A Tale of Two Cities: How Race and Poverty Shape Educational Outcomes and the Need for Reform

Photo caption: www.chicagoreader.com

In recent weeks Chicago Unheard has posted two open letters.  The letters reflect two very different perspectives and two different experiences in Chicago’s education system.  While both of the letters come from people within the same Chicago Public School District, it seems that they come from two different worlds.  In one of these worlds, middle-class families (mostly white) endeavor to push mediocre academic performance toward true excellence.  In the other, families of color in communities with significantly fewer resources struggle for academic – and sometimes even physical – survival.

Earlier this month, we re-posted a blog from Troy LaRaviere, the newly minted President of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and former Principal of Blaine Elementary School on Chicago’s north side.  LaRaviere penned an angry letter of resignation addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Last week, we posted a letter from a single mother of two, Latoya Oby.  In it she pleads with the Chicago Teachers Union not to go on strike.  She believes a strike is too great a risk for her son’s academic success and his physical safety.

In his letter, LaRaviere touts the fact that under his leadership, Blaine Elementary has become the #1 neighborhood school in Chicago and the #3 public school in the city overall.  This accomplishment is one to which LaRaviere apparently committed himself when he first got the job six year ago (at the time Blaine was already the #6 neighborhood school in the city).  LaRaviere insinuates that a proliferation of his approach to school leadership would have closed the achievement gap between students of color and white students in Chicago more effectively than the mayor’s approach to school improvement and that of the appointed Board of Education.

In Latoya Oby’s letter, there is a different point of contention.  Oby does not write from the perspective of a high achieving principal in a north side school.  Oby is a single mom on the west side of Chicago.  In her letter, we read about a deeply troubling experience with Chicago Public Schools.  Oby’s older child – a son – has attended a number of CPS schools over the years.  In every case she has found that the school has been, in many ways, unable to meet her son’s needs.  She is afraid that the Chicago Teachers Union will put their financial demands above her son’s safety and her emotional and financial well being by choosing to strike.  

The only light at the end of the tunnel for Latoya Oby was her ability to exercise her right to something that LaRaviere is very critical of in his letter: school choice.  Oby homeschooled her younger daughter and then put her in a Catholic school when she went back to work.  She did not feel that she would be able access the kind of education and social-emotional environment that she wanted for her daughter in the public schools around her home.  So she chose to do something different.

In a very real sense, these two passionately written letters typify the ongoing struggle for the soul of the school system.  They exemplify how people who are motivated by the same general principle (the academic and social success of students) can be so deeply divided.  To understand this a bit more deeply, we have to look at the worlds from which these two letters come.

The easy answer – the one Troy LaRaviere offers in his letter – is the proliferation of leaders in his mold.  The schools that Latoya Oby interacted with were, in LaRaviere’s estimation, suffering from the “uncaring mismanagement of the school system” on the part of Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education.  What was needed to change Oby’s experience was a leader like him.  One who would be dedicated to “use evidence-based practice in the face of tremendous pressure…to adopt baseless ‘school reform ideas”.  Ideas like school choice and teacher evaluation.  

Oby’s solution, while not crafted as a forceful policy recommendation, is simple and quite a bit more revolutionary.  ABANDON SHIP!  This mom calls for an approach that sounds a lot more like the “school reform” policies that seem to so irk LaRaviere.  Homeschool.  Catholic school.  Whatever you can do, get something better for your child and do it now.  Otherwise, be left at the mercy of underperforming schools and a volatile labor-district relationship that constantly jeopardizes your child’s future.

Why don’t these two policy recommendation square?  Because they come from two different realities.

Across the state and across Chicago Public Schools, academic proficiency rates are depressingly low.  38% of students are proficient in English and Language Arts (ELA) in Illinois and 29.7% in CPS.  In math, 28% are proficient statewide and only 21.6% in CPS.  But, it gets more depressing.

When we look inside of these figures, you can see which students are truly suffering.  The lowest scores in CPS come from African American students who receive free and reduced lunch.  Among these poor, Black youngsters only 18.5% are proficient in ELA and 11.6% are proficient in Math.  The second lowest scoring group is poor Latino students.  The third lowest (with only 40.5% proficient in ELA and 27.2% proficient in Math) is African American students who DO NOT receive free and reduced lunch.  That means that the entire Black population in CPS is performing in or at the very bottom in CPS.  That’s enough to make a Black man cry.

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The realities in CPS are stark.  Students of color (especially poor students of color) can expect very different outcomes.  And it has been that way for a very long time.

Maybe that is why Troy LaRaviere does not embrace drastic reform proposals.  His leadership success was born in the other CPS.  The chief jewel in LaRaviere’s crown, Blaine Elementary, is almost 60% White and only 5% Black.  Only 16% of students at the school participate in the free and reduced lunch program.  Maybe Troy’s success has more to do with who he was educating and less to do with how he educated them.

In fact, the data suggest that folks like Latoya Oby and Rahm Emanuel might be onto something with their ideas about school choice.  Charter schools are public schools that are operated by independent, non-profits and by most assessments represent a form of school choice Chicago.  While these schools are not outpacing district-wide averages on the PARCC assessment, they are moving toward closing the long persistent achievement gap in Chicago.

When compared to non-selective schools in CPS, charter schools students in all 3 of the lowest performing subgroups do better (charters don’t outperform non-selective district schools among Latino students who don’t receive FRL).  

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Maybe this is how we have to look at the debate?  If I’m Troy LaRaviere and I walk into the #6 neighborhood school in the city, I don’t have “school choice” in my playbook.  It would be nonsense to scrap everything and start all over.  At the same time, if I’m Latoya Oby and 80% of the students in my child’s school are not proficient in English and Language Arts, I don’t have time to wait for a LaRaviere style “6-year plan”.  When a school is in crisis, families can’t wait that long.  It is good and right to create new options.

There are two educational realities in Chicago.  One is in need of drastic reforms.  The other is probably right to opt for steady improvements upon the status quo.  Is there a way for these two approaches to co-exist?  Only time will tell.

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Chris Butler

Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate.

Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago.

Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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