters. I think that structure is part of our success.

Ira Glass

Again, here's Cathy La Luz, in the present.

Cathy La Luz

Because, you know, what happened one year, we didn't do it. This is before things were going downhill. Some teachers were really, why do this? So one year we didn't do it. We saw drops. Like the reading program that we have, less books being read, less reading happening, less homework coming in to me. Watching the work ethic go downhill in terms of what was coming to us. We had this long talk at the end of the year, where I remember, Pat was a teacher at the time. And she was the first one to say, this was awful. And then you heard other voices. Everybody, wow. What a drop in just taking the classes seriously. We can't do this again.

Ira Glass

But this year, thanks to a minor rule change in the central school board, Irving has to give out report cards the way that all other schools do. Instead of a total of four and a half days devoted to parent conferences, they'll have one day. Cathy's prediction?

Cathy La Luz

If I was going to predict, I predict that what happened that time will happen again. We'll see less output, less parent involvement, less connection with the parent.

Ira Glass

Last year, after two years as principal, Pat Mizerka had to leave the principal's job for personal reasons. She was replaced by somebody named Rita Ortiz, who came from outside Irving. Very quickly, this new principal got off on a bad foot with the teachers, by insisting on something so basic that she never suspected it could be controversial. Rita Ortiz asked that they turn in lesson plans.

Cathy La Luz

At Irving School, we never had to write formal lesson plans.

Ira Glass

Again, Cathy La Luz.

Cathy La Luz

It was, if you like writing formal lesson plans, go ahead. If you like taking notes, go ahead. If you just keep a diary, and my principal read it. You want to show me that? Go ahead. Whatever works for you in planning your day. Your style is your style. Just prove to me that it works.

Heather Madden

There was a meeting where she announced that we needed to do lesson plans, and she wanted them every-- I believe it was every Friday.

Ira Glass

Heather Madden teaches Special Ed at Irving.

Heather Madden

It was a horrible reception. The gasps and, oh my goodness. The rustling of the papers, and just feel the tension in the air. It was horrifying.

Typically decisions at Irving had been made in a democratic manner. If there was something new that was going to be taken on, it was always not necessarily brought to a vote. Many times it was brought to a vote. But typically it was discussed in an open forum, and we all got our opinions out and really hashed it out, and come to a conclusion that was agreeable between everyone.

Ira Glass

From Principal Rita Ortiz's perspective, this really wasn't the kind of thing that bore any discussion. Every school in the system had been ordered to do lesson plans. Irving would do lesson plans. Here's Rita Ortiz.

Rita Ortiz

Plans are a part of the teacher observation sheet that a principal, or another administrator involved in classroom observation, uses. It's one of the criteria in observing a teacher.

Ira Glass

So, were you surprised at the reaction?

Rita Ortiz

I was. Coming from a background where not only did I do them, I saw everyone else do them in various situations.

Heather Madden

I'm sure to Rita, it was just format. It was it was the way things were done. And I understand that. But at the same time, it was really disheartening to watch the atmosphere of the school change, and the atmosphere of the staff change, so quickly.

Ira Glass

The heart of this change was that the staff wasn't used to being ordered to do things. When the school board would mandate something, like formal lesson plans, the teachers in the past would sit down together with the principal and figure out how to respond.

Heather Madden

We would come up with something that would meet the board's requirements, but also meet the philosophy and the practices that had always occurred at Irving.

Ira Glass

And did anybody say to her, look, the way that we usually do this is if the board asks you to do some like this, we talk about it and come up with a solution together?

Heather Madden

Yes.

Ira Glass

Somebody said that.

Heather Madden

It definitely has come up a number of times where, this is how we do it. We like to discuss it out.

Ira Glass

And when this has come up, what does she say?

Heather Madden

Honestly, it's more lip service, I feel. It's simply, OK, well I understand that that's how you've done it in the past, but we really do need to get this accomplished, and we really do need to get it done. And it's just more of that there's an agenda at hand.

Ira Glass

There were other orders just like the lesson plans, all things that were mandated by the board. All well-meaning. Like the rule that every teacher needed to state, or write on the chalk board, at the beginning of every class, which specific objectives in the state education goals would be met by this particular lesson.

Cathy La Luz

They had to be on the blackboard.

Ira Glass

Again, Cathy La Luz.

Cathy La Luz

I'd have to say, we're covering standard 1A, and we're going to be using prefixes, suffixes, and root words to understand word meanings. That was supposed to be on the blackboard every day.

Ira Glass

As if a seventh grader would care?

Cathy La Luz

They didn't care. They didn't care.

Ira Glass

Well, what would happen when you would tell them?

Cathy La Luz

Well, the first time, the kids laughed at me. When they were like, what are you telling us, Miss La Luz?

Ira Glass

Cathy says she understands why the school board is asking her to do this. Lots of schools need rules like this.

Cathy La Luz

And I know that's true. I know there are terrible teachers out there, and schools in trouble. So when I look at this, I think this is for those schools and those teachers, that they're trying to bring to a more formal standard. They're trying to say, standards matter. Criteria matter. And we want you, teacher, to meet this level of professionalism and teaching. That's what I think they mean. I really don't think this was just supposed to be crazy.

Ira Glass

Right, but the problem is, at this school, you guys are already thinking all the time about how do we become better teachers? What can we do? What's the latest? Every single day you all are thinking that. So you guys are so far ahead of this, and yet they're asking you to go back to the most basic kind of thinking.

Cathy La Luz

That's how it feels. And I don't mean to disrespect them. They have a tremendous job. I know there are reasons for the mandates coming down. I know there are teachers who shouldn't be teaching. But we're not that school. We're not those teachers. And we've proved it how many times?

Ira Glass

Now, if Irving had a more experienced principal when these rules came down, she might have gotten waivers to the rules, or fought the board, or figured out permissible ways around the rules. That's essentially what the two principals before Rita Ortiz, Pat and Madeleine, had done. But Rita was new, and she saw it as her job to enforce the rules. And really, maybe the time had passed in Chicago when any principal could have fought the board on these things. Here's Cathy.

Cathy La Luz

I remember the last year Madeleine was here, leaving meetings and having teachers say, thank God we have Madeleine. Thank God we have Madeleine. But Madeleine even said to me before she left. We were sitting down at the beginning of her last year, and she said, I'm losing more battles than I'm winning. And she was sad. I'm losing more battles. And I remember looking at her, thinking, oh my God. How much longer will she be with us? And that's when I got scared, realizing that we were going to start being affected by the changes. If Madeleine's saying that, Irving School was not going to be able to stay as protected as we were.

Heather Madden

We were watching our world crumble.

Ira Glass

Again, teacher Heather Madden.

Heather Madden

I mean, everyone was just so appalled that it wasn't going to be the same, and that everything that they had worked for, for so long. It was just this atmosphere of change.

Ira Glass

Why? Describe more, what did it change from, to?

Heather Madden

There was a lot more commitment on behalf of the teachers beforehand. Teachers would be at Irving until 6:00, 7:00 at night, just working, making sure things were taken care of. Really just pride in what you were doing, and knowing that everything that you were doing was respected. And I think that, quickly, I know, personally, I didn't spend as much time at school. You watched everyone's posture walking around school, and the looks on their faces, and it was a different group of people, just because we were disheartened.

Ira Glass

When I asked Rita Ortiz about this, she seems to have been oblivious to all of it, especially to the part that was the most important to the teachers, that they were used to making decisions together, with their principal, coming to consensus.

Rita Ortiz

I think-- yeah, I'm just thinking right now about what you're saying. And I can't speak for what was before. Perhaps that was more their style of things, and I don't think that I didn't ask.

Ira Glass

Did you notice a change in morale, or the number of hours the teachers were working, or anything like that?

Rita Ortiz

I really didn't notice a change in morale. Teachers put in their full days, as far as what I was aware. No, I really didn't notice a change in morale.

Ira Glass

By December of last year, Cathy La Luz had had enough. She was tired of seeing things that were effective, like meetings with parents being taken away, and things that just seemed like busy work added to her day.

Cathy La Luz

And I had a moment there. And not just a moment, like a week or two, where I felt like, screw it. You want me to fill out paperwork, I'll fill out paperwork. You want lesson plans, fine. But the time that it's taking me to do this is taking me away from something else, and I'm not going to kill myself to figure out a way to fix that. And we were talking about what's happening next year, I remember it came out of my mouth. I just don't care. Fine. You want me to just hand out a report card? I mean, I had that come out of my mouth, and that's when I thought, I need to quit. I need to leave. If that's how I'm going to be, I can't be teaching anymore if that's what's going to happen.

I would never have thought that that could happen to me. I'm telling you. I mean, that's why I became a teacher. I didn't have a teacher I liked, or felt connected to, or felt anything, all of my grammar school career. Never. High school was a joke for me. I'm not going to be that teacher, that kind of person, the kind of teacher I had. I don't want to be a teacher who just gets done what she has to get done.

Ira Glass

Not sure what else to do, she wrote a letter to the people who run the school system. "This is my message in a bottle," she wrote. "I throw it out, hoping someone will read it and hear me." She said that the demand for uniformity, for every school to be the same, was chipping away at the things that made Irving a good school in the first place. And given how successful Irving was, couldn't they have more leeway to do things their way, which is what made them a success in the first place? Why fix something that's not broken?

Cathy La Luz

It's like, what did I think was going to happen when I wrote that? Really. I feel sad when I read that. That letter is still full of hope. What's funny is that letter is still full of hope. I feel like a little girl who has been living in a fairy tale, and is waking up to find out, sorry, this is the real world. Because those are the kind of words I'm hearing about our school. You had 10 great years. What are you complaining about? Most schools don't get this.

Ira Glass

That's what the older teachers at her school have been saying to her. Be realistic.

Cathy La Luz

I've taught only 14 years. We peak out people who have taught 30 years, 28 years, 20 years. And they've seen changes with the board, and different new mandates come down. And so they look at me and they say, you know, things like this have happened before. This is the way it is. You know, Cathy, we were lucky. And now we're going back to the way the rest of Chicago is, and that's the way it is. And this will pass, too, and there'll be another change one day, and there'll be another change, and you just have to roll with the punches. And these are people I respect, and I understand exactly what they're saying. I may not be the kind of person who can do that. That's all. I may not be the kind of person who can just roll with the punches. No. I just don't know I can do that.

Ira Glass

I suggest to Cathy that she could do what I've seen teachers at lots of other Chicago schools do. Ignore the administration, close your door, and teach.

Cathy La Luz

Yeah. If it wasn't going to effect the structure of my day, I would agree with you, because there's other things that have happened that you just roll off your back. But the changes that are happening are affecting what's happening in the classroom. So I'm going to spend a summer thinking about it.

Ira Glass

And that's how we left it, at the end of last school year.

Teachers in America are told two contradictory things about their jobs, that they're professionals who know best what's going to work in their own classrooms, and that they're workers, who are there to carry out orders. Do the curriculum the way others set it for them. Obviously in any school system, a teacher is a little bit of each. And at Irving, the fight is basically about where to draw the line.

Even in this era of national education standards, and No Child Left Behind, in theory the idea right now in schools is people at the top set educational goals. Teachers at the bottom should be free to meet those goals, however they see fit. That's a rather delicate thing to manage, especially in a school system the size of Chicago's. It's staggeringly big, nearly a half million kids and teachers, a population equal to New Orleans, or Tucson. In a school system this large, the natural tendency is to want to make everybody do the same thing. It's easier that way.

What took place at Irving is so common in a big public school system. And the way it took place is so common, that it just happened at a high school not far from Irving, one that was founded on the same kinds of teacher-centered ideas that Irving was. It was called the Best Practice High School. A new principal came in, was under pressure from above to make their school more like other schools, and it wiped out a lot of the curriculum the teachers had designed. Steve Zimmelman is a national figure in what's called the Best Practice Movement, and was one of the founders of this high school. He says he remembers this principal's job interview.

Steve Zimmelman

We had a candidate that we thought was strong. She said all the right things. And we were fooled by her. I have to admit. It was a terrible mistake. And the moment she got in there, all of a sudden everything changed.

Ira Glass

Did she, in the end, not agree with the basic program of what was going on at the school?

Steve Zimmelman

I don't think so, no. Another thing is that new rules and mandates were coming down from CPS.

Ira Glass

CPS. Chicago Public Schools.

Steve Zimmelman

And you see good things being erased, and good reform-minded teachers being very unhappy. And they leave.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Explain how many of them left.

Steve Zimmelman

It's painful to think about. But all but a few of the-- all but three or four are gone.

Ira Glass

Do you think that could happen at Irving?

Steve Zimmelman

I don't know.

Ira Glass

What's so crazy about all this is that, officially, the Chicago public school system is in favor of the kind of successful innovation that was happening at that high school, and at Irving. Here's the head of the public school system, Arne Duncan.

Arne Duncan

What I'm pushing very, very hard is to get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality. Those schools that are very high-performing academically, and that have been fiscally responsible, I actually want to do everything we can to remove any bureaucratic hurdles, and to really give those schools much more flexibility. Really give them their chance to innovate.

Ira Glass

I understand that that's the intent, but I think that what the Irving teachers would tell you is that the times that they've applied for waivers, like with their report card, they were turned down pretty firmly on that.

Arne Duncan

Right. And I would be happy to take a look at that. I wasn't aware of that situation, and so I can't speak to the specifics. So it may well be a legitimate concern, in that case. Obviously, do we do it perfectly in every situation? Maybe not, and that's where we want to continue to change, and frankly change the culture here, so that it is more supportive of that type of innovation, where it's leading to progress.

Ira Glass

I got to say, hearing you say this, I feel like your heart is in the right place. I think the way that things are getting implemented, it's happening in a way that's making a lot of teachers unhappy at this particular school.

Arne Duncan

Yeah. And again, I don't know all the specifics at that one school. And so where there are issues, I'm absolutely more than happy to look at it, and actually will look at it. Where teachers are really trying to innovate, and take this system to the next level, that's exactly what we want to support. They're doing some great things, in terms of report cards, in terms of spending time with parents. Those might be lessons that really should be informing the entire system, rather than the entire system hurting this.

[PHONE RING]

Cathy La Luz

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hello, Cathy?

Cathy La Luz

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Hi, it's Ira Glass.

Cathy La Luz

Hi, Ira Glass.

Ira Glass

How the hell are you?

Cathy La Luz

I'm OK.

Ira Glass

Well, I'm calling you. It's now the Fall. Summer has passed. Have you got a minute?

Cathy La Luz

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So what did you decide?

Cathy La Luz

Well, I went back. I went back, and it's worse than I thought it would be. I don't see how this is going to work. Every time I get another memo, or another directive. We're being told things about the board saying we have to do this and this and this. You need to do this according to the rules of the board, and I really miss that feeling of being trusted. And it's not there anymore. It really feels like us against them, now. And it's terrible.

Ira Glass

Over the summer the new principal, Rita Ortiz, without consulting her teachers, eliminated the hour of planning time Irving teachers get every day. The teachers and parents raised such a fuss in September about it that it's been put back. I tell Cathy that I spoke with her boss' boss' boss' boss, Arne Duncan, head of the school system. And I play her a tape from my interview, him saying that maybe Irving should be allowed to do some of the things that it wants, and that he would look into that. She was skeptical much really come out of it.

Cathy La Luz

I have to say, when I sent that letter, I sent a copy to Arne Duncan. I sent a copy to the next person below him, Barbara Eason-Watkins. And I got a letter saying, basically, sorry. Conformity is what-- using the word-- No. We need coherence throughout the system. And it's a management issue, and I totally understand it. It is a big system. It is hard to monitor a big system.

Ira Glass

Where are you standing this week, on whether or not you're going to stay?

Cathy La Luz

Oh, I'm definitely keeping my eyes open. I'm not thinking I'm staying. What I want to do is go. I want to go.

Ira Glass

When I was an education reporter, I was always struck by how what happened in schools was such an unpredictable mix of real public policy issues and human personality. The chemistry of the teachers, the way they were managed, always seemed like this X-factor, that nobody really talked about, but that seemed to make all the difference in the world. Not that anybody wants to hear that. Even Irving teachers, like Heather Madden. They don't want to hear it.

Heather Madden

It can't just be magic. It can't just be fluky things landing people in the right places, and the chemistry being right. It just can't be that. What's the hope for the rest of the schools? What's the hope for Irving in the future? What's the hope for any school, anywhere?

Ira Glass

I do think there's hope. But it has to do with understanding that it is all about personalities. Seeing what's happened lately at Irving, I think, in a way, Madeleine's greatest achievement wasn't that she implemented great reading and writing curriculum. But it was that she made teachers feel in charge. Now that that's gone, it'll be interesting to see if the kids' test scores stay as high. It'll be interesting to see if, by following Chicago public school rules, Irving sinks to the level of the rest of the Chicago public schools.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Tom Bachmann and Amy O'Leary.

[AKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you want to offer Cathy La Luz a new job, you can reach her at Washington Irving School in Chicago, Illinois. Transcripts and all the old audio of my old series on the public schools is available for free at our website www.thisamericanlife.org. You can also listen to our programs for free, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Or you can download audio of our show at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even The New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia, who love Kisha dog, but thought Kisha his dog,

Judith Mensch

Come to find out the was me Kisha dog.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.