The future of education: making way for reform and innovation

A short wish list of what the next mayor might do for public education in Chicago could include a longer school day, better training for principals, more charter schools and a better way to measure the progress of individual students over their school careers, according to a panel of experts.

The Future of the City symposium, hosted Tuesday, Feb. 1 by the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, brought together four of the city’s leading thinkers on education to look at where school reform will go now, after more than 15 years of mayoral control.

Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, said that as tenacious as the problems of public schools are, there have been true signs of progress. With experiments going on across the nation, he said there is good reason to be optimistic about progress — especially in Chicago, which boasts a pro-education business community, a tradition of community organizing and a deep body of research on local schools.

“Some city in the next 10 years is going to break through,” Payne said. “I don’t see why it can’t be Chicago.”

Tim King, the founder, president, and CEO of Urban Prep Academies — a charter school whose three all-male high school campuses have earned national attention for preparing students from low-income neighborhoods for college — said the best first step the new mayor can take is to move quickly to name a chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools.

“It’s important that the mayor do that as quickly as possible,” King said. “It sends a significant message. And it’s incredibly challenging for any school district, or any school in that district, to operate successfully in a state of flux.”

Gretchen Crosby Sims, vice president of programs for the Joyce Foundation, was one of the panelists who pointed to the length of school day and the length of the school year as obvious places to make changes.

“By the time our kids graduate from high school, they will have had three years less time in school than their peers in Houston,” she said.

Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, credited Mayor Richard M. Daley for preparing the city for the next steps.

“The mayor created space for innovation and laid the foundation for the next 10 years,” he said.