This commentary was written by Kristin, one of our contributors.


Lessons From Chicago: Good Reform, Bad Reform?

Talking with other parents about the corporate-funded “education reform” that’s currently taking place in the United States, I have been really surprised to the extent at which other parents – parents I respect – support policies that I see as extremely destructive to education in general. While I see charter schools, increased standardized testing, and replacement of certified teachers with Teach for America recruits as harming our children, others see them as desperately needed solution for longstanding inequalities in education. Why the difference?

Part of the answer is that a lot of money has been put into movies and news articles that support these reforms. It’s really surprising, once you start to follow the money, how many billionaires and corporations have been putting grant money into public relations campaigns, otherwise known as propaganda.

But that’s not the whole answer. Public schools are failing many of our children, and we know it. How could we not want to do something about it? That’s what makes documentaries like Waiting for Superman so effective in promoting charter schools and scapegoating teachers and principals. The problem is real. But what is its source? And how do we go about finding the right solutions?

To answer that question, it’s worth taking a look at Chicago, the inspiration for Obama’s Race to the Top strategy. Let’s face it, Chicago didn’t start out as the model of a functional school system. My dad, who went to school there in the 1960s, has told me some serious horror stories about the way kids were taught. And a lot of it had to do with what is an enormous elephant in the middle of the “education reform” debate: institutional racism. Yes, racism. You know – black kids getting the worst schools, the worst teachers, never learning to read, getting “warehoused,” going to school without textbooks, playgrounds, and taking the fast track through the “schools to prison” pipeline. These are the problems that many of our community members hope that the reforms will address.

Hoping is good. Education reform, in the right hands and done properly, will benefit our children.

But trusting education reforms without asking who wants them and why is a serious mistake. If we simply see institutional racism as just an “achievement gap” or even an “opportunity gap,” and assume everyone wants schools to succeed, we will miss out on the important point that a “successful school” means different things to different people. To me, a successful school is one in which all children, black or white, are treated as human beings and given the same chance to prepare for a well-paid, respectable job. But to the rich and powerful, a successful school might be one that costs less money, so they can pay fewer taxes, or that narrowly educates children as workers instead of providing a broad, whole-child education. And if some of the schools train black kids for jobs in the service industry or the military, that’s just fine with them.

And that’s exactly what some of these charter schools have been doing. In cities like Chicago, New York City, Detroit, and New Orleans, students are being forced to attend schools for long hours, listen to scripted lessons from poorly-trained teachers, and endure harsh discipline.  It’s astounding that white America has not really noticed, but it’s not accidental. In the media, in the movies, and in school, we are continually taught not to notice institutional racism, and to try to be “color blind.” At the same time, we have a vague understanding that our increasingly re-segregated schools are not equal, and we hope somebody will do something about it. When somebody steps forward with a solution, we don’t look at it too closely.

That makes us vulnerable to propaganda about education reform. And so, when we hear terms like “effective teachers,” and “accountability,” we tend to think of them as positive. Unfortunately, these terms are being used as a propaganda technique called a “glittering generality,” which means using a word that has different meanings for different people, in order to cover up a hidden agenda. (For an explanation of these and other propaganda techniques, see the Propaganda Critic Web site.

The concept of education reform, therefore, is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. So it’s worth asking: which reforms would actually benefit children? We don’t have to limit ourselves to speculation, because history is littered with reforms. Which have actually worked? Which have worked partially? Which have failed? Which have fought institutional racism, and which have simply perpetuated it? Have we learned any lessons from, and if so, what?

Let’s start with the set of reforms that began in 1988, after the Chicago Tribune ran a set of articles calling Chicago schools the “Worst in America” and exposing the truly horrific practices that were taking place. The reform began an experiment called “democratic localism,” in which quite a lot of the control of schools was handed over to the local school communities. This experiment is documented in the book Charting Chicago School Reform: Democratic Localism as a Lever for Change by Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, David Kerbow, Sharon Rollow, and John Q. Easton. (It’s out of print, but many out of print books are available at

Democratic localism sounds like a promising idea. But there’s a red flag here too. The black community was suspicious of the reforms. The authors write: “They feared that this reform was designed to fail in order to achieve some other, still hidden, aims. It seemed hardly coincidental to these critics that radical decentralization swept over the school system just as African-Americans had assumed leadership of the central administration and teachers’ union.” (p. 21)

They were probably right – not that everyone involved in the reforms had these hidden aims, but that some groups who would have otherwise opposed decentralization threw their support behind the reforms. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, right? The same thing that I and other parents and teachers believe – that there is a sort of “Trojan Horse” aspect to current education reforms – was perhaps true then too.

I wonder what would have happened if the 1988 reform had not taken place – if instead, the new leadership had begun its own set of reforms, backed by all the parents, teachers, and students who had gotten them in power in the first place. Would they have been able to address fundamental inequalities in the schools? Did the 1988 reforms serve to distract the city of Chicago from that important work?

The authors believed that the experiment in democratic localism was a promising beginning, and many schools were able to use the reforms to empower themselves and become more accountable for their students. But did it really work out? Was it a substantive change with a lasting impact, or was it just a fresh coat of paint on an old problem?

In the end, the 1988 reforms did not “fix” Chicago schools, because if it had, there wouldn’t have been a need for yet more rounds of reforms, including No Child Left Behind, the Annenberg Challenge, and the current Race to the Top. With each reform, policymakers have either forgotten or deliberately ignored the lessons of the past. Until we learn those lessons, we’re just piling reform on top of reform, doing nothing to address the underlying inequalities, and on top of that, opening the door to people and companies who want to profit off our schools or produce cheap labor for bad jobs.

Over the course of the last six to nine months, the changes that have taken place in Chicago have begun to occur in Seattle. For example, the district is hiring uncertified Teach for American teachers to take the place of certified teachers at black schools. Astroturf organizations posing as grassroots are pushing for various legislative and district-wide changes that raise class sizes and undermine teacher seniority, paving the road to hiring cheaper teachers. Charter school companies are spending huge amounts of money marketing their schools to school district officials. How do we as parents respond to that?

We have to be more skeptical. We have to look past what people and organizations are telling us about education reform and see what they are actually doing in other cities, like Chicago, and New York City, and New Orleans. We have to ask whether any given education reform will perpetuate institutional racism or reinstate “separate but equal” schools. We have to demand that our public officials pony up and finally, after decades of budget cuts, give our public schools the resources they need to properly educate our children. And finally, we have to stay the course – not try one reform after another, but make a sustained commitment to public education and to each and every one of our children.