“We have a lot of solutions out there”: An Interview with Kate Grossman

Kate Grossman is deputy editorial page editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. She writes editorials on a range of topics, including education, state budget issues, and urban affairs, and also helps manage the commentary page. A Hyde Park native, Grossman received degrees from Cornell University and Columbia University and spent one year as an assistant teacher in a Chicago public school. She has won several awards for her coverage of social issues in Chicago, including education and housing, and is a regular commentator on local TV and radio programs. This quarter, Grossman is a visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics and sat down with the Gate’s Chelsea Fine to discuss the challenges facing the Chicago public schools system and education reforms that hold a great deal of promise.

The Gate: A 2006 Tribune article found that “of 100 Chicago Public School freshmen, six will get a college degree,” which was an alarming call to action for a lot of policymakers. How did we get to that point, where so many students weren’t graduating, and where have we gone from there?

Kate Grossman: The first thing to know about Chicago Public Schools is that it’s primarily a school system that educates low-income students. I don’t know what the latest figure is, but something like 87 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, so that in itself defines the issues for the school system. There are obviously other kids who go to the school system who are better off, but kids who are low-income often bring special needs, so that’s something that the school system has always grappled with. I don’t know the exact statistics, but I think it’s probably gotten a higher percentage of minority students in recent years; the number of white students has declined, and, in particular, the number of Latino students has grown a lot. I think now it’s like 9 percent white, and the rest is an even split between black and Latino.

So there’s always this effort around how to best serve kids who come to school sometimes, not always, but sometimes not ready to learn and have some social obstacles in their way. So they’ve tried lots of different things. There was an era of trying to end social promotion, which is when you have benchmark grades, third grade, sixth grade, eighth grade, and if you didn’t pass a test at the end of the year, you couldn’t be promoted to the next grade. You’d go to summer school and take the test again. So they tried that, which in theory sounds really good, but in practice, a lot of kids were being held back, and it wasn’t good for those kids, because being held back wasn’t advantageous for them, so they sort of tried this tough love thing, which, again, sounded good, but it was pretty harmful for those kids so they got rid of that.

When Arne Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he spent a lot of time really trying to focus on instruction with reading specialists and math specialists. And during his tenure, he started what has become more the norm for dealing with low-performing schools—he started closing them, and that was a really radical idea when it was first started. And now it’s become much more common. He took that to the White House, or to his job as US Education Secretary. So there’s always been a mix of schools—there are excellent schools, kind of mediocre schools, and there’s always this group of schools at the bottom that are very low-performing. What do you do about them? That’s kind of the main issue. So there’s been this effort to close down those schools and then reopen them as something different with a new staff. That morphed—schools used to be closed for a year or more and it was incredibly disruptive, and now CPS’s model is called a turnaround where the kids stay but the adults come in fresh.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looked back over twenty years and released a report a couple years ago, which found that there really hasn’t been much progress, unfortunately. So it’s kind of an effort of keep trying new and different things, and seeing what may or may not work.

Gate: You mentioned that CPS has a CEO, which is a governing structure that is unique to Chicago. How do you think our governing structure and the way that CPS deals with City Hall and Springfield contributes to CPS’s challenges?

Grossman: The fact that it’s a CEO rather than a superintendent means that you don’t have to have superintendent credentials. Right now the woman who’s the CEO was a superintendent—she was a teacher, principal, etcetera—but Arne Duncan and several after him were never teachers. The main thing is that it’s the CEO that’s appointed by the mayor and the school board that’s appointed by the mayor, so it’s a direct line of control from the mayor to the board of education, the board members themselves, who set policy, and then the CEO who obviously manages and also sets policy. So there’s two sides to that coin: the positive way to look at it is that it’s more efficient so you have the mayor with a single vision for what you want to do with the schools that’s presumably shared by the CEO and the school board, and so it’s easier to get things done. The bad side of it, and Mayor Emanuel is really bumping up against this, is that people feel like it’s undemocratic, that the board of education proposes something, but already a done deal, that they sort of go through a show of public input but that they’ve basically made up their mind. And that’s really come to the front in the last couple of years with the teachers’ strike and then the closing of fifty schools and this growing feeling of disenfranchisement that people send their kids to the public schools but don’t feel like they have a voice or seat at the table, so there’s been this big push to move to an elected school board, which would really disrupt that clean, efficient triangle between the mayor, the CEO, and the school board.

Gate: Now that we’re a few years out from the teachers strike and school closings, what has happened since then for the Chicago Teachers Union, for those schools, and for affected CPS students?

Grossman: Two things. So first, the strike. Things got back to normal fairly quickly after the strike, although there were still a lot of angry feelings, which certainly came up during the mayoral race. And right now, the teacher’s contract expires at the end of June, the one that was settled with the strike, and there’s a pretty decent chance that there will be another strike, so even though the strike was resolved, the same frustrations on a number of fronts are still in the air and are likely to erupt in the next couple months.

Similarly, the school closings that caused a lot of upset was a big issue in the mayoral race, and I think that’s probably the main reason why Mayor Emanuel was forced into a runoff was because there was so much anger about school closings in general and about his sort of undemocratic way of governing the schools. I have to say, on the [Sun-Times] editorial board, we were very skeptical about the number of schools they intended to close. We believed that there was a valid argument for closing schools: There were a lot of severely under-enrolled schools, and that doesn’t make sense from an economic perspective, and in some cases, it doesn’t make sense for the kids themselves to be in such an undersubscribed school. So we were supportive of the idea of closing some schools, but we felt that that was way too many schools to do at once, and that there were schools on the list that were really vibrant and shouldn’t have closed. We still feel that way. But that said, I have to give the board credit. They actually did a pretty good job in terms of moving the kids from the buildings that were closed to the schools that were receiving them, in terms of just the logistics of it, like making sure that all the desks arrived and that there were enough teachers in the new schools, that they had new things at the receiving schools to make them enhanced. It was not a disaster. There weren’t huge gang flare-ups and safety issues the way everybody feared. So I do give them credit for that, because a lot of the fears were not realized.

Gate: There are a lot of problems in education that need to be addressed, but there are also a lot of solutions out there, such as Common Core, charter schools, and social-emotional learning, among many other initiatives. What would you say are the top three programs or ideas out there that have the most promise in terms of improving student outcomes?

Grossman: A focus on social and emotional learning, particularly for urban, high-poverty schools, has a ton of potential. When I say that, I mean helping kids with anger management, focusing on social skills like really paying attention to the issues that kids are bringing into the building and helping them deal with them so they can focus on learning. There’s lots of research that shows that if you do that effectively, behavior improves and academic achievement improves. Of course it just makes sense. If you deal with all the stuff that kids bring in the building, then you kind of lower the temperature and you can focus on learning. It has taken off to some degree in Chicago Public Schools. And it’s a general sweep in the country. We’ve moved away from the zero tolerance, punitive approach, and that really didn’t work. You had a lot of dropouts, a lot of kids going to prison, and that’s just not effective, and so we’re sort of swinging back the other way to try to be a more nurturing and compassionate. The problem is this takes money and you have to have social workers and you have to train and all that stuff. But to me, that’s one of the most promising things you can do.

Another policy that’s coming out of the University of Chicago is focusing the school system on freshmen pass rates. Researchers have found that if a kid successfully passes freshman year with no more than one semester F, he or she is nearly four times more likely to graduate than a kid who doesn’t pass, and that’s a better predictor of graduation than race, prior scores, income, everything else combined, so the school system has really focused attention on that with a lot of success. And that has great appeal, because you don’t have to start a whole new school or you don’t have to spend tons of money. It’s just reorganizing the way schools function, so to me, that’s really promising.

Charters are very controversial, and I think for good reason, especially when money is really tight, because they take away money from traditional public schools. But there are some charter schools that are really great options for kids and provide them with just what they need and a better situation than a traditional public school. So if we could just figure out how they can coexist without charters hurting traditional schools, there is some promise there, too.

Gate: One thing that you mentioned is limited resources. There’s a ton of research out there: you talked about the freshmen pass rate, there’s also data about the importance of preschool, and some non-profit leaders are focusing on the middle school years, because they believe that those students are largely underserved. Given that there’s a push to help everyone at all levels but there’s a limited amount of funding, especially given impending budget cuts, where should the money go? What do you think CPS’s priorities should be?

Grossman: I think early childhood education is by far, the research shows, the most cost-efficient investment you can make. It makes sense. You get kids early and give them a good start and you don’t have to do all the remedial stuff later, which doesn’t even work very well anyway. And when I talk about early childhood, I don’t just mean preschool. I mean zero to three, home visitors programs, good maternal health, just making sure that kids are getting a really good start so by the time they get to kindergarten, they’re really ready to go. So that’s where I would put the money. And then I would also put the money for social and emotional learning. And this is for CPS, for all urban schools, for entire systems. I mean every school needs social and emotional learning, it’s for everybody, but in some schools, it’s already built into the environment.