Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, is mayor of Chicago. He served as White House chief of staff from 2009 to 2010.
By nominating voucher and charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary, President-elect Donald Trump has ignited another round of debate over school choice. Yet as cable-news talking heads argue about whether or what kind of school reform is needed in the United States, parents are having a different discussion at the kitchen table — one based on finding the best school, not whether it’s a “reform” school.
Promoting choice at the expense of quality isn’t an education strategy, it’s a political agenda. Rather, those of us creating education policy need to simply focus on providing the quality choices that students deserve.
We have seen successes when choice and quality have been pursued together. Some public charter schools, such as the Noble Network and Urban Prep in Chicago, have boosted graduation rates and increased college enrollment for low-income students of color. Noble’s graduation rate is above 80 percent, and 100 percent of Urban Prep’s 2016 graduates were college-bound.
Despite charter success stories such as these, however, most children will continue to enroll in their local neighborhood school. We need to ensure that those schools are providing a high-quality education, too.
In the Chicago Public Schools, we implemented the largest expansion in school time — lengthening the school day and expanding the school year by 10 days. We made full-day kindergarten universal and conducted an early-learning race-to-the-top competition to reward the best providers and removed those not meeting quality standards. We closed low-performing schools, turned around failing ones and dramatically expanded successful educational models such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and STEM.
Our graduation rate has grown by 16 points since 2011, more than three times faster than the growth in the national rate. Chicago’s eighth-graders led large urban districts in math growth, while our fourth-graders ranked third in reading gains. And with 42 percent of graduates enrolling in four-year colleges and an additional 20 percent enrolling in two-year colleges, CPS is on par with the national average for college enrollment despite a student body that is more than 80 percent low-income and minority.
But to continue this progress, those of us on the front lines need partners at the state and federal levels who are focused on quality. Previous Republican administrations sounded the alarm on educational quality, prompting renewed focus on stronger accountability. Democratic administrations pushed higher standards. The incoming Trump administration would be wise to focus on qualitative choices in four ways.
Put principals first: For too long the debate has been focused on teachers, but principals drive the standards and accountability in a school. The Trump administration should support efforts to increase principal quality, from creating training pipelines to rewarding strong performance. In Chicago, we partnered with 10 universities to train the next generation of principals and place them in year-long fellowships in our schools, and launched a program to provide our best principals more freedom to innovate.
Make the early years count: Children start dropping out of school in third grade, which is why the early years are the most important. We expanded full-day pre-K in Chicago by more than 60 percent. An analysis of CPS programs proved the value, finding that children who attend full-day preschool enter kindergarten twice as likely to read at grade level. The Trump administration should make universal full-day prekindergarten a priority and make quality a prerequisite for receiving funding.
Fight the toughest battle: The toughest nut for urban school districts to crack is high school, but again, investing in quality is the key. While we have backed quality charter options in Chicago, we have also invested in quality through magnet, military, IB and STEM schools to the point that 50 percent of our kids attend one of these models. IB and STEM programs in particular are proven to raise graduation and college enrollment rates for students of all racial and income backgrounds. In fact, our IB-enrolled students boast a nearly 100 percent graduation rate, and 81 percent enroll in college, a higher rate than their peers.
Failure is not an option: Children get only one chance at a good education. We closed failing charter and neighborhood schools and expanded those with higher quality. The incoming presidential administration should promote proven programs to turn around failing schools. In Chicago, in partnership with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, we worked to turn around 14 failing schools. Today, roughly 80 percent of these schools have attained high-performing quality ratings.
Instead of chasing another Washington debate about choice that goes nowhere, let’s work together to help Americans get ahead by investing in better schools regardless of who operates them.