The Work of a Generation

12/19/2017 12:36 pm ET

Pop quiz: What large public school system “grows” its kids the most? That is to say, at third grade the kids in this district perform significantly below the national average performance but by eighth grade they are pretty much at the average?

Here’s a hint: In 1987, then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennet called it the “worst” school system in the country.

If you don’t know that the answer is Chicago, you can be excused. When I give this quiz to people who are very knowledgeable about education they are often gob-smacked to find out Chicago is doing so well. One person guessed Chicago only because, she said, “it was the most unlikely answer I could think of.”

After all, most of what we hear about Chicago is terrible — its dysfunctional politics, its battles with its governor, and its horrible rate of violence that is responsible for many lost lives.

But even with all that, Chicago’s schools have managed to steadily improve. No matter what measure you want to use, things are getting better — graduation, ACT scores, test scores, college going, suspensions, expulsions. All are pointed in the right direction for all groups of students — African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Whites, high-wealth and low-wealth.

For a district that started at the bottom a generation ago, its growth has been impressive.

There are a lot of things that went into that improvement, and I talk with a few key players and observers in Ed Trust’s new podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts in an attempt to understand how such a behemoth of a school system could improve. It is, after all, the third biggest district in the country with almost 400,000 students and almost 600 schools. Educators in much smaller districts haven’t figured out how to manage the kind of improvement that Chicago has managed.

One of the things that struck me as I talked with teachers, administrators, researchers, and representatives of nonprofit organizations was the clear-eyed passion they bring to the question of educating all children. None are naïve Pollyannas. That would be impossible in a city like Chicago. But they all believe that schools are a key way we have to create a better future.

Chicago’s chief education officer, Janice Jackson, for example, told me: “I really believe education is the best way to eradicate poverty, to get away from the violence… . We have to educate our children. We have to provide them with real alternatives.”

For me the key lesson of Chicago may be the hope it provides the rest of the country. As Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of the Chicago Consortium for School Research said, “If it can happen in Chicago it can happen anywhere.”

To hear for yourself, I hope you’ll listen to ExtraOrdinary Districts. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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