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Askwith Education Forum

Askwith Education Forum Reflects on Two Decades of Change in Chicago Public Schools

A conversation about recovery and ongoing challenges featured past and present Chicago Public Schools leaders

Two decades of growth and challenges in the nation’s fourth-largest public school district were examined on the Askwith Education Forum stage on Wednesday as past and present leaders of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) shared insights at “20 Years of Education Reform: Lessons from Chicago,” the final forum of 2023.

Arne Duncan, CEO of CPS from 2001 to 2008; Janice Jackson, CEO of CPS from 2017 to 2021; and current CEO Pedro Martinez, who succeeded Jackson in 2021 joined Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham in the discussion. Cheatham, co-chair of Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) noted all three panelists have participated in PELP, a program that works to improve leadership competencies of public school administrators to drive greater educational outcomes.

Cheatham described the event as “a dream discussion” between three leaders that have anchored the district over a time that saw frequent changes in leadership, including four CEOs in four years after Duncan left Chicago to become Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama. Yet Chicago has shown considerable improvement in the last 20 years, with rising graduation rates, decreasing dropout rates, and proven growth in other educational metrics for students.

L-r: Arne Duncan, Jennifer Cheatham, Janice Jackson, and Pedro Martinez
L-r: Arne Duncan, Jennifer Cheatham, Janice Jackson, and Pedro Martinez in Askwith Hall.
Photo Credit: Jill Anderson

“There are plenty of seemingly intractable issues unsolved,” said Cheatham, citing ongoing problems like a downward trend in enrollment, access issues, and student mental health and safety challenges. “But there is a story here about sustainability in progress despite leadership turnover and turbulence that we want to mine today.”

All three district leaders highlighted the importance of continuity of vision and aligned goals, even amid changes in high-level positions.

“One thing I appreciate about Chicago is that the accountability is clear,” said Martinez, who cited the “healthy pressure” of being in contact with Duncan, Jackson, and others who have served in his current role before him. “It keeps us grounded. The work is not done. It has to continue. The goal is to move it forward.”

Jackson, Duncan, and Martinez discussed the impact data had on how they allocated resources in Chicago, such as focusing on student retention at the ninth-grade level because data indicates that’s when high school students are most vulnerable to dropping out. Several times during the event the educators reminded the audience that leadership takes on many different forms.

“It’s not always just standing up and giving a motivational speech and convincing people to do it. Sometimes there are policy levers that you can use in order to get what you need done in your district,” said Jackson. “Part of the leadership challenge is not being afraid to do that. Any policy introduction can be the day that you go home fired. We pushed a lot of things that were sometimes seen as controversial. But you look back 10, 20 years later and you’ve impacted the lives of thousands of children.”

The PELP coherence framework, case studies, and other tools has helped Harvard educate school leaders and impact the lives of more than 5.6 million students in 58 urban school districts across 27 states, including all three Chicago Schools CEOs on stage Wednesday.

“PELP was incredibly helpful,” said Duncan. “These jobs are lonely jobs, there’s no one else in your city doing it. To come and meet with your team and get out of the day-to-day and meet with other folks, that was invaluable.”

The sobering stakes of public education in cities like Chicago was clear, even in a conversation rich in high-level concepts like system change and resource management.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez speaks in Askwith Hall.
Photo: Jill Anderson

“In Chicago, if you drop out of high school – I’m getting emotional here – you may not live. This is really life and death,” said Duncan. “That’s why you have to have that urgency. Chicago’s a tough city. There’s no safety net there, and if you’re dropping out of high school, it’s not just poverty. It’s not just social failure. Your risk of being killed goes up exponentially. So that’s why this work is so essential.”

Each leader left the audience with advice that doubled as a call to action for all assembled. Duncan encouraged parents to “be more demanding” of their districts and leaders, and reminded leaders they must never forget the urgency of their work.

“I think we’re all going too slow,” said Duncan. “Chicago is the fastest-improving district in the country. That’s great. I promise you we’re going too slow.”

Jackson advocated for others to recognize opportunities to make major changes that can have significant impact regardless of their current role.

“Every once in a while there is an opportunity to change a system, to disrupt the status quo and it’s rare in your career. So if you’re faced with that and you don’t take the opportunity, you probably won’t get it again. So just be prepared to live with that,” said Jackson. “I want to encourage you, if you are faced with an opportunity to disrupt, you should move on that. Don’t squander that opportunity.”

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