Equity & Diversity Opinion

Closing Argument: Chicago Must Finish What It Started in Education Reform

By Marilyn Rhames — June 13, 2012 5 min read
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Just this week, while at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago, I shared with the congregation that the district’s new graduation rates are the highest on record. Undoubtedly, this is good news. For the first time in decades the district has achieved a graduation rate of over 60 percent, with steady increases over the past five years.

While we must take a moment to celebrate the hard working teachers and committed families that have helped lead more students across the graduation stage, the troubling reality is, despite this growth, almost 40 percent of our students still aren’t graduating from high school. Moreover, the issues of disproportionality—the over-representation of African-American males in the achievement gap, suspension, and drop-out rate—are inexcusable. We can, we must, and we will do better.

Mr. D’Abell, who blogged here last month about his decision to move his family out of Chicago, is not the first person to question the vitality of the Chicago Public School system. Later this year, we’ll mark the 25th anniversary of former Education Secretary Bill Bennett’s famous declaration that the Chicago Public Schools are the worst school system in the nation. It will also be 25 years since Bennett’s less famous statement that it “would take a man or woman of steel” to clean up the Chicago School System.

Over that time, some very steely personalities have sat in the CEO chair, including current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. When I took over as CEO a little more than a year ago, I didn’t inherit the worst school system in the nation. I inherited our nation’s third largest school system—one with enormous challenges—but also one with unlimited potential.

Six years ago, the Public Education Leadership Project at Harvard University took stock of the changes that took place in the Chicago Public Schools in the first decade of school reform and looked ahead to the challenges we face today. They found that reform was focused on improved instruction; greater autonomy for principals; removing children from failing schools and learning from schools that are succeeding.

Every one of those goals was right on target. So why weren’t these very capable people—with their very sensible priorities—wildly successful? Why are too many students throughout Chicago still in low-performing schools? Why do less than a third of students and families have meaningful access to high quality choices? Why is the achievement gap widening in Chicago more than national trends?

The task for my team at CPS isn’t to start the education reform project in Chicago, it’s to thoroughly, deliberately and systemically complete it. We’ve learned a great deal about improving public education and we intend to learn from the successes of some and the missteps of others.

In the past, we focused on student achievement, but we measured against state tests and standards that weren’t rigorous enough to be predictive of college readiness. We created a system for greater accountability, but it was marred by inconsistent and obscure performance policies and unclear definitions of success across school types. We deployed data management systems, but did not provide timely access to formative data to support continuous improvement in teaching and learning.

We closed and turned around underperforming schools, but our actions lacked transparency and community buy-in. And we did little to engage and empower families. Reforms failed to reach the most disengaged and disenfranchised families in the city, despite calls for greater equity, transparency, and access.

These reform efforts have seen some small success, but the fact remains, the vast majority of Chicago’s children are entering adulthood undereducated and unprepared for college or career.

The failures of previous attempts at reform in Chicago have not been unique; they have been part of the learning curve experienced by large urban districts all over the country as the realities and disastrous consequences of low graduation rates, high racial achievement gaps, and poor educational attainment have come to light over the past two decades. Other urban districts around the country such as New York, New Orleans, Denver, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and D.C. have found similar challenges.

If we are to deliver on the promise of a quality education for every child in every community, CPS must create a dynamic, continuously improving system of schools that are diverse and innovative enough to serve an increasingly diverse student population.

Disciplined implementation is critical, not only because of the city’s complexity, scale, and current fragmentation— but also to overcome the widespread and increasingly debilitating distrust created by failed reform efforts of the past. Transforming the system will take strategic focus, political courage and a fierce commitment to equity and excellence unparalleled in CPS or any major urban school system.

But the work is critical: Every day, week, month, and year that goes by with schools failing to improve student outcomes hurts the children of Chicago and the future of this city.

Mr. D’Abell is doing what is right for his son, and no parent would argue with his choice. My goal, and that of my team, is to ensure that all parents, in all neighborhoods, have high quality school choices available to their children - so that no parent is faced with the choice of either keeping a child in a low-performing school or moving out of the City of Chicago.

While I regret that Mr. D’Abell was forced to make that choice, his commitment to addressing and engaging in conversation about the quality of our schools is one that brings me hope. One of the most critical changes we must facilitate if we are going to make this goal a reality is to regain the trust of our families by engaging them as true partners in driving school and student success. These are our public schools. We all have a role in improving them—and we all have a responsibility to the children who attend them.

I thank Mr. D’Abell for starting the conversation and look forward to continuing this dialogue with families in all corners of Chicago as we embark on the challenging and exciting work of transforming our schools to give every child an opportunity for success in college, career, and beyond.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.