University of Chicago Harper Lecture with Timothy Knowles

October 16, 2012

Urban Schooling: The Promise and the Peril

University of Chicago Harper Lecture with Tim Knowles

October 4, 2012 Chicago, IL  |  Watch the Video of the Talk

Good evening. Thank you very much for that introduction—and thank you very much for joining me for the Chicago Harper lecture. 

Admittedly, I contemplated talking about all kinds of interesting things this evening. Then my plans were interrupted. 

Chicago Tribune Front Page: Teachers on Strike

Our city struck. Seas of red shirts swept across Chicago neighborhoods. And our broad-shouldered, politically supercharged, media-infused city had the kind of brawl Chicago hasn’t seen for 25 years. 

Pundits descended—declaring the strike a defining moment—for labor, for mayors everywhere, for President Obama. National labor leaders flew in for clandestine meetings. The New York Times ran story after front-page story about the epic battle between the two brash, relentless protagonists.  

Me? I found myself putting makeup on at odd times of day, sitting in television studios too close to people on all sides of the issue—trying to make sense of what was going on.   

And then, as fast as it started, it was over. The red shirts were packed up. The pundits evaporated.  Both sides declared victory. And as the dust settled, I wondered, was this a fight worth having? 

My short answer is yes. One enormously important thing happened for children in our city. The school day was lengthened for kindergarten to 8th grade students by one hour and 15 minutes, every day. And by 30 minutes every day for high school students.  Further, the school year was extended for everyone by 2 weeks. 

This hasn’t happened anywhere in our country­—certainly not in an economic downturn. In one fell swoop, Chicago took on its embarrassingly abbreviated day and abbreviated year, and prevailed. In my view, whatever side you were on, this should give you hope. The day and year won’t get shorter in Chicago. And if we use the time well, much better things can happen for children here.   

But here’s the thing, labor and management agreed to the terms of a longer day before the strike happened. They’d even agreed to the economics of the contract. So, it seems worth asking, why did Chicago have a strike at all?

Tonight I want to do three things. First, talk about the root causes of the strike. Second, say something about what is at stake for children in Chicago, and children growing up in urban America more broadly. And finally, talk about three areas—the teaching profession, the school house itself, and the future of organized labor—that are instrumental to getting schooling right.  

So, to the strike. The strike was not about supersized personalities or bread and butter issues—or even a school system on the brink of financial collapse. The strike was about ideology—ideological battles raging across our country. 

One ideological battle is about how much responsibility teachers should bear for alleviating poverty.  On one side of the debate are advocates and educators that say until we address the underlying causes of poverty—disadvantaged neighborhoods, joblessness, weak social services, and under-resourced schools—it is unfair—disrespectful even—to put pressure on teachers.  I saw two signs during the strike that captured this view succinctly.  One said, “Why are you blaming me? I didn’t cause this.”  The other said, “Wage War on Poverty, Not Teachers.” 

On the other side of this ideological chasm are advocates, educators, and policy makers who believe schools can have an enormous impact on helping children to escape from poverty. They believe entrenched interests—not just labor unions, but pathologically broken public bureaucracies and 100 year-old education models are to blame for the mess we’re in. They are convinced that by embracing disruptive technologies of all kinds, creating competition and toughening accountability systems, we can get to the promised land.  

Like all ideological camps, the reformers camp is a messy one. The extremists want to blow everything up today. Others are more patient, preferring to blow things up tomorrow. And others want to dismantle the machine incrementally. What they share is a view that nothing, but a few chosen reforms, is working. 

The second ideological battle embedded in the strike is an existential one for labor. Since it’s peak, the number of American workers in labor unions has dropped, precipitously.  

This represents the change in the proportion of the American work force who are in a labor unions of all kinds over the last 50 years.  

Union Membership Across Sectors, 1960-2010

This slide shows the membership of the NEA—America’s largest teachers union from 2010 projected forward through next year.  According to the NEA’s analysis, their ranks will shrink by 16% in four years.  

NEA Membership 2010-2014 Projections

In Chicago, the existential threat to labor was made most vivid by the 50,000 students who did not miss a day of school during the strike, all of whom attend charter schools. Charter schools are typically not union shops. Teachers do not pay union dues.  And as they grow, the influence of labor inevitably shrinks. Their increasing presence, coupled with the possibility of a large numbers of school closures, was certainly one of the root causes to our strike. And it is safe to assume our mayor and mayors across the country are thinking how they can ensure how high quality charters become a central part of the agenda, at scale. In that sense, Chicago’s strike may not weaken the charter movement, but accelerate it.

The third ideological battle is an overtly political one. In some ways what we witnessed here was a fight between traditional labor and new democrats. Put bluntly, in the education domain, democrats are no longer singularly in labor’s pocket or vice versa.  This is new.  Allegiances are shifting. An increasing number of democrats support merit pay, charter schools, and increased teacher accountability. This blurring of the political landscape is good for schooling in my view. There is a chance—albeit a small one—that evidence, not party, will drive education policy. And that would be a breakthrough.

Regardless of which side you are on, the important thing is this.  The stakes in Chicago – and for children growing up in urban America—are extraordinarily high.   

Last year, the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute’s research group, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, issued a report that took a 20-year look at what has worked and what has not in Chicago. While there was some good news in the report, there was also very sobering news. Here is the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago Sun-Times Front Page

The report shined a bright light on a harsh truth. The state of Illinois has systematically lowered the bar for proficiency—creating an illusion of student progress. And many policy makers and education leaders declared a victory that didn’t exist.  

A few years earlier the Consortium did another study – which many of you may have seen.  The study tracked all Chicago Public Schools students from 9th grade thru college. Here is the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

Chicago Tribune Front Page April 6, 2006

Beneath the headline was an even starker reality. If you were an African American boy, the odds you would finish college by the age of 25 were 2.5% .

This is beyond broken. For poor children, for whom education is the only viable escape hatch from poverty, we have basically welded the escape hatch shut.

The question is how do we open this hatch?  For the rest of my talk, I will concentrate on that.

It is well understood—and undergirded by persuasive evidence—that the quality of our teachers and school leaders will largely determine the success or failure of schools serving poor children. Yet our human capital systems are broken. 

50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years. Leave the profession. And 80% turn over in half the time in Chicago’s most challenged schools is not unusual.  In addition to this retention problem, we have a very serious accountability problem. 

In the state of Illinois, of 98,600 teachers, over an 18-year period, how many teachers do you think were removed for underperformance each year?  3.  Not 3%. 3.

Here are data from Chicago, looking at the distribution of all teacher evaluations for over 25 thousand teachers. In essence, 99.7% received satisfactory to distinguished evaluation ratings. Less than one third or one percent were considered unsatisfactory.


CPS Teacher Ratings

And here are data from Los Angeles. The blue tells the same basic story—Los Angeles is Lake Wobegon—all teachers are above average.

LAUSD Teacher Ratings

But here’s the thing.  When you look at the nearly invisible sliver of teachers who receive unsatisfactory ratings—more than half (the red in the pie chart), turn out to add more value on end-of-year assessments than those teachers determined to be satisfactory.  So we even get that part wrong.  

Complicating the retention and accountability problem, we also have a teacher-training problem. Higher education produces approximately 95% of the teachers for our country. At risk of hyperbole, higher education’s grip on teacher training is not unlike a cartel. There is no accountability for the quality of teachers they deliver. No external pressure to change course. No competition. And regulations are rigged in higher education’s favor. As a result, a very strange method for training teachers has evolved. Here it is. 


Typical Pathway to Teaching

Teachers get a degree. Most often in education, a degree that comes without subject-matter expertise. They receive a license based on the completion of their degree. And then, become a practicing teacher. Typically you receive tenure shortly thereafter—protecting you from being removed for life.

Clearly, there are lots of problems with this system. At the end of the day, we have built a system that conflates teacher credentials with teacher quality. Teacher quality is defined —and written into state and federal laws —as the accumulation of credit and years of service. The idea that teacher quality be determined based on the extent to which students learn has only very recently entered the equation. 

So, what might we do to improve the quality of human capital?

First, we need to build a much more competitive market place delivering teachers and leaders to the profession—and we—you—should actively support the organizations that are willing to be held accountable for the people they train. There are examples in our midst. The University of Chicago’s own Urban Teacher Education Program, which trains teachers for Chicago much as doctors are trained—with intensive focus on clinical preparation and results. But Chicago needs a much deeper set of nonprofits and higher education institutions dedicated to measuring success based on impact.

Second, we need a new law. As I grew up in a family that valued irony as much as love, I would call the new law the ‘no teacher training institution left behind act’.

In essence, the law would report publically, every year, on every institution delivering teachers to the profession. Where teachers from particular institutions teach, how long they stay, and the results they get over time, whether at Teach For America, University of Illinois Chicago or the University of Chicago. Why does this matter? Clearly it would be useful for aspiring teachers. They should know the best places to enroll. But more importantly, good, public data on the quality of preparation programs would enable the places that actually hire teachers—schools and school districts—to exert control over the supply. Hiring more teachers from the places that deliver good ones. And few or none from the places that don’t.

Third, and perhaps most important, we need to stay focused on teacher accountability. While Chicago’s new teachers contract brings with it a new teacher evaluation, we are at the beginning of a long journey. If we are going to get teacher accountability really right, we need to do two things well. First, we need to build knowledge about what teaching practices matter that most. One of my colleagues at UEI, Sara Ray Stoelinga has done some very important work in this domain—building evidence about what teachers actually DO to deepen student learning. Only when teachers know what behaviors matter—and get support to enact them—will children learn more. If we only define teacher effectiveness in reference to results—the test scores going up—we lose the opportunity to actually improve the profession.

The second thing we need to do is listen to teachers. Personally, I am convinced that the vast majority of teachers want genuine accountability. However, completely understandably, they remain deeply skeptical about the field’s ability to deliver. For decades, teachers have received ratings based on the most cursory observations, in ways that don’t distinguish between teachers in credible ways, using tools that don’t predict whether students learn.

Their skepticism is also fueled by legitimate debate about the extent to which we should use standardized test scores to measure teacher quality. Here are questions I hear repeatedly from teachers. If two student scores in my classroom skew my results, how reliable is the measure? If I have 30 percent student mobility in my class in the course of the year, which students will you count to determine my rating? If I teach kindergarten or first grade or second grade or third grade, or science or art or music or history, what will be used to determine whether my students learn? And when New York City publishes individual teacher ratings based on value add scores —and sends them to parents citywide —and the ratings include a footnote that says the results have a 50 percent margin of error —is that really fair?

These kinds of questions need to be answered. Honestly. Openly. And well. And until they are, the very people we need to embrace teacher accountability systems will hold them at arms length.

Now, here is a caveat—and a big one—even if we dramatically improve teacher accountability and strengthen the pipeline of people coming into the profession—we have a deeper problem.

Until we address the schoolhouse itself, reforms around it may not matter that much.

What is the schoolhouse problem? What prompts good people to leave the profession in large numbers?

One issue is that teachers have the same responsibilities on the first day of the job as they do on the last day of the 35th year. Not only can you teach in isolation for your career, it is unusual not to. This worked when extraordinary women and people of color had few other options in the market. But it doesn’t work anymore. The notion of doing the same thing year after year appeals to some exceptional people, but it drives many people away. To crack this problem, we need to reimagine the role of teacher. To create new roles for teachers as they demonstrate they are good at what they do. Opportunities to lead, to innovate, to train aspiring teacher —in the course of their careers. Roles that don’t require leaving the classroom altogether.

And at a more basic level, we need to address working conditions and incentives for teachers. One of my arguments with labor and management is that they have walked away from making teaching a profession. At a rudimentary level, teachers need things that the rest of us have in our professional lives: phones for calling parents, laptops, desks and meeting space.

But if you buy the idea that teaching is ambitious, intellectual work, then teachers need other things: time to collaborate and opportunities to learn. And financial incentives as they demonstrate results—whether helping students learn or supporting other teachers improve their practice. During the strike, we heard a good deal about working conditions, yet nothing substantive in the contract changed them.

The bottom line is until we make the schoolhouse a more interesting place for adults and children to work and learn, we are not going to attract or keep the talent we need to make this go.

How might Chicago tackle the schoolhouse problem?

In my view, we must continue to support new school creation—whether innovative start-ups borne of homegrown talent or proven national school models. Creating a much more diverse portfolio of schools —whether charter, magnet, neighborhood or contract — is an essential part of improving the educational ecosystem. We need many more existence proofs in our midst.

And if we get more aggressive about school creation, we must also get more serious about school accountability. The reality is, it has become completely normal for urban schools to fail children. Schools languish, for 20, 30, 40 years. They wait—for the occasional, ambitious superintendent to come along and try to pull the plug. Why should students in those broken schools wait? Why not put all schools, charter and neighborhood, on five-year performance contracts? Make it normal for schools to close if they fail. Not overnight. But before a generation of children pass through their doors and have their fates sealed.

And, if we are going to get more aggressive about school accountability, then we need to measure what we actually know matters. I am not suggesting we ignore standardized tests. If they are good, they are useful measures of progress over time. However, we must recognize their enormous limitations. And put the real weight of our accountability system on the most important indicators—staying on track through school, completing high school and completing post secondary school—whether college or a legitimate job training program. Those are the measures that the best social science tells us matter most. Education attainment means you live longer, earn more, go to prison less, vote, volunteer and give blood more, and have children with higher levels of educational attainment. Those are the measures instrumental to our economy, our democracy and our social fabric. And those measures should anchor our views about how our schools, and the children in them, perform.

Before turning to you —and your questions and comments—I want to say something about one other domain that I believe could have an enormous influence on the quality of urban schooling and that is specifically, the future of organized labor.

As I suggested earlier, labor faces existential threats posed by a growing number of charter schools, by school closures in this and other American cities, and by increasing calls for vouchers from both sides of the aisle. In my view, to eliminate those threats, labor must shift its stance.

The basic critique of labor is they resist reform. In truth, in many cases, labor’s concerns are legitimate. There are many bad charter schools. The vast majority of merit pay schemes do lack merit. And most voucher systems virtually guarantee private schools will pick and choose the children they want to educate, and public schools will end up with a disproportionate numbers of children who come to school with the greatest needs.

But here’s the problem. No matter how elegantly labor makes the case against these or other reforms, the message will be—and one consistently turned against them—that they are protecting their members, they are propping up a broken status quo, and they are anti-reform. And that, I think, will only accelerate the existential threat they face.

So what might labor do? If I were Randi Weingarten—the head of the American Federation of Teachers—I would take a very, very different tack. I would invite labor leaders from across the nation to my war room—and say this:

Resisting reform won’t work. We may win some battles. In Chicago, way may flex our muscles. But we will lose the war. Even if we are RIGHT to oppose some reforms—if resisting change is what labor is perceived as standing for we will be chipped away, inch by inch, day by day, until we lose the ground we stand on.

Instead, we must become a singular, unabashed voice for improving the teaching profession.

Everyone—not just education reformers, but parents, the public, politicians and educators—want American schools to improve. Labor should make improvement of the teaching force its singular mission. And it should do this, even if it means goring some of our own sacred cows.

What might this mean?

It would mean supporting the closure of schools that have failed children for generations. Resisting the closure of broken schools makes labor complicit in sealing children’s fates. Like it or not, the message will be: jobs over children. And labor can’t win that way.

It would mean supporting evaluation systems that identify and reward exemplary teachers —including evaluations systems that link teacher performance to student learning. And if the instruments for gauging teacher quality are too blunt, labor should enlist the best educators across the country to sharpen them. But decrying nascent efforts in Chicago and across the nation to fix accountability systems that everyone recognizes are broken will only strengthen the case against labor. Again, labor can’t win that way.

Further, labor should support the removal of ineffective teachers. There should be fair due process, to be sure. But protecting poor teachers is not a battle worth winning. Fighting for an accountable profession is.

Labor should go further. It should advocate for a much higher bar for getting and keeping tenure. So it is not pro forma—rather make tenure mean something. If everyone gets tenure based on years of service and credits accumulated, labor loses. That isn’t building a profession. It is protecting a job guarantee.

Finally, it might even mean labor saying we will run charter schools. Not just one or two, as a symbolic gesture, as they do in New York, but scores of them. It was iconic labor leader Al Shanker who initially endorsed the idea of charter schools, seeing them as a means to provide teachers with greater voice in the management of schools. Labor should seize that mantle to prove they can generate results, on their own terms, at a scale that is persuasive.

Yes, there are short-term costs to taking this stance. Some senior labor leaders and veteran members will resist. And the idea of job protection at all costs goes away. Replaced by a more sensible and sustainable idea¬—that good and great teachers are rewarded—and chronically underperforming teachers are systematically, even enthusiastically, removed.

But the long-term benefits of this stance are significant. First, labor would remain vital. Not viewed as an obstacle, or something to be circumvented, but rather the key partner in improving American schooling. Second, labor seizes the high ground—supporting evidenced-based reform, not resisting it.

Third—and perhaps most important of all —labor does for the education sector what it needs perhaps more than anything else, it helps make teaching a legitimate profession. Not a job guarantee, but a profession. A profession that demands teaching excellence. Backed by a union dedicated to self–regulation —like the Bar for attorneys or the AMA for doctors —ever vigilant about improving the quality of the work force. A profession that attracts and keeps more of the nation’s top talent because they will do intellectually ambitious work, they will be rewarded based on what they accomplish and because they work in places where results, borne of excellent teaching, are valued above all.

If labor stood for those things, they will chase away the existential threats, the union will get stronger—and grow overtime —and, most important of all, children will be better served.


Thank you very much.