On Thursday, September 2, I spoke at the City Club of Chicago, where I shared the district's vision and strategy--and what it means for students, parents, teachers, principals and staff. As we open the new school year, it's a good time to reflect on our progress to date and the important work we have ahead to boost student achievement dramatically across our city.
Charting the Future for our Kids and Communities
Remarks to the City Club of Chicago
Chief Executive Officer
Chicago Public Schools
September 2, 2010
Thank you so much for inviting me here today. I am really pleased to be with the City Club of Chicago to talk about our vision for the future of Chicago Public Schools and what we are doing every day to improve the education we provide to the students in our district.
As you probably know, we’re in the middle of our back to school program. Almost one-third of our students went back to school a month earlier this year, while kids at our remaining schools are scheduled to start back up next Tuesday. This is an exciting and hopeful time, and we are looking forward to a great school year.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as the CEO of CPS for a year and a half. It has been time marked by political instability in Springfield, a fiscal crisis in our state and nation, and violence in our communities.
With that as a backdrop, every day, nearly 410,000 Chicago children and young adults walk through our doors. We have a responsibility to see them graduate prepared for college and the global economy.
In the last fifteen years – since mayoral control of CPS was established – we have taken tremendous strides. Our test scores have increased. And our graduation rate today is significantly higher than it was in 1995.
The district continues to lead the way in the national reform movement, including establishing executive control, closing failing schools, creating new school turnaround models and piloting efforts to create real and meaningful teacher evaluation.
Those achievements weren’t easy, and they shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is my job now to build on the hard won successes of my predecessors, Paul and Arne, and move the district forward.
The statistics make clear the challenges that we face.
45 percent of our kids will not graduate from high school. Only 30 percent will enroll in college. And less than half of them will actually graduate.
Too many of our neighborhood schools are failing. And the mayor continues to challenge CPS to move faster to turn those schools around… faster to reduce the drop out rate… and faster to increase the number of our kids who go on to college.
Turning these numbers around requires dramatic and systemic change.
There are some who actually think we can fix CPS with a few tweaks or by turning a blind eye to difficult choices. I do not share that perspective.
These are people who believe in the status quo or think that we should go back to the way things were 20 years ago. They are defensive because – more times than not – they benefit from it. I’m not one of them. The status quo doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work. And frankly, there isn’t any time left for more excuses.
Fortunately, there’s reason to be hopeful. Across the country we’re seeing profound changes in public education. The federal government is using its dollars as a carrot – and a stick – in ways that it never has before. A common core curriculum and standards are being adopted across the country, including here in Illinois. And teachers are embracing programs that provide better measuring tools for student progress and meaningful evaluations.
We have to ride this wave of change here in Chicago and the state. That means cultivating a culture of performance that demands success from all of us and holds us accountable to students and parents.
While I will go into more detail later, let me briefly explain what I mean by culture of performance.
For students, it means placing their success at the forefront of everything we do and helping them come to school prepared to learn. It means core curriculum standards and ongoing assessments so teachers can make real-time adjustments and ensure that every kid is on track. It also means giving them more time in the classroom each day and working with community partners to keep them safe when they’re not in school.
For teachers, it means giving them the resources, training and flexibility needed to be highly effective teachers. It means developing a common language and set of expectations for what great teaching looks like. It means having real teacher evaluations that reward those teachers who are effective and removes and replaces those who are not.
For principals and school administrators, this new approach means giving them more autonomy and authority over the resources they need to help drive student achievement while also holding them more accountable than ever to use data to ensure every student is learning.
For CPS’ Central Office, citywide staff and the system as a whole, a new culture of performance means radically re-thinking everything we do to better support our principals and teachers. It means if you don’t work in a school, there’s one bottom line: How are you helping a principal or teacher improve student achievement?
It means giving parents the information they demand to make good decisions. Parents have a right to know.
There are many who criticize CPS on all kinds of issues for all types of reasons. And you know what – I agree with much of what they say. We are too centralized. We tolerate ineffective teachers, principals, vendors and staff. We fail to celebrate those teachers who go the extra mile everyday for our students. We spend too much money outside the classroom. And we are not as transparent as we need to be.
We are, and in all cases have been, aggressively addressing all of these issues.
- We’re shifting more and more resources to our schools as we continue to reduce the size of Central Office. And today, 18 months after I took over CPS, we have 1,250 fewer positions outside of our schools.
- Our budget process is more transparent than ever. All CPS salaries are now available online. We are also listing consultants and vendors and payments to everyone. All you have to do is go to our website and you can see firsthand what we’re doing.
- We’ve closed and turned around 19 schools that were failing our kids.
- And we made the decision earlier this year to lay off our most ineffective teachers before anyone else in the district, and we have 120 schools opening this year with new principals.
While this is a start, it is not enough.
You may know that last week the U.S. Department of Education awarded Race to the Top grants to ten states. Illinois was not one of them. This shows that we have much more to do structurally to improve how we educate Illinois kids, including at CPS. It should serve as a wake-up call to those who refuse to stand with our kids and parents and embrace the changes that are needed to accomplish what must be done.
There isn’t enough time to settle for excuses on why something isn’t working or won’t work. There’s only a demand – from our students, their parents and our communities. We must come together to not only meet their expectations, but to exceed them.
Before I jump into more detailed explanations of how we’re going to address these problems, I want to take a few moments to talk a little bit about our district to help provide some perspective.
As I mentioned, nearly 410,000 students were enrolled in CPS’ 680 schools during the last school year. This makes CPS the third-largest district in the country after New York and Los Angeles.
With about 40,000 employees and a budget of $6.6 billion, CPS is Chicago’s second largest employer – ranked only behind the federal government.
Even with recent layoffs, CPS employs almost as many people in the city as Advocate Healthcare, Walgreens and JPMorgan Chase – combined. If we were a corporation, we would rank number 337 on the 2010 Fortune 500 list. Let me repeat that. 337.
Our student population is as diverse as our city. Roughly 45 percent of our students are African American, 41 percent Hispanic, nine percent white and nearly four percent Asian American. Over 85 percent receive free or reduced lunch or breakfast – meaning that they live near or below the poverty line.
Under our umbrella of 680 schools, we have traditional, neighborhood-based schools, as well as a variety of other options including magnet, special education, gifted and classical schools. We also have career and military academies and 82 charter schools that serve our students. Collectively, these schools make up the school district.
With the dollars we receive, we run a complex, year-round operation. This includes day school, summer school, year-round school, after-school tutoring, bilingual, early childhood and special education programs, sports, vocational training, food service, transportation, and more.
I point these things out to help you understand and appreciate that CPS is a complex, integrated system. There is not one simple change we can make, but many changes that need to happen simultaneously. As you can imagine, in a $6.6 billion organization, systemic change isn’t easy. And it won’t come without resistance.
A few minutes ago, I shared some troubling statistics regarding our high school students. But let me be clear, CPS has come a long way in the last fifteen years to improve the quality of education we provide to our students.
There are some who say we should go back to the good ole days before mayoral control. I’d like to remind you what those days looks like.
In the 1980s, an Illinois state authority controlled CPS. This agency set and determined the policies of the district, hired the superintendent and had final sign-off on the district’s budget. Schools – particularly those in the city’s poorest neighborhoods – went to shambles.
In 1980, Chicago teachers went on strike. In 1983, they went on strike again. 1984, again. 1985, again. And in 1987, teachers went on strike, again.
You may remember in that same year, then-Secretary of Education William Bennett went so far as to call Chicago schools “the worst in the nation.” And in the end, it was our kids who got hurt.
In 1988, an education reform bill passed in Springfield establishing Local School Councils and creating a new level of local accountability and community oversight over our schools.
In 1995 – just fifteen years ago – the city won back control of the school system as a result of a major school reform bill championed by our current Mayor Daley. The district’s superintendent was replaced by a CEO and a Board of Education appointed by the mayor. Local control over the district’s budget and decision-making processes was restored.
To say CPS was in bad shape at that time is an understatement. Fewer and fewer students were graduating, schools never opened on time, the infrastructure was crumbling and the city’s residents lacked confidence in the system’s ability to educate our kids.
The path to where we are now was not easy. Under Paul, huge strides were taken to stabilize the district’s finances and rebuild the crumbling schools the state left us with. Under Arne, CPS aggressively expanded the use of alternative school models and sought to give parents and students more high-performing options. Both took an aggressive stance to close or turn around failing schools.
As we begin the 2010-2011 school year, this year’s senior class will be just the fourth class to go from kindergarten through 12th grade under this system. And while I would argue that their experience has been dramatically better than those who came before them, there are tremendous challenges that we still face. We can’t be afraid to tackle them – and we cannot wait.
I want to provide one last bit of context to our conversation. As all of you know, Illinois is facing the greatest fiscal crisis of our generation. The state’s inability to pay its bills has had a dramatic impact on public education. No district has been spared, including CPS.
These realities were placed at the forefront of public conversation recently when the district was forced to close a budget deficit of as much as $1 billion. We were able to cut into the deficit through temporary pension relief, the restoration of some state cuts and one-time emergency federal funding. But we weren’t able to close the remaining $370 million deficit and balance our budget without layoffs, programmatic cuts and draining our reserve fund.
These figures don’t even include the $236 million that the state still owes the district from the last fiscal year. We have no idea when the state will repay us, and we are concerned that a similar trend could continue in the coming years.
There are some people who say, “Don’t worry; the money will come from somewhere.” They clearly do not have a full appreciation for what we are dealing with. We cannot and will not be able to wish away our budget problems. They are real and require difficult decisions.
Even before the current crisis, Illinois ranked 49th out of 50 states in the percentage of funding provided to school districts by the state. Nevada ranked lower than our state, though that ranking is misleading because the overwhelming majority of Nevada’s education funding comes from the gaming industry. So for all intents and purposes, Illinois ranks dead last in the country in school funding.
Despite all of this, we still have a responsibility to our students and their parents. They don’t care if we’re 49th, 50th or 1st in the nation. All they care about is getting a good education.
So where are now? And what do we need to do?
Over 200 of our schools are still failing. These are schools where student achievement is low and in too many, not improving.
At the end of the day, nothing matters more than the success of our students and teachers. While most agree that we need to evaluate performance, there is not as much agreement on how to do it.
We don’t have a common understanding of what great teaching looks like, so we struggle to identify our highest- and lowest-performing teachers. Yet every teacher – and even most students – will tell you that they know exactly who the great teachers in their buildings are – and which ones no parents hope to get.
That’s beginning to change. And in Chicago, it’s changing now.
For the first time ever – for the most part – the country is adopting new common core curriculum standards. These new standards – which were adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education earlier this year – map out exactly what we expect students to know and when.
We’re also offering new tools that help teachers and principals understand where our students are on the learning path at any moment during their K through12 years.
Under the old system, teachers would teach all year not fully knowing if their students were advancing at the right pace. Students would take an end of the year test, and it was only then that the teacher would have the data needed to assess progress. But by then, it was too late – the student had already moved on to a new grade and a new teacher.
Over the last year, we’ve used shorter and more frequent real-time assessments to help teachers identify at-risk students early on and chart a path for them to get back on track before it’s too late.
More frequent information also gives principals and administrators the ability to direct resources like professional development, support and training where it’s needed most.
We have to be honest with ourselves that every teacher isn’t born a highly effective teacher. But it doesn’t mean that many of them can’t be. It comes down to identifying who is effective, who needs help and providing the training and professional development they need. And when they’re still not effective, then we need to make the tough and difficult decision to help those teachers move on.
Everything we do is built on a new framework for teaching and learning that we’re testing this year. The new system, which is being developed by a highly talented team of experienced educators, including teachers and principals, clearly identifies and defines what great teaching looks like. It uses both objective and subjective data and gives us a common language to talk about teacher performance.
We know that this approach works because we’ve already piloted two similar programs on a smaller scale that reinforce the dire need for this new system.
Under the old system, teachers are evaluated based on a rudimentary, compliance-oriented checklist. It doesn’t allow for evaluating a teacher on how they teach and doesn’t take into account student achievement.
Under that system, 87 percent of the teachers evaluated received a “Superior” or “Excellent” rating. Yet by the 11th grade, only one-third of students meet state standards in reading at their grade level, and 29 percent meet state standards in math. There is nothing I can say – or will ever say – that justifies these results.
Under our pilot programs, teachers and principals not only reported that the observation and evaluation process was more reliable, valid and rigorous, but it actually helped to differentiate performance. For the first time ever, we’re actually seeing real differentiation among the ratings of our teachers. That’s a step in the right direction.
I know that there are some who will always reject the use of test scores as a measuring stick for kids and for educators. Some of them want to have it both ways: they claim subjective ratings from principals are not fair. And they claim objective ratings based on test scores are unfair. What they’re really saying is: don’t evaluate us as teachers at all.
The reality is that we must create a system that balances both the subjective, professional judgment of principals and peers and the objective results that come from the data.
For many, using data is new and unfamiliar. For others, confronting hard numbers is unsettling. Regardless, we must take serious the brutal facts that data provides.
That is why during our budget crisis, we first laid-off teachers who received unsatisfactory ratings. This was the first time that we’ve done this. And it was the right thing to do. It is never an easy decision to lay-off any teacher. But if we’re serious about improving the success of our students, then we can’t worry about the harmony of the adults.
I ask the leadership of the teachers union to join us in our efforts to remove ineffective teachers from our schools, not fight us.
Earlier this year, we took action to remove the district’s lowest performing principals who oversaw failing schools. Today, new principals and staff are breathing life into our schools at the time when they need it most. And the excitement and innovation they bring to the table is having a dramatic impact on their teachers and students who are learning more.
These principals are doing everything they can to make their schools successful. CPS Central Office must do its part to help them get the job done.
First, we need to get smaller – and we have. I have reduced the number of Central Office and citywide staff by 1,250 employees since I became CEO. Additionally, this year’s budget shifts spending from Central Office directly to schools and areas, pushing additional decision-making authority to those who are closest to our students.
Second, we need to fundamentally re-think the way we provide services to our schools. As I said before, there is only one job at Central Office: to support the work of our teachers and principals.
Third, we have to be more strategic in expanding school models that work. I firmly believe that if we have a school or method that works then use it and expand it. Harness its examples and energy, and develop ways to duplicate the model and pass along best practices.
Fourth, we need to aggressively address schools that aren’t serving our kids and hold them accountable. For this reason, we will continue to close or turn around our worst performing schools – whether they are traditional, contract, charter or any other kind of school.
And, finally, we need to do a better job explaining what all this means to our parents and give them the information they need to make the best decisions for their children.
By this I mean that data gained through the district’s new evaluation processes will be used to grade each of our schools and identify their strengths and weaknesses. We will provide this information in an easy to understand format to all parents. They can use it to make choices about where to send their kids and to help drive change at their school.
Parents are a critical ally in the process of improving our schools, and we need to do a better job at giving them critical information they need to hold CPS accountable.
I want to talk next about what it takes to create an environment where our students can succeed.
Every teacher in our system will tell you that students have a greater chance of succeeding if they come to school ready to learn. And we know they’ll do better if they spend more time in the classroom. But it starts with them feeling safe. If they don’t, then nothing else we do to improve their education will matter.
To that end, I want to tell you about what we’re doing to provide a safe haven for our kids from the violence that’s plaguing our streets, our neighborhoods and our homes.
Working with parents, community groups, faith-based institutions, not-for-profits, CAPS and the Chicago Police Department, CPS is finding ways to identify and intervene with high-risk youth, creating a culture of calm in our high-risk schools and developing safe passage routes for our kids to get to and from school safely.
As a former police officer who served on the front lines and now as the chief of our schools, I know firsthand that there is a direct correlation between instability on our streets and our students’ ability to succeed in school. But this is not just a CPS problem. This is something that we all must solve together or these tragedies will continue.
Keeping kids safe isn’t the only thing we have to help do. We also need to make sure they’re healthy and well-fed. If they aren’t, then they can’t concentrate and struggle to learn.
Most of our kids get two meals a day at our schools. In fact, this year we launched breakfast in the classroom in 182 schools, and because of it, we will be serving an additional 6 million free or subsidized meals to our students this year.
Those meals are healthier than they’ve ever been and include fresh fruit and vegetables every day. As you know, a huge percentage of our students don’t have access to healthy foods—and many kids are significantly overweight. This year, our food service will not just meet, but significantly exceed First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthier U.S. Challenge standards.
Finally, we need to extend the school day. Chicago schools have the shortest day in the country. Compared to the national average, CPS students spend 200 fewer hours in the classroom each year – and at least 250 fewer than students in places like Houston, Philadelphia and New York – among others.
In fact, a student who goes to school in Houston from kindergarten through 12th grade spends the equivalent of FOUR more years in school than students in Chicago. If you’re like most people I talk to about this, you’re probably appalled. I’m appalled.
Unfortunately, extending the day just 60 minutes would cost the district over $300 million per year using the existing salary levels in our current labor agreements. We have to find solutions that we can afford.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Daley and I announced a pilot project to provide students at 15 schools with after-school, interactive computer-based math and reading programs. This is a cost-effective way to keep our kids in the classroom and provide them with critical individualized instruction. This new program will enable students to stay in school an additional 25 percent and will undoubtedly have a positive impact on these students.
We must ensure that a diploma from CPS can compete with a diploma from anywhere in the country – and world. It won’t unless we address the inequity which we all know exists in our school day and our kids’ access to technology.
None of this is going to be easy. But that doesn’t mean we should slow down. It doesn’t mean that we should settle for the status quo. And it certainly doesn’t allow for explanations and excuses to trump the need for immediate reform and accountability at CPS.
The decisions we make today will impact the next generation of CPS students and many more. Criticism of CPS is okay – I would argue that it’s healthy – as long as that criticism focuses on ways to best educate our kids.
To defend the status quo is to sentence our kids to a generation of policies and programs that we all know are simply inadequate. I’m not willing to settle for mediocrity or going back into the past.
Many of us have often heard the mayor ask – publicly and privately – “How can we be a world class city if we do not demand a world class public education system?” He’s right. Chicago should be – and can be –the most successful, highest performing school district in the country.
Springfield and Washington will also have to do their part. Temporary fixes, such as the Stimulus bill and education jobs bill, are helpful and appreciated. But they can not take the place of the difficult decisions and reforms which we all know need to be carried out.
Leading CPS is the greatest challenge that I and our team will likely face in our lifetimes. We know that the ideas to fix the problems that exist today will not come from us. They will come from parents, teachers, principals, students and many others like you.
We don’t have a minute to spare. Instilling this new culture of performance will take the concerted effort of all of us. And in the end:
- We will make sure our kids are safe in school and in our communities.
- We will give parents quality options of neighborhood-based schools to send their kids to.
- We will fill every classroom and school with high performing teachers and principals.
- We will hold those teachers and principals and all CPS staff, vendors, consultants and others accountable.
- We will reward good teachers and replace the ineffective.
- And we will increase the amount of time our kids are in the classroom so they have more time to learn, prepared for college and the global workforce.
These are our goals. And I am confident that, together, if we are willing to make difficult choices, confront the status quo and put our kids’ needs ahead of adults, we will transform CPS from the system it is today into the one we need it to be tomorrow.