Views from Above and Below


In my three-week run of book recommendations, there was no mention of professional books. Many of you who are not educators would havetaken a pass on that list, as you may choose to today as well. I’m going to forego the pleasures of generating that list and will instead focus on two books that have a lot to say about the current state of teaching and learning in America’s schools

How a City Learned to Improve Its Schools is the story of the last 35 years in Chicago schools, written by Tony Bryk, Al Bertani, Sharon Greenberg, Tim Knowles, Penny Sebring and Steve Tozer. I worked with five of the six authors at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, so I was a participant and witness to much of the story they tell, which begins with the statement by then Secretary of Education William Bennett in 1987 that Chicago’s schools were the worst in America.

That comment set in motion a flurry of activity that resulted in the passage by the state legislature of the School Reform Act of 1989, which created Local School Councils that controlled the hiring and firing of their principals, as well as significant control over their school’s budget, thereby resulting in the shrinking of the previously all-powerful central office. It was one of the boldest efforts in the country’s history to democratize educational decision-making.

This exciting news reached me in Houston and ultimately lured us to Chicago, which appeared at that time to be the beacon of school reform in the U.S. By the time we arrived in 1995 the reform efforts were well underway. The book divides the changes in Chicago schools into four “eras,” the first marked by the creation of the LSCs and the second by the re-establishment of certain central controls with the mayor as the ultimate authority, authorized to appoint the CEO and the members of the school board. In this era, CEO Paul Vallas focused on the controversial introduction of stringent accountability measures in the form of standardized testing which have persisted ever since.

The third era, under Arne Duncan, later President Obama’s Secretary of Education, and his Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, was marked by efforts to improve the quality of teaching and school leadership in a sprawling system during a prolonged period of tranquility and stability. This was followed by a fourth era of churn – brief tenures of multiple CEOs, corruption in the Central Office, school closings and the first teacher strike in many decades – during which the improvements launched in the earlier eras were, almost miraculously, sustained and extended.

The improvements in a broken system were evident in several important areas. First, the high school graduation rates increased from close to 50% to above 80% by the time the book’s story ends in 2017, and the college admissions and completion rates showed similar jumps. In addition, the rates of language arts and math learning from year to year showed more than a year of learning for each year of instruction, rates that far exceeded those of other urban school districts. Skeptical though you may be about the specific numbers, it’s clear that something positive was happening.

The authors attribute these improvements to several factors. First, the work was supported by what they call an exoskeleton of institutions outside of CPS which bolstered and supported the improvement efforts – civic organizations, local colleges and universities, foundations and the philanthropic community. Two unique entities were part of this exoskeleton that sustained the forward motion even through periods of turmoil. One was the Consortium for Chicago School Research, which provided the research that drove the improvement work. The other was Catalyst, a unique publication devoted to reporting on the successes and challenges of an evolving school system. Neither of these operations had a parallel in any other school district in the country.

The authors were intimately involved in the creation and support of this exoskeleton, particularly in the areas of research and in the creation of principal leadership programs that were a critical part of the system’s development. They deserve a good measure of credit for demonstrating and documenting a result that many, including me at times, were skeptical about – that one could turn such a lumbering and damaged ship from the seemingly inevitable encounter with a field of icebergs and steer it to slightly warmer waters.

The authors are the first to admit that CPS is no nirvana. The inequities continue to be glaring and unyielding. The fiscal condition of the system going forward presents new icebergs to be avoided. Since their story ends in 2017, they can’t weigh fully the devastating impact of the pandemic, which stopped progress in its tracks and resulted in worrisome regression. Elements of the exoskeleton are aging and fraying, so it’s not clear how long that vital structure can be relied on to support the system’s growth.

I’ve spent my life as a teacher, school director and teacher educator at the base of the pyramid. It’s the classroom where all the changes and improvements must be located. And here is where I find the book most wanting. There are no teacher voices, no account of how the research and principal leadership actually plays out at ground level. Teachers in this account are acted upon, rather than being significant actors on whose shoulders the whole reform effort rests.

And that is precisely why I’m introducing a second recent book as a counterweight to How a City Learned to Improve It Schools. The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable Important Profession by Alexandra Robbins is the perfect contrast to the Chicago book. Robbins focuses on three teachers in different parts of the country – a fourth grade teacher on the East Coast, a middle school math teacher in the South and a special education teacher in the west, with occasional mini-essays about the rewards and challenges encountered in theirclassrooms.

I’m not usually a fan of teacher books by non-teachers, but Robbins has earned her stripes by having done time as a substitute teacher, arguably the hardest slot in an already difficult profession. I’m going to give this book less space than the first because it’s more difficult to summarize. It’s mostly constructed from the bits and pieces of the dailiness of classroom life that I encourage you to immerse yourself in to experience the joys and frustrations ofteaching– the problematic leadership, the lack of resources to create good playgrounds for children such as, the overwhelming array of duties and responsibilities on the one hand and the elation of breakthroughs with individual students, the gratification of learning alongside your students

 The Teachers suffers from the reverse problem of the Chicago book. There’s no sense of the larger context in which these classrooms operate. For example, although much of it is set in the post-pandemic period, we don’t get much sense of how this has affected these teachers‘ work. The whole assault on teachers from conservative groups who view them more as groomers for radical left-wing philosophies than as devoted, ridiculously hardworking educators is barely touched on.

So, I encourage you to read both books to get a more comprehensive view of teaching and schools from top to bottom. There’s much to feel hopeful about from both vantage points as well as much that is deeply troubling. Anyone who thinks solutions are simple is not paying attention.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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