September 23, 2012

Improving Education in Chicago

By Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor's Press Office    312.744.3334

Too many children wake up each morning with a view of downtown Chicago and our glittering skyline but the economic opportunity in those buildings might as well be a world away. Social, economic and family dysfunction create a divide between our children’s dreams and the tools they have to achieve them. 

By enacting essential reforms in our schools over the past year and a half, we have worked to bridge that divide. Taking a step back, all of us can see there were unnecessary obstacles to achieving these changes. For one, educational reformers and urban teachers, two groups of people who are passionate about improving schools, too often talked past one another. When engagement from both these groups is essential, they need to see each other as allies, not adversaries. 

The blame educational reformers place on teachers for poor performance in many urban schools can be counter productive and misguided. Failing to appreciate our teachers’ dedication and the depth of their students’ needs creates unnecessary distrust where a shared mission is required. 

While reformers need to appreciate the social challenges teachers face every day in the classroom, union leaders must also understand that simply decrying those difficulties, as if there is nothing that can be done, is also unacceptable. We cannot consign any child, no matter the scope of their difficulties, to a second-class future when we know there are other schools providing first-class opportunities to children with the same obstacles. Demographics are not destiny.

More than a dozen educational studies have shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from additional time on task with a quality teacher. That’s why the reform I have been most eager to adopt is a full school day and full school year. 

Long before I became Mayor, 15 schools in neighborhoods across Chicago extended their day. Students at these schools score 20% higher on their ISATs than children in Chicago who have not had that extra time. At schools like Carson, Inter-American, or Peterson, where a majority of students come from low income or minority backgrounds, students were outperforming their peers across Chicago without the full day. Though our children’s success from a longer day has been plain to see, giving all students a full day of learning has taken the City of Chicago the better part of the last decade. In three separate contract negotiations, with different Mayors and union leadership, this reform was met with stiff opposition. With everything facing our children, that’s just unacceptable. 

While I am proud that Chicago’s children will now have a full day and full year to meet their full potential, introducing a proven foundation for student success should not be so politically difficult or take a full decade to achieve. Having the shortest school day and school year of any major city shortchanged a generation of Chicago’s children. If we are sincere about our desire to provide every student in every community with a world-class education, we cannot wait so long or fight so long to adopt a single reform our students need. 

Chicago’s AUSL schools provide another model of reform and partnership that achieves excellence for students. In AUSL schools, union teachers and motivated principals are achieving incredible results together. A key to AUSL’s success is their teaching academies, which develop educators who learn how to thrive in difficult classroom environments. 

When I ran for Congress, I saw the effectiveness of an AUSL teacher academy firsthand in my own district. I was able to secure resources to open up a high school at the old Wright Community College and an elementary school. Today, the Chicago Academy Elementary and High School are producing great students. Chicago Academy Elementary has 92% of its students meeting or exceeding state standards, far higher than the CPS average of 74%. The share of students at Chicago Academy High School who exceed state standards is 50% greater than the CPS average.  

At AUSL turnarounds across the City students are achieving some of the largest gains in Chicago. They show us that when students have highly trained teachers, committed parents and leadership from motivated principals, schools that have performed poorly for years can succeed in the same buildings with the same students from the same neighborhoods. Because our AUSL schools are doubling the test score gains of their peers, they are gaining national attention and cities across the country are trying to replicate its model.

As Nykila White told the Wall Street Journal about her children’s success at AUSL’s Morton Elementary:"We knew our kids could learn, but now we have a real school and real teachers who are proving that." Neighborhood by neighborhood, school by school, it should not be a battle to the bitter end to provide Nykila White and other parents with a quality education for their children. 

There should be nothing controversial about these schools when they are transforming children’s lives and giving them the foundation they need to succeed. We are on our way to having 12 turnarounds and 14 academies so we have a capacity to transform 10 failing schools a year. The teachers union should join us in turning consistent failure in these schools to consistent success. When it is union teachers who are responsible for the gains in AUSL classrooms, union leaders and CPS should be active partners in these transformations. 

We know that the model of strong leadership we see in AUSL schools is not present in all our schools; there are times where teachers are stuck under poor principals. But in every one of the 94 schools on the state honor roll, there are both great teachers and a strong principal who has the autonomy they need to lead, and the accountability that comes with it.  As I have said repeatedly, when a teaching position opens up, I want the decision to be made by an accountable principal in the school; not downtown, either at CPS headquarters on Clark Street or by CTU at the Merchandise Mart. If the principal decides the team and designs the time, they can deliver the results we as a City demand.

Our teachers are also correct when they argue that they need partnership from committed parents at home to achieve results. The most important door a student walks into is not the door of their classroom but the door of their home. That is why we have put school budgets online and provide parents with the same report card on their child’s school that principals received in the past. This information is vital but it is only an invitation. Parents must make the choice to become more involved in their children’s schools if they are to improve, from report card pick-up to parent-teacher conferences.  

That kind of parental engagement is one reason for the success of the 14 schools in the UNO charter network. Weeks before the first day of school, teachers begin communicating with parents about what they want their children to achieve. UNO schools have 100% report card pick from parents and require parent engagement as a condition of enrollment.

The brand of education, whether it is a parochial school, neighborhood school, charter school or AUSL school, should not blind us to learning how they achieve results. While there are many models, there should be one mission: educational excellence. When so many students in Chicago have so much working against them, it is irresponsible to resist proven reforms simply on the basis of where they were developed. The philosophies of adults should matter far less than putting practices in place that are proven to create student achievement. 

We see how our children have the optimism to overcome incredible obstacles. When we see our children seize opportunities and beat the odds, then surely we as adults can come together to provide them better schools and support. When their city is our city and their future Chicago’s future, we have to put our children first.