Education bloggers keep careful eye on CPS

After Chicago Public Schools' newly-installed attendance system shut down on its first day of service earlier this month, a number of educators vented their frustrations on blogs.

Those blog entries alerted journalists and parents to the problem, who besieged the school system with inquiries and complaints.

The rapid spread of the news was evidence of the growing influence and popularity of so-called "edublogs."

Teachers, administrators and parents all track the well-known District 299 Chicago Public Schools Blog, a daily journal that describes itself as "the highly unofficial guide to Chicago Public Schools--all day, every day."

The site, run by freelance education journalist and activist Alexander Russo, is a deliberately neutral, in-depth chronicle of the goings-on within the nation's third largest school district.

Other notable local education bloggers include Mike Klonsky, who focuses on school reform, and 'Chicago Teacher Man', a high school English teacher who writes on the trials and tribulations of a running an urban public school classroom.

When IMPACT, CPS' new $60 million electronic attendance system failed, several teachers posted comments on Russo's site.

"People started writing in and saying... 'hey, the computer crashed. Is it just me or is it everyone else?'" Russo said.

One commenter was reassured to learn that he or she was not the only befuddled attendance-taker. "Glad to know IMPACT was a system-wide issue," the commenter wrote."Well maybe not glad, but glad we weren't the only ones."

The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times published articles about the issue the following morning.

For education bloggers like Russo, exposing critical information is the tipping point in educational reform.

"I realized that lots of people in CPS don't know what's going on in other parts of the system, whether it is in other schools or in other divisions," Russo affirms. "There is a lot of information that isn't being shared."

Russo, a Chicago native who has been blogging for more than five years, also maintains a general education blog that is featured in the online version of "Education Week" called "This Week in Education." Although Russo once taught seventh- and 10th-grade English, he claims that his real expertise comes from "working with real issues happening in New York and [Washington] D.C. and then covering the Chicago schools for "Catalyst," "the independent monthly periodical that covers CPS issues.

His passion for local education led him to write "School Reform in Chicago: Lessons in Policy and Practice," an analysis of local school reforms.

Despite his involvement in local school issues, Russo stresses his blog's independence.

"I have no CPS affiliation," Russo says. "People... like the fact that I am even-handed, skeptical and contrarian. I am not taking the union's side; I'm not taking the board's side. If there's something missing from a press story, I mention that."

Education bloggers value the freedom to say as much, or as little, as they like.

Klonsky, who writes the "Small Talk" blog, is a well-known activist for smaller schools. Klonsky, who says his site receives 33,000 hits a month, believes that the democratic and interactive nature of blogging has changed the way policy-makers approach education.

"I am quite sure that CPS administrators and policy makers look at this blog," says Klonsky. "The blog has helped change the way in which school policy debates take place," he says. "Blogging gives everybody access to a marketplace of ideas."

Yet not all bloggers share his experiences.

"No giant thing that has happened because of the (District 299) blog, at least within the system," Russo says. "We haven't broken any nuclear codes or revealed any secret information."

Nevertheless, he believes blogging is an essential source of activism.

"There is an audience of interested and often unhappy and frustrated people who are dealing with CPS who want to share their thoughts and argue and commiserate," Russo says. "It's fascinating because I learn so much that I never had the chance to learn as a reporter or a researcher," he says.

Despite the growing interest, education blogs are still somewhat rare, particularly in Chicago, Russo says. "In other cities, there are lots of teachers who blog, usually quite hilarious and often anonymous."

But the fear of getting fired or hurting their careers keeps many would-be bloggers silent, Russo says.

He tells the story of discovering a first-year teacher blogging about his experiences on a MySpace page. "But as soon as I linked to him, one of the principals found out and he didn't want to do it anymore."

Such fears are common. Chicago Teacher Man, who doesn't use his real name says "there's plenty to complain about [with the CPS]. It's a giant bureaucracy. Every giant organization needs to protect its reputation."

Yet not all blog news is bad news.

"There's no doubt that there is some venting. Sometimes the arguments get a little bit rough," Russo maintains. "But people also share ideas and experiences that they're having as teachers or students or parents."

Chicago Teacher Man agrees. While this high school English teacher hashes out the occasional bureaucratic complaint, CTM does not focus on administrative ranting. His blog entries are a means of remembering his teaching experiences.

"So much happens everyday that I forget about it," he says.

"I want to remember what happens. I think that my students are kick-ass people and I think that people need to know that."


KAT, 09-21-2007

I don't consider Russo's blogg to be entirely neutral, particularly if you get to the topic of Paul Vallas's term as CEO in Chicago Public Schools. Then his true colors fly.