Adapting for Equity: Chicago’s Story

Adapting for Equity: Chicago’s Story

Districts that Succeed:

Karen Chenoweth’s new book, Districts that Succeed: breaking the correlation between race, poverty and achievement, is a great book.  Chenoweth tells how five districts, large and small, have created student achievement success.

She used the research by Sean Reardon (Stanford) showing district outliers that outperformed districts with similar demographics.  My basic operating theory, she says, is what Ronald Edmonds laid out decades ago:  ‘… identify schools that produce the outcomes you are interested in.  Then watch them to figure out what makes them different from ineffective schools.’

Common Themes:

Applying that process across five high performing DISTRICTS she found that they had:

Committed leaders that believe in the “capacity of schools to make kids smarter” and implement processes that help all staff “learn to make better decisions over time.” Continuity and steady development over time matter … a lot.

Scientific Method: They analyze data and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. The most powerful question in education, she says, is: Your kids are doing better than mine.  What are you doing? Doing this consistently over time makes you better.

Systems of Support: Managing time to:  provide more time and support to students; analyze formative assessment data; creating a culture of figuring it out;

Continual Learning … from positive outliers, from research on how students learn, and by consistent application of what works

Chenoweth says, I found an enormous wellspring of knowledge, expertise and passion that we can all learn from.  Districts, she says, have power to either support or undermine the work of principals.

In her chapter on Chicago, Chenoweth highlights community commitment, usable data and, most essentially, principal leadership, as marks of successChicago’s story is one of adaptation and continuous improvement. 

Excerpts that follow are mostly direct, or slightly adapted, quotes from Districts that Succeed:

The Work of a Generation: The Story of Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, over 30 years, went from “worst” to “first.”  In 1987, US Secretary of Education pronounced Chicago’s schools “worst” in the nation.  In 2016, Stanford researcher, Sean Reardon, named Chicago “first” among urban districts in student growth.

Chicago Public Schools is one of the few districts in the country that ‘grows’ students six academic years in five calendar years.  From 2006 to 2018 high school graduations improved from 57% to 76%.

No Where to Go But Up

In 1987, the mayor called a city-wide summit where community leaders came together to advocate for change.

  • Local school councils were formed to hire principals and approve school improvement
  • One local news source focused exclusively on reporting the good the bad and the ugly. They translated research into plain English and became a must read resource for principals.
  • Long-term research on school success, through the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research was funded by 17 foundations. Researchers were in schools every day figuring out what worked and what didn’t.
  • Stable leadership – two CEOs over 14 years – put the focus on creating and using data to get better.
  • Teacher Capacity – ten years of investment in improving reading through more specialists and professional development.

Positive Outliers and Inquiry

In 1998, Charting School Reform, reported on ten years of change.  Case studies of schools that improved found that “When the people at the school building level were able to work effectively together, and there was a strong relational trust – as we called it – that developed among the professionals with parents and with community, that those local actors working together were actually able to use the resources they had to make their school work better.  It very much taps into this idea that people engaged in the work were central to the improvement.”  – Anthony Bryk

A 2000 paper, The On Track Indicator as a Predictor of High School Graduation, showed that:

  • Although only half of students were graduating, many students who dropped out had been doing fine until ninth grade.
  • Attendance, course grades and climate played a significant role in whether students succeeded. Many drop outs felt lost and not part of school.

Schools tried phone calls home, tutoring sessions, counseling, mentors, Saturday school, summer work.  Stories about what worked spread … through networks, problems of practice and from teacher to teacher.

By 2010, principals were receiving data reports with lists of students who had multiple absences or failing grades after the first quarter and then monthly.  This allowed schools to target students that need help the most. That year, graduations jumped from 60 to 64 percent and have crept up ever since, now close to 80%.

Better data helped them make better decisions and build better systems.  More students attended class, got better grades, passed more courses and graduated on time.

School Organization Not Individual Initiatives

Then, in 2011, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, was published.  By studying 100 schools that outperformed their peers, researchers found that, school organization, not individual initiatives, drives improvement.

Consortium researchers said schools improve as the result of people working together, cooperating, over extended periods of time to develop coherent instruction and build a culture of improvement. 

Five things were required for school success:

  • Involved families … partnerships with families and communities
  • Supportive environment … safe and supportive with high expectations
  • Ambitious instruction that is focused, challenging and engaging
  • Effective leaders focused on results and improvement
  • Collaborative teachers who work together toward excellence

Effective leadership was essential to each of the other four.  Today, CPS reports on how strong each of these elements are in each school.  Even 3 out 5 will spell success – if one of those is effective leadership.

New Focus on School Leadership

Since leadership is the key driver of school improvement, Chicago set out to develop principals who could consistently improve student achievement.  The Center for Urban Education Leadership pointed the way by preparing 128 principal over 15 years.  Those principals helped Chicago improve and the schools they led improved even more.

Hallmarks of the principal development program included:

  • Selective enrollment … to find those with drive and high expectations
  • Cohort model
  • Paid internship
  • Identifying an issue and leading change
  • Ongoing coaching

CPS then created a rigorous principal eligibility assessment to determine if candidates could:

  • Develop high performing teachers
  • Develop parent and student leadership
  • Create conditions for children to be successful

These leaders improved climate and culture.  Then they improved graduation rates.  Eventually test scores improved but test scores were lagging indicators.

High Expectations for All Students

Janice Jackson, recently retired CEO, says, It is about creating policies and structures and experience that are the same across the board for everybody.  Everybody wants to learn, everybody wants a good education and access to the American Dream.

The key to Chicago’s improvement, Jackson says, is the transformation of the role of the principal.  Pay attention to school leadership – it can have a dramatic impact on performance.


Chenoweth shows us how, over three decades, CPS improved more than any other large district in the country.  They did so with:

  • A community wide commitment to improving schools and improving student’s lives.
  • Using good data and research and inquiry to make better decisions
  • Investing in principals who can organize schools to help kids get smarter.

Chenoweth’s conclusion at the end of Districts that Succeed:

Kids can get smarter;

We can all get smarter;

We just have to muster the will to do so. 




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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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