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We Must Relentlessly Fight For Education Reform

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I was cleaning out my garage recently and came across a report titled "Left Behind: A Report of the Education Committee." The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago published the document in 2003. The report was one of many artifacts that I received as CEO of the school district as part of our strategic planning exercise in the spring of 2011. It is always important to understand what has been communicated, attempted and accomplished because system leaders almost always stand on the shoulders of giants.

I pulled a chair up and continued to look through other artifacts that I received as part of my entry as Chicago's school superintendent. I also found artifacts that I received as I entered the Rochester, New York school district as its superintendent. I keep these things hoping to one day soon archive my experience in a best seller, or maybe I'm just a hoarder. I found striking similarities in issues and challenges these two districts faced. I was drawn back to the Civic Committee report and the highlights that I made when I first read it.

By the time students reach the 11th grade in Chicago's high schools, only 60 of 100 are left -- and, of these, roughly two-thirds fail to read at state standards, and about three-fourths fail to meet standards in math and science. In high poverty schools, only 13 percent meet or exceed math standards.

The following statement hit me the hardest in 2011, and the memory of that reaction was just as vivid reading it over three years later. "Our schools are the way they are not because of Al Qaeda, but because of our collective neglect and an unwillingness to make hard choices or to insist on results. Chicago's public school system is structured for failure. It needs to be fixed." It seems to me that most urban school systems are structured for failure, but it does not have to be that way. There are ways to disrupt the persistent failures.

Fast forward nearly a decade, and many of the alarms sounded in Chicago in 2003 are still relevant today despite herculean efforts by smart superintendents. Many across the city still have unequal access to quality education. One-third of Chicago's children attend schools that are some of the worst performing in the nation. Fewer than 8 percent of 11th graders tested college ready in 2010. On the ACT, only one in seven African American students scored at or above a 20, which represents a 43.2 percent difference from Caucasian students. The gap is shocking. Twenty-five years of reform initiatives have led to only incremental improvements for Chicago's students.

A similar and, perhaps, more troubling picture can be painted for Rochester, New York. I had a clear directive from the community to increase the graduation rate -- Rochester had the lowest graduation rate in the State of New York in 2007. We were able to move graduation by 11 percentage points in less than four years, but it has now declined to pre-2007 levels. ACT growth in Chicago, mostly from the poorest parts of the city, were at historic levels in 2012 but have since plateaued.

There are clear reasons why this is not just a Chicago or Rochester story. One can find similar narratives across the United States. There are nations struggling with a similar patchwork of issues, and there are others who seem to have figured out how to educate all of their children. Over my 28 years living inside urban school systems, I have come to understand and believe that there are two things that we must do and/or keep in mind: respect the complexity of this challenge and relentlessly execute against clear goals.

Complex problems require comprehensive solutions. Partial reforms have led to partial transformation. Reforms with transformational potential have been implemented in many cities. System leaders have improved instruction, developed principals, improved school accountability systems, expanded school choice and brought more successful and innovative school models, including charters, to cities. However, these initiatives are often implemented separately rather than integrated into a system-wide strategy. I call it the Frankenstein's Monster Syndrome. These reforms have improved many schools, but the way in which they were implemented has left us with inconsistent results and incoherent systems.

I have recently been spending a lot of time with education technology entrepreneurs. Each time I hear a new pitch for a platform that will disrupt, agitate, support and provide a solution for practitioners, I think of coherence. The amazing platform that provides just-in-time access to student data, that platform that greatly eases classroom observation and will align to any teaching framework, that platform that creates a master schedule based on student interest and not school structure or adult interest -- these all need to "talk" to each other to provide a coherent, actionable picture for the teacher, school leader or superintendent.

The Chicago report rightly pushed that poverty and low achievement are mere correlates, and that all children -- regardless of poverty -- will learn in good schools staffed by excellent teachers. What cannot be disputed, however, is that stress and challenge often created by poverty -- access to good nutrition, nurturing adults, good prenatal care, access to quality early childhood programs, quality housing, etc. -- does have an impact on learning. These issues can be mitigated in a well-coordinated system of early intervention and academic and non-academic supports. It does take a city, not just the school district.

Second, there is a lot that can be done to accelerate student achievement in our school system if we focus on results rather than intentions and implement reform efforts systemically, thoroughly and deliberately. Each city has one data point that parents and community look to as an indicator of success. In Rochester, it is the four-year high school graduation rate. In Chicago, it is access to a good neighborhood school. In Washington, D.C. it seems to be a good school in your neighborhood.

School district leaders need to focus on the key levers that will drive progress toward that data point and understand that these levers must be interrelated and mutually reinforcing. School district leaders can move school systems from pockets of success to system-wide excellence by creating integrated district-wide improvement strategies, which are supported by critical enablers such as a synergistic focus on effective instruction together with operational excellence. High-achieving systems are driven by leaders focused on results and have teams disciplined at effective execution on core strategies.

There is nothing magical about these strategies. Lean Six Sigma principles are employed in industries where repeated failure is unacceptable like the airline industry. We learn, change practice and get safer after each airline accident or incident, yet we are too tolerant of failure in our school systems.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us, "to build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success...with a society that provides opportunities for all." Through a responsive, disciplined and coherent approach, I know that this can be done.