An open letter to Alderman Will Burns from Julie Woestehoff

September 16th, 2015

September 16, 2015

Open Letter to Alderman Will Burns on the Dyett Hunger Strike

from Julie Woestehoff, former Executive Director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE)

Dear Will,

We first met many years ago when you were State Senator Emil Jones’s education aide. Many of us in the Chicago school reform community were impressed with you then, and felt that you understood what we cared about – that is, a strong parent and community voice in school governance, and strong public schools. We found you to be approachable, smart, and helpful – one of the good guys.

I was pleased when you decided to run for office and was happy to vote for you to be my state representative and my alderman. We’ve had a very cordial relationship for many years.

In 2013, the year after the school district voted to phase out Dyett, I wrote a blog post ( on the web site for PURE, a group I directed until my move out of state last year. The blog praised you and other aldermen for signing on to a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion. That 2013 resolution included the point that expansion of charter schools was undermining neighborhood school enrollment, and that traditional schools should not be closed for budgetary reasons while new charter schools were being opened.

Considering this history, it is especially disappointing now to hear about your rejection of what many educators and others consider a very strong community proposal to revitalize Dyett High School, and your argument that Jitu Brown and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) are staging a hunger strike for Dyett merely to gain power and money.

Most of us who toil in the trenches of community organizing and parent advocacy would find this argument hysterically funny if we had time to laugh. Compare, for example, the most recent reported salary of KOCO’s executive director –$63,000 — with that of, say, Robin Steans, executive director of the charter school-promoting corporate reform group Advance Illinois. Robin already has vast family wealth, and she still pulled down an annual salary of $178,000 in 2013. My point here is not to gratuitously poke at Robin, who has been a friend in the past, but to highlight what should be obvious — that wealthy, powerful people in this country have more handed to them on a plate than low-income, marginalized people could ever dream of. They need groups like KOCO to help raise their voices and concerns to policy makers.

As PURE’s executive director from 1995-2014, I had a front row seat to KOCO’s outstanding work supporting public education, and have been pleased to see KOCO’s Jitu Brown become one of the nation’s most charismatic and courageous leaders in the fight to save democratic public education and to demand high-quality schools for all children. Their challenges to you over the years have arisen from what I believe is a reasonable analysis that there is a disconnect between your actions and the critical needs of some of your constituents. KOCO’s decision to sponsor a hunger strike is a reflection of their extreme frustration with you and other education policy makers. The fact that several members of your community have been willing to put their lives on the line to join them, and that others are actively supporting them, suggests that many share this frustration.

I write to you now out of grave concern for my friends who are becoming ill after 30 days of this hunger strike, and for all of those children who need the adults around them to be the best leaders possible. I urge you to step back from past perceived grievances and take the first step to open up a sincere, meaningful dialogue with these members of your community who deserve your attention.

Thank you and best wishes,

Julie Woestehoff

A gift for parents – a New Year for PURE

December 23rd, 2014

purelogobowPURE’s leadership has been talking about how to continue our organization’s wonderful work supporting parents and local school council members, given the lack of financial support from Chicago foundations and the loss of executive director Julie Woestehoff to the wilds of Wyoming.

We are still talking about that, but while we work out the details, we want to make sure that 25 years of PURE experience and our hundreds of fact sheets, tip sheets and other resources remain available here on our web site for everyone to use.

For starters, we’re posting a set of resources for parents in English and Spanish. We hope you’ll download, copy and share these materials.

We also hope you’ll consider making a donation of whatever size to help us continue this work. Our Donate button is on the right hand side of our home page>>>>>>

Thank you!

PURE Parent Resources/Recursos para los Padres

December 23rd, 2014

We are pleased to offer this one-stop spot to find many of PURE’s most useful fact sheets and tip sheets, most in both English and Spanish. Please feel free to download, print and use them, as long as you leave PURE’s information on the page. Please note that PURE’s address and other contact information have changed from those listed on many of these materials. We would also appreciate any donations you can make to help us continue to update this site and add new material. Our Donate button is on the right hand side at the top of our home page>>>>>

Parents Rights in Education

Advocating for your child

Moving on

August 26th, 2014

HighUintas8-10-14Hi Friends-

After nearly 25 years with PURE, I have left Chicago and moved to Wyoming (yes, you read that right!) with my husband Larry. Larry received a call from a church there and it was the right time for us to make this move.

During the past two years or so, I have been trying to keep PURE going with very little money. At the same time, I’ve helped start a national group, Parents Across America (PAA), into which I’ve also put a lot of unpaid time. I plan to keep working with PAA from Wyoming, but it makes n sense to try to run PURE from another state.

It’s up to the PURE Board to decide what to do from here. They may decide to keep the PURE name and corporate status without my involvement. They can also decide to close PURE down. We are hoping to meet in Chicago in about a month to make that determination.

I am sad to end my work with PURE, but it has been an amazing 25 years and I am very proud of what we have done together. It has also been a joy and privilege to get to know all of you and to work with our founders, Joy and Bernie Noven, and with Johnny, Wanda and Ismael, and all the others who have been a part of the PURE staff and Board of Directors over the years.

One more thing – please keep Johnny in your thoughts. He has recently had major surgery. Also please keep Wanda in your prayers as she deals with financial and health issues.

I will keep in touch.


What’s wrong with standardized testing…this month?

May 31st, 2014

LouisCKtestingI’m talking with Dick Kay on WCPT this afternoon about standardized testing.

Tune in to 820 AM, or 92.5 FM (west side of Chicago) 92.7 FM (north) or 99.9 FM (south). Apparently you can also live stream the show here:

Here are some of the topics I hope we’ll be able to cover:

Testing fake facts? There’s a new, racist version of the fake test facts scandal that PURE broke last year, when we exposed a Scantron reading question that was obvious, and falsified, propaganda for charter schools.

The reading passage for that question included this statement: “Multimillionaire Charles Mendel sends his children to a charter school because he believes that that charter schools deliver the highest quality education.” Problem is, there is no such person. Other “facts” in the passage about charter schools were also false.

This month, CPS students have been taking REACH performance exams, which are standardized tests used to measure teacher effectiveness. Students were given REACH pre-tests in the fall, and their “progress” – and part of their teachers’ evaluations – will be determined by the results from these spring tests.

REACH tests are supposedly written by teams of CPS teachers. I say supposedly, because it is hard to imagine that any of our teachers had a hand in the poisonous, idiotic test that showed up on the REACH web site for spring administration.

The test asks students to respond to two commentaries on immigration, both rabidly anti-immigrant and both written by “authorities” who don’t exist. Students are asked, among other things, to decide who is the more “authoritative” of the two fake pundits.

CPS has pulled the test off the site, but still allows the test to be used. They have attempted to excuse the bias by explaining that last fall’s “pre-test” consisted of two pro-immigration essays, so this was a “balance.” OK. Sure.

Keeping in mind that “progress” is determined by the change in student performance from the fall to the spring test and that a large percentage of CPS students are immigrants or children of immigrants, what results do you think CPS expects here?

Trick or test?: As I pointed out on Dick Kay’s show last time, standardized tests are designed for one primary purpose – to rank and sort the test-takers. 50% will always “fail” the test. And the “failures” will more likely be low-income children of color. The test makers guarantee these results by using trick questions, or, more exactly, including what they call a “distractor” answer among the four choices for some questions, that is, an answer that seems sort of right but is not the “wanted” answer.

Read more in my blog post, “Stupid PARCC Tricks” about how Common Core tests are just more of the same. I shared an example from Chris Ball’s presentation at our last More Than a Score forum, of a third grade vocabulary question where the “wanted” definition of the word “cross” is not even listed as a synonym for that word.

There are more examples of tricky test questions in an e-mail I received from a former teacher who was responding to my appearance on Dick Kay’s show earlier this month. You can read her letter in my blog post, “Educators speak out against testing.”

That post also quotes from a recent Tribune letter to the editor by former CPS assessment head Carole L. Perlman, criticizing the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

Louis C.K. and the Common Core: Of course, the trendiest testing issue this month has been Louis C.K.’s Twitter attack on the Common Core.

10,000 people liked this tweet: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

Read more of Louis’s tweets in this article from Diane Ravitch, who wrote:

Don’t underestimate what Louis C.K. accomplished. He was able to break through the carefully crafted narrative that had been spun by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and other advocates for the new standards. He spoke as a father, not a comedian. What he wrote was not funny. His celebrity gave him a platform. His standing as a parent of public school children gave him credibility.

Educators speak out against testing

May 30th, 2014

Pencil - RedPerhaps Blaine principal Troy LaRiviere’s May 3 letter to the Chicago Sun-Times  emboldened other educators to speak out.

For example, the former head of assessment at CPS, Carole Perlman, wrote this letter to the Chicago Tribune criticizing the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers. “Though superficially appealing, using test scores to evaluate teachers will create more problems than it will solve. Excellent teachers will be erroneously labeled as incompetent, while poor teachers may get a pass. Students will not benefit.”

And just a few days ago, I received this wonderful e-mail from former teacher Judy Tomera, who agreed that I could share her comments:

Dear Julie Woestehoff,                                May 26, 2014

I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed you presence on Dick Kay’s show a Saturday or two ago and am looking forward to your next appearance.  I think what you had to say about schools and testing, in particular, is spot on.  It is my opinion after spending about 40 years teaching elementary school (K – 5th grade in rural, urban, and suburban schools) that standardized testing is a waste of time and resources for many reasons, one of which is that they do not test what you want to know about a child.  Many of the questions are ridiculous, designed to lead children astray so the standard bell curve can be preserved.  And, as you well know, the tests are not directly linked to curriculum so they are not a valid indicator of what children have learned in school.

For example:

In first grade in the 80s children were asked to identify which animal lays eggs and fill in the circle below it. (California Achievement Test) The pictures were of an elephant, bunny, snake, and horse.  Enough 6 and 7 years olds were drawn to the bunny (think April and Easter when most testing is done) to elicit the required number of wrong answers to maintain the bell curve.

In third grade in the 2000s on a reading test 3rd graders were asked to find the word in the row that has the same vowel sounds as the first word.  The first word was BEAR and the other words in the list were BEEN, EARS,  HAIR, and HERE.  Many children marked EARS because it had the same vowels, not vowel sounds. That item was also included on purpose to draw children to a wrong answer. I doubt if the children that missed that item would have read the following sentence incorrectly:  The bear had brown ears. Semantics and syntax play an important part in reading correctly. What child who can read would read the sentence as The bear had brown airs, which is the correct response to the question if students had indeed understood the question correctly.

Other examples of deliberate insertion of misleading questions can be identified in most standardized tests. In order to maintain the bell curve, half of the test takers must score less than the 50th percentile in the control groups and half over. Therefore when developing the test items some questions must be more difficult (tricky) or in some cases easier to maintain the bell curve in score distribution of the sample groups.  Questions of recall test memory, not skill. Questions not linked to curriculum are not  useful.  Yes, you are right, testing is a mean trick to play on children.

If you ask most adults, they do not have fond memories of the week of achievement testing. Now in most states it isn’t just in the spring. More is better. It is like getting on the scale every day to see if you have lost weight. It has nothing whatever to do with that goal. Eating less and exercising are better ways of achieving the goal. Time in the classroom providing enriched learning environments and experiences are far better at achieving best student outcomes.

And if you want to know how a child reads, listen to him or her. Fluency, expression, even a few questions of inference or recall are good. And, by the way, it is okay to look back. What good reader doesn’t from time to time. Otherwise, here again, you are just testing memory.

Another practice during testing time is to read aloud test items in the math section to the children who are struggling readers. The logic is that you are not testing math skills if the student is required to comprehend the question by reading it themselves as reading skills are involved.  However, what I found in my classes is that my weaker readers scored higher on the math test than many of the children who in their daily lives demonstrated greater understanding of math concepts. Why not read the math questions to all the children. Oral inflection is a big aid to understanding the written word so students who were read the questions had a big advantage over those who didn’t. You know, level the playing field.

Before I moved to Chicagoland, where I taught in a private school as the public schools could hire two beginning teachers rather than one experienced one like me (but that s another issue), I taught in a public school in Oregon that was rated number 1 in the state.  We would hold workshops two or three times a year to share our program (multiage classrooms) and teaching strategies with teachers and districts throughout the state who would send staff to our school to spend the day with us and our children.  Soon after I moved to NW Indiana, the Oregon State Department of Education instituted standardized testing as means to evaluate effectiveness of schools. How much you improved from year to year was the basis for high evaluation. The more you improved from the previous year, the higher your rank. So my school went from being the best  school in the state to in the middle somewhere simply because our scores, still very high, were not significantly higher than the very high scores from the year before. Schools that had previously scored lower and struggling schools that gained a few points on the outcomes of the test results indeed showed more improvement, though their scores were not in the high range and they got the higher ratings and headlines in the newspaper.  And, as we all know, what is in the newspaper counts.  It is politics.  I felt for the staff, students and parents of my Oregon school for doing an excellent job and not being recognized for that.

Testing is a mirage.  An expensive one.  There are far better ways of showing individual student progress and many schools are using them to communicate with parents.  When parents understand the issues and can see the authentic growth in their children they are pleased.  When they can’t, they and teachers are at least pointed in the direction that encourages improvement.  Test scores, in themselves do not do that.  They are misleading and dishonest and suck the enthusiasm and confidence out of learners.

Thank you for being so articulate in highlighting one of the many problems schools face and leading the way to improvement.  I am in your parade.

Whatever happened to Israel?

May 30th, 2014

Many of you remember Ismael Vargas, who was PURE’s bilingual trainer and assistant director for many years.


Israel Vargas

Not as many got to know Ismael’s brother, Israel, who worked for PURE for a couple of years back when we had our offices on Dearborn. Israel was a whiz of an admin asst and translated all of our materials and newsletters into Spanish, which was a wonderful resource for us. But we knew Israel was going to go on to bigger things – we just had no idea how big!

Here’s an announcement that really made my day:

For Immediate Release

May 20, 2014

Roosevelt University assistant provost is Gage Park Commencement speaker

Israel Vargas, assistant provost for college access and targeted recruitment programs at Roosevelt University, will deliver Gage Park High School’s commencement address June 7 at the Arie Crown Theatre.

Vargas, who grew up in the Gage Park area, said that he would talk to the graduating seniors about how earning a high school diploma is a rite of passage that will lead them into adulthood and the next stages of their lives.

“I will congratulate the students and encourage them to take this earned opportunity and make the most of it by further refining their knowledge,” he said.  “They now are equipped to make a difference in our communities and the world.”

Vargas holds two degrees from Roosevelt, a bachelor’s degree in 2006 and a master’s degree in Training and Development in 2008.  Before joining Roosevelt, he was executive director of San Jose Obrero Mission.  His passion for helping others has led him to speak against violence and to advocate for higher education at schools, churches and community events throughout Chicago. Vargas has participated in cease fire marches in Cicero and has received an Award of Excellence by the Office of the Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and recognition by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Advisory Council on Immigrants and Refugees.

Located at 5630 S. Rockwell St., Gage Park High School serves the Chicago Lawn, New City and Englewood neighborhoods.  It has 555 students.


By the way, Ismael is doing great, too. He is the first Latino working in the Business Licensing Department of the Town of Cicero, and is an assistant pastor at the Vida Abundante/Abundant Life Church as well as official chaplain for the Town of Cicero!


Ismael is sworn in as Cicero chaplain



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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.