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To learn about improving urban public schools, we should study Chicago. Yes, Chicago.

People walk past Paul Robeson High School in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago on Jan. 18. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

It was five years ago that Chicago officials closed some 50 public schools in a move that drew widespread protests from the community. Now there are plans to close four more schools in a high-crime area and build a new $85 million high school.

Officials say the plan — which includes allowing private charter operators to open publicly funded schools on two of the shuttered sites — will reverse a trend of under-enrollment and help neighborhood students. Community members say that is not so, and the kids who will wind up getting hurt are mostly black students from low-income families who will be sent to other schools. Meanwhile, they say, the new high school will primarily benefit white students.

Lost in the debate about the closures is what author Karin Chenoweth says is very real progress in Chicago public schools. This piece explains what is happening there even if it does not get much attention.

Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at the Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for students at all levels, particularly for students of color and low-income students. She is also the author of the newly published “Schools that Succeed,” which profiles Artesia High School in Los Angeles; and the creator of a new podcast ExtraOrdinary Districts, which profiles the Chicago school district.

This is the second in an occasional series she is writing about good things happening in high-poverty schools. The first one focused on the public school district in Steubenville, Ohio, a small impoverished city that sits just west of West Virginia along the Ohio River.

Yes, there are public school educators who know what they’re doing. Take, for example, the folks in Steubenville, Ohio.

By Karin Chenoweth

If we as a country are really serious about wanting to improve schools and education, we should be studying Chicago.

I know what you are thinking. Chicago? Really? Isn’t that the land of dysfunction and gun violence?

Yes. Don’t forget corruption, inadequate funding, bitter teacher strikes, and the exodus of large numbers of students.

Underneath all of that is a story of institutional resilience that is worth examining.

Why do I say that?

I always begin with numbers. And the numbers I look at have improved a lot over the years. Here is one: Last year Chicago matched the nation in the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in a four-year college right after graduation — 44 percent. Graduation rates have improved, ACT scores have gone up. And Chicago’s students now read and do math at pretty much the same levels as students in other large cities, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

State test scores, too, have been improving. In fact, a recent analysis by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, shows that if you look at those state scores, Chicago “grows” its kids the most of any large or moderately sized district. That is, in the five years between third and eighth grade, Chicago’s students on average gain six academic years.

Don’t get me wrong — Chicago still has a long way to go before it can be considered high-performing. But it has come a long way from 1987 when then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called it the “worst” school system in the country and argued for more or less giving up on it.

In fact, you could make an argument it has improved more than any other large district.

Its improvement is evident even if you don’t like to look at the kinds of numbers I like to look at. “Anecdotally I’ll tell you that a couple of generations ago most Chicago public school teachers wouldn’t have put their own kids in a Chicago public school,” the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jesse Sharkey, told me. “And now all the teachers that I know who are my age or younger have their kids in CPS schools.”

That is a really powerful testament from someone who is mostly known for his critiques of Chicago Public Schools.

The biggest irony in Chicago’s mass closing of schools

The reason you may be surprised to hear about Chicago’s improvement is it has happened pretty much out of the national limelight.

While swaggering superintendents and publicity-savvy charter school operators have hogged the attention of national journalists and researchers, Chicago has quietly plugged on with deeper and deeper cycles of understanding problems and trying to fix them, with each solution engendering new cycles of study and problem solving.

What has taken place in Chicago, in other words, is not sexy or innovative. It isn’t particularly “reform-y.” It is just the hard work of educators, researchers, parents, communities, and city leaders looking rather fearlessly at the facts and resolving to do better. And then doing that again. And again. Year. After. Year.

That means there is no single program or practice that other folks can adopt and think they have solved their problems. A few things are worth paying attention to.

The first is Chicago has had a citywide commitment by politicians, parents, business people, civic organizations, and foundations to making schools better for kids. “It’s in the blood, the groundwater, of the system to keep focusing on the school district and improving it,” is the way Stephanie Banchero puts it. Banchero is now the education program director of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, but she was a Chicago reporter covering schools and education, so she has watched the city’s schools up close for many years.

The second thing to note is, early on in improvement efforts, folks in the city recognized they needed help seeing what was happening. That may seem an odd thing to say, but when you are in the middle of a 400,000-student school system that is almost continually in crisis, it is difficult to develop the kind of perspective that allows you to stand back and evaluate what the problems really are, what might be a solution, and how well your efforts worked or not.

Playing that role are dogged and committed researchers at the University of Chicago, who formed the UChicago Consortium on School Research. Their work examining and analyzing what is going on in Chicago has helped provide educators with information that helps them do their jobs. For example, they identified that the first year of high school is critical to helping students graduate. That is to say, if students don’t develop a sense of safety, belonging, and competence in ninth grade, they are more likely to drop out. High school principals around the city use that information to make sure they pay particular attention to making sure their incoming students feel safe, supported, and challenged with ambitious instruction.

It may seem like a no-brainer to people outside high schools to focus on ninth-graders, but remember it is easy for high school principals to run from crisis to crisis without feeling able to take a step back to think about the experience students are having in their schools. The research helped them do just that.

The consortium’s research and analysis is now so well regarded that educators around the country are using it to help inform their work, and 13 districts have formed partnerships with their own consortia.

In addition to the citywide commitment and the role of researchers, there have been many efforts to help teachers improve their knowledge and skill, particularly in reading and math instruction — and they have been important.

But early in the 2000s, Chicago researchers, foundations, and practitioners realized — after a lot of trial and error — that attempts to help teachers improve were not as helpful as they had thought they would be.

This is because, as Steve Tozer of the University of Illinois-Chicago says, “Principals were making or breaking the money we were putting into the schools.”

That is to say, no matter what professional development, training, or programs were put into schools, if principals knew what they were doing, they succeeded. If not, they failed.

Chicago’s experience was confirmed in 2004 when a huge academic study at the University of Washington that spanned six years and 180 schools, concluded, “To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

From then on, Chicago’s efforts have focused on improving the knowledge, skill, training, and support of school principals who, in turn, are expected to set the conditions under which instruction improves and teachers become leaders of their work.

Focusing on school leaders has proven to be a powerful lever of improvement, which the current chief administrative officer of Chicago — Janice Jackson — credits with a good deal of the improvement. “We really transformed what it means to be a principal,” she told me. “I believe that there’s a direct correlation to that work in that approach to the higher graduation rates and higher test scores that you see here in Chicago.”

Chicago’s work is not done — in fact, it will never be done. It has come such a distance that it is time for educators in other school districts — and really, anyone who wants to improve schools — to learn the lessons it can teach us.

One of those lessons comes from UChicago Consortium researcher Jenny Nagaoka, herself a graduate from Chicago Public Schools: “A lot of people are highly skeptical that large urban districts — that public education — that neighborhood schools can actually be doing an effective job in serving students, and what we’re seeing in Chicago is that that’s just not true. There is a huge potential. If it can happen in Chicago it can happen anywhere.”

To hear more about Chicago’s journey over the last few decades, listen to Episode 4 of the podcast ExtraOrdinary Districts, found at iTunes or wherever you get podcasts — or at

(Correction: The percentage of high school graduates who enroll in college right after graduation refers to four-year colleges and is 44 percent, not 43 percent.)