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Facing Challenges, Driving Success (in Chicago)

Dr. Janice K. Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, discusses the challenges — including a looming teacher strike — of leading the country's third largest school district.
Janice K. Jackson
Dr. Janice K. Jackson with Chicago public school students.
Photo: Chicago Public Schools

Dr. Janice K. Jackson knew taking the role as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools would be challenging. She has inherited a history of problems in the district, but refuses to make her leadership about the blame game. In this episode of the EdCast, she discusses how she's facing the challenges before her. Even with a teacher strike looming, Jackson's pragmatic leadership and "We'll get through it" attitude frames her decision-making as the head of the third largest school district in the country.

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Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Dr. Janice K. Jackson dreamed about being head of Chicago Public Schools and now that she has the job, she's ready to really make some change. As the seventh CEO of Chicago Public Schools in a decade, it's a tough job, especially when you think about the scandals and problems that have long plagued the district. Dr. Jackson believes that problems can be solved. The decisions she makes every day, even the little ones, can be powerful. We talked about some of those decisions and how she really strives to be the real deal for Chicago schools.

Janice Jackson: You know, Chicago, it's a political appointment. I mean, people make it out to be that and I was like, that is not what the average teacher or parent wants to hear or feel from the superintendent. They should feel the same way you feel in a small one-school district, where the person who is making decisions on behalf of your kid is an educator who is thinking about what's best for kids and not what's best politically.

Jill Anderson: You have been so open it somewhere in your transcript that you were talking about this being your dream job.

Janice Jackson: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: So why, why was this your dream?

Janice Jackson: First of all, it is true. In my graduate school application, I think I was 24, I wrote that I will be the superintendent or the CEO of CPS by the time I'm 40, and that's exactly what happened. But I wasn't like a weird kid in high school that said I wanted to be a principal or superintendent. In fact, I started out wanting to be a college professor, which was also something ambitious and also a little weird for a girl from the south side of Chicago. But I've always loved history and I wanted to teach, but I didn't know that I wanted to teach in the public school system.

But because of my background, you know, I grew up with humble means, I started teaching with the plan to go back to school and get a doctorate and teach college. But when I started teaching, I saw firsthand despite the fact that I was educated in CPS, I had a completely different experience than what the experience of the students that I had the opportunity to serve were having at the school where I taught. And that was really kind the turning point in a few ways.

One, it made me understand this is what I want to do long-term, but I also have always had like an activist spirit, but not in the streets protesting, although there's a time and place for that. But more so like if you don't like something, change it. And I really believe I can change things and I've always believed that. So I looked at every single role, I knew that I wanted to be a principal, but I also knew that the key lever was policy, at least in my mind. And in order to change policy, you need to be the decision maker. And in my mind, that was being the superintendent of the district.

Jill Anderson:  Changes can be hard to make happen, especially in education. So I think about the role you're in and how you inherit a lot of problems. And you know, we don't need to run through every single problem, but there's...

Janice Jackson: But they exist.

Jill Anderson:  ... problems, the inequities, the sex abuse cases, the enrollment issues, and how do you balance that pressure from a district in a community they want immediate change, but you know...

Janice Jackson: It's a problem.

Jill Anderson:  ... this is complex.

Janice Jackson: First I would say when you take on any role, whether it's leading the third largest school district, becoming an elected official, trying to make change in a small community or in a congressional district, there are problems that have been around for as long as people have been around. I think the first thing that's important to acknowledge is that these problems are not intractable. And I think if you go into a role like that where you think there is nothing you can do when your job is to kind of manage through, you're in the wrong place.

I started from a place of believing that problems can be solved and that my philosophy is that involving and engaging stakeholders and in my opinion, the people most impacted, involving them in that process is going to help you not only move your implementation plan or strategy along further, but you're going to bring a lot of people with you and have more success.

I'll give you an example of how I approached this in CPS because I definitely walked into some problems. One thing I will say with regards to succession, I knew that I would be the next CEO for CPS. That was a conversation I'd had with the mayor. I didn't know what was going to happen during the time that it happened because of things that transpired with my predecessor. But when I started there were already some things on the fire, as they always are, it's Chicago, special education, the issue with my predecessor, etc. And then four weeks later I get the first four year requests that led to the Tribune series on Betrayed, the sex abuse scandal.

So I made a choice then, as I was addressing that issue as well as others that emerged, that I could either say and blame everything on the people that came before me, which is what I've watched people do for years and years and years. And I know that a, that's not leadership and b, people who you are there to serve don't like that. I remember being those people.

And what I rallied my senior leadership team, folks that were new in their roles, not new to CPS and I said to them, I said, "By June 1st, this is six months into my role, I want to know every single thing that is wrong around here. We will not blame anything on previous administrations. Everything that needs to be fixed and rectified, it is our job to do that." We embarked on a pretty aggressive risk assessment of the organization, which I won't bore you with the details on that, but it was extremely complex and very different than what we've done in CPS.

And besides the fact that the risk assessment was comprehensive and engaged more people, we then shared it with everybody. So I laid bare to our board, stakeholders, the media, "Here is my analysis of what's going on and CPS along with my vision for addressing it." And I think that that was something that people really appreciated, but it also allowed me to get support to move the work ahead and address these problems. And that's just my style.

I address things head on because I think that's the way you need to behave when you're a leader.

Jill Anderson: Well, it's interesting you've brought up the, we're not going to look at the previous administrations, because I do see a lot in education, it's easy to get caught in that cycle of blame and then nothing...

Janice Jackson: Nothing changes. Yeah.

Jill Anderson: ... moves forward. And I was interested in some of your focus, particularly in strengthening principal leadership in your schools. That seems obvious, but I'm not sure that it actually happens on the ground. Can you talk a little bit about making something like strengthening and...

Janice Jackson: Yeah. Well, I think school leadership is critically important. A lot has been written in recent years about the importance of that. For a while the focus was on teacher quality, which it needs to be. The research is clear that teachers have the ability to really impact student outcomes more than any other professional that they interact with, but there's also a lot of research that shows that good principals create conditions where good teachers can come and do that at scale.

And in CPS about 15 years ago. So we're now seeing the fruits of our labor, shall I say, of this great work where we decided as a district that we cannot manage 660 schools, 30,000 teachers from central office, and that we had to empower both the local school leaders, but also the local school councils, which are like mini school boards made up of parents, teachers and school personnel. We had to empower them with the autonomy to lead in their schools.

And for some people that was a scary proposition. But what ended up happening is that leadership emerged in a way that has led to CPS seeing academic gains despite the fact that we saw CEO turnover at the top in CPS for the past decade. How do you explain sustained progress in a large district when you have that kind of turmoil at the top? It really is because we bet on local leadership led by the principal and it's paid off.

Jill Anderson: Your journey to this position was your own experience in school and going through life and talking to fellow CPS alums and discovering that they didn't quite have the same experience you had and the inequities just within the system, within the same schools. And I want to know how that led to this creation of the office of equity and what that role is in the district.

Janice Jackson: Well, of course equity has become very popular these days and people talk about, everybody wants to talk about equity. But one of the things that I charged my team with when we made the decision to open this office is that it can't be coffee shop talk or cocktail party talk, things that sound good and it's just surface, but it really doesn't get to some of the problems that exist in our school system. The institutional racism, the systems that perpetuate that, we have to address that head on and it has to be actionable.

So we created this office. It's a small team now, but it's growing and the first goal was to create an equity framework for the district that we could train the entire district leadership on, including our school principals and teachers, which basically says a few things. First, we're going to name it, we're going to name the need for equity and name the inequities that exist, whether that is related to resource allocation, capital improvements and investments throughout the district, programmatic changes in focus in different schools, in schools, when they get a new program, et cetera.

We had to be very intentional about that and also make sure that we're looking at decisions through a race and equity lens and being very intentional about identifying who are the winners and losers and making sure that we're not perpetuating the same inequities that have existed for decades. It's not a silver bullet. One of the things that my chief equity officer always says is that we can make change at every single level.

Oftentimes when I see districts embark on this work, they focus on district level policies, and those are important and we are examining our policies and making changes as well, but there are decisions that people make every single day that can help us. So a lot of our work has been around what decisions do you make as a classroom teacher every day that help us narrow the achievement gap, help us create more opportunities for students that don't have access.

What is it that principals do? Look at your AP classes. If you walk into school and all of the kids in the AP class are girls, you know, maybe an all black school or you go into integrated school and all of the kids in the AP classes are white and Asian. You have the ability, that's not a district policy, you, the principal, the teachers who decide who has access to those classes, that's an individual decision you can make. So it's been conversations and changes like that at the classroom level, the school level, and then the district level, that has been our focus this past year.

Jill Anderson: What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your superintendency?

Janice Jackson: Yeah. Well, I always tell people my proudest accomplishment is winning, my team won the debate championship, so let's start with that. When I was a teacher, that's still the single most important thing I think I've ever done. Mainly because when I was in that part of my career where I was figuring out what I wanted to do, we won a championship. I was at one of the lowest performing schools in the city, we won the city championship, and I remember one of the seniors saying to me, "Thank you for teaching me what I'm good at."

I went through teacher prep programs, pre-service. I had been teaching for a couple of years and it was at that moment when I figured out what education was all about and what my role was as a teacher and an educator. So that's that. But in this role as superintendent, it is an initiative that I think hits hard at this core around equity, which is the universal application process for enrolling in our high schools. We call it GoCPS. You know, I was a principal for 11 years and had observed and maybe played a role in thwarting the district's efforts to create a uniform system for enrolling kids because it wasn't ready in the way we were rolling it out, it needed work.

But when I became the chief education officer, which was the position prior to this, one of the things that I started was to create this uniform system. And we had every single district school sign up, of course, but also 100% of our charter and alternative school operators were a part of this process as well, which is something I was really proud of. And the reason this is an important initiative is because it's given parents across the city, no matter their zip code, background or race, an opportunity to select a high performing school and access a high performing seat throughout the district.

And before that process was complex and opaque. And I think making it simple and leveraging technology has made it accessible to everybody. So from a policy perspective, that's probably the thing that I'm most proud of.

Jill Anderson: You really believe practitioners can lead change in education?

Janice Jackson: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jill Anderson: I think there's a lot of people who might say that or act like they believe that, but then it does not reflect it in the work that they do or the choices they make in leadership.

Janice Jackson: What I think is going on there is it's just like anything, it's always easier to say you're going to do something than to actually do it. And of course, this work is messy and it's hard when you try to engage a lot of people, and I want to be clear, I don't mean you know, you allow 1,000 flowers to bloom or you go and get every single person's input before you make a decision, but there are ways to get input from people, the people who really want to be engaged and have a lot to say around this work and to be responsive and reflect that change in your decision making.

And of course, there are times when as a leader you have to make a decision, a tough decision and unpopular decision. But there is also a way to do that and engage the people who will be impacted the most and the people who are responsible for implementing it. I do a program with a group of distinguished principals in a district called The Chicago Fellows Program, which we're really proud of.

Principals get selected as a retention strategy. They get executive coaching through Northwestern's Kellogg program and another component is they work with me over the course of the year to come up with policy recommendations. I created that because when I was a principal I had a CEO that said, "If you don't like a policy, you can change it in 45 days." Now, of course it was an exaggeration, but he was referring to the process to change or implement policy through our board structure.

And it really got me interested in thinking about how do we operationalize this in a district. Not every principal has time to write long emails and white papers on why we should do things differently. So now we're going into our sixth year with this cohort, fifth year with policy recommendations and our principals have recommended policies that range from enrollment to how we pay assistant principals and things like that. So you really can engage people. And what I have found is when you engage people, even if they don't get everything that they want, they support you, they explain the decision, even if it's not the decision that they agreed upon initially. And I think that's true leadership. You have to have people come along with you in order to be successful.

Jill Anderson: Just shifting gears a little bit, what is it like for you having this role as a superintendent but also being a customer of it in the same way? I mean, you're a parent of...

Janice Jackson: Two students.

Jill Anderson:  ... two students in this school and you also are an alum, so how does that change this job for you? Or does it?

Janice Jackson: Well, it changes. I'll share a few things. First, I've been a part of CPS since I was in preschool. And I say that with pride, but also because you don't remember a lot of things from early childhood, but I have vivid memories of starting head start. And I remember mainly because the day my mom took me to register, we had to leave and I was crying like, "Oh, I want to stay. It was so bright. All these kids. All these books." But just I know what CPS provided me. There is a love and a connection and a loyalty to CPS that's unmatched.

I could go and work in another school system and I think I would do a fine job, but what would be missing is this love for the district. So that's number one. I think it's like anything else, it's always great to have one of us leading, but there are challenges inherit in that. I know the system, so when we're debating things, people are like, "You were a teacher once. You know what it's like." And I do, I know what it's like to work in a school that's under-resourced. I know what it's like to feel like you deserve more as a teacher and that the district could be doing more. And that's a part of how I think.

But if I'm being honest, I said this to a group of principals, when I make a decision as a leader, that lens of being a student who I would be lying if I said I had to fight for opportunities in CPS, I didn't. But that's part of the problem because me and my siblings, we're well behaved, we were reading when we started school, all of us did well. We were given every opportunity.

My passion comes from a place where, what about the kids who don't have that given to them, whether that is by virtue of living in a place where you get to go to a high quality school or people seeing things in you that push you out there to be successful. Those opportunities should be afforded to everybody and that's where I come from. But when I make decisions, and I said this to a group of principals, I always think about it from the lens of a principal. Despite being a parent, a student, a teacher.

And the reason could be, I spent a lot of time as a principal. I was a principal for 11 years and started two schools from scratch. But I also know that principals play a critical role in advancing the education, mission, program at a school in a way that they have a lot of power. And when I think about any kind of policy or decision that we're making, I'm always thinking what a principal is going to do with this? Does this help them do their job? Does this hinder them in any kind of way? Because I believe strongly that if it doesn't help them, then the schools are going to suffer. Teachers won't be happy. Teachers will leave. Kids won't get what they need. Parents won't feel respected. So that's how I approach the work.

Jill Anderson: Interesting. And one last question about the Stanford study. That study showed CPS fastest growing district, progressing district for grades three through eight. But on the flip side, I feel like there's been a lot of negative publicity and focus on CPS. What do you wish people really knew about the school district that you just think nationwide they don't?

Janice Jackson: Well, that's a deep question because I feel like nationally, sometimes the narrative around CPS is more positive than what we hear locally. And I don't know if that's just the nature of being there and it's more personal, it's more connected. But I have come to understand that the role of media is to tell a story and sometimes the more sensational the story, the better.

But what I want people to know about CPS is that, first of all, you mentioned this remarkable transformation story. Now, we're not spiking the ball at the 20 yard line, but we are doing great. It's a very different district than the district that I was educated in a long time ago now. It's a very different district. It's a very progressive district. We're leaders in so many things, not just in the data that you talked about. We're leaders in a principal preparation space. We're leaders in how we use data to inform policy that has led to remarkable outcomes, not only for graduation, but post secondary.

The other thing I would say is I just would caution people to look under the hood and learn more about any large district. I think you could be talking to the superintendent from LA, New York and have the same thing. I think whenever you are leading a large district that is predominantly made up of students of color, black and brown students and poor students, that's an easy narrative to tell about all the problems, and the problems are there and they exist and we have to fix them and be accountable to them.

But what I would hope is that people see and understand that it is a school system at the end of the day and that parents show up whether they choose CPS or they have no other choice. They show up wanting their kids to get a good education so they have a shot at the American dream. So the story that we should all be seeking and looking is the story that tells us how we do that and do that at scale for kids, in particular black and brown kids throughout the country.

That's why I spent so much time talking about what's happening and CPS, not to get a pat on the back, but really to let people know what is possible. I've studied public education for years, and sometimes people will make you feel like this is just something you have to manage, it's not going to get better. And here you have a large school system that looks completely different than it did in the 1980s and it's because of smart reform, great educators, and to be honest, leadership over the past few decades that have made incredibly tough decisions so that kids can have a better chance. So I tell people all the time, there is no better time to be leading CPS than now because there's just so many great things happening.

Jill Anderson: Okay. All right, well thank you so much.

Janice Jackson: Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Dr. Janice Jackson is the CEO of Chicago Public Schools. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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