Linda Lenz and Roy Larson at the first Catalyst Editorial Advisory Board meeting. Credit: File photo

I’m often asked — by friends, television hosts, people I’ve just met — whether Chicago’s public schools have gotten any better after decades of reform. I know they’d like a simple yes or no, but I find neither satisfying.

Rather, it’s been more like yes and no, or two steps forward, one step back.

Take, for example, the five-year high school graduation rate. Between 2000 and 2015, it improved 23 percentage points, to 70 percent — an impressive accomplishment. However, African-American males continue to lag far behind.

Further, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that almost a third of graduates leave school with a grade-point average of less than 2.0, which means they are unlikely to have the skills needed for success in either college or the work force.

As is often the case, the one step back reflects racial and economic inequality. And the two steps forward leave a lot of territory to cover.

If you take a look at the actions the school district has taken to improve outcomes for kids, you also will see some progress. For example, years ago CPS policy moved away from out-of-school suspensions — a punishment that deprives students of instruction — toward restorative justice, which revolves around dialog between offenders and victims.

In a similar vein, it also has made social and emotional learning, which can promote cognitive learning, a priority.

Yet schools have not received the training or support to put these policies into effect, which actually can have a negative effect on schools as staff spend time on goals that may be unattainable under the circumstances.

The larger problem, of course, is the dark cloud of insufficient and/or misplaced resources hanging over the district’s head.

In the past 25 years, there have been dozens of failures of good intentions and sometimes even good policies to move schools, especially the most disadvantaged, forward. And it is those often wonky but important issues that occupy much of Catalyst’s thoughts and time, as we strive to show what is working, what is not working and why.

Where Catalyst came from

My idea for Catalyst Chicago began with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, which cracked open and breathed new life into a calcified school district. The key feature was revolutionary: creating elected local school councils–six parents, two community members and two teachers — that would have the power to select their schools’ principals, a make-or-break decision for schools regardless of who does the choosing.

That structure created a need, I thought, for an independent source of in-depth information on education issues so that council members and others newly involved in the system could knowledgably participate in this grand experiment in local control.

The first issue of Catalyst was published in February 1990.
The first issue of Catalyst was published in February 1990.

For the previous decade, I had been the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and I knew that the news media would not have the time, space — we were still a print world — or inclination to dig deep into school-improvement issues on a regular basis.

Creating an editorial plan was easy, but I didn’t know how to put it into motion, so I consulted a savvy news source, Anne Hallett, who was then executive director of the Wieboldt Foundation. Anne said: “Go talk to the Community Renewal Society,” which at that time had been publishing The Chicago Reporter, an investigative newsletter focused on race and poverty, for 17 years.

At CRS I reunited with Roy Larson, the Reporter’s editor and publisher, who had been the religion editor at the Sun-Times and my pod-mate. Roy melded my idea with CRS’s idea for a newsletter for parents, and together we went in search of funding. As it turned out, the MacArthur and Joyce foundations had been looking for a way to track implementation of the Reform Act, and The Chicago Community Trust was interested in assisting parents.

So in February 1990, the first issue of Catalyst rolled off the presses. Reviewing our early issues — and they are all online — I am struck by how little the major issues have changed. In our first few years, we reported on principal selection, testing, school choice, the shortage of bilingual teachers, funding equity and overcrowding in Hispanic communities.

The roots of reform

In 1987, CPS teachers went on strike for a record 19 days.
In 1987, CPS teachers went on strike for a record 19 days.

When Chicagoans talk about the arc of school reform these days, they typically point to 1995 as the beginning. That is when the Legislature put the mayor, then Richard M. Daley, firmly in charge of the school system.

But significant action to improve schools actually predates even the 1988 Reform Act. It began with the late Mayor Harold Washington, who in the early 1980s pulled together school officials, business leaders and reform advocates for closed-door meetings on how CPS could graduate students who were better prepared for college and employment. Faced with a rebellious City Council, there was little more Washington could do.

Then, in 1987, teachers went on strike for a record 19 days, giving Washington the imperative and opportunity to go public and set a big vision. His first move after the strike was to call a citywide conference to gather ideas about school reform. Hundreds of Chicagoans showed up for a rally and discussions.

Though the event was largely symbolic, the symbolism was telling: An African-America mayor was making clear that he expected major changes in a school system that for the first time had African-Americans as superintendent, school board president and teachers union president.

Washington went on to create the first-ever assembly of leaders from every sector of the city, from the CEOs of Amoco and Harris Bank to West Side parent activists. They held their plenary sessions in City Council chambers. Washington died before his Education Summit got under way and eventually gave rise to the 1988 Reform Act.

Early research by the Consortium on the newly decentralized school system found that about a third of the schools adopted practices that likely would produce achievement gains, another third adopted good but uncoordinated practices, and a third merely treaded water.

But it was mostly continuing labor unrest and the failure of test scores to rise immediately, as some had unrealistically expected, that led to the 1995 restructuring. The key change was a return to unfettered mayoral control. The 1988 law had created a grass-roots nominating committee that repeatedly gave Mayor Daley candidates he didn’t want. The 1995 law dismantled the body.

(There is a widespread misconception that the school board was elected before the mayor regained full control in 1995. So listen up: CHICAGO HAS NEVER HAD AN ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD. Indeed, Chicago mayors have been appointing school board members since 1872. Check out our online timeline for other interesting dates.)

The 1995 law also severely curtailed union bargaining rights, foreshadowing a legislative priority of our current governor, and freed up enough money so that Mayor Daley’s hand-picked school leaders could overcome red ink in the school district budget, sign a first-ever four-year teacher contract and launch popular new programs. But Springfield supplied no new money.

If these sound like Republican reforms, it’s because they are. At the time, Republicans controlled the Senate, House and governor’s office. But Democrats didn’t put up much of a fuss either.

The funding package included a diversion of taxes meant for pensions, one of the first such actions in a long series that handed us today’s financial crisis.

Mayoral control returns

The return of total mayoral control first brought us Paul Vallas, the mayor’s hard-charging budget chief, as Chicago Public Schools CEO and Gery Chico, the mayor’s chief of staff, as School Board president. Together, they set an agenda that continues to guide — or haunt, depending on your politics and perspective—CPS policies.

Accountability was their watchword. But their implementation was ill-informed. Vallas put 109 low-scoring schools on probation, a number impossible to handle well, and set test-score requirements for student promotion even though numerous studies had shown that holding kids back does them no good. CPS is now considering abandoning student retention entirely.

Vallas also welcomed charter schools, while most public school officials opposed them, and Chico was a champion for selective-enrollment high schools, which were aimed at keeping the middle class in the city.

Vallas eventually wore out his welcome at City Hall and was replaced in 2001 by Arne Duncan, then a mid-level CPS administrator who had caught the attention of a top Daley advisor.

Duncan has said, correctly in my view, that the best decision he ever made at CPS was to hire Barbara Eason-Watkins as chief education officer. Eason-Watkins was an ace principal in a South Side school, and as chief education officer she brought new attention to the bottom-line issues of teaching and learning.

However, Duncan is probably best known for Renaissance 2010, Mayor Daley’s controversial plan to close low-performing schools and replace them with 100 new ones, including privately run charter, contract and turnaround schools. At the latter, entire faculties were laid off, forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs.

In 2009, Duncan took these, as well as some less-disruptive initiatives, with him to his new job as U.S. secretary of education.

Duncan’s successors — Ron Huberman and Terry Mazany (under Daley) and Jean Claude Brizard (under Mayor Rahm Emanuel) — were not around long enough to set any new directions.

However, Emanuel has had a big impact from Day 1. In a first, he hand-picked not only the school system’s CEO, but also Brizard’s leadership team. They didn’t work out. (Brizard’s successor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, resigned and was recently indicted on federal corruption charges in connection with a no-bid $20 million contract.)

Emanuel also lengthened the school day, a long-sought reform, but did it in a way that ignored school-level realities. And his combative stance against the teachers union paved the way for a seven-day strike, the first since 1987.

More recently, Emanuel stirred opposition with a structural reform that likely would have won favor in better financial times: student-based budgeting, which promotes equity in school staffing but tends to push out veteran, and thus more expensive, teachers when budgets are cut.

On the positive side, Emanuel has increased long-running investments in two areas known to make a difference: early childhood education and principal leadership.

However, Emanuel is likely to go down in history as the mayor who closed 49 schools in largely poor, African-American neighborhoods.

Few of the reforms adopted since 1995 had a full public airing, and that has fed growing activism by students, parents, community members and the Chicago Teachers Union.
Critics of current policies are now campaigning for an elected school board. That would have to be approved by the Legislature, a political stretch.

So back to the initial question: Are Chicago schools better? A definitive answer remains elusive, as this very brief history shows. For those unsatisfied by “yes and no,” or “two steps forward, one step back,” I can only add: It’s complicated.

For 25 years, Catalyst has explored the complexities with an extremely talented and committed staff: former editors Veronica Anderson and Lorraine Forte; current reporters Melissa Sanchez and Kalyn Belsha, and presentation editor Christine Wachter; former reporters Liz Duffrin, Rebecca Harris, Sarah Karp, Maureen Kelleher, John Myers, Dan Weissmann and Debra Williams; and former support staff Victoria Jones, Ericka Moore, Brian Foster and Irasema Salinas Gonzalez.

I thank them for fulfilling the hopes I had when launching Catalyst, and I thank the Community Renewal Society and Catalyst’s financial backers for making it possible.

It has been a privilege to do this work, and I look forward to seeing a new vision emerge as I retire and pass the baton to a new leader.

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