For the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), a glass that is three quarters full is still half empty. Consider the dueling announcements from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and local reform organization New Schools for Chicago. The UIC study shows that
low-income kids in Chicago do better than low-income kids across the state. As the lead researcher
put it to WBEZ: “You name the subgroup, and kids in Chicago are doing substantially better than other Illinois kids outside the city.” The WBEZ report also included a glowing endorsement from a national researcher suggesting that Chicago has some of the largest learning gains of any big city district in the country. The New Schools report, on the other hand, points out that there are still 50,000 Chicago children
stuck in very low-performing schools. Most of these schools are on the South and West Sides of the city and are serving predominantly African-American children. The number of children in “failing seats” is down from 160,000 in 2011, according to the report, which suggests there has been extraordinary progress in recent years. Rather than declaring victory, however, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Chief Academic Officer Janice Jackson
humbly told the Chicago Sun-Times, “We’re not quite there yet. 50,000 is still too many.” The response from a Chicago Teachers Union researcher, Sarah Rothschild, is predictably misleading. “The schools that made [New Schools'] hit list have been plagued by 20 years of corporate education reform attacks and are located in communities that have been devastated by unemployment, disinvestment, disenfranchisement and still haven’t recovered from the 2008 housing crisis.” So, according to the CTU, the same reforms that have helped Chicago students outperform the state and dramatically reduced the number of “failing seats,” are somehow responsible for holding back a shrinking handful of schools. Sorry CTU, but you need a better story. The real question the New Schools report raises is, why do schools in the same struggling communities serving similar kids get dramatically different results? For example, North Lawndale Elementary School has been on probation or “intensive support” for a decade. Nearby Charles Hughes Elementary, also a neighborhood school, has never held that status for more than one year in a row. It is rated a 2+ in the CPS accountability system, the middle of the scale. In Austin, Clark Elementary is doing much better than nearby Spencer Elementary, which has been on probation for 17 years. Poverty is an important factor in children’s educational success—and as a society we could be doing much more to eliminate it—but we know that we can create schools that effectively educate children in poverty. We know that takes changes inside school buildings—so why don’t we do more of those kinds of changes? That’s a question for the CTU, which has fought CPS every step of the way. While the need to get better remains, the strategies of the last 20 years are working and the case for reform has never been stronger. It would help to have a partner in the CTU going forward.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with