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CPS Screening Process Discriminated Against Black Candidates

Chicago Public Schools has admitted a teacher screening process used since 2012 discriminated against black and Latino applicants.

The process blocked many applicants of color from even getting interviews.

The district agreed the process was unfair and halted it after WBEZ learned of the disparity this year through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to 2015 data released by CPS, which got the data from the private company that conducted the screenings, 74 percent of the 2,417 white applicants advanced to the pool of potential hires. Of the 430 Latino candidates, 58 percent made it. And of the 729 black candidates, just 45 percent made it.

CPS officials didn’t have an explanation for the disparity. 

“Obviously, when we saw the data it was troubling, which is why we sought to reverse that policy swiftly,” Chief of Education Janice Jackson said. “Obviously, any type of practice that puts people in a disadvantage and -- with this situation where a minority or another subgroup is disproportionately impacted -- we want to shut that down quickly. We want to strike that down quickly.”

But the district could still be in trouble with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for using the screening process, and the numbers call into question if the decline in black teachers is because of the lack of applicants or because of the process.

In 2014-2015, the most recent data available, 22.3 percent of the CPS teaching staff was black, 20 percent were Latino and half were white. Meanwhile, 39.3 percent of students were black, 45.6 were Latino and 9.4 percent were white.

As recently as a decade ago, about 40 percent of CPS teachers were black.

Studies have increasingly shown it is important for black students to have black teachers, who tend to demand more from black students academically and help them build confidence. Black teachers are also role models for black students. 

But studies also found it is important for white students to be exposed to a diverse teaching staff.

‘They can be non-service workers’

Michelle Evans, an African-American teacher at Nettelhorst Elementary School in the Lakeview neighborhood, said she and her roommate, who is white, talk about how Evans' race provides important perspectives for students.

“We notice that on the North Side the service industry is made almost entirely of minorities, so we have said white kids that grow up on the North Side of Chicago grow up thinking that black and Hispanic people work at grocery stores and at retail stores and are bus drivers,” Evans said. “When they see someone like me and my administrator, who break the mold, at least they have some kind of idea they can be principals, they can be teachers, they can be non-service workers.”

That is one reason Evans was disturbed when she had trouble getting a CPS job. 

Evans said she almost gave up because of the screening process, which data now prove had a negative impact on minority hiring.

The process was used to place new applicants into the next phase of hiring, known as the "teacher quality pool." Applicants had to provide two references from administrators and answer three questions. 

Over the past two years, the district outsourced the process to a private company and the screening was done via a recorded telephone line. 

The questions involved a variety of topics, from classroom management to planning and preparation, to how an applicant would communicate with parents and the community.

Evans, who is now in her second year of teaching at Nettelhorst, called the process “weird.” 

“It was just really vague questions, like explain a time in your classroom when you had to deal with a difficult situation and how did you do it,” she said. “They use a robot to ask the question. You get two minutes to think about it and then your response can only be recorded once and it had to be three minutes.”

(Michelle Evans sits in her classroom at Nettelhorst Elementary School in the Lakeview neighborhood. (Sarah Karp/WBEZ)

Evans said she was devastated when she didn’t get into the pool after two tries. She has a bachelors and masters degrees from Michigan State University, which is ranked as one of the best colleges of education in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

She also worked as an aide at Nettelhorst, and said teachers noticed how good she was in the class and gave her extra responsibilities.

“That was good, but it also meant that I was doing work that I wasn’t paid for,” she said.

Evans felt stuck as an aide, and said she saw young white women, many of whom had less experience, get classroom jobs. 

Evans finally got into the teacher quality pool, but said it was because Nettelhorst got an interim principal who wanted her to take over a classroom after a teacher went on maternity leave.

“She made a call, and magically I was in it,” Evans said. “The teacher quality process isn't real. It told me it is another made up stopgate process to filter out people…. It is supposed to be unbiased, but I don't think it is.”

It remains possible the screening process was not biased, and that school principals were helping certain candidates bypass the process. 

CPS changes system

Regardless of why the process was flawed, an attorney with the Equal Employment and Opportunities Commission said CPS is at fault in two respects. Employers are supposed to be monitoring screening tools to make sure they are unbiased and, if they show bias, they should be gotten rid of. 

Jackson said there is no excuse for failing to monitor the process, but noted the district did not have a head of human resources for nearly a year. 

Muslima Lewis, senior attorney for the EEOC, said a black or Latino candidate who failed to get into the teacher quality pool could bring a complaint now that the data is available. She said employers can still be found culpable, even if there’s no intent. 

Lewis said the EEOC is concerned about the use of screening tools and other recruitment and hiring methods used to narrow candidate pools. She said the commission is taking a lead on these cases, even without complaints. 

She points out that it is difficult for applicants to know they are being discriminated against and bring a complaint.

“They have no knowledge at all about who else has applied and who else has gotten through the process and who didn't,” she said. 

Jackson said the district is getting rid of the teacher quality pool for new hires. She said principals should not have barriers to choosing which candidates they want to hire. 

“We ask principals to do a lot with limited resources, and teachers are a core part of what they need in order for them to be successful,” Jackson said. “I don't think we should put any barriers in place that prevent them from doing that.”

‘First ones fired and the last ones hired’

Carol Caref, a research coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union, said the teacher quality pool came about under the last teachers contract. The union wanted to secure some way for laid off teachers to get priority consideration for jobs that came open. 

District officials insisted only laid-off teachers with high ratings should get into the pool, and there be some eligibility requirement for new hires.

The union has insisted the school district do a better job at hiring black teachers. 

“Black teachers are the first ones fired and the last ones hired,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis asserted at a rally last year.

The union currently has a class action lawsuit against the district that alleged black teachers were targeted for firing in school turnarounds. The turnaround process sought to improve schools by replacing a school’s entire staff with a new one. 

Turnaround schools tended to serve mostly black students and have a disproportionately high number of black staff, as have the more than 100 schools the district has closed.

It has long been assumed the laying off of black teachers through these school actions were mostly the cause of the district’s decline in black teachers. 

But a study by the Shanker Institute last year found that hiring in Chicago is one of the main reasons for the decreasing numbers of black teachers. The study found “leaver rates” are relatively similar among teachers of different ethnicities, but that more white teachers are being hired. 

Jackson said the lack of black young people going into teaching is part of the problem. And claimed the district is turning a corner in hiring. 

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation.

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