The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Chicago, public schools are often called a mess. Truth is, they’ve improved — a lot.

Striking Chicago teachers picket as Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits with students taking part in the Safe Haven program in Chicago in September 2012. (M. Spencer Green/AP)
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Karin Chenoweth is an author, most recently of “Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement,” and for five years wrote the weekly Homeroom column for The Post.

What happens when a school district improves and hardly anyone notices?

I ask because for the past couple of decades, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has improved. A lot. And yet, that probably comes as news, even to many who pay attention to education.

Here are a few data points. From 2007 to 2019, high school graduation rates rose from 60 percent to 82 percent. In 2018, 63 percent of high school graduates enrolled immediately in two- or four-year colleges, compared with 50 percent in 2006 — and that rate held fairly steady last year in the face of covid-19. Achievement in reading and math has improved since the early 2000s, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

On Illinois reading and math assessments, CPS third-graders score below the national average, but by eighth grade they are pretty much at the national average. In a 2020 analysis by Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, Chicago emerged as the only large district that can boast this kind of student growth, a huge turnaround for the district.

But odds are you haven’t heard any of that. You’ve heard about teacher strikes. You’ve heard about violence. You might have heard the announcement this year that CPS’s chief executive, chief operating officer and chief education officer were all leaving, in a sweep that reeked of political dysfunction.

You most likely haven’t heard that the average child starting kindergarten today in Chicago Public Schools has a much better chance than their parents did of learning to read, graduating from high school and attending college.

The fact that many people haven’t heard about CPS’s improvement is something that should give us pause, because it says something important about both journalism and the field of education.

Let’s take journalism first. Journalists are trained to cover corruption, malfeasance and scandal. But that means journalists can miss a major story of institutional progress, as in the case of CPS. It also means that those who want to destroy democratic institutions and indeed oppose democracy itself can use the coverage of failures to fuel outrage and dishearten those who believe that public institutions have an important role to play in improving the lives of ordinary people.

CPS still has plenty to fix. But Chicago’s successes should stand as a challenge to those who have been engaged in what has broadly been called the “education reform” movement.

Reformers have focused on initiatives promising major improvement — new math programs, charter schools, teacher evaluation systems and school ratings, to name a few. And change has worked in some places; for instance, some charter schools have improved outcomes for some children. But the much-publicized “reforms” of the past two decades have largely not resulted in significant, broad-based boosts in student achievement.

The failure of all those initiatives has led to pessimism about the prospect of improving public schools. Yet here sits CPS, rising from the despair of the 1980s, when there was a 19-day teacher strike and U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett declared that Chicago was the worst district in the country and in “educational meltdown.”

Not only does CPS stand as proof that improvement is possible, but some of the best education researchers in the country, housed at the UChicago Consortium on School Research, have identified reasons for that improvement.

It’s a big, complicated story, but the short version is that positive change has come in large part because of a recognition that principals are the drivers of improvement. Schools are much more likely to get better when principals build respectful school cultures organized in ways that teachers can teach and children can learn. These include creating schedules that give teachers time to work with colleagues and ensure that students have uninterrupted instruction and timely support; providing teachers with high-quality materials so they don’t have to rely on random lessons from the Internet; and establishing a schoolwide culture of respect for students, families, teachers and staff. Within a school, a principal shapes all those elements.

That insight might sound simple and obvious, but the implications are profound and lead us away from the kinds of program- and governance-based fixes the education field has often focused on.

By incorporating the understanding that principals are critical to improvement, districts can take action to ensure that the people we entrust with leading schools have the knowledge, expertise and support necessary to sustain positive change. Chicago has led the way in the development of rigorous principal-preparation programs that have nurtured expert leaders. Efforts to emulate that success are underway in several other districts around the country, and have shown promise.

The story of Chicago should give heart to those who believe that public schools can and should improve. The lessons of how to move forward are there. First we just have to notice they exist.