By Andrew Broy, President
With the recent appointment of an entirely new CPS Board and Jean-Claude Brizard as Chicago Public Schools CEO, Chicago has a rare opportunity to structurally change the district by organizing our schools for student performance. While it may be tempting to take incremental steps, nothing short of a comprehensive reform blueprint will stand much of a chance of improving our students’ current educational outcomes. Fortunately, in our new CEO and Board we have a leadership team that has demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions based on student needs.
While Chicago struggles to raise its 56% graduation rate, far too many observers have been distracted over questions that ultimately don’t matter—like whether Chicago needs a school superintendent or a CEO. Thankfully, that choice is now made. Brizard brings to the position the credibility of a classroom teacher, the experience of an urban superintendent, and the urgency of a reformer. Most tellingly, Brizard believes that we must create a system that is directly accountable to Chicago families.
Brizard’s appointment, coupled with recent Senate action in support of meaningful teacher tenure reform, has created a unique moment in time in Chicago. Chicago has now had three CEOs in the past three years and Brizard and the new CPS Board will bring stability and much-needed strategic focus to the district. Still, there remain enormous challenges, including a daunting budget deficit, hundreds of struggling schools, and the need to work on the current collective bargaining agreement that governs the operational aspects of most district schools.
To accelerate the pace of reform, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools recommends that CPS’s new leadership team implement an integrated policy platform that places student needs at the center of all decision-making by focusing on 7 core areas that drive student outcomes:
- Accountability Grounded by Data: Schools should be judged on how well they improve educational outcomes among students. For far too long, we have discussed inputs into the system rather than what student outcomes we expect. We must establish a data system that is sophisticated enough to measure actual student growth and use this growth in making significant policy decisions about schools and teachers. Schools themselves should be provided enhanced flexibility in exchange for heightened accountability and every school should have performance-based student achievement objectives memorialized in a written, transparent document made available to the public.
- Teachers and leaders: A school system is only as good as its teachers and principals. We must focus our energies squarely on effective teachers and school leadership, including prioritizing the recruitment of new school leaders, improving the quality of teachers and leaders in the classroom, and supporting alternative programs to lower barriers for capable and interested future teachers and principals. We cannot continue to ignore labor realities, should accept that the era of most teachers staying thirty years is over, and manage turnover so the most effective teachers are retained and rewarded.
- School Options: Chicago’s quilt-like system of magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, charter schools, and related programs within schools should be improved and the enrollment process made more transparent to parents and communities. In addition, these options should be extended to parents in all neighborhoods, especially those with a dearth of high-quality seats. Charter schools in particular, which now serve 10% of the Chicago student population, should be allowed to expand to low capacity neighborhoods, provided such schools have a track record of success and a sound management plan. Charter school students should also be funded equitably and not disadvantaged by facilities policies that irrationally restrict district-owned buildings to traditional public schools. As a corollary, we must intervene in any school, however organized, that is struggling to demonstrate sustained student improvement, including closing schools that have failed students consistently.
- Instructional Time: Chicago is alone among the 50 largest urban districts in permitting an exceptionally short 170-day school year and a five-hour and forty-five minute school day. Other major cities do not allow this, we shouldn’t either. Many districts are rightfully making international instructional time comparisons, where American schools fare poorly. In Chicago, we do not even meet national or regional comparisons. Indeed, one must question why the districts in Illinois with the highest poverty rates (including Chicago) have the shortest school days and years. The days of providing our neediest students with the shortest school day, the shortest school year, and the least qualified instructor and then asking them to pass high-stakes tests should end. Optional, part-time pilot programs in a small sample of schools are insufficient. We must extend learning time.
- Family Engagement: Parents and guardians must be treated like partners in the effort to improve our public schools. Despite the simple truth that parent engagement is a strong predictor of student outcomes, too many schools have erected barriers to meaningful parent and community engagement. It is not sufficient for district bureaucrats to complain that neighborhoods do not understand when their schools are failing. The problem with most school consolidation and closure plans is that they erroneously treat community opposition as support for failing schools when it is actually a distrust of those proposing the reforms. To remedy this, we must find ways to engage parents directly to take responsibility for their children’s education, a step that requires the district to acknowledge that many parents are rationally suspicious of “reforms” that have not worked. The first step in this process is to empower parents through enhanced public school choice in all neighborhoods.
- Funding Reform: The Chicago School System’s budget over the past ten years has increased in inflation-adjusted dollars while its enrollment has steadily declined. Chicago’s current $6.6 billion schools budget is sufficient to educate the 413,000 students in the system, provided the money is spent efficiently and not allocated on inputs like central office supports or quality-blind raises for all teachers. The solution is to move toward a student-based funding model that recognizes that student need should drive funding allocations. So-called weighted student funding models should ensure that funding arrives at the school as real dollars—not as teaching positions, ratios, or staffing norms—that can be spent flexibly, with accountability systems focused more on results and less on inputs, programs, or activities.
- Facility Efficiency: Chicago has more than 224 school buildings that are enrolled at less than 50% capacity, and many of those produce abysmal results for students. Most of Chicago’s schools were built when housing patterns and population densities were dramatically different, but the school system has never adjusted to our new reality. A holistic school facilities solution is possible that includes consolidation, phasing in new school options, and expanding school facilities in targeted neighborhoods. This will free up additional operational dollars that can be directed to effective programs. In particular, there are portions of our city, especially in heavily Latino neighborhoods, where schools are dramatically overenrolled. We should use new school options, including high-quality charter schools, co-location arrangements, and similar models to reduce overcrowding and incent school providers to locate in areas where the need is greatest.
Our city’s new mayor has appointed a leadership team at CPS that is uniquely positioned to improve the system and Chicago is poised to reclaim its mantle as a national school reform leader by focusing on what matters: student outcomes and the improved life chances they create.
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