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CEOs of Chicago Public Schools Discuss 20 Years of Education Reform

Former and current CEOs of the Chicago Public Schools spoke about educational reform at a Harvard Graduate School of Education event Wednesday.
Former and current CEOs of the Chicago Public Schools spoke about educational reform at a Harvard Graduate School of Education event Wednesday. By Wonjae Suh
By Anna R. Gamburd and William C. Mao, Crimson Staff Writers

Three former and current CEOs of the Chicago Public Schools — the fourth largest school district in the country — discussed educational reform in the CPS at an event hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education Wednesday.

Senior Lecturer on Education Jennifer P. Cheatham moderated the panel, which included former U.S. Secretary of Education and CPS CEO Arne S. Duncan ’86, former CEO Janice K. Jackson, and current CEO Pedro Martinez.

The panelists discussed how despite significant turnover in leadership — 10 different CEOs in 20 years — the district has consistently improved educational outcomes. Chicago has seen steadily rising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates over the past two decades, Cheatham said.

Jackson cited consistent principal leadership as a critical component of Chicago’s progress.

“If you don’t know what the principal retention rate is for a district, that’s the first question you should figure out,” she said, addressing district leaders.

According to Jackson, the principal retention rate in Chicago increased from 70 percent to 93 percent during her term.

“I don’t care who the superintendent is. If you don’t have leadership at the ground level, it’s going to be hard to do that work,” Jackson said. “We could not source 20-something-thousand quality teachers for our classrooms every day, but we could identify 660 strong leaders.”

Duncan added principals should be trained to lead their schools effectively.

“You have to try and get the best people you can to lead those schools, trust them as CEOs, train them as CEOs,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to drive change.”

Martinez said enhancing administration should not come at the expense of teaching quality. Leadership should be kindled by “passion” rather than career ambitions.

“It shouldn’t be the money that drives a teacher out of a classroom,” Martinez said.

Martinez also discussed the importance of using data to inform educational reform.

“It immediately helps to drive strategy,” Martinez said about data. “In the next few years, we’re going to have lots of insights about what is the right elements that really make the most successful school experience.”

Jackson recounted how her father, a cab driver, drove his children across the city to attend a good school. She argued school choice — programs and policies that let families use public money to access schools beyond their local option — reflects “the paternalistic view around what poor Black children should be and where they should go to school.”

“Those arguments are sometimes masked as equity arguments, when really it’s about keeping people away from our children,” Jackson said. “If the alternative is a great neighborhood school with every single resource that you need to be successful, and 99 percent of the kids are Black — let me tell you: a lot of Black people would love that school.”

Jackson observed there are few examples of schools where the “overwhelming majority of the kids are Black, and you get the quality that many of the people in this room have experienced.” She added the United States is “not built” for such a vision to materialize.

Martinez urged the audience to enter the practice of school administration in order to effect systemic change.

“Jump into the arena of work,” Martinez said. “We need as much talent as possible because the challenges are complex.”

Duncan said that parents too should play a more active role in education.

“I want parents to be more demanding,” Duncan said.

To educators, Duncan encouraged focusing less on career prospects and more on enacting positive change.

“Are you making an impact in young people’s lives?” Duncan said. “That matters much more than the actual spot where you are working.”

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