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The race for City Hall

Jobs and schools promise to be top issues in next year’s city elections. The mayor’s education agenda faces its toughest test in the African-American communities that gave him strong support in 2011.

Getting the questions right on Chicago schools

People in the neighborhoods are past ready for a real conversation about the future of their schools, even though they know it cannot be an easy conversation. Instead, they get one quick fix after another thrown at them. This is a failure of leadership to frame the conversation the city needs.

The awkward departure of Jean-Claude Brizard from Chicago Public Schools seemed to surprise no one. Many figured the deed was already done when the Chicago Tribune (on August 31) started speculating about his future. Given the ending of the teachers’ strike, given the looming fights over school actions, given new leadership untarnished by old fights, it would be wonderful if Chicagoans could take a step back and think for a moment  about the larger issues of how the education debate is being framed in our city. 

I’ve spent considerable time recently trying to understand why schools in several other cities seem to be outperforming ours.  If we take reading proficiency in 4th grade as one measure of doing well, for example, about 18% of Chicago’s children reached that mark on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Of 21 cities tested,  NAEP ranks 12 of them as doing significantly better than Chicago, among them Boston, New York, Austin, Atlanta , Houston, and Miami; at least 7 districts have 30% or more of students reaching proficiency.  Chicago does better than a few cities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit, the latter trailing the nation at 7%.   

There are measures on which we look a little better or a little worse, but overall, Chicago is squarely in the middle of the national pack. After twenty years of vigorous reform -- If it’s twenty years old, can it still be called “reform?” – our schools still look mediocre. Why can’t we do better?  During the first few days of the strike I sent a letter to the Tribune suggesting that part of our problem may be a deeply dysfunctional civic culture, most easily exemplified by the state of educational journalism in some of our most influential media outlets.  At the time, I was complaining about the one-dimensional and static portrayal of the teachers’ union, the polarizing rhetoric, the oversimplification of important issues, and the uncritical advocacy of “reforms” with little empirical support.  I complained too soon.  Had I but waited a few days, I would have had so much more to complain about.

Setting a low bar

Consider the breathless editorial (on September 19) with which the Tribune greeted the end of the strike, opening with:

Wednesday will be another school day for 566 students at Fuentes Elementary charter school on Chicago's Northwest Side. Fuentes isn't a traditional Chicago public school, but part of the United Neighborhood Organization network of charter schools, run under different rules without union teachers.

Fuentes students — who outperform students in traditional Chicago public schools in reading and math — have been in class since Aug. 6. They haven't missed a single day of instruction while 350,000 of their peers have slept late and waited for striking teachers to return to classrooms.

“Let 100 Fuentes Elementaries bloom” proclaimed the subhead.   With all respect for that school-community, the choice of that school as some kind of exemplar says a lot about what ails the city.  If we look at 2012 test scores, Fuentes has 82% of its students meeting or exceeding state standards, better than the 74% rate for traditional schools or the 76% average for charters.   Still, over a hundred schools outperform Fuentes by that measure, many of them traditional neighborhood schools with student bodies that don’t reflect any form of selection.  Let us hold some of them up for praise as well.  (I know, by the way, that at least a handful of Chicago charters are making earnest efforts to shape student bodies that better reflect the city’s student population, for which they should be commended.)  One of my pet peeves is that when our schools do good things, they should get more public praise than they typically do but that should apply to all schools, not just those of a certain type.

More importantly, using ISAT scores in this way sets a pretty low bar. One of the ways in which our newspapers have dumbed down the conversation in Chicago is by uncritical use of the “meets and exceeds” standard.  I’m fairly certain that every education reporter knows that state standards are so low that just knowing which students meet standards tells you very little. One of the things adding rancor to school closing debates is that CPS has in the past made decisions about which schools stay open based on very small differences on a very dubious test.  The students who score in the “exceeds” category are the ones likely to do well subsequently.  The 2011 exceeds number for Fuentes is about 16%,  just under the city average. So we are saying, “Let 100 Average Schools Bloom?” Only in Chicago.

It can be very instructive to look at the ISAT exceeds category across school types. The latest data I have comparing charters, traditional public schools, and magnets are from 2010, when traditionals showed about of 11% of children in the exceeds category,  charters showed 12% but magnets, which select their student bodies in the same way charters do, showed 24% of students exceeding.  On average, then, the charter vs. traditional schools debate is over that 1% difference.  The starting point for discussion should be that both charters in Chicago and traditional schools in Chicago are failing the overwhelming majority of their children. Magnets are showing substantially more promise, and maybe more of our citywide discussion should be about what they are doing, whether it can be expanded and how fairly they are distributed across the city.  I know CPS is committed to expanding the magnet program, which is good, but that is different from giving them the kind of place in our civic conversation the charter issue has held.

Aspiring to mediocrity

Our problem in Chicago is that we think prosperity means having ten cents more than a beggar. The September 19 Tribune editorial offers an even better example of aspiring to mediocrity: 

CPS has other powerful tools to revive troubled schools, including its successful "turnaround" program in which the district replaces school leadership and staff, revamps curriculum, beefs up security and brings in more social workers and counselors. This strategy is yielding impressive student gains in many cases. CPS should put more schools into turnaround.

By way of full disclosure, I was, once upon a time, very hopeful about what turnarounds could do.  That was before the Consortium on Chicago School Research released its evaluation some months ago. It is instructive to look back at some of the headlines with which those results were greeted:

Chicago Sun-Times, “Editorial: CPS must learn from successful turnarounds.”

Chicago Tribune,”Progress seen at city ‘turnaround’ schools”

Catalyst Chicago, “Turnaround study shows only small gains”

The Catalyst headline is the one most aligned with reality.  The research showed that at the high school level there was little difference between turnarounds and comparisons.  At the elementary school level, over four years, schools made up half the distance between themselves and the system average, and the pace of change may be improving.   One doesn’t want to disparage hard work in tough schools, but four years to get halfway to average in a system where most children are failing is hardly what people envisioned from the turnaround experiment and it is long way from being “a powerful tool” for anything.   

Here again, looking at other cities can be instructive.  In their first year, Philadelphia’s  K-8 turnarounds outperformed comparison schools by 14%  in math (students reaching proficiency on state test) and by 8% in reading.   In Philadelphia, the teachers union was involved in the design of the schools  -- I used to call this the world’s meanest union-  there was a provision for community advisory councils and it looks like there was considerable concern with developing stronger teacher efficacy.  We can’t say whether these differences had to do with the outcomes, but the point is that different cities have very different ways of thinking about the same reform and the more we know about that, the more likely we are to ask the right questions about reforms in Chicago.

Caution on charter expansion

The main message of the September 19 editorial is that we should be expanding charters as rapidly as possible.   It’s not clear what evidence supports that conclusion.  We’ve already noted that test score data in Chicago might, with some charity, be called a push.  I don’t have comprehensive data, but I think charter high schools are frequently improving graduation rates, as would be expected from smaller schools. I understand that in other cities, there are data suggesting parents find charters more responsive. Given the number of stories I hear from Chicago parents about feeling pushed out and demeaned by the professionals in traditional public schools, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a pattern here as well.  Still, there is nothing compelling in the local record of charters. Nationally, I take it that the most authoritative national study is still the 2009 report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford, concluding that while 17% of charters showed significantly better academic achievement than traditional neighborhood schools, about 46% showed about the same level of achievement and 37% showed significantly worse.

Charters also seem to suffer high student turnover – over 50% in three years in some cases – with the students who leave being disproportionately low-achievers. There are places – Boston and New York being among the most cited –where charters seem more likely to outperform other schools, but I would note that Boston and New York seem to do a lot of things more effectively than we do; that is, the differences may have more to do with infrastructure than model If we look at early reading on the NAEP specifically among poor children, of the seven poorest –performing districts,  5 are heavily chartered, with 20% or more of their students in charters (Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, DC and Milwaukee).  That is not causal data but it is also not data that makes a case for more charters. If we as a city are going to make a substantial commitment to charters, we need to reason to believe that at scale they are substantially better than alternatives and I have yet to see that data.

We should be especially cautious of rapid expansion.  The history of urban school reform is littered with cases where rapid expansion undermined promising work.  Projects outrun their supply lines.  The little data we have nationally on teacher turnover in charter networks may be an indication that some of them are already reaching that point.  It is not clear that Chicago’s central office, after much turnover of key personnel and the downsizing of some key offices is in much of a position to support rapid expansion of charters or anything else (which, again, tells us that the discussion we should be having is about building system infrastructure, not expanding this week’s fad).  It would be foolish not to attempt some expansion of our best charter networks, but it should be done with due caution and in the context of renewed emphasis on developing the schools we already have, irrespective of type.  

A real conversation on the future of schools

I don’t want to leave the impression that media coverage of these issues has been entirely one-sided.   A recent (October 24)  Tribune  front-page story carried the headline “A Cautionary Tale on Charter Schools.”  The story chronicled the long-running problems with the performance of charters in Ohio.  It missed some important points but perhaps it was a step toward a more cautious discussion.  Chicago media should also be commended for their persistent sense of urgency.   They act as if the current system is intolerable, which is right. One of the ugliest notes creeping back into the national conversation is the idea that maybe schools can’t really do anything for poor children after all; the real issue is poverty.  We have to acknowledge without blinking that poverty damages children but we also have to recognize that the stronger schools and school systems do much better by children than schools where the leadership spends its time whining about poverty.  Public figures who don’t get that, forfeit their right to be taken seriously.

Other cities spend more time talking about building real partnerships with parents and communities, about building trust across sectors, about benchmarking themselves against genuinely high standards, about balancing business expertise and educational expertise,  about dramatically ratcheting up the quality of instructional leadership and support, about having resources follow need,  about making sure children get a strong early start, about improving all schools, about enriching opportunities for learning beyond school hours, about access to and transparency of information. All of these conversations exist in Chicago but they tend to be pushed to the side by our bloody wars over one oversold silver bullet after another.  Sometimes we seem like children desperately defending our little mudpiles. 

Part of what is so frustrating is that I know people in the neighborhoods are past ready for a real conversation about the future of their schools, even though they know it cannot be an easy conversation.  Instead, they get one quick fix after another thrown at them. This is a failure of leadership to frame the conversation the city needs.

Charles M. Payne is the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is the author of So Much Reform, So Little Change, which examines the persistence of failure in urban school districts. Dr. Payne served as chief education officer under former Schools CEO Terry Mazany.


George N. Schmidt wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Breaking the silence of Dr. Payne, with gummy bears, real kids

I'm sorry, it's time to begin calling this rambling recitation of numbers and percentages and the alphabet soup of acronyms that goes with it what it is: Madness.

And a form of child abuse perpetrated by some of the "best and brightest" of our generation. (The reference to David Halberstram's book about the Vietnam apologists is pointed and deliberate).


and Child abuse...

enshrined in these "data sets" and unlimited acronyms.

Let me detail what I'm saying.

It is interesting to hear from Dr. Payne now that he is long gone from the Board of Education's administration. Remember? Charles Payne was "Interim Chief Education Officer" for a half year before Rahm Emanuel's Board cleaned house and continued the revolving door of administrators at greater speed in June 2011, a fact which looms large in defining the dysfunction that Dr. Payne was not long ago an insider to...

Whether the points he makes here are of long-term interest (some are; some arent't; none is based on much evidence from the real world of Chicago -- NAEP data at that level are too abstract, and as a Consortium guy, Dr. Payne is well aware of this), he is doing the usual: leaving out the key reality of the schools in community as the last anchors for the children.

So what we get, when all is said and done, is more of the usual "data driven" nonsense.


Because to keep Chicago in that straight jacket after the 20 years of corporate reform is to continue to strangle out ability to even talk about the reality of schools in this city in the 21st Century.

For once, I would like to hear from Dr. Payne -- and all the others he hangs out with, from Terry Mazany on -- try and talk about schools without starting, ending, and in-betweening with lots and lots of factoids that have nothing to do with the realities that 30,000 CTU members just struck about and thousands of parents and students supported us at.

Last night, at the Board's latest budget hearing, I heard a mother (from Salazar Bilingual Center) tell the "Board" (actually, it was a handful of budget office bureaucrats; not one Board member or top CPS officials) that one class at Salazar -- in NOVEMBER 2012 -- has 45 kids in it.


Dr. Payne's reams of data illustrate the most significant result of this entire 20 years of data driven reality: It's driven otherwise intelligent (and by all reports decent) people mad (in the sense of insane).

While I was at the budget hearing last night, my wife, a teacher, was helping our sixth grade son complete his science project (how fast do red gummy bears dissolve in various liquids) while the "little guy" worked on other things. Across Chicago, thousands of parents and children were trying to do the same things. Not one of us is a "data point" and not once in discussions like this do we hear a narrative that actually includes the real children in the real classrooms of the real public schools of Chicago every day. Date be damned. It's time for the narrative to demand that we kick the habit of beginning, middling and ending each conversation with numbers, precentages, and other examples of the madness of the generation that has produced corporate school reform and this mindless "bottom lining" of reality.

Better that Dr. Payne had spent as many hours writing his narrative of the nearly six months he spent at Clark St., telling the reality there. Instead, as usual, the facts are scrubbed, leaving the reality as strange as that salted gummy bear that resulted when the little critter spent 48 hours in the salt water solution.

Joan Staples wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Getting the Questions Right About Chicago Schools

Dr. Payne's article seems to be saying that (1) After 20 years of so-called reform (that is, the schools being put under the control of the mayor), CPS data puts Chicago in the middle of achievement, compared to the schools of other cities.(2) Then he talks about charter schools vs. traditional public schools and says that the difference in achievement seems to be about 1% on average. Of course, this is using standardized test scores. There is really no discussion in depth about why this is so, and if so, what it means. There is concern expressed about those who would write off children in poverty as, essentially, uneducable. The heart of Dr. Payne's essay, is the next to the last paragraph, which describes what might actually improve the schools and the conclusion that CPS is not doing these things. The most important point about the article is the setting up of a partnership between schools, parents, and community -- a genuine partnership, not a rigged one. Dr. Payne doesn't say in this piece whether he advocates getting rid of the reliance on standardized testing. He does talk about more resources needed for all schools, particularly traditional neighborhood schools. I would agree with him that, even before the mayor took control, CPS had a revolving door of "fixes" for improving the schools, usually ordered in a top-down manner. As a teacher of students with reading and learning disabilities, I had a little more freedom to develop lesson plans and programs for my students based on their needs, not the latest fads. Some of the programs advocated by CPS were by reputable educators, but most teachers were not part of the planning, and their buy-in was mixed. The frequent changes led to confusion, rather than achievement by many of the students. In many of the articles I read, here and elsewhere, there are very few about how people learn and how we can replicate programs to address these principles in all schools. I don't know what criteria, except test scores determine "turnaround" schools. Why are all administrators and faculty of these schools replaced, when it is likely that there are some excellent teachers, and some not as good? What union rules impede good schools -- the establishment of charter schools assumes that unions are bad for schools and charter schools' freedom from unnamed rules is a justification for their expansion. How are charter school operators chosen? Etc. Because I read as much as possible about these issues, I know a little, but the public gets little information. The schools are accountable to the public; therefore, they have a right to demand explanations for what is done in their name.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Dr. Payne's article

I would first like to commend Catalyst for its publishing of Dr. Payne’s article. Dr. Payne in my opinion asks exactly the right question. Why have our schools (with some notable exceptions) performed so poorly and over such an extended period of time?
His analyses of public vs. charter vs. magnet schools is also illuminating. (As a side note, I agree that the media coverage of the Chicago Public Schools is generally appalling.)
For some reason, little mention is made of what is happening in other, more successful school systems. News of the collaborative approach to turnarounds among union, parents, and management in Philadelphia was therefore most welcome.
One of the main points Dr. Payne seems to be making here is this: the hard data do not support a rush to “charterize” CPS. Point well taken!
Dr. Payne notes that poverty should not be used as an excuse for inadequate education. According to the 2010 Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, written by U of C CCSR researchers, severe poverty is one of several important contextual factors that affected elementary school academic outcomes. The authors identified about 60 schools that showed intense poverty, high crime neighborhood, low community trust (among parents and between parents and school personnel), high percentage of children not residing with biological parent(s), high transience rates, and a couple of other adverse influences. These schools—some despite heroic efforts by teachers and principals--had great difficulty improving reading and math outcomes. Putting this in my own terminology, the authors appeared to be contending that “broken schools” are usually found in “broken neighborhoods.” Expanding somewhat, it’s not simply poverty, but it’s the unfortunate and collective result of a number of adverse factors that often cluster together. So, what might be done?
A central problem for Chicago is the fact that many kids enter school underprepared for kindergarten, and the schools are underprepared to address their needs. The further behind kids are, the more quality remedial instruction they need. So far as I can recall, neither CPS nor the CTU has faced up to this problem, and the Chicago media hasn’t, either. It would be interesting to learn how the more effective urban districts with student demographics similar to ours have dealt with this problem. My guess: they intervene very early in the primary grades and with powerful remedial interventions. (I.e., they actually implement RTI, or Response to Intervention.)

The scond main point of the article was summarized in this quotation:

"Other cities spend more time talking about building real partnerships with parents and communities, about building trust across sectors, about benchmarking themselves against genuinely high standards, about balancing business expertise and educational expertise, about dramatically ratcheting up the quality of instructional leadership and support, about having resources follow need, about making sure children get a strong early start, about improving all schools, about enriching opportunities for learning beyond school hours, about access to and transparency of information."

As for Mr. Schmidt's comments:

Mr. Schmidt rakes Dr. Payne over the coals for citing data to support his arguments and claims data drives otherwise decent folks crazy.
He goes on to suggest Dr. Payne deliberately withheld "the reality" (the whole truth) of the situation within CPS and to imply he did this even though to do so might well compromise the education of the children of this city. This is a ridiculous and totally irresponsible insinuation.

Dr. Payne concludes:

"Part of what is so frustrating is that I know people in the neighborhoods are past ready for a real conversation about the future of their schools, even though they know it cannot be an easy conversation. Instead, they get one quick fix after another thrown at them. This is a failure of leadership to frame the conversation the city needs."

A :"failure of leadership?" Ask yourself, Mr. Schmidt, are these the words of a coward who simply wants to protect himself and his friends? I'd like to hear any reasoned arguments or other illumination you might be able to shed upon our city's educational problems besides your frequent assertions that CPS administrators are all idiots or totally self-serving. What specifically would YOU do to improve CPS and its educational outcomes?

WendyK wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Thanks for posting this. I

Thanks for posting this. I think Dr. Payne is right in that most people want to have a convo without all the heavy politics and that mainstream media coverage is generally damaging and not conducive to talking about the issues in a productive way.

Owl Mountain Coach wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Questions and Answers

Some Musings!
Most reformers have never walked a mile in the shoes of the teachers they criticize.
Can we win the future if we continue to malign our schools/teachers?
A dysfunctional school or district can undermine the impact of even the best teachers.
Teaching to the test is soul crushing work
The globalized world presents unprecended challenges for which our schools are I'll prepared
Lorraine Richardson

Anonymous wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Charles, your question of

Charles, your question of what are magnets doing to get higher Exceeds scores than traditional and charter schools lacks analytical rigor. You must control for poverty, ELLs, resources, and other factors before implying that magnets are qualitatively doing something better than traditional or charter schools. Remember that the middle-class rules CPS-- the district gives magnets more teachers proportional to student population than traditional or charters.

The answers are not as difficult as you ponder. They are:
- loosen labor rules, so there is more movement and valuation of quality teachers. Yes, these means the elimination of unions which prevent sacking of poor performers and inhibits school-based reform. It also means individual 1-4 year contracts for teachers and administrators based on performance. The district (and state) need to encourage systems to measure the value of teaching outcomes and reward them appropriately. Districts and schools then can get into bidding wars which will increase salaries for high performers and contributors to community while edging out low and mediocre performers.
-- eliminate LSCs which also stifle school-level reform due to two teachers evaluating principals. School leadership cannot transform schools quickly if hamstrung by teachers protecting their and their friends' jobs.
-- per pupil funding, which levels the playing field appropriately.
-- universities need to do a much better job of preparing teachers. The national praxis test and ISBE's recent increase in the min proficiency score are steps in the right direction.
-- Eliminate pensions to free districts' operating revenue. This needs to be phased in over 10 years and teachers need to still be required to pay in to defined contribution plans or Social Security.
-- Eliminate health insurance except for catastrophic insurance. Teachers then pay into HSAs that rollover, which again tailors teacher decisions to the most rational ones-- you invest in yourself and family when you need it. You don't have to subsidize other teachers who make poor health decisions at a cost of $25,000 per year. This again frees district future costs and allows for more investment in teacher salaries based on accurate valuation.

Joan Staples wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Charles Payne

Sorry, Anonymous, I don't agree with your prescriptions, which eliminate accountability to the public, including the teachers and the community. Unions are important because they not only can help, not hinder as you assume, the maintenance of teacher quality, but they and the LSC's are needed to push back against the authoritarianism of the school bureaucracy. Teachers have earned benefits,, which they pay for by contributions (and which the school system has not been paying their share of -- if teachers were part of Social Security, the school system as the employer would have to pay its share). What's wrong with teachers being a part of evaluating their bosses? And, why shouldn't the community be involved in hiring the principals? After all, they are the public the schools are supposed to serve. I agree that teacher training institutions should improve teacher training, and I do not support the continued employment of mediocre teachers. If their performance cannot be remediated, they should be terminated. But this should be done on a fair basis. You seem to assume that all principals are objective and nonpolitical in their direction of their schools. That is not necessarily the case.

George N. Schmidt wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

Why isn't 'Anonymous' left off here?

I have decided to stop reading anyone who publishes here as "Anonymous" of from some silly pseudonym. There are enough people here with the decency and courage to discuss these issues in their own names to stop wasting time on the atavistic silliness of blogs. Dr. Payne may be wrong by remaining in the world of stupid "data driven" reality, but at least he signs his name.

northside wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago


You are stronger than most,Yes its pathetic, but think of us who don't give our name us the french resistance .....heck dickens gave pseudonym. Besides, why do you let it bother you....we help "spark" conversation. Btw i agree and respect you...I'm just chicken. Doesn't mean i cant give my o opinion. Cps principles are scaryyyyyyyy and now they can put your family in the link line since new contract. Hardly worth it.

northside wrote 2 years 9 weeks ago

to that anonymous

I think that anonymous may actually be vp candidate ryan. He forgot we should eliminate an army and allow each lord to create his own army by compulsory service by his peasants.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 6 weeks ago

Why Schmidt doesn't know S...

George Schmidt frequently assails people who don't agree with him with anecdotes of classrooms and teachers he knows. One experience he clearly does not have is that of being an administrator or thinking about the system from a community perspective. Rather, all of his commentary is one dimensional.

There are fantastic teachers in CPS - not only in anecdotes, but in data as well. The problem is not the data, but the continuous misinterpretation of data by people who do not have the capacity to appropriately understand much less make decisions using it. Dr. Payne does not fall into these categories.

We are dealing with a present that most of us were not prepared for. Our communities have changed the expectations for schools. Most of us need to go back to school to catch up. Additionally, CPS needs to recognize it's failure to set a standard of school practices that focus on helping students and not just measuring.

Douglas Hainline wrote 2 years 6 weeks ago

Can children from a deprived background learn maths?

Yes. It all depends on how they are taught. We've known how to do for over fifty years.
Please see this video, from a film made in the 1960s, showing the fruits of a program by the University of Illinois. (The first few minutes of the sound quality are poor, but it gets better.)

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