01/26/2011 12:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time for a New Vision for Chicago Schools

Since Mayor Richard Daley took control of Chicago schools in 1995 and began appointing business-minded CEOs to head the system, the march toward a numbers-driven, test-and-punish vision of public education has been steady.

Some insist kids are better off because of it. Tighter accountability, tougher standards and top-down control, they say, have brought about a renaissance in the city's schools.

But for whom? And what have we lost sight of along the way?

In October, a Chicago magazine cover story heralded its ratings of the "best" elementary schools in the city. The "methodology" the magazine used to determine its rankings was fitting given the educational world in which we live: a complex formula that included test scores and -- well, that's it, just test scores. A look at the top 15 schools on Chicago's list reveals that, at each, between 95 and 100 percent of students met or exceeded state goals on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. It also reveals that in those same 15 schools, the average percentage of low-income students is just 19.6 percent. The system-wide average is 86 percent.

In this month's issue, Chicago chose to feature CPS once again. This time, the spotlight is on Nettelhorst Elementary, "a failing educational backwater in Lake View" that made an astounding turnaround beginning in 2001 "when some determined moms got involved." The story focuses on the many snazzy additions the moms helped bring to the school: a $130,000 Nate Berkus-designed kitchen, a "French-bistro-inspired cafeteria," a surround-sound system, an air-conditioned gym and a new science lab. And it trumpets the school's huge jump in test scores. In 2001, only 35 percent of Nettelhorst students met or exceeded state standards, and by last year, that number had risen to 86 percent.

But the article gives short shrift to another element of the school's extreme makeover (and neglects to cite specific figures): In 2001, 77 percent of Nettelhorst's students were low-income. Last year, only 31 percent of its kids were from poor families. In fact, the school's percentage of low-income students has decreased every year since the "turnaround" began. The numbers of African American and Latino students have also dramatically declined.

These two stories highlight an uncomfortable but undeniable reality: after 15 years of what its proponents call "successful" school reform in Chicago, high test scores stubbornly continue to correlate with higher family income levels. Yet the singular pursuit of higher scores still dominates discussions of reform in the city, pushing aside other important considerations, such as the purpose of schools in a democracy, the importance of the arts in the curriculum, and the impact of broader societal inequities on what happens inside classrooms.

A statement released last week, however, by a newly formed collective of educational researchers and youth advocates takes the conversation in a welcome direction. Known as CReATE (Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education), the groups's organizers believe that the policies driving Chicago school reform over the past decade and a half have been based more on myth than on research.

With that in mind, one of their goals is to re-frame the debate around public education in the run-up to the city's mayoral election next month. The group's full statement lays out a detailed alternative vision for how we might think about improving Chicago's schools, and what such a vision would require of the city's new mayor. [Full disclosure: Though I am not part of the CReATE organizing committee, I signed on to the statement along with 37 others.]

Among its recommendations, CReATE calls for Chicago's next mayor to:

  • Develop and implement policies that address historic educational inequities that arise from poverty, segregation, discrimination, and social isolation.
  • Prioritize education budgetarily and invest in public K-12 schools by, for example, reallocating Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funding.
  • Draw on the expertise of educators and researchers, not primarily the business and philanthropy sectors, to develop policies and reforms.
  • Halt the school-turnaround process, adequately evaluate its effectiveness, and then develop and apply standards for school turnaround or closure that are research-based, consistent, fair, and transparent.
  • Enforce policies for public accountability, and require all schools that are supported by public funds to constitute Local School Councils with a voting majority of parents.
  • Support teachers and school administrators in developing broad, rich curriculum that centers on diverse, flexible, and rigorous standards and that is targeted to students' unique and varied strengths and needs.
  • Improve both pre-service and in-service preparation for all school personnel about diversity and equity regarding sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and provide adequate resources to support students, operate programs, and monitor compliance.
  • Provide high-quality developmental bilingual education programs.

CReATE will host an open forum later this month (check the group's blog for details) to engage in a dialogue with parents, community members and teachers about the recommendations, and to invite discussion of other ideas regarding the future of Chicago's schools. With Daley leaving office, new union leadership, and an interim schools' CEO who has departed from the test-kids-and-close-schools rhetoric of recent years, a growing number of educators see glimmers of hope that a new direction is possible.

As someone who has spent many hours in Chicago classrooms where teachers feel handcuffed by accountability pressures and students are often subjected to a rote, teach-to-the-test experience, I'd say it's about time.