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Education Reform, Chicago-Style | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Education Reform, Chicago-Style


Rally to protest school closings and teacher layoffs in Chicago. (AP Images)

Xian Barrett is the kind of hero-teacher about which they make sentimental, inspiring movies. A young, handsome guy of Chinese extraction, he was a statistics expert at a computer startup before he turned to teaching; then, working at a tough inner-city high school, he hit on an idea. Xian spoke Japanese. A lot of the kids he was teaching were reading manga, and riveted by martial arts culture. Because Percy Julian High was a “non-selective enrollment” school—the kind where they don’t expect much of kids—they would never get a chance to take a Japanese class. So he opened up the school's small, exclusive Japanese program to every student. Soon, it was massively popular—dozens of tough black kids, buckling down and learning something very, very difficult. And because of that, they were thriving like never before in all their subjects. “For a lot of kids Japanese was a gateway drug to academic success,” he told me this past spring when I interviewed him for my article on Chicago activism. He got a $10,000 grant from the Japanese consulate. A student of his gave a speech accepting the award—in Japanese.

Soon after that, in 2010, Xian was laid off from Julian.

For another of the ways Xian also helped his students thrive was by advising them in their political activism. Not guiding them; his kids never would have stood for that—when I sat in on a meeting of the thriving group Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools in the basement of a DePaul University building, their hottest term of derision was “adultism”: activist jargon for “pushy grownups telling us what to do.” Xian just helped facilitate, and gave advice when he was asked. He was also one of the founders of the Chicago Teacher’s Union’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the militant faction led by current CTU president Karen Lewis, who won the strike last year against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Although Xian wouldn’t say so, it’s hard to think of any other reason than his activism and dedication to teach as a hell-raiser, in order to educate hell-raisers, that he was fired.

Xian won’t say it—but I interviewed the student who gave the speech in Japanese, a really smart kid named Jeremiah Raye, who will. He described life at Julian after the a new principal, one beloved of the suits at the school board, arrived and ended up firing his favorite teacher: “The atmosphere changed…oppressive, to be honest with you. She usually targeted teachers who were more for the students…she would pretty much threaten certain teachers’ jobs, and then my junior year they got fired, like Mr. Barrett. The teachers that weren’t cut were the ones who were either neutral teachers or the ones who were on the side of the board.” Incidentally, with the layoff the Japanese program was gone with the wind, too—leaving $6,000 of the $10,000 grant on the table.

Xian next landed at Gage Park High, a school with a history: it was through this neighborhood of classic Chicago bungalows, once all-white, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for open housing in 1966, got a rock thrown at his head, and famously said, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” Gage Park ain’t all white any more; it’s one of the roughest inner city schools in town. The kind of place, in other words, where teachers like Xian Barrett love, are needed most, and thrive. As he wrote recently on his blog, “Teacher X,” “This was my best teaching year by far. Better than the year that I raised the scores the most; better than the year I won that national teaching award”—the U.S. Department of Education Teaching fellowship. “This year I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism, for student/teacher unity and against the school-to-prison pipeline. The classroom was open and the youth shared amazing personal stories…. I would not trade this year away for 100 years as the football star I dreamt I would become when I was a tiny little 10-year-old who didn’t really understand the physics of professional football.”

Here’s the thing: blog post was written to respond to the public outpouring of response that followed the news this week that Xian had been laid off again. At Gage, Xian had helped students who led a symbolic boycott of standardized tests. Maybe that’s why he was laid off again.

If so, his principal had a nice bit of cover—his layoff was part of the axing of 2,113 Chicago Public School employees who got the ax in what is being sold as an absolutely necessary budgetary move.

Yeah, right.

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Displaying the sensitivity for which city government under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has become known, the layoffs came just before the announcement of the awarding of a $20 million no-bid contract to train principles and other administrators, to an outfit called “Supes Academy,” for which Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has recently enjoyed a lucrative consultation contract. Supes is co-run by an “education reform” hustler named Gary Solomon who took a settlement with a suburban Chicago district in 2001 for allegedly sending sexual explicit e-mails to students; he went on to such sterling and selfless educational endeavors as sales associate for Princeton Review (CPS was one of his clients). His partner Thomas Vranas, whose online biography, the sterling Chicago education reporter Sarah Karp found, boasts “that he got his start by creating an urban tutoring program in Chicago that served 8,000 students. However, none of the biographies specify the name of the tutoring program and he did not respond to e-mail questions about it,” and “that he started a wireless Internet company, a sales and marketing company and a venture capital firm. None of the companies are named.”

The firings, incidentally, also came shortly after Mayor Emanuel announced a $55 tax-increment financing grant to a very rich private university, DePaul, to build a basketball arena on the lakefront. The grant is especially horrifying because it makes mincemeat of the standard “TIF” formula—where the money is ostensibly paid back to the city in the form of future property tax revenues—because the land the arena is to sit upon will be effectively tax-exempt. It looks like a straight up giveaway.

But the city can’t afford to pay teachers like Xian Barrett. Make no mistake about that.

As for Xian, he’s leaving teaching for a while: “I’ve decided to that this might be the right time to step away from the classroom for a moment. I realize looking back that I’ve neglected self-care for quite a long time, and do not have the energy to work with a new group of amazing young people to build to a new vista. This isn’t a permanent state, but with each heartbreak, we must heal.” But he’ll still be teaching, he says, in his own way: I will take my expertise to teach those failing to run our society.”

That’s what guys like Xian always do. When I interviewed Xian this summer, I asked him how high-stakes testing has changed his life as a teacher. He answered, “It’s sort of omnipresent and it takes away from what should be going on. All of our professional development now is around testing and managing data.” But, he emphasizes, it is crappy data—which, as an algorithm expert and a rotisserie baseball obsessive, he should know. “I love statistics, but that’s what’s so frustrating about it: it’s as if the sabermetric revolution happened in baseball but instead of Nate Silver leading it, you know, it was somebody with no understanding of mathematics—maybe what we’re seeing is education reform by the people who [insisted on the predictive value of] game-winning RBIs and ERA.”

As for his former student Jeremiah Raye, he’s doing great at DePaul University, majoring in world studies. Mr. Barrett, and his home-brewed Japanese program, helped change his life. But don’t you worry: Xian Barrett won’t be changing any lives like that any time soon. More and more every day, the Chicago Public Schools will be safely rid of the likes of him.

Rick Perlstein goes inside the resurgent protest movement fighting back against Rahm Emanuel’s austerity agenda.

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