Thirty Years of Reform?


Guiding Principles on School Reform

  1. All children can learn, given the proper school environment.
  2. The purpose of the Chicago Public Schools is the education of the whole child. The schoolhouse is the center of this educational process. Each school is unique and functions as an individual entity.
  3. The principal and teachers of a school, in cooperation with the parents and community, know best the potential and needs of their students and are, therefore, the best suited to direct the educational course of their school.
  4. The role of all non-classroom personnel of the Chicago Public Schools is one of support to the schoolhouse.
  5. The first priority for the allocation of all resources, both financial and human, within the Chicago Public Schools is the education of the whole child.
  6. The multiracial, multicultural and multilingual makeup of the Chicago Public Schools student body is an asset and a resource for enriching the lives of all students.

This exceptional set of principles comes from the introduction to a CPS document unearthed by my friend Bruce Thomas. It’s one of many he has squirreled away over the years which have proven to be valuable resources for our conversations about improving schooling for all students.

Can you guess the date this document was written? It was 1991, a time of great hopefulness in Chicago. The School Reform Act, passed by the state legislature in 1989, had created Local School Councils (LSCs), granting unprecedented autonomy to individual schools to control their budgets and the hiring process for their principals. It was a bold attempt to loosen the grip of the central office on the individual schoolhouses that are so lovingly referenced in the above principles.

 I didn’t arrive in Chicago until 1995 but from my vantage point in Houston, Chicago appeared to be the beacon for change. It was that sense that helped draw me here. These transformational ideas seemed especially miraculous since just a few years earlier the notorious Secretary of Education William Bennet had declared Chicago the worst school system in the country.

So, what’s happened in the thirty years since this impressive document was written? Behind every word you can feel the effort of earnest and dedicated committee members trying to articulate their deepest beliefs about the need for change and the shape that change should take. And yet, we’ve fallen so far short of the lofty aspirations of these committed authors. I’ve been part of many groups that have created similar documents, so I know how frustrating it is to see how far the actual fruits of these efforts don’t reach their targets. I’m reminded of the book by Dr. Charles Payne, a former colleague at the University of Chicago, whose title tells it all – So Much Reform, So Little Change. It’s not that there’s no change at all, but there’s a disheartening sense that the movement is grossly out of proportion to the dreams that fueled yet another effort at reform.

That very same Charles Payne, in a moment of weakness, heeded the call of an interim CEO of CPS to assume the role of the district’s Chief Education Officer long enough to design a plan to guide the work of the person who would succeed him. Some time after Payne’s six-month tenure inside the belly of the beast, I heard him give a talk about what he took away from that experience. The message I recall most clearly was this: He had been dealing with CPS for decades from his vantage point outside. The people he had just worked with were smarter and more committed than their predecessors, but it didn’t make enough of a difference because they were operating within a broken system.

I’m not sure precisely how he defined that brokenness. Certainly, some of it has to do with the impossibility of overseeing an entity as large and unwieldy as CPS which was then serving over 400, 000 students. Recently I met with the superintendent of a small suburban school district serving about 2,000 students in five small school districts. He claimed that prior to the disruptions of the pandemic he knew almost every child and every staff member in his district, and I believe him. The teacher who brokered this meeting felt we could learn from each other. “He’s different,” she said. “He listens.” But size doesn’t offer automatic entrée to change. We’ve learned that lesson from the admirable small schools movement which, in itself, didn’t move the needle dramatically.

Does the brokenness lie in the pressures exerted by a variety of powerful interests that constrain the best efforts of school leadership, whose power to bring change from the top is often a lot smaller than it appears from the outside? There are the unions, not always forces for change that threaten their members’ interests. There are the textbook and testing industries eager to promote their own profit-driven agendas. And there are politicians intent on exploiting efforts at reform in the schoolhouse to enhance their own power and future electability.

And then there’s what I call the “undertow,” the social forces in the outside world. The best designed efforts at reform fall victim to kids not showing up to school or showing up hungry, angry, sick and traumatized. New programs, new curricula, new materials are not sufficient to beat back the negative forces that threaten to undermine the best ideas for change inside the confines of the schoolhouse. As I’ve had to remind myself and the novice teachers I’ve worked with, that means you operate every day on the belief that your efforts in the classroom can make 100% of the difference in a student’s academic success, even though Richard Rothstein once estimated that what happens instructionally accounts for only about 18% of that success, while the remainder is either enhanced or diminished by the family’s health, housing, income and employment situations.

Those thirty-year-old guiding principles we began with still represent so much of what I’ve worked toward – valuing the whole child, advocating for the role of parents and community in a child’s education, recognizing and honoring the value of diversity in our classrooms, believing in every child’s capacity to learn. Some of these principles have been virtually hollowed out through constant repetition. They appear as posters on classroom walls that are now easy to ignore. But, in spite of the forces operating to undermine our best efforts, these principles still define the road we must be committed to travel. Who says it better than Samuel Beckett in The Unnameable? “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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