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Smart Cities: Chicago's Collaborative and Chaotic Reform Record

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Christopher Nyren made a strong case that Chicago, not New York, is the second city for education innovation, "For over a generation, Chicago has served as the epicenter of for-profit, technology-enabled education entrepreneurship and investment."

According to Patrick Haugh, The Chicago Public Education Fund, "Chicago sports not only an impressive set of ed investors (Sterling, GSV Advisors), established industry leaders, and an emerging cohort of promising edtech startups, it also possesses a vital network of innovative ed organizations with great local leadership, and creative funders.

Starting Early. President Obama and Secretary Duncan's belief in the importance of early learning is homegrown. "Chicago is the leader in early childhood education--no contest," said Ryan Blitstein, SCE.Ounce of Prevention Fund advocates locally and supports Educare centers nationwide. First Five Years Fund is a new breed of data-driven advocates for integrated early learning services for low income children backed by Buffett, Gates, Harris, Kaiser, and Pritzker. McCormick Foundation advocates for public policy that improves birth to three learning opportunities in Illinois.

The SCE-backed Learning Ratings project with Common Sense Media has gone from cool concept in alpha to market leader in rating quality in digital learning media.

District in Flux. Chicago Public Schools serves more than 400,000 students in 681 schools. Led by recently appointed veteran school chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago was an early member of the Portfolio School District Network but an innovation advocate said recently, "Chicago is a mess."

In the Fall of 2000, I met with Arne Duncan in the basement bar of the Chicago Club. It turned out to be a few months before the the earnest assistant to Paul Vallas would take over as schools CEO. By 2003, Duncan had crafted a coherent effort to support struggling schools and to close and replace failing schools (similar to Joel Klein's Children First in NYC).

In 2004, The Daley Administration, Arne Duncan and the Chicago business community led the effort that drove the extraordinary charter school growth in Chicago. Renaissance 2010, established 13 charter networks and tripled the number of charter schools. Renaissance, now New Schools for Chicago, designed and and acted as a direct partner in Chicago's authorization process, invested over $50 million in charter start-ups, and led the policy efforts to proliferate innovation in the charter sector. About 50 of the announced new schools were eventually opened, most proving to be an improvement over the schools they replaced.

Margot Rogers, then a Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation, spent four years shuttling to Chicago to support new school development and secondary school improvement. "Few places--perhaps no city--have the deep private and philanthropic support that Chicago does," said Rogers. "There's lots of support for innovation, trying new things, and thinking in new ways." She went on to serve as Secretary Duncan's chief of staff during his first 18 months in office.

Ron Huberman followed Duncan and spent a year as CEO. He launched extended learning time pilots utilizing 1-to-1 devices and laid the groundwork for almost 60 schools with 1-to-1 iPads. Huberman is now a private equity investor at Chicago Growth Partners.

Jean-Claude Brizard, the former Rochester superintendent, was an innovation supporter and spent a few months at CPS before serving as the sacrificial lamb for the summer strike.

In spite of all the support and solid inside/outside strategy, five superintendents in the past four years coupled with significant finance challenges, contract negotiations and a strike have created barriers to consistency and performance improvement.

Bright Spots. CPS has an innovative career preparation office sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. They have a productive definition of college and career preparation, an aggressive engagement strategy, and an interesting formative tool for providing feedback to young people.

Five Early College STEM schools opened in September in partnership with IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola, and Verizon. This month the Mayor announced an expansion of dual enrollment opportunities to 17 high schools. Earlier this year each of the city colleges agreed to align course offerings with an important industry cluster.

VOISE Academy was funded by the Renaissance 2010 initiative and was one of four academies that replaced a failing west side high school.

Tim Knowles created the best example of a university-based school improvement engine, under the umbrella of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), with a research arm, a talent development shop, four charter schools, and a school improvement engine (see full Getting Smart profile).

AUSL turns around the Chicago Public Schools' lowest performing schools and trains teachers using an urban teacher residency model. AUSL managed 25 CPS schools serving over 14,000 students.

The Chicago Math Initiative launched by MIND Research Institute in 2009 resulted in 11 point increases in the percentage of proficient students in the 23 schools implementing the blended learning ST Math program.

A foundation executive said, "The mayor is very powerful, loves anything having to do with innovation or technology and has made education his number one priority." The CEO recently appointed Jack J. Elsey Jr. Chief Innovation Officer . Elsey said, "Embracing innovation and technology-two very likely drivers of progress-will be critical for the success of our city's schools."

Charters. "Early on, Chicago was known to be one of the best charter authorizers, winning kudos from third party evaluators and others for the strength of their review process," said Margot Rogers. "As a result, a number of high quality networks have flourished."

There are 41 approved charters operating on 119 campuses in Chicago and serving 53,000 students--about 13% of the student population.

Noble Network had 9 of 10 top performing non-selective high schools in the city--nothing innovative, just top talent and great execution.Chicago International is a mini-portfolio of 16 neighborhood schools including game-based ChicagoQuest. Perspectives operates five high performing 6-12 schools.

Chicago Virtual Charter School was named one of Chicago's best high schools by Chicago Magazine in their September issue. K12 Passport, another K12 supported school, is designed to assist students who have dropped out of high school recapture credit and earn their diplomas. K12 also supports the High School Diploma Program which provides computer-based high school classes for credit to inmates.

The three KIPP schools in Chicago have converted to blended learning. KIPP plans six K-8 schools serving 5,000 students by the end of the decade.

Foundations College Prep , a new 6­-12 school opening 2013, combines a rotational blended model with a teacher residency program. Intrinsic Schools is also a new 6-12 blended model combining adaptive learning and expert teaching. CEO Melissa Zaikos is a star with deep CPS experience as a Broad resident. Both Foundations and Intrinsic are NGLC grantees ( see profiles).

Charters in Illinois are support by an association headed by a talented attorney, Andrew Broy, recruited away from the Georgia superintendent's office. To my list of great charters, Andrew added LEARN Charter School Network, UNO schools, and some great single campus charters: Rowe Elementary; Locke Elementary; Polaris Charter Academy; Institution Career Academy; and Chicago Math and Science.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is based in Chicago. NACSA recently launched an aggressive quality improvement effort urging authorizers to non-renew low performing charter schools.

Foundations. The Chicago Public Education Fund spent more than a decade building human capital pipelines (e.g., TFA, New Leaders, Education Pioneer), elevating standards for practice, and increasing recognition and support for teachers and school leaders. Over the last two years, The Fund has focused on innovative models. Patrick Haugh said, "In 2010 we launched a 15 school pilot that utilized blended learning and an alternative workforce strategy to extend the school day by 90 minutes, and just this past fall launched Teach to One in two CPS schools."

Chicago is home to a number of foundations with education focused missions:


Impact Partners. Pat Ryan launched the Inner-City Teaching Corps in 1991 and the Alain Locke Charter School in 1998. He launched a leadership development program in 2011 and rolled them all together this year. Rob Birdsell joined The Alain Locke Initiative as its first Chief Executive Officer in December 2012 after leading the urban Catholic high school network Cristo Rey.

Chicago is also a huge after-school market. After School Matters is a non-profit organization that offers Chicago high school teens innovative out-of-school activities. Orion's Mind is the active after-school tutoring program. One of the largest Girl Scout Troops in the US has acool digital learning space. Innovative young youth development orgs include Free Spirit Media and the Chicago Youth Voices Network.

Josh Anderson leads TFA Chicago which has 500 active corps, 1786 alumni including 109 school administrators. New Leaders has trained 200 leaders over the last decade. Education Pioneers has been providing management talent to Chicago since 2009 after taking over the Chicago Education Fund Fellowship and now has over 130 alumni in the Chicagoland area. The Windy City will be the center of operations for the organization's expansion to smaller markets in the midwest.

Social emotional learning "teaches the skills we all need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work, effectively and ethically," says Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (See a recent Getting Smart feature.)

Other youth resources include:


"We are having a big conversation in the city about how we do diffusion between school and not-school. The arts folks already did this. STEM folks trying to figure it out," said Kemi Jona, a prof at Northwestern and fellow iNACOL board member. Jona said the active conversation is, "What is the role of out-of-school? To be an incubator for innovation or to babysit kids?"

Jona adds, "Don't forget our world class universities: Northwestern, University of Chicago, UIC, NIU, Depaul, Rush, IIT, and Loyola."

The Illinois drag. Some cities benefit from productive state policy, not Chicago. Illinois perpetuates inequitable funding--kids in affluent district get about $1000 more than kids in poverty. Digital Learning Now ranks Illinois low on access to online and blended learning (Also see page 9 of Keeping Pace for a visual image of how bad online opportunity is in Illinois). A national policy insider said that Illinois has a "real lack of leadership on ed reform generally much less digital learning." Illinois does get some credit for leadership on early learning.

Illinois Pathways , funded through Race to the Top, is a state-led STEM education initiative designed to support college and career readiness. Illinois Pathways hosts Learning Exchanges in ten industry clusters and the Illinois Shared Learning Exchange (ISLE) is a promising planned build out on top of Shared Learning Collaborative. All of these big collaborations sound promising but complicated.

With the shift to personal digital learning, Chicago kids would benefit from coherent state policies aimed at equity, options, and innovation.

Tomorrow, I'll review Chicago's extensive edtech history and vibrant crop of startups.


Disclosure: MIND Research Institute and K12 are Getting Smart advocacy partners.

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