Lesson From Chicago: We Need Resources and Accountability to Avoid a Two-Tiered Education System

The Chicago teachers' strike may be over, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have replaced the Chicago schools CEO, but the underlying issues that caused the rift between teachers and public schools officials haven't gone away. Because our education system is such a vital public asset, we cannot resolve these issues in the context of a crisis. In the strike's aftermath, though, we have an opportunity to begin tackling them.

There are two key issues that need to be addressed going forward: resources and accountability.

If we're serious about fixing the long-term problems in the schools, we should take a careful look at each of these, determining how they should shape the roles of all players in the system -- be they administrators, teachers, parents, or politicians.

Schools Work When Adequately Resourced

A first major issue is resources. We know that when schools are adequately resourced they do well. A great example of this within the Chicago Public Schools system is the city's nine selective-enrollment high schools. The city has invested heavily in these schools, and they have excelled. These public schools accept only kids who score well on entrance exams and meet other academic criteria. They are seen as far superior to the rest of the city's high schools. Competition for their roughly 5,000 slots is notoriously fierce: about 25,000 students applied last year for those few slots.

Many school "reformers" like to scapegoat teachers and their unions for the failure of the schools. But the crowds of applicants for in the selective-enrollment schools are vying to be taught by none other than those same unionized public school teachers. Teachers at these schools have time-tested tools at their fingertips to help students achieve: advanced placement classes, enriched curriculum, adequate supplies, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.

Interestingly, an average of about 20 percent of the students accepted at these high schools went to private middle schools. This shows that public school teachers, when properly supported, are competing head-on with private school teachers -- and they're winning.

Why are selective-enrollment schools outperforming all the others? The answer is simple: They are getting a greater share of the resources. Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch warns that Chicago is moving toward a two-tiered educational system. One tier has privately-managed charter schools and selective enrollment schools that get all the resources they need. The other tier, made up of neighborhood schools serving the majority of Chicago's 400,000 students, has "more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts," Ravitch writes. It is worth noting that nearly 90 percent of the students in the Chicago Public School District are black and Latino.

Charter Schools Are No Panacea

Politicians and business leaders have touted charter schools as a needed improvement in the educational system. Charter schools are privately managed schools, often with non-union staff, that receive public funding but are given flexibility to design their own school policies (such as dress codes and length of school days) and to manage their own curricula. The PR push for charter schools -- aided by films like Waiting for Superman -- makes them sound like unparalleled success stories. Unfortunately, in reality, they have not proven to be a panacea.

Charter schools do not outperform traditional neighborhood schools, despite the fact that they have greater flexibility in selecting the students they enroll and receive a disproportionate amount of funding for their efforts. First of all, critics charge charter schools with cherry-picking the students they enroll. They argue that charters serve fewer students that have special needs or difficult home lives -- a great advantage over neighborhood schools that don't get to be selective with their students. Traditional schools do not have the option of making the most challenging students someone else's problem.

Despite the fact that they serve only a fraction of the city's children, charters receive a disproportionate amount of public funding. As a July 13 budget analysis conducted by the Chicago-based education magazine Catalyst explained: "87 percent of charters will get more per-pupil funding [for the 2012-13 year], compared to just 30 percent of traditional public schools." Meanwhile, the article noted, "traditional neighborhood schools and non-selective magnet schools lost a total of $117.5 million and 172 positions."

Given these advantages, we would expect charter schools to be getting superior results. But that just isn't the case. As Chicago Magazine noted recently, charter schools have been shown to be no more effective at helping kids learn than traditional public schools. Instead of providing a solution to the resource issue, charters have ended up being another part of the problem. By drawing funds and motivated students away from traditional schools, they leave the neighborhood schools system balkanized.

When I interviewed her earlier this month, Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis gave me a poignant example of how kids themselves might witness the balkanization created unequal distribution of resources: "We have several buildings in Chicago in which there are charter schools co-located within the building," she said. "So the side with the charter school has a brand-new whatever -- new paint, new desks and chairs, new bathrooms. And the other children are not allowed to go in that part of the building. They get to see up close and personal that resources are differently spent."

What message are we sending to kids about their value when we have crumbling older schools sitting side by side with brand-new facilities that only a few can use?

What's the Solution? Accountability Throughout the System

One of the issues in the spotlight during the strike was accountability for teachers. Indeed, accountability remains a critical issue for the schools. But the city's public schools comprise a system, and unionized teachers are only one part of it. Everyone across the system should be held accountable for their part in ensuring the success of our schools. That includes teachers, parents, administrators, educational policymakers, and politicians.

Some advocates say the schools should be run more like a business. That's all well and good. But in the business world, when an enterprise falters, everyone throughout the institution gets evaluated and re-examined -- including CEO and management. Any company worth its salt, when faced with poor performance, would take a hard look at the organization's leadership -- not just scapegoat the employees for doing a poor job.

(Mayor Emanuel's sudden move to hire experienced educator Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the schools CEO may be a step in the right direction; but she is the fourth CEO the schools have had since 2010. It remains to be seen what she will demand from administrators and teachers, and whether the mayor will allow her to stay long enough to make a positive impact.)

Despite what the pundits commonly suggested, teachers actually came to the bargaining table with a proposal for how they should be held accountable in their work. These teachers never said they shouldn't be evaluated, only that they don't want to be held responsible for things that they cannot control.

Poverty is at the top of that list. About 85 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced price lunches. Teachers, much as they may wish to, cannot replace all the missing supports in the lives of many children in poverty. Those missing supports -- one missed meal, the stress of unemployment, or an overextended or absent parent -- can result in lower test scores. Children living in poverty need greater, not fewer, resources put into their daily education. That's why community members and parents have struggled painfully -- have gone on hunger strikes, in some cases -- to get the city to put more funds into neighborhood schools.

Instead of using evaluation measures that do not fairly account for poverty, teachers should be held accountable for things they do control: the strength of their lesson plans, their creativity, and the energy they bring to their classrooms. Peer evaluation and assessment and monitoring by veteran educators provide avenues for measuring these things and getting improvement.

(The recently-negotiated contract between the Newark Teachers' Union and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shows that teachers are willing to have their pay tied to evaluation when peer review is part of the evaluation model. "Who disbars lawyers? Other lawyers," NTU president Joe Del Grosso told reporter Josh Eidelson.)

In order to address the issue of resources, we need accountability at another level: Politicians and administrators must take responsibility for how funds are allocated. And they must accept the mandate of ensuring that all schools -- not merely those that are privately managed or have selective enrollment -- are given adequate resources to thrive.

Saving Our Public Schools

Our public schools need to be strong to meet America's next set of challenges. We cannot pull ahead as a country if some people move forward while others fall behind. Because of this, a two-tiered educational structure is detrimental for everyone. Heading it off will require a different approach to both resources and evaluation -- one that moves beyond scapegoating and demands accountability throughout the system.

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