Recess Blog

Leading Chicago Schools' Rise

By Cindy Kuzma
UIC Alumni Magazine

In early November 2017, noted Stanford University education researcher Sean Reardon presented compelling new data about an urban school system that is defying the odds. Between 2009 and 2014, third- through eighth-graders in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) improved their scores on achievement tests by a dramatic margin—roughly the equivalent of six grade levels, a higher rate than 96 percent of other districts in the country.

The results held true across racial and ethnic groups, and even when accounting for factors such as the number of students held back or moving in and out of the district. Plus, researchers corroborated the trends across both International Student Admissions Tests and National Assessment of Educational Progress marks. In other words, they’re signs of real progress, not of random chance or teachers tailoring their lessons solely to test materials.

It’s just the latest in a string of reports documenting improvements at CPS. For example, take a recent analysis of the 55 largest Illinois school districts (comprising both elementary and secondary schools) conducted by UIC Leadership Coach Paul Zavitkovsky and Education Professor Steve Tozer. Since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 35 of those districts have declined in performance. Not only has Chicago bucked the trend, but its African American and Latino children have improved to the point that they’re now doing better than their counterparts in the rest of the state.

CPS’ trajectory tracks upward despite significant challenges—state budget crises, often-fraught labor negotiations and frequent leadership changes. (There have been eight different CPS CEOs during the past 15 years, including Janice Jackson, EdD ’10, who was appointed CPS’ CEO this past January.) While numerous factors play a role in this unexpected success, there’s no doubt that the UIC College of Education, with its focus on innovative programs for training urban educators and leaders, ranks high among the reasons. After all, one in seven CPS students receives instruction from a UIC-trained teacher, and one in 11 attends a school led by a principal who’s a UIC alumnus or alumna.

Principal PJ Karafiol leads a meeting with a team of teachers at Lake View High School.  The group is sitting around a large table in his office.

Key members of the district’s top leadership—including Jackson and Ernesto Matias, EdD ’15, chief of the CPS Office of Language and Culture—earned their EdD degrees through the school’s Urban Education Leadership Program (UELP), which is designed to identify and train urban principals and school administrators. Meanwhile, UIC graduate programs in math and science education weave issues of race, socioeconomic class and justice into teachers’ consciousness and curricula. Finally, UIC officials have led and influenced legislation and policy changes to improve urban education at the state level and beyond.

“Our primary clientele is not graduate students … but public school students who deserve a great principal,” says Tozer, co-founder of UELP. “We measure our own success by whether the school system is succeeding. If we’re not helping the school system improve, the point of our program is lost.”

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