The imprint of former Mayor Richard M. Daley was left on public education perhaps more than it was in any other arena.
During his tenure, test scores improved, the percentage of adults with a high school diploma increased, a slew of well-regarded charter and selective-enrollment schools were established--and a higher percentage of white parents sent their kids to public elementary and high schools in Chicago.
In 1995, the Illinois General Assembly granted Daley control over the public school system, the third largest in the country.
"I thought Mayor Daley brought a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation to education in our city that was not there in other major cities the way it is now," said Janet Knupp, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund. "To me, he was a trendsetter."
Part of that innovation, according to Knupp, was a larger focus on teacher quality, increasing the overall numbers who were accredited with National Board Certification. Given by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, teachers with Board Certification have been recognized as possessing advanced teaching credentials.
"When you have a mayor that's in charge of the school system, everybody understood it was his key priority," Knupp said. "And I think he made some very good choices."
A Chicago Reporter analysis of census data between 1990 and 2009 showed that the number of adults with a high school diploma rose from 66 percent to 78.8 percent. Increases were also found in the number of adults who attended college, as well as those earning a degree, from 24.1 percent to 37.3 percent.
It was period that saw gains made among each of the city's ethnic populations, as the percentage of adults with a high school diploma in African-American communities rose from 63.7 percent in 1990 to 78.8 percent in 2009. The percentage of adults with a high school diploma in Latino communities also increased, from 54.4 percent to 63.5 percent.
"If you look back from the early 90s to the present day, we've gone from a system where half of kids drop out to one where twice as many kids graduate than drop out," said Elaine Allensworth, Ph.D., senior director and chief research officer at the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. "So there's been kind of remarkable progress in kids getting to schools."
Allensworth credited a lot of the turnaround with Daley's first Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, whom she said was instrumental in implementing a number of reforms, including investment in school infrastructure, as well as a new emphasis on the use of test scores to monitor student progress. She said Vallas also changed the high school graduation requirement to include a college preparatory curriculum.
Allensworth said reforms continued under Vallas' successor, current U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, whom she credited for implementing the use of data to better track student performance in order to intervene faster when problems were detected.
Perhaps the most significant indicator that perception of public
education had improved is in the rising percentages of elementary and
high school students choosing public schools over private schools in
Chicago. A Chicago Reporter analysis of census data shows that the percentage of elementary and high school students living in Chicago and attending public schools grew from 79.5 percent to 85.1 percent from 1990 to 2009. The fastest growth occurred in predominantly white communities where that figure grew from 51.7 percent to 62.3 percent. The numbers increased dramatically in predominantly white communities on the North Side like Dunning, Edison Park, Forest Glen, Jefferson Park, Norwood Park and O'Hare. The figures, however, fell in predominantly white, upper-income communities like Lake View, Lincoln Park and the Near North Side.
Furthermore, in spite of the progress made in getting kids to college, Allensworth acknowledged that CPS still faced challenges in developing students' academic skills to a level that met college standards.
"Chicago's kind of been ahead of the country in terms of making sure students are taking the courses they need to take to get into college," she said. "Students are taking the classes but a lot of students are not engaged in their classes, and then that really hurts them in terms of their readiness for college."
CPS ACT test data showed an average composite score of 17 in 2010, up from 16 in 2001, but still below the state average of 20 and the national average of 21.
The disparity only widens when comparing the composite scores of African-American and Latino students, who averaged 16 and 17 respectively. By contrast, the average score among white students was 22, while Asian students had an average score of 21.
African-American and Latino students were also the least likely to earn a score of 20 or above, according to the data, with only 23.5 percent of Latinos and 14.3 percent of African Americans doing so in 2010.
"There s what you teach, and then there's how you teach it and how engaged kids are in it," Allensworth said. "And engagement has not actually improved over time."
But any large-scale effort to reverse the trend will most likely have to take a back seat to more immediate concerns, as officials must address an upcoming school years with a budget deficit estimated at more than $700 million.
That aside, Allensworth said social factors outside the scope of the school environment can play a crucial role in explaining why efforts to improve education for some students have not been all that effective.
"If you look at the students who are coming from the most impoverished neighborhoods with the highest levels of crime, they're all African-American," she said. "So you have kids that are coming from the most difficult environments in the first place - where they're most likely to have health problems and family disruption problems and stressors that are going to make it hard for them and their parents to really engage in school."
-- Steven Ross Johnson
Photo by flickr/chicagopublicmedia