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Getting Testy

Teacher George Schmidt has always been a thorn in the school's side, but this time he may have gone too far:

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By Ben Joravsky

For many observers, the story of George Schmidt's battle with the school board over standardized achievement tests was one of those one-week wonders--it blew in from nowhere, got a few days of coverage, and then disappeared as if it had never existed.

But the story's far from over. Schmidt has been removed from his classroom at Bowen High School and sent to the central office's downtown detention center. And he's facing a federal lawsuit brought by the board, which says he owes the public schools at least a million dollars.

Meanwhile the issues for which he's risked his career are very much alive. "George has more balls than the rest of us, who just quietly go along like sheep even though we know he's right," says one north-side high school English teacher. "We all know these standardized tests are a bogus waste of time and a disservice to students. But he's the only one who took a stand, and now he's paying the price."

In many ways Schmidt's showdown with central-office chieftains was no surprise, since he's been a major pain in their necks for a long time. In addition to teaching English and journalism, Schmidt is the editor of Substance, a muckraking monthly teachers' newspaper that hammers hard at schools CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor Daley, and Chicago Teachers Union president Thomas Reece, whom the paper all but accuses of rigging a ratification vote in the rank- and-file election on the teachers' contract.

As Schmidt sees it, Vallas and Daley don't deserve the praise they've received for improving the schools. To him, the system isn't much different from what it was when he started teaching almost 30 years ago--it's still run by central-office bullies who intimidate teachers, waste money, inflate their own achievements, and demonize anyone who dares to speak against them.

Worse, Schmidt says, the system is more dependent than ever on standardized tests. "It's all about accountability these days, about using test scores as the tell-all for progress. It's simpleminded to say that you can measure anything as complex as the success of schools based on the percent of who is reading at or above the so-called national average, but that's what they do."

Public school students take two standardized tests each year, a state test and a national achievement test. Starting this January, high school freshmen and sophomores must also take a third: the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations.

According to the board's suit, the CASE test, given twice a year, at the end of each semester, was developed "in order to comply with [the] statutory mandate to assess Chicago Public Schools freshman and sophomore students' fulfillment of the academic standards that have been established," and intended "to serve as a mechanism for teachers to calculate up to 20 percent of the grades for the students who completed the tests [in] Algebra, Geometry, English, Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, World Studies, United States History and Physics."

It's not certain exactly who wrote the test (central-office officials didn't respond to phone calls). In the past Vallas and other officials have told reporters that the test was created by 20 public school teachers, none of whom has been identified. But in its suit against Schmidt, the board says at least $500,000 was spent "to pay for the professional testing design services of the Center for Research and Educational Testing at the University of California at Los Angeles to assist...in designing CASE."

Last year only freshmen took the test, which is a mix of essays, problem solving, and multiple-choice questions. This year the test was also given to sophomores (officials say they may eventually require the test for all high school students as well as seventh- and eighth-graders). From the start teachers objected to having to devote class time to a standardized exam. "If the board's telling us that this test will be a crucial measure of how we are judged, then of course we're going to spend time teaching to it," says the north-side English teacher. "That means we have to spend at least one week preparing for the test and another week giving it. That's two weeks wasted on a test that has little educational value. The students can't see their results, so they can't learn from what they did wrong. And giving one test so much importance undercuts the importance of homework and classroom participation."

As for the test itself, teachers have complained that it's full of questions that are poorly written, misleading, confusing, and open to varying interpretations. For instance, in the multiple-choice part of the freshman English test, students are asked to identify the climax of Romeo and Juliet. A random survey shows that even adults give different answers. A high school English teacher says the climax comes when Romeo kills himself, and an accomplished Shakespearean actor agrees. As the teacher puts it, "That's when the ultimate question--will they live forever?--is answered. Everything after that is the resolution."

But a comparative-studies professor at Northwestern University says the climax is when Romeo murders Tybalt. "If Romeo and Juliet were a melodrama--that is, a play in which from the beginning the audience knows who's good and who's bad, and the only tension is discovering when the bad guy will lose--then you could say the climax is Romeo's death," says the professor. "But it's a tragedy. And as in all tragedies, the climax is that turning point when the play takes an irreversible turn toward tragedy. Romeo's death is the denouement. The point is that it's foolish to reduce this to a single multiple-choice question."

Despite their criticisms, most teachers--including Schmidt--dutifully gave the test in the early weeks of January without protest. But then on January 20 Substance published portions of the English, social studies, and mathematics freshman tests, after an introduction that argued "the time has come to debate the educational integrity of the claims of the Vallas administration."

The paper also printed the title page, where the board warns against "any reproduction in any form...without prior permission in writing." Responding to that warning, Schmidt wrote in the margins, "Chicago's public school marketing executives are so arrogant they've even tried to copyright public materials developed at enormous public expense, as if the CASE materials were corporate properties like Ronald McDonald or the Pillsbury Doughboy."

When school officials saw the issue they were furious. This was, they said, a "terribly damaging" act of sabotage. They said they would have to recall all the old tests, which they'd intended to use again next year, and print new ones.

"This is an insult to the teachers [who helped develop the test]. It ruins a lot of good work," board president Gery Chico told the Daily Southtown. He went on to call Substance "a rag to trash anybody at the board of education. We've sat by for 36 issues, we've been called names, we've been ridiculed, and we haven't done a thing. But the fact of the matter is, when you break the rules, no matter who you are, you are going to pay."

According to Chico, Vallas, and Mayor Daley, Schmidt was attempting to dodge any effort to hold teachers accountable for what went on in their classrooms. "What kind of teachers are they?" Daley asked reporters. "Do they want kids to cheat and get a phony grade and move on? They are the same people who socially promoted children. This is a standard exam. Standard exams are to help kids, not to hurt, trying to find out where they are and judge and help them with special classes, after-school programs."

On January 26, the board filed its lawsuit, arguing that Schmidt had "carelessly, negligently or willfully violated the spirit of keeping test material confidential and secure" and had "misappropriated [the board's] trade-secret rights of confidentiality and security.... As a direct result of such careless, negligent and willful conduct, [Schmidt and Substance] have effectively forced [the board] to recreate the [test], which recreation will cost in excess of $1 million."

The suit seeks to "enjoin Schmidt from disseminating" Substance and to force him to "retrieve from all subscribers and other recipients all copies of the January-February issue." It also asks the judge to report Schmidt's conduct to the U.S. attorney and to award the school system whatever "damages, punitive damages, attorneys' fees and costs" he "deems appropriate." In other words, Schmidt is facing at least $1 million in fines for replacement costs alone.

Schmidt's allies dismiss the case as baseless, wondering why the board would want to repeat a test that has so many flaws. "The way I see it, George didn't cost them a cent," says the high school English teacher. "The test was lousy--they weren't going to give it again. And even if for some stupid reason they did, George didn't publish the answers. So let's say a kid kept a copy of Substance. He'd still have to figure out the answers. He'd still have to know the climax of Romeo and Juliet. This is just their attempt to punish George for embarrassing them by showing how they wasted $1 million on a stupid test."

Other observers aren't nearly as sympathetic. The Tribune and Sun-Times editorialized against Schmidt; the Tribune even said he should be fired.

Not surprisingly, the CTU hasn't leapt to Schmidt's defense. "If his job is threatened for whatever reason and he asks for our legal assistance, then we'll look into it," says Jackie Gallagher, a CTU spokeswoman. "But it's very difficult to take him on as printer of the test. What he got in trouble for has to do with his job with Substance, not the classroom. It's a private endeavor or a second job that he does on his off-work time."

Many people think Schmidt is his own worst enemy. "I'm speaking here for myself and not the union, but I have a love-hate relationship with George," says Gallagher. "Some of the things he writes I find so irresponsible it drives me crazy. Yet I have to admire the way he stands up for what he believes. Still I have to wonder, what was he thinking? There are other, more effective ways to register complaints than to be at the top of the grandstand yelling through a bullhorn. The older you get, the more you realize that you pick your fights. If you want to win you have to play your cards right. It's as cynical as it gets, but you fight differently when you're 50 than when you're 20. Anyone who doesn't realize that is making a big mistake."

While both sides file pretrial papers, Schmidt spends his days sitting in "Camp Beverly," the central-office detention center where staff are sent while their alleged misconduct is investigated--"the room for lost souls," as Vallas once put it. Most of the time Schmidt sits alone at a desk with nothing to do, though last week he received an odd assignment. "They put me in charge of sorting through the Academic Decathlon exams, which will be given sometime soon," he says. "That's pretty ironic, don't you think?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Machnik.

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