A Chicago Chronicle

By William Ayers

The Chicago Public Schools have been the focus of unprecedented attention in the past few years. Dubbed “the worst schools in America” in 1987 by then-Secretary of Education (now drug Czar) William Bennett, the Chicago school system is on the boundary of collapse. Leaving aside Bennett’s hidden political agenda, and dismissing the value of debating whether Chicago’s schools arc just awful or truly terrible, it is undeniable that the schools are failing Chicago’s children in critical ways. Indicators of that failure are everywhere:

  • More than 50% of students who enter Chicago public high schools drop out (and many drop out before high school). For Example, of the 39,000 freshmen in 1980, only 18,500 graduated in 1984; only 6,000 of those graduates were able to read at or above the national 12th grade level.
  • About 35,000 students out of a population of 440,000 are absent on any given day from the Chicago Public Schools. Ten to fifteen thousand students are considered chronically truant.
  • Seventy-five per cent of the freshmen who entered the Chicago public high schools in 1983 were reading below the national average.
  • Reading scores of Chicago elementary school students dropped in every grade during the 1984-85 school year.

One endemic problem has been the power of various self-interested and survivalist bureaucracies to assert their wills against their wishes and needs of a broader community of concern, notably parents, teachers, and children. This has led to an unresponsive and expensive central office, and crisis-oriented negotiated conflict over bread and butter issues between the school board and the unions.

A second problem has been the unfair distribution of educational resources. For example, while 80% of the bilingual children and more than half of the poorest children in Illinois attend Chicago public schools, Chicago schools ard forced to operate on 15% less mopey per pupil than the average surrounding districts (this average includes several poor and working class suburbs as well as the more affluent communities). Of course because of the complex special problems and myriad difficulties Chicago schools face, they require more educational resources. And yet Chicago has less.

Wealthy Favored

This is in part the result of public policy that favors the wealthy and penalizes the poor. The reliance for school resources on property taxes, for example, is regressive, a situation that automatically disables poor communities. State and federal aid fail to repair this rift, and in some cases even intensify the problem under the guise of fairness. For instance, the state pays identical flat grants per pupil to a suburban district that raised $7,000 per pupil last year, and to Chicago which eked out $1,447 per pupil. Chicago schools are politically weak: the student body is 67% poor (from families earning $13,000 a year or less), 61% African-American and 25% Hispanic (in a city that is 40% African-American and 18% Hispanic). Clearly Chicago schools are being starved, and Chicago’s children and families suffer the consequences of the unfair distribution of educational resources.

A third underlying problem is the failure of schools to respond to the dazzling array of needs and potentials children bring to classrooms. In spite of enormous and fundamental changes in our society, most schools look exactly as schools looked fifty or even a hundred years ago. Most classrooms are little lecture halls, most teaching is textbook-based and teacher-centered. Only the most narrow strand of cognitive ability is engaged in these classrooms as teachers attempt to fill the empty heads of students with all the important facts and bits of information. Never mind the information explosion or the continuing technological revolution. Never mind the importance of a citizenry capable of critical judgement or. a work force capable of sensible and serious thought. Never mind an education that opens individuals to possibility, to critique, to other ways of seeing and knowing, to alternative ways of acting.

“Leave It To Beaver” Syndrome

Not only has the content and organization of schooling failed to keep pace with a changing world, but knowledge of and respect for students has failed the test of reality as well. Too many schools are organized with a particular child in mind, inevitably a white, middle-class child, a well-fed, able-bodied, and even prosperous child, a child who brings to school specific experiences, a particular history, and stipulate values, a child willing to submit passively to the demands of traditional schooling precisely because his or her family and community has instilled a powerful sense of the long-term payoff of education. Remember “Leave It To Beaver?” Beaver and his Mends are the kids many schools want and expect to teach. When the children who arrive at the schoolhouse door don’t look or act anything like Beaver, when they are hungry or needy children, when they are immigrant or non-English speaking children, when they are poor or African-American children, when they are children who for a variety of reasons (including, certainly, a realistic sense that a hostile job market looms beyond the schoolhouse) do not assume a connection between school success and later happiness or economic opportunity, then they are often deemed unteachable by inflexible and narrow schools.

If Chicago schools are to become successful with Chicago’s children, administrators and teachers will need to find ways to create schools that respond to the vast diversity, the kaleidoscope of possibilities, the range of rich experiences children bring to schools. Insisting that the learner fit the school, rather than building a school that fits the child, disqualifies too many kids. Building schools that will teach only Beaver and his friends banishes most Chicago children to the far boundary of society.

The Chicago school crisis has a long, complex history, and each of these features developed over rnany years. There is a history of resistance to these problems as well, a history of parents, teachers, and children fighting for access to education, for educational resources, and for some sanity in the schools.

The Teachers’ Strike

Against a backdrop of archaic labor relations, fiscal mismanagement, administrative waste, and failing schools, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in September, 1987. Forty-one thousand employees were idled, and parents and community people immediately expressed their rage and frustration with the full range of school problems. The strike became the focal point, but for the parents the strike was never the issue, and a settlement between the board and the union was never the goal. Parents and community activists raised the broader issue of the quality of Chicago schools and the question of how to make them accountable. Rallies organized by parents were held at board headquarters at the State of Illinois building and even at the union office, and as the strike wore on demonstrations grew in size and intensity. Parents organized and mobilized, and a huge rally resulted in Mayor Harold Washington appointing a special parent/community council to sit in the Mayor’s EducationSummit. By the time the strike ended in October—after a cumulative total of 570,000 idle work days—a broad range of forces had been galvanized into a working reform coalition.

The coalition, which included parent and community groups, as well as civic and business organizations, tried to craft a bill that could become a rallying point for school improvement and yet be cast in the legal language of governance. There was broad agreement that if any meaningful change was to occur there would have to be an assault on the bureaucracy, local schools would need to become the unit of improvement, principals and teachers would have to gain more professional authority, and resources would need to be reallocated. The reform coalition spent the next several months organizing and mobilizing their constituencies, and developing and ultimately winning passage of a Chicago school reform bill in the Illinois legislature.

Chicago-School Reform Act

P.A. 85-1418 represents the most far-reaching change in governance ever envisioned in a modern big-city school system. Quite simply, the bill calls for a radically decentralized Chicago school system, a system in which the local schools are the center of concern and action. It attempts to wrest power from a cumbersome centralized bureaucracy, and return control to the local school sites. In the new system, schools would cease being marginal institutions on the boundary of the system, no longer the lowest slash on the organizational chart. Rather local

schools would move back to center stage where they belong, and the board and administration would exist to serve the needs of children and teachers. Bureaucracy would be cut, and accountability of principals, teachers, and students revitalized in Chicago’s schools. 

Decision Making at School Level

At the heart of the reform legislation is the creation of a Local School Council (LSC) at each school site. The LSC is a decision-making body, not an advisory committee, and it is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, and the school principal (parents are elected by parents, community representatives by community members, and teachers by school staff—-all for two-year terms). The LSC is responsible for hiring the principal to a four-year performance contract—which puts a dramatic end to the long-standing practice of life-time tenure and the notoriously subjective and abusive, Chicago principal’s exam. The LSC is also required to approve the principal’s annual budget (and by 1991 will have responsibility to develop the budget), and it is mandated to develop a school improvement plan to guide specific school-wide change efforts. These are three areas in which the LSC’s exercise substantial power. Each is an area of real importance, and fulfilling these responsibilities creates a framework in which the daily operation of each school, the responsibility of the principal and staff, will move forward.

Like any legislation the Chicago School Reform Act is imperfect. For example, while it does call for downsizing an expensive and inefficient central office and channeling those funds to the schools, and while it specifically mandates correcting the endemic problem of federal monies for poor children being diverted to the general school fund, it does not go nearly far enough in creating a truly fair system for distributing educational resources. And while the law does create the conditions for more responsive schools, it does not directly address the issue of building schools that fit the needs and abilities of a wide range of students. Perhaps most important, while the legislation takes giant steps toward the empowerment of teachers, it fails to create an adequate structure for an authentic partnership between parents and teachers. All of this remains to be done.

Changes For Teachers

Several changes affecting teachers are mandated under the new law:

  • No reduction in teaching staff is permitted after the twentieth day of a new school year. This provision will help to eliminate the notorious practice of “bumping,” the removal of teachers from classrooms at any time based on fluctuating enrollments and the subsequent disruption of the learning environment. 
  • The mandatory remediation period within the classroom for unsatisfactory teachers is reduced from one year to 45 days. All the protections of the collective bargaining agreements stand, but the period of mandated in-class remediation is substantially shortened.
  • The State Board of Education and institutions of higher education are to study and make recommendations on improving teacher training.
  • Supernumerary teachers who lose their jobs because of declining enrollments are to be employed by the Board of Education in a position to be collectively bargained.
  • If a principal hires a teacher whose salary is higher in the first year than the average salary distributed in the lump-sum budgeting process,”the Board of Education must pay the difference.’This reduces any incentive to hire less senior teachers due solely to financial consideration.
  • As noted, two teachers-from each school serve on the decision-making LSC.
  • A Professional Personnel Advisory Committee (PPAC) is established at each school to advise the principal and local council on matters related to the school’s educational program.

This last point is’.worth more attention. The PPAC is a separate entity organized by teachers. The size, composition, and selection of members to the’PPAC is to be determined by teachers at each school site. It could be large or small, it could be representative in one school and a committee of the whole in another. It could be active and assertive in one place, and merely an empty shell in another. The PPAC is intended to provide teachers a forum to use their expertise to advise the LSC and the principal on matters of curriculum, instruction, assessment, educational programs, and budgeting’ needs. Where teachers seize the opportunity to extend their professional power, PPAC’s will undoubtedly become an important forum for action. Where teachers feel no ownership of the reform, where they experience the current upheaval as simply another mandated and meaningless change, the PPAC’s will probably remain inactive.

In many ways the best hope for real reform at this time lies with the LSC’s and the PPAC’s. What has occurred thus far in the reform effort has merely set the conditions for reform, The upcoming elections will mark a major step in the reform process, but even that step not yet reform because it is not yet visible and embodied in actual classrooms. Real reform can never be fully mandated, legislated, or coerced over the needs and wishes of teachers. Real reform, real school improvement, is in the hands of teachers, families, and students, and they must experience the possibilities that now exist as their own if they are to bring reform to life in their own work and lives.

These times call put for imagination and courage on the part of teachers, students, families, administrators, and citizens. This is a broad mandate, for there is no one way or right way to improve classrooms. Imagination means we should be willing to take risks on behalf of children.

We must break with the culture of cynicism, the deep sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness, that pervades so many of our schools. There are several hopeful signs. Thousands of active parents have participated in lengthy training sessions over the past several months in order to be prepared to assume their new rights and responsibilities under the law. In July the Chicago Teachers Union and 19 other employees unions reached contract agreement with the Interim Board of Education—the first time in memory contracts have been settled before September. And a reform budget—one that cuts hundreds of central office jobs, adds 1,870 new teaching positions, and reduces class size in elementary schools—has been drafted. Perhaps most hopeful is the first action of the Interim Board of Education at its initial meeting:

June 14, 1989


We, the Members of the Interim Board of Education, believe that

  1. All children can learn, given the proper school environment;
  2. The purpose of the Chicago Public Schools is the education of the whole child. The school is the center of this educational process. Each school is unique and functions as an individual entity;
  3. The teachers and principal of a school, in cooperation with the parents and community, know best the potential and needs of their students, and are, therefore, the best suited to direct the educational course of their school;
  4. The role of all non-classroom personnel of the Chicago Public Schools is one of support to the schoolhouse;
  5. The first priority for the allocation of all resources, both financial and human, within the Public Schools is the education of the whole child;
  6. The multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual makeup of the Chicago Public Schools’, student body is an asset and a resource for enriching the lives of all students;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT all decisions made regarding the Chicago Public Schools shall be measured against these Guiding Principles on School Reform.

This resolution Is so important because it puts children at the center of all that is to follow. It is so startling because it is readable and accessible—unlike anything the board has produced in memory—it makes the authors accountable for what they do from now on. It creates a simple, clear yardstick by which the broader community of concern can measure their actions.

The Chicago school reform movement is a powerful experiment in democracy. Like every experiment in democracy, this one is full of contention and conflict, uncertainty and unevenness. It is also full of uneasy alliances. It remains to be seen, for example, if the business community will be a strong dnd lasting ally to real reform. In Chicago, as in other big cities, business has felt the impact of a school system in collapse. In their own words, business people support the reform because of their need for a literate work force, their opposition to inefficient bureaucracy, and their support for educating workers who can operate in cooperation with each other. Business also wants stable neighborhoods as well as effective public relations surrounding their own activities in the city. If schools move beyond simply being more efficient centers of vocational and career education, and blossom into powerful centers of political criticism and social transformation, we may discover that business is merely a summer soldier.

Time For Bold Action

There are those who say that parents are not fit to run the schools. Some express this sentiment as elitists, others as skeptical allies. There is a cruel irony in excluding the people who have been cheated by the schools in recent years from active involvement in changing them on behalf of their own children. Schools are not the property of politicians nor are they the exclusive terrain of enlightened and benevolent professionals. Schools are jointly owned and to work must belong in a real way to children, parents, and teachers. Now is the time for bold and imaginative action, action to create truly public institutions, action to create classrooms that honor both the intentions of youngsters and the purposes of adults. The outcome is far from certain, and success will be neither easy nor automatic. In the best situation there will be a large voter turnout for LSC elections. Parents, teachers, and children will become active in the affairs of several schools, and some schools will begin to move in new directions, breaking with the failed patterns of the past. At that point there will be some lighthouses, some models of successful urban schools. The struggle for humane democratic schools and a more just social order will still go on. I am reminded of a passage from Nelson Algren’s Chicago—City on the Make:

Not that there’s been any lack of honest men and women sweating out Jane Addams’ hopes here—but they get only two outs to the inning while the hustlers are taking four. When Big Bill Thompson put in the fix for Capone he tied the town to the rackets for keeps.

So that when the reform mayor who followed him attempted to enforce the Prohibition laws, he wakened Such warfare on the streets that the Do-Gooders themselves put Thompson back at the wheel, realizing that henceforward nobody but an outlaw could maintain a semblance of law and order on the common highway. Big Bill greeted his fellow citizens correctly then with a cheery, “Fellow hoodlums!”

What the best mayor can do with the city is just to keep it in repair.

Yet the Do-Gooders still go doggedly forward, making the hustlers struggle for their gold week in and week out, year after year, once or twice a decade tossing an unholy fright into the boys. And since it’s a ninth-inning town, the ball game never being over till the last man is out, it remains Jane Addams’ town as well as Big Bill’s. The ball game isn’t over yet.

But it’s a rigged ball game.

Remembering that the game is fixed may save us from naive optimism. And recognizing that the battle is engaged and that the stakes are very high indeed may save us from a detached cynicism. For Chicago’s children, the future is only possibility. As Gabriella Mistral noted, their name is today. Their time is now.

William Ayers is an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His book The Good Preschool Teacher was published this year by Teachers College Press.