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Critics: CPS test for teacher applicants leads to ‘blacklisting’

AliciWinckler left head human capital for CPS listens as CFO Diane Fergusspeaks board last year. Winckler defends tests for teacher

Alicia Winckler, left, head of human capital for CPS, listens as CFO Diane Ferguson speaks to the board last year. Winckler defends the tests for teacher candidates. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 22, 2011 12:49PM

A new questionnaire that probes the “soft skills” needed be a teacher has resulted in what critics call the “blacklisting’’ of hundreds of potential Chicago Public School teachers — including some who already had job offers, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Graduates of the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s teacher training program touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel have, in effect, flunked the test. So has a winner of a prestigious Golden Apple scholarship. Likewise a special-education major who made the dean’s list at Michigan State University and was described as a “dream candidate’’ by a CPS principal who wanted to hire her.

Of the 3,900 CPS teacher applicants who have taken TeacherFit since June, 30 percent have scored low enough to be excluded from hiring — for the moment, said Alicia Winckler, head of the CPS Office of Human Capital. Some were told to reapply in 18 months, but CPS is now rethinking that 18-month time-frame and whether to grant some low-scoring applicants some leeway, Winckler said.

Winckler and a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Education Fund, which spent $130,000 to develop TeacherFit for CPS use, say they believe strongly in TeacherFit’s validity and ability to identify strong teacher candidates. They note that similar personality-test-like job application questionnaires are common in the business world.

However, deans of 22 Chicago area colleges of education are requesting a meeting with CPS officials over the use of TeacherFit as a tool that can completely knock a candidate out of the CPS teacher applicant pool, said Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“It’s smelling bad so far,’’ said Chou, who called some of the TeacherFit questions “crazy.’’ “I cannot help but think there hasn’t been enough evaluation undertaken before these high stakes are put into place.’’

The Chicago Teachers Union is asking CPS to dump the test completely, said CTU President Karen Lewis.

“It’s unacceptable,’’ said Lewis. “Any test can inform [the application process] but it shouldn’t drive it.’’

“No one should be blacklisted, in 1950s talk, simply because they didn’t score appropriately,’’ agreed John Butterfield, a former CPS principal and now assistant to the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The association plans to “lodge a complaint’’ with Winckler, he said.

“I don’t think anyone’s career should be up or down based on one test,’’ Butterfield said.

Butterfield, Chou and other area deans of education say their email and phone lines have lit up since last week, when CPS teacher applicants started to be notified that their TeacherFit responses had knocked them out of the applicant pool — including some who had already been offered CPS jobs.

Sandy Traback, interim principal at Kozminski, said that only a few weeks before year-round classes start she was blocked from hiring a “dream candidate’’ who had two other CPS job offers as a special education teacher because of TeacherFit scores.

The candidate had made the Dean’s list at Michigan State and had received rave reviews from supervisors at two different CPS schools where she had student-taught and taught summer school. Traback even personally observed her summer school teaching and was impressed.

“Everybody said, ‘If you need a special education teacher, this is the one you want,’ ” Traback said.

But with the candidate sitting across her desk, Traback tried to select her on the CPS computer system and couldn’t find her application. She called CPS Human Resources, only to be told “she didn’t pass the TeacherFit evaluation. And I said, ‘what the hell is that?’ ”

“I could actually watch her teach,’’ Traback said. “I saw the quality of the work she was doing. . . . I am very concerned that some candidates have been caught up in this, and it’s going to be a loss to CPS.’’

The candidate — and many others — said she thought she was merely taking a survey when she filled out TeacherFit. She had no idea her career would rest on her answers, she said.

“Had I known, I might not have been as honest,” and instead given the answers she thought test evaluators were seeking, said the candidate, who asked to remain anonymous.

The CTU’s Lewis said the union complained about some questions during the TeacherFit development process because some seemed to probe for people who were “willing to work for free.’’ One current question asks candidates “how do you feel about a job that would require you to regularly work after hours?”

Other questions ask candidates to recall how frequently they did something — such as help their peers with a difficult task — over a 10- or five-year time frame. A 10-year span would take a 21-year-old teaching candidate all the way back to age 11, one education professor noted.

TeacherFit co-author Neal Schmitt, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, said many of the questions involve “personality or attitude’’ items that try to get at the “soft skills’’ needed to be a teacher — student focus, planning and organizing, results-focus, perseverance and self-initiative.

Development of the test was paid for by the Chicago Public Education Fund, which counts as a board member Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist and close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Rauner was a driving force behind the sweeping school reform bill that Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law last month.

Penny Pritzker, a member of the billionaire Pritzker family, stepped down as the fund’s chair after Emanuel named her a Chicago School Board member.

TeacherFit questions were field-tested on a sample pool of 867 CPS teachers, with an average work experience of four years, who were also rated separately by their principals. TeacherFit scores wound up correlating closely with how teachers were rated by their principals, Schmitt said.

However, CPS ultimately decided which scores would fall into what CPS calls a “red, yellow or green’’ category, with “red” being the lowest score, and what stakes to attach to results, Schmitt said.

North suburban academic powerhouse Stevenson High School also uses TeacherFit as a candidate evaluation tool, but not a blacklisting device, said Stevenson Township High School District spokesman James Conrey.

“No current candidate at Stevenson is excluded from consideration based solely on TeacherFit answers, and no future candidate will be excluded based solely on TeacherFit answers,’’Conrey said.

“TeacherFit is just one piece of the puzzle, in our view, not the be-all, end-all determining factor in deciding to hire teachers. We wouldn’t stand for a teacher basing a student’s semester grade solely on the result of one test, so why would we follow a different philosophy in our hiring practices?”

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