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After Decades of Reform, Has Chicago Finally Learned How to Fix Education?

Some promising signs suggest the city may be turning around its troubled school system. It offers lessons for other struggling districts.

The phone call Janice Jackson had been waiting for came in early December. She was going to be named interim CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). A protégé of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she would be taking over the third largest school district in the nation. She was also getting the job she had predicted for herself since her days as a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A month after her appointment, the city closed the deal by dropping the word “interim” from her title.

Jackson has joined a long list of Chicago schools CEOs who have attracted national attention for their role in the city’s seemingly endless series of reform efforts. One of them, Arne Duncan, went on to become U.S. education secretary in the Obama administration. Another, Paul Vallas, narrowly missed in a bid for governor of Illinois in 2002 and is currently campaigning to succeed Emanuel in city hall. 

But Jackson, who is 41 years old, has also taken over an institution that has never been able to divorce itself from Chicago’s reputation for political controversy and corruption. Her rise to CEO was hastened by the resignation of Forrest Claypool, a former county commissioner and head of the Chicago Transit Authority, who was the target of an ethics investigation during his short tenure running the city schools. Before Claypool, Barbara Byrd-Bennett ran CPS until she was indicted and later sentenced to prison for steering contracts to a former employer and accepting kickbacks as compensation. 


Janice Jackson has stepped in as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools at a time of overall improvement in student achivement but also declining enrollment.

Jackson is managing a district that has lost more than 50,000 students since 2000, triggering the closure of nearly 50 elementary schools and breeding resentment in much of the city. School administrators have been caught falsifying attendance and graduation rates. And recently the district has come under fire for not doing enough to stop rampant sexual abuse of students by staff. 

Still, good news landed on Jackson’s desk just before she took the reins at CPS. New research from Stanford University showed that Chicago schoolchildren between the third and eighth grades were improving their performance at a faster rate than those in 96 percent of the school districts in the country. A significant number of Chicago pupils who came into third grade far behind their peers nationally were said to be attaining six years of academic growth in five school years. 

Even those who had been intimately involved in CPS reform efforts found the Stanford numbers startling. “We were surprised,” says Penny Sebring, co-founder of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. “It kind of made sense but it was still a wow moment.” 

But not everyone in the CPS universe found the Stanford study convincing. Critics called it an outlier, a statistical blip in a school system where almost three-quarters of the eighth graders still aren’t proficient in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “I will be real surprised if they can tell this story five years from now,” says Carol Caref, education policy director for the Chicago Teachers Union.

The Stanford researchers didn’t have an answer for how Chicago was making its strides. But CPS officials offered an explanation. They claimed it was their strategy of recruiting and training elite quality principals that was turning around what a U.S. education secretary once called the worst school district in the nation. 

Chicago has been engaged in school reform experiments for more than 30 years, as long as any city in the country and more intensely than just about any of them. The initial experiment emerged out of a crisis. The teachers union was on strike in 1987, in the closing days of Mayor Harold Washington’s tenure. It was shortly after the strike ended that Education Secretary Bill Bennett made his comment that Chicago ranked at the bottom among school systems and advised parents to send their children to private school if they could. In fact, nearly half of Chicago public school teachers in 1987 sent their children to private or parochial schools, a sobering statistic that prompted 

Bennett to say that “the people who know the product best send their children elsewhere.”

Jackson was in elementary school on Chicago’s South Side when Bennett delivered his insult, but she has remembered it ever since. “That was a kick in the face,” she says now, “but it made us look in the mirror and do some things different.” 

Actually, Washington had been working behind closed doors on a plan to overhaul the school district. When the teachers’ strike hit, he seized on the political unrest to make a public commitment to school reform. He announced plans for an education summit that would search for a path toward fixing the public schools. Washington died of a heart attack before the summit could be convened, but the momentum for change remained alive. 

In 1988, the Illinois General Assembly enacted the Comprehensive School Reform Act. Each school in Chicago would be run by a local council, composed of teachers, parents, community members and a student representative at the high school level. It was a strategy that came to be known as “site-based management.” The councils were responsible for hiring and evaluating principals and approving the school site budget. Tenure for principals was eliminated. The central CPS office tracked each school’s progress and was asked to support local initiatives in what essentially became a competition among school buildings, principals and teachers.

The results were discouraging. While some of the local councils thrived, a large number were dysfunctional and lacked the expertise to manage schools. Parent participation in many neighborhoods was spotty. By 1995, Chicago was ready for a second round of reform, one that was intended to strike more of a balance between local school site management and strong central authority. Chicago followed Boston as the second large city to adopt full mayoral control of its school system. Mayor Richard M. Daley became chief executive officer, the functional equivalent of a superintendent. The elected members of the local school councils were required to undergo management training. And the district got a key partner, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. 

In many ways, however, school improvement efforts in Chicago remained tethered to an earlier model of education reform: They were fixated on improving the schools one classroom at a time. Individual teachers needed to improve their instruction methods; lesson plans had to be rewritten. That didn’t turn out to be a very successful strategy, in Chicago or anywhere else in urban education. The issue was scale. There were simply too many underperforming schools for this piecemeal method to work. By the late 1990s, reformers in Chicago began to see school principals as the solution to the scale problem. 

The first wave of school reform in Chicago had treated teachers much like tennis players, focusing attention on improving individual skills and technique. The second wave, in the early 2000s, began to treat teachers more like team athletes. They were expected to collaborate with their peers on how to improve instruction and shape lesson plans. Principals were taught to act as coaches. “It’s pretty obvious that unless you had a strong leader, nothing could improve at scale,” says Paul Zavitkovsky, leadership coach and assessment specialist at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There would be some strong teachers, but you couldn’t duplicate their success across the school without strong leaders.” 

Finding top-quality talent seemed like a feasible task. In Illinois, 43,000 educators hold formal credentials for the roughly 400 principals’ positions that open up across the state each year. But for decades, training of principals in Illinois had mostly meant handing out credentials to teachers who used their certificates to boost their own compensation for working in the classroom. In the 2000s, a glut of online principal-certification programs made the entire process highly questionable.

The state eventually clamped down. In 2010, Illinois passed a law tightening regulations on principal certificate credentials. Online programs were done away with and curriculum standards were bolstered. Chicago went a step further. It made new principals pass an entrance exam, sometimes called the “principal bar,” before they could be certified to run a Chicago public school. 

The city also developed a farm system for principals. The Center for Urban Education Leadership began to concentrate on churning out principal candidates for CPS. Almost a fifth of the current principals in the city’s system are graduates of the program, including Jackson. “We started the program because we had convincing research that a really good principal could improve student learning in poor neighborhoods,” says Steve Tozer, director of the center. “What we didn’t [have] was a university that turned out really good principals that focused on urban education.” 

The program was extended from a master’s degree to a doctoral program in the early 2000s, giving the university control over many of the candidates for several additional years. The program’s managers sought to mold school leaders who would reject the notion that inner-city children from disadvantaged backgrounds face insuperable barriers to a quality education. “If you have this presumption that you have to spoon feed kids stuff because they are poor kids and they got dealt a bad hand,” Zavitkovsky says, “that undergirds this system that is not serving children.”

“If every student arrives knowing the school, the teachers and the principal have a plan for them after high school, that affirms that people care about them and that makes a difference,” says Kyla Matthews, a doctoral student at the center who is an assistant principal at Simeon Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side. 

Since Chicago is vesting so much power in its principals, the center’s program teaches its future school leaders to marry hard data with softer science. Where data show a gap in literacy, principals are expected to look for ways to reshape their schools -- sometimes by revamping the physical site. “Is this building able to meet the needs of students? Are there areas that allow children to read?” asks Turan Crockett, another product of the program who is principal-in-residence at Wendell Smith Elementary on Chicago’s far South Side. “Principals need to see all that, and then dive into the data and make decisions about how we can address our deficiencies.” 

P.J. Karafiol arrived as principal at Lake View High School, on the North Side of Chicago, in June 2016. He was a much sought-after principal candidate, having taught at the Phillips Academy Andover prep school in Massachusetts, where teachers are expected to collaborate on lesson plans, and where the “head of school,” the equivalent of a principal, is given broad authority. 

Karafiol was taking over the oldest school building in Chicago, one flanked by leafy streets, high-priced homes and affluent neighbors, including the mayor. His student body is the opposite: More than 80 percent of them come from low- to moderate-income families. In 2016, Lake View was said to be one of the better-performing high schools in Chicago. Nevertheless, Karafiol saw a lot that needed changing, and his impact on the school was immediate. 

Karafiol was moving into a school where collaboration was little more than a word bounced around the faculty lounge, and many teachers seemed skeptical about the latest change agent placed in charge of their institution. “The first month,” Karafiol says, “I had one-on-one interviews with every department chair, every assistant principal and all the local school council members, and opened up slots for any teacher who wanted to come talk to me.” 


P.J. Karafiol, principal at Lake View High School, was much sought-after because of his expereince at a prep school in Massachusetts.

A handful of teachers accepted the invitation. Karafiol laid out his plans for improving the school. He created common prep periods for each department, meaning, for example, that the entire math department had one period when none of its teachers were holding class. During the common prep, teachers could get together and create lesson plans, mentor younger colleagues and find solutions to common problems they were experiencing in the classroom. 

One exercise Karafiol uses at Lake View is what’s known as the “fishbowl.” Teachers arrange student work in piles. One pile may contain papers on which students are making the same mistake. The next pile groups together a different mistake on the same problem. The teachers sit in the middle of a circle with the piles of student work, seeking to find out why the mistakes are being made. “Common prep allows me to sit down with my colleagues and be really intentional about the common core standards that we need to assess our students,” says Anna Proni, a psychology teacher at Lake View and a member of its local school council.   

If principals are coaches, then they need to spend a fair amount of time watching teachers play the game. Karafiol and his assistant principals will show up to a class unannounced and observe from the back of the room. After the observation, they offer instant feedback. The teachers union needed some initial reassurances that the pop-ins wouldn’t impact a teacher’s formal evaluation. Proni says some of her colleagues are still uncomfortable with administrators walking into their classes, but others want the impromptu visits to be longer, so Karafiol and his top staff can get a fuller picture of what’s working and what isn’t. 

Even the quick analysis of a classroom situation, Karafiol believes, is a powerful tool in helping the teacher improve. “If I go to pop-ins and I give them that feedback,” he says, “they get a chance to improve before their formal evaluation.” The union leaders are not convinced. “I think it varies from principal to principal about how pop-ins are used,” says Caref of the teachers union. “A principal may use it for coaching,” she says, “and other principals may use it as a gotcha.” 

Union leaders don’t dispute that principals are making a difference in Chicago schools. But the union, which has more than 20,000 members in the city, worries that the principals are caught between the needs of the students and the political demands of CPS and the mayor. Principals are evaluated each year by the district’s network chiefs, and test scores are a major component of the evaluation. If the school’s overall performance slips, the decision on whether to retain a principal is stripped from the local school council and rests with the network chief. The pressure, union leaders believe, can cause principals to place political demands above those of teachers and students. The union points to three administrators who falsified graduation and attendance numbers to paint a better picture of a school’s performance. The pressure to perform can also lead to what Tozer of the Center for Urban Education Leadership calls “drill and kill” teaching, where teachers spend the bulk of their time teaching to state exams in hopes of appeasing the district’s demand for measurable improvements of academic achievement.   


"I'll be real surprised if they can tell this story five years from now," Carol Caref of the Chicago Teachers Union says of the city's student achievement gains.

Jackson’s ascension to CEO sent an important signal to the entire school system. It signaled a return to reliance on homegrown talent. Where many of her predecessors were transplants to Chicago and some were new even to the world of education, Jackson is strictly a local product. She went to elementary school and high school on the South Side, earned a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University, then went through the graduate training program at the center, where she declared on her admissions essay that her goal was eventually to run the system. She taught high school social studies and was founding principal of the highly successful George Westinghouse College Prep High School. 

Jackson’s professional history is reassuring to many of the teachers and school officials who now work for her. But under the system of mayoral control, concerns remain that Jackson is too closely tied to Emanuel and his agenda for public schools, which has been characterized by critics as a push to shutter schools in poor neighborhoods, expand charter schools and take an adversary posture toward the Chicago Teachers Union. “If she weren’t appointed by Rahm and didn’t have to do his bidding, it would be encouraging,” Caref says. “The bottom line is she has to answer to him and carry out his policies.” 

While Jackson is heading a school district where student achievement appears to be on the upswing, her tenure is already being buffeted by a lingering problem in Chicago -- declining enrollment. Between 2003 and 2013, Chicago’s public school population dropped by 32,000. Estimates are that a similar decline has hit the district since. The first precipitous drop in enrollment prompted CPS to tag 53 schools for closure, and 47 either have closed or are slated to be closed in the near future. The closures have been concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods in the city, which are also the areas where the school-age population is in decline. William H. King Elementary on the West Side was one of the closures that generated angry opposition from parents, city council members and many educators. Parents at King worried about their children’s safety going to and from Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy, a mile away, with one saying Emanuel would have “blood on his hands” if anything went wrong.

The closures still haven’t fully addressed the district’s challenge of managing so many buildings across a sprawling city. According to an analysis conducted by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, more than 100 of the schools in Chicago are half empty. But at the same time schools are being closed, CPS is opening 39 new buildings. The simultaneous closing of schools and opening of new ones has been characterized as gentrification of the school district, with critics pointing to the Englewood neighborhood as the prime example. Four schools in Englewood are going to be phased out due to their relatively small student populations. In their place will be a new $85 million school facility, not far from where a new Whole Foods store recently opened. 

Many neighborhood residents see the new school being much like the new supermarket, something intentionally aimed at attracting affluent parents. “The school is the leading edge of gentrification. It’s new, shiny and it’s seen as the beginning of change in the neighborhood,” says Kurt Hilgendorf, policy adviser for Teachers Local 1. 

The union sees a connection between the timing of the research pointing to academic gains in the city and the closures and other scandals that have rocked CPS. In the union’s view, the district is spinning a new narrative of success to camouflage the fact that enrollment is declining, schools are closing, and inflated graduation numbers and other scandals are still fresh in the memories of voters. Emanuel is up for reelection in 2019, and the schools are bound to be a central issue in the campaign. “The reason CPS is so excited about the study is it’s an outlier,” Hilgendorf argues. “It masks the cuts to education and the cooking of graduation rates.” 

In mid-May, Jackson taped a promotional video for Progress Chicago, a nonprofit advocacy group, one of whose objectives is to “help advance awareness about the progress Chicago is making in the classroom.” While the group doesn’t endorse candidates, its funders are closely tied to Emanuel’s likely reelection bid. 

Jackson is cagey when asked if her tenure at CPS is tied to Emanuel’s election. When Daley left office in 2011, the schools CEO left as well. Asked whether she could work alongside Vallas,  the former CPS CEO, who if elected would not only be responsible for the district but would also have personal experience running it, Jackson demurs. “Every mayor is going to appoint who they are going to appoint,” she says. “I serve at the pleasure of the people who put me here. I trust my gift and my talents.” 

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