Chicago’s economy needs continuous school reform

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The Reform Board’s new Design for High Schools bills itself as “a work in progress.” Indeed, carrying out its vision will require lots of hard work, continual assessment and possibly readjustment.

The importance of this endeavor to our city cannot be underestimated. The very economy of our city relies on the quality of our schools. Businesses must consider local schools when determining a strategic location for a home office. Further, local workforces and universities draw from the graduates produced by our high schools. When we don’t provide the highest quality education, the quality of local businesses and colleges suffers. If Chicago is to be a model metropolis for the world as Mayor Richard Daley envisions, we simply must transform this school system.

CEO Paul Vallas has made his priority clear: Education. Not politics. Not patronage. Not athletics. His handling of the situation involving the young athlete who transferred to a CPS school after being barred from athletics at his suburban school sent a strong, clear message: CPS values academics, ethics and student responsibility above all else. (The student was barred from athletics at his new Chicago school, as well.)

What’s more, in two years, Mr. Vallas has whipped the school system’s finances into shape. With the mayor’s support and encouragement, he has vastly improved the system’s financial predictability, accountability and credibility across the state, and has taken dramatic steps toward wiping out waste and corruption. This has resulted in a bond rating upgrade that is attracting much-needed capital.

Now the move is on to improve CPS’s instructional offerings and make the best possible use of its human resources. Organizational efficiency has already improved. And judging by this year’s rise in test scores, educational effectiveness is also within sight.

One excellent feature of Mr. Vallas’ high school redesign plan is the push toward personalization of the academic program. Environments in which students are known, in which students and teachers feel responsible for and to each other, in which teachers can meet regularly for academic and school planning are essential for engaging youngsters. The research on the advantages of “small schools” is compelling, particularly with regard to inner-city and minority students. Smallness allows for the sorts of changes (flexible scheduling, teaching tailored to individual student needs) that make for quality instruction.

Chicago’s plans for an advisory system in high schools, junior and senior academies, summer Bridge Programs and transition centers for older students who need intensive support are all steps in the right direction. Also noteworthy are the attempts to personalize the education process for students with limited English skills (which is absolutely necessary given our city’s ever-changing demographics) and for those with special learning needs.

Adolescence is difficult enough to negotiate without the added pressures of poverty and violence, which, unfortunately, are all too real for the majority of our CPS high school students. An impersonal high school does nothing to lessen the risk for these children. In contrast, the thinking expressed in the redesign plan’s school-as-community section, which calls for family partnerships with schools and social service agencies, should help students cope with the stress in their environment with tools that enhance rather than interfere with their learning experience. I am continuously struck by the accomplishments of students who are able to fulfill their potential because they were fortunate enough to receive support they deserved. I’d like to see that as a reality for every child in Chicago, and my hope is that significant resources and attention will be directed toward this goal.

Another idea I find quite promising, particularly from a business standpoint, is Project Excel/Corporate Excel. In the spirit recently invoked by Gen. Colin Powell and his commission of presidents, I believe it is imperative that the businesses of Chicago take the initiative and integrate themselves into the educational programs of our children. Financial support is always helpful, but the services we can provide in the form of mentoring, internships and apprentice employment are incalculable. Studies have shown, for example, that at-risk children who have consistent, meaningful contact with successful professionals are more likely to achieve their potential than those who do not.

And as these youngsters are a large part of our potential workforce, corporate involvement makes good business sense. Similarly, our local technical educational institutions have much to offer in terms of career training for high school students. My hope is that Project Excel/Corporate Excel will successfully promote and inspire such partnerships with local businesses and the City Colleges, and serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Career skills needed

Project Excel is the only program singled out in the redesign plan for students who will be moving directly into a career from high school, as compared with the many options (advanced honors, advanced placement, International Baccalaureate, etc.) arrayed for college-bound students. I was initially concerned about this apparent imbalance, particularly since the majority of employment opportunities in the United States do not require college degrees. I was heartened, however, to see principles such as school-based learning and on-the-job instruction reflected in the career academies and exemplary school-to-work programs. I have found that modern workplace skills largely parallel those needed for universities, namely communication, critical thinking, time management, information gathering and problem solving. These can be gained through both academic and hands-on experience, and a program offering both kinds of learning opportunities has a better chance of success.

Teachers and principals are the foundation of CPS. If I applaud Mr. Vallas’ plan for anything, I applaud it for its staff and leadership development section. Every successful business is so because of a visionary leader and a hard-working, devoted and inspired staff. Every successful business develops such a staff by identifying their needs and addressing those needs. To translate the successful business model to the school system, we must see to it that our principals are top-notch, and that we have everything in place to support our teachers.

The selection, training, assessment and continuing education of principals is absolutely critical. Further, in addition to providing sound instructional leadership, principals must sometimes overcome the sense of cynicism and despair that pervades many of our schools. In some cases they will also have to address the fears generated by probation, which could inhibit innovative teaching. Mr. Vallas’ placement of half the city’s high schools on probation served the important purpose of making schools pay attention, but it may be too broad in scope to be as effective as it could be otherwise. As many of our country’s most successful businesses have learned the hard way, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. I suggest that perhaps it might be a more effective allocation of Mr. Vallas’ resources and skills to rigorously address reform in three or four schools, and have those serve as models for the rest. Again, those models designed on a human, or small, scale are most promising for both teacher and student achievement.

I was initially pleased by the Phase-In Chart included in Mr. Vallas’ plan; it seemed as if we would have spectacular changes within four years. But as I read further into the Key Elements—and I must commend their careful and comprehensive nature—I became concerned that this time line might be too ambitious. If we indeed want the top-quality results we’re looking for, it may be prudent to extend the deadlines, particularly in terms of expectations for the first year. Asking teachers to implement the more immediate reforms, such as increased emphasis on academic basics and standardized test performance, while designing longer-term measures and also maintaining their usual teaching and curriculum development responsibilities—and all of this under the stress of an already low morale—may be unrealistic. I believe it is important to provide teachers with enough support to accomplish these vital tasks, with the necessary attention to quality. For example, provisions for substitutes are built into the plan.

Ongoing challenge

I have found during my attendance at various functions across the city that people believe that Chicago’s school reform is “finished.” I tell them, to the contrary, it will never be finished. As the needs and nature of our society change, education must continuously be pushing forward to meet those challenges. Thankfully, Mr. Vallas has performed the extraordinary task of clearing most of the debris from Chicago’s path to the finish line of educational excellence. We must all keep in mind, however, that this journey has only just begun. We thus must provide never-ending enthusiasm and financial, professional and emotional support toward this exciting and necessary metamorphosis. My humble advice to Mr. Vallas is: Stay the course, and do not hesitate to ask the Chicago business community to bring their vast resources to aid CPS in its vitally important efforts.

—Randall Hampton is vice-chairman of Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based investment management firm. A Chicago Public School graduate, he is also a board member of Leadership for Quality Education and board chairman of Centers for New Horizons.