CUEL affiliate and UIC Professor Emeritus Dr. Steve Tozer has co-written a new study of the recent history of Chicago school reform, emphasizing the evolving capacity of CPS and its civic partners to sustain an improvement agenda through turbulent and contentious times. One of several outgrowths of the Improvement Science agenda of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the co-authors include six partner-participants in the Chicago story, starting with lead author Anthony Bryk, past Carnegie president and former director of the Consortium on Chicago School Reform (CCSR). As such, the book offers a unique partner’s lens on reasons for Chicago’s success, and is the most comprehensive treatment to date of the forces that led from Chicago’s status as “worst school system in the nation” in 1987 to top 4% of the nation in student learning gains by 2017. Those forces included the mobilization of the civic community, including business, grass-roots neighborhood organizations, and philanthropic foundations. Also influential was a new infrastructure for analyzing information on school performance, led by the UC Consortium on School Research and investigated by Catalyst Magazine. These and related partner assets comprise what the authors call an “exoskeleton” supporting continuous school improvement in Chicago, a “new civic architecture” for collaborative reform (p. 25).

Further, the Chicago Public Schools played a dynamic and creative role in shaping this exoskeleton. Over time the Chicago system developed significant absorptive capacity to learn from external collaborators and apply learning to internal problems. And the focus of key CPS leader-educators on taking teaching and learning systems to scale—and developing the teachers and leaders to make those systems work—was consequential for Chicago’s learning how to improve. In turn, UIC and its College of Education is featured not only for its partnership with CPS in leadership development, but also for breaking new ground in teacher education. The book particularly documents how the most significant growth in district capacity for improving student learning came during the Arne-Duncan/Barbara Eason-Watkins administration in the first decade of the 2000’s, when school leadership became a key strategy for improvement, and when organizations like New Leaders and UIC introduced new approaches to principal preparation and development. Also noteworthy is the book’s attention to the era during which Dr. Janice Jackson – a graduate of UIC’s EdD leadership program – was Chief Education Officer and then CEO, from 2015 to 2021. Overall, this new volume is likely to become a core resource for students of Chicago and national district improvement dynamics for years to come.

Bryk, A.S., Greenberg, S., Bertani, A., Sebring, P., Tozer, S., & Knowles, T. (2023). How a City Learned to Improve Its Schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.