Many of us in higher education have long grappled with the stunning dichotomy of American education: Our colleges and universities are acknowledged as the most advanced in the world, and yet our public elementary and secondary schools continue to lag behind those of other industrialized nations. Nowhere is this contrast more stark than from our academic vantage point: a world-renowned university in a section of Chicago whose public schools struggle to serve the children and families who depend on them. Because the country relies on public schools to educate its citizenry—not only to maintain America’s place in the global economy, but also to preserve its democratic systems—continued failure in this realm poses one of the most significant national domestic problems of our time. It is time for higher education to take a far greater, and significantly different, responsibility for pre-K-12 schooling.
Our institution, the University of Chicago, has made a strategic decision to focus its intellectual resources on the improvement of urban public schools. Recognizing that a complex problem needs innovative and nuanced solutions, we have launched an urban education initiative that comprises four interrelated strands: pursuing basic research that will help better the lives of children, developing outstanding practitioners for urban schools, undertaking applied research that refines our work in Chicago and informs other school systems across the nation, and developing a model of what high-quality public schooling for urban children looks like.
Notably, we are pursuing this work without a school or department of education. We believe this offers us an exceptional opportunity to conceptualize a new role for the research university seeking to influence pre-K-12 schooling. Our initiative will be led jointly by faculty members and school practitioners, and is supported by a national board co-chaired by the university’s president and provost. We do not suggest that Chicago’s Urban Education Initiative is a blueprint for other institutions to follow. But we are committed to investing in this work, and to studying and sharing new approaches as we do so.
At the heart of our initiative are the pre-K-12 charter schools opened and operated by the university’s Center for Urban School Improvement. These are located in communities near our South Side campus and serve predominantly low-income African-American students, who will number approximately 1,600 when the schools reach capacity in a few years. Admission is through a lottery process. The university is taking full responsibility for the schools’ academic performance and fiscal administration. These public charter schools are designed to provide an outstanding education for children and families, serve as a training ground for the next generation of practitioners, and operate as the locus for cutting-edge research to develop new tools and methods for urban education.
Seeking solutions to the social and economic ills facing our country must be one of the tasks of higher education.
Because there are those who will argue that schools operated by a university cannot be replicable, we have initiated a connected effort to incubate and support 15 additional new schools across Chicago. Together, the University of Chicago schools and this broader portfolio of schools will serve 10,000 children annually.
The singular contribution a university can make to such an effort is to ground it in formative evaluation and systematic empirical research. Thus, intersecting at our charter schools will be the work of Chicago’s newly established, multidisciplinary Committee on Education, which conducts basic research spanning pedagogical, economic, and cultural issues that affect urban schooling. Because researchers must learn from the problems practitioners encounter and the solutions they devise,the committee brings together nationally recognized practitioners with members of our faculty from fields such as psychology, mathematics, sociology, economics, and public policy. Also essential to the program is work under way at the university’s school of social service administration, where we explore new ways to address nonacademic barriers to learning, chart the links between schools and communities, and train social workers and community school leaders.
Another key aspect of our initiative is a return to the enterprise John Dewey began at the university more than a hundred years ago: changing the way teachers are prepared for the classroom. Chicago’s recently launched Urban Teacher Education Program is our response to national concerns about the adequacy of traditional teacher-preparation programs and the disconnection between the academy and the realities of teaching in challenging urban contexts. This highly selective master’s degree program to prepare elementary teachers (and later, high school teachers as well) is designed and taught by distinguished professors and top pre-K-12 teachers, and emphasizes the high intellectual standards, professionalism, and leadership qualities required to teach well in cities like Chicago.
The central experience of teacher-candidates’ preparation occurs during a full-year internship in classrooms at our own and other local schools. The Chicago public school system is our partner in this work, and provides support for interns as well as their cooperating teachers, the program’s clinical instructors. To ensure the success of graduates, we provide them with two years of professional development and ongoing mentoring as they begin their careers teaching in the Chicago public schools.
Operating schools poses financial and organizational challenges and puts a university’s reputation on the line. To complicate matters, success might not always be within the university's control.
Because the initiative aims to inform urban school policy nationally as well as locally, the Consortium on Chicago School Research will play a key role. For more than 15 years, the CCSR’s applied research has defined areas for improvement in the Chicago schools, and consequently has guided the district’s reform efforts. Its findings also have helped shape the design of the university’s own schools, through studies analyzing what ambitious intellectual work for students requires, what effective professional training for teachers includes, and what constitutes the “essential supports” urban schools need to improve student learning.
The consortium’s national reputation and its activist role in disseminating findings to the public have inspired other cities to form similar research groups. For example, a consortium of four East Coast institutions—New York University, Columbia University, Harvard University, and the City University of New York—will be replicating the CCSR model as it studies reforms in the New York City public schools.
In short, the Urban Education Initiative is now a central part of the University of Chicago’s mission to increase knowledge and prepare future scholars and professionals. It is creating an extraordinary partnership between university researchers, expert practitioners, and our broader community—a partnership that sustains interaction between basic and applied research and between research and practice.
Of course, there are risks for a university embarking on such an endeavor. Operating multiple schools poses financial and organizational challenges and puts the university’s reputation on the line. Complicating matters, public education is a highly politicized arena, and success might not always be within the complete control of a university. And questions inevitably will arise about whether such initiatives can achieve scale—how will our work at Chicago, for example, be made relevant in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Boston?
Our response is that universities should weigh these risks carefully, but balance them against the responsibilities and opportunities inherent in crafting a new relationship between higher and precollegiate education.
First and foremost, it must be the task of higher education to seek solutions to the social and economic ills facing our country. Not only is this in universities’ long-term interest, but it is also the right thing to do. Second, such work advances our academic agenda. A broad-based engagement with urban public education is a means of recruiting top-notch scholars and excellent practitioners, people who will build academic programs that attract high-quality college and graduate students. Third, for urban universities in particular, operating schools is a vital way to establish meaningful ties with community leaders and residents. Our schools’ governance structure includes the active involvement of parents and members of the community, which in turn offers compelling opportunities for the university to collaborate with and learn from its neighbors, and to leverage other university-based initiatives to build robust mixed-income communities.
What will be the measure of our success? Primarily, the aim of the initiative is to transform the outcomes for children enrolled in urban public schools and clarify the supports, structures, and practices needed to organize schools to make consistently high achievement possible. The problem, we believe, is not simply one of resources or will, but of creating both the knowledge to inform practice and the new institutions to pursue such work. Certainly, the bottom line is whether we make a difference for the schoolchildren we serve and, as a result, influence the quality of schooling for children across Chicago and in other cities.
In the long run, what holds the greatest promise for universities are the twin opportunities of developing new ideas and models for urban schooling—ones that will enable more high school graduates to enter four-year colleges with every expectation for success—and crafting new conceptions of the role institutions of higher learning can play in improving the quality of American schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as John Dewey for Today