Mayor Richard Daley heads into municipal elections touting his school reform efforts. Twelve years ago, Daley was the first big city mayor to take control of an entire school system. At the time, Chicago Public Schools was ridiculed as one of the worst urban districts in the nation. But last year, city schools reached all-time highs on the state achievement test. Vindication of the mayor’s reform efforts? Not so fast, say critics, who argue that years of academic initiatives and private investment have not paid off for the majority of students. As part of municipal election coverage, Chicago Public Radio’s Jay Field looks at the mayor’s record on education.
Mayor Daley’s vision for public education in the inner city was on display last week at a storefront community center in West Humboldt Park. Inside—away from the bone-chilling cold—a familiar crowd of school administrators, philanthropists and business people shed overcoats and gathered for the unveiling of yet another new school.
Daley: Just think. These two families, as well as the company, are giving their money on behalf of this wonderful charter school dealing with math and science. And what an opportunity because as a global city, we need people understanding what math, science and technology is all about.
The school system Daley inherited twelve years ago would have been hard-pressed to find anyone willing to give it millions of dollars to do anything. Greg Richmond, who runs a national charter school organization, used to work at the district.
Richmond: Before the Mayoral takeover, the Chicago Public School system was characterized byâ€”reallyâ€”some elements of defeatism.
That began to change when Daley took charge and made Paul Vallas his schools C-E-O. Vallas closed a multi-million dollar deficit, ended the practice of promoting under-achieving students and put failing schools on probation. Almost immediately, test scores began to go up.
Richmond: The vast majority of the credit will go to the change in Mayoral control. You can look at the history of the school systemâ€”and what was going on before hand---and you see a break there. A flat achievement, for generations, versus increasing achievement.
Greg Richmond says a real sense of accountability permeated the Chicago Public Schools for the first time in recent memory. But after a few years, the progress began to level off. Dorothy Shipps followed the early years of Mayoral control as managing director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Shipps says merely making teachers and principals accountable does notâ€”in and of itselfâ€”guarantee sustained, long-term improvement.
Shipps: The results that you’re holding them accountable for are not results they understand how to make happen. And so that requires the system to do something else. It requires the system to actually get involved in changing teaching and learning. Very often, that’s the last thing the Mayor knows anything about.
So the Mayor uses his authority to hire a new team that does. In Chicago, that meant the arrival in 2001 of C-E-O Arne Duncan and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins. The two dug into classroom instruction. They pushed a massive reading initiative and other curriculum reforms. But the results have been mixed. Greg Richmond.
Richmond: In some places all the efforts, all the programs, reading programs, accountability, teacher recruitmentâ€”at the end of the day, in some schools, those things haven’t worked.
No Child Left Behind gave the mayor even more leverage to force reform. Under the federal education law, schools that fail for five consecutive years can be taken over or shut down. Daley came up with a plan called Renaissance 2010. It calls for closing the city’s worst schools and opening a hundred new onesâ€”many of them privately-run charters.
Marilyn Stewart: There’s absolutely no research to show that if you close a school and open it somewhere else…the scores will improve.
Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart says Mayor Daley and the Chicago Public Schools are using charter schools and Renaissance 20-10 to try to weaken the union.
Marilyn Stewart: Most of the people who are leading this so-called educational reform are businessmen. The union, the educators, the true educators have to be a part of the process.
But Daley shrugs off the criticism. He says business leaders willing to invest millions in new schools epitomize public serviceâ€”by wading into a morass they could just as easily ignore.
Daley: No one likes to close a school down. I guess we’re just supposed to make kids look happy, feel happy, but can’t read or write.
Still, the union will continue to oppose Renaissance 2010 as it begins negotiations on a new contract with the city this spring. Other critics argue that the tens of millions of dollars spent on school closings and re-openings would be better used on improving existing schools.
Azcoitia: “We have our primary grades on the first floor. We have full-day kinder.”
Principal Carlos Azcoitia walks the hallways of John Spry Community School. Spry has been able to achieve the kind of reform that the mayor longs for district wide.
Azcoitia: We have four half-day pre-school programs. We lower class size at the primary-level. So those are our themes. We open the school on Saturdays. And now we have the resources of the enrichment academy. And every day this is a busy place until 7PM. As you can see, all the students are being dismissed now and will report to their after-school programs.
When Azcoitia became principal, just thirty-one percent of kids at Spry were meeting or exceeding state academic standards. Last year, the number was sixty-nine percent. Educators tired of chafing under the heavy hand of the Mayor argue that strong local school leadership—free from central control— is what’s needed most, not new schools.
MOORE: The research that we’ve done indicates that the biggest improvements have improved in the schools where the central office has intervened the least. And where there has been the most local initiative.
Don Moore—with the education reform group Designs for Change—says Mayor Daley deserves credit for focusing attention on the need to raise student achievement. But he says many of the Daley’s school improvement initiatives simply aren’t working. He has particularly harsh words for the recent wave of closings.
MOORE: The practice of closing schools has been enormously destructive because often low-achieving students have simply been shuttled from one school to another.
This strategy of moving students around has hurt high schoolers the most: gang-related violence has spiked at many schools receiving transferred students. But that’s just one of the problems plaguing city high schools, says Greg Richmond.
Richmond: The greatest remaining shortcoming in the Chicago schools is in the high schools…in the dropout rates and in the proportion of kids that are not well-prepared to go on to college.
Daley’s latest focus is improving high school achievement and college readiness. The Gates foundation has been brought in to fund two multi-million dollar initiatives. But with so many kids still arriving in ninth grade so far behind, no one can say with any certainty whether these efforts will make a difference. Mayor Daley’s legacy as leader of the nation’s thrid-largest school system is likely to hinge on solving this problem.
I’m Jay Field, Chicago Public Radio.