Matt Marton/AP Images for United Way Worldwide
Rahm Emanuel considers improvement in Chicago Public Schools one of his signature achievements as Chicago mayor. But some teachers say they'll mostly remember the chaos in the schools during his tenure.
Matt Marton/AP Images for United Way Worldwide
Chicago education expert Tim Knowles is a true believer in what the outgoing mayor has done for Chicago Public Schools.
"Young people in Chicago are learning more, they are finishing high school more, they are finishing college more, and their college completion rates have gone up in ways that are not insignificant," said Knowles, who led the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and now is running a program called the Academy Group. "These things are real and in some cases leading the nation."
At the same time, the school system lived through non-stop crises during Emanuel's tenure: the first teacher strike in a quarter century; the mass closure of 50 schools; the forced resignation of two of five CEOs; sharp enrollment declines and budget cuts, including some that Emanuel's administrators tried to hide.
Protesters of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close dozens of city schools rallied at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, May 22, 2013 in Springfield. The Chicago Board of Education ultimately voted to close 50 schools.
Knowles calls the question of how progress took place in the midst of such upheaval a great one. After all, conventional wisdom is that school districts thrive amid stability and ample resources.
Improvement in a time of turmoil and scandal will forever be the contradiction that is Emanuel's education legacy. Depending on how one sees Emanuel, there are different explanations for how this happened and also how much he should be credited or blamed.
Consider the churn in the C-suite of the school district. Knowles said strong leadership from the mayor's office was key in ensuring progress despite the turmoil.
Emanuel doggedly pushed for a longer school day, full-day kindergarten, increased access to rigorous, college-level curriculum and, more recently, universal preschool for 4-year-olds.
"Rahm is relentless," Knowles said. "He was demanding, relentless, was willing to push people extremely hard to get results and sometimes at a cost. That is what the city signed up for when they voted for him and that is what they got."
And as irrefutable evidence of his performance, Emanuel points to Stanford University research showing Chicago Public Schools students are outpacing the nation in growth on standardized tests.
Sean Reardon, the Stanford professor behind the study, called the results remarkable.
"Kids are learning a lot in Chicago from third to eighth grade and a lot faster than almost every other large or small district in the country," he said.
Research by a Stanford University professor found that elementary students in Chicago Public Schools grew academically at a faster rate than nearly any other school district in the country.
But the foundation for this growth was laid before Emanuel took office, as did much of the improvement. The research is based on state and national tests taken between 2009 and the 2014 school year, just three years into Emanuel's time in office.
Since then, the state test has changed so dramatically it cannot be used to measure whether growth has continued. On the national test, called the NAEP, Chicago Public Schools scores were mostly unchanged from 2015 to 2017.
Reardon said the type of growth experienced in Chicago is likely the result of many things put in place over a long period of time.
"Should Rahm Emanuel take credit for it? Probably not all of it, but should he tout it? Sure," Reardon said. "I think people in Chicago should be enormously proud."
Reardon notes Chicago's rising graduation rate increase is less impressive as it mirrors what was happening nationally.
Knowles attributes the higher graduation rate to a decade and a half of the school system taking heed of research about the importance of ninth grade. University of Chicago research demonstrated that successful freshmen are significantly more likely to get a diploma than students who stumble in ninth grade.
To many people, any gains made under Emanuel were the result of hard work by principals and teachers, who toiled under intense pressure and amid considerable turmoil.
This is how La'Tia Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at Hendricks Elementary School in Fuller Park on the South Side, sees it.
"Even in the midst of the chaos that has been happening, you have high-quality teachers that are passionate about the work, that are making the gains and getting our students to perform at or above grade level," she said. "The only thing I could think of is, 'you go teachers.' Like we are doing this."
During Rahm Emanuel's tenure as mayor, test scores and graduation rates rose but the mayor also oversaw the first teachers strike in 25 years and the closing of 50 schools. Here, a teacher at Shoesmith School works with a student.
But she said this has come at a cost. She said she feels so much pressure to get her students to perform that she has severe anxiety. Also, her kindergarten class has little play and a lot of testing.
Some of this pressure has led to principals fudging numbers. The Chicago Public Schools' inspector general uncovers attendance fraud each year. And an investigation by WBEZ/BGA found that the graduation rate was inflated by thousands of students being wrongly labeled. As a result of this investigation, the school district recalculated its rates downward.
The graduation rate also has been boosted by a growing number of students who have earned degrees from new alternative schools opened during Emanuel's tenure. There are a lot of questions about the quality of these schools that re-enroll dropouts — many of which are half-day, online programs — and whether diplomas from these schools mean much in terms of preparing students for future success.
Scaring up state education dollars
Perhaps the biggest conundrum is this: how did students improve as their schools were being starved of resources? Under Emanuel, school budgets took hit after hit, especially those that were losing enrollment.
How these schools got students to perform better on tests, even as they offered more barebones programs, remains a question mark. Some worry that classes became narrowly focused on teaching to the test, while other things that make for a fuller school day fell by the wayside.
However, this is an area where Emanuel might be redeemed in the future. Emanuel confronted the school district's stark budget reality in a way his predecessors, who relied on borrowing and delaying pension payments, did not.
Also, he and one of the CEOs he hired, Forrest Claypool, led a campaign to get the state to boost funding for CPS. The battle was full of angst, including two years of midyear budget cuts. It also came with threats, including one year when it wasn't clear schools would open.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Forest Claypool worked with Emanuel to push for increased state funding for the school system. He was one of five CEOs during Emanuel's eight years as mayor.
The result? Parents, teachers and principals all became aware of the dire situation and put pressure on state lawmakers to make changes.
In the summer of 2017, it finally happened. The state of Illinois adopted a new funding formula that promises to funnel more money to underfunded school districts like Chicago. In addition, the state gave CPS additional money to offset the cost of its teacher pensions.
The school district is not in good financial shape, but it is arguably in a better situation than when Emanuel came to office. That, combined with other things Emanuel put in place, such as universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, may produce results for which his successor Lori Lightfoot will surely take credit.
Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 2011-2019
May 2011 — Rahm Emanuel is sworn in. At the time, CPS has 404,000 students; 42% are black; 44% are Latino and 9% are white. On the state standards test, about 44.5% of elementary school students are meeting or exceeding in reading and 46.2% in math. The average ACT score is 17.2. The official graduation rate is 56.9%.
June 2011 — Emanuel cancels 4 percent pay raises for Chicago teachers, arguing that teachers were getting raises while students got "the shaft."
June 2011 — Emanuel names his first schools chief. Jean-Claude Brizard is an education reformer whose previous job was running the 38,000-student school district in Rochester, N.Y.
September 2011 — Emanuel demands that Chicago Public Schools lengthen the school day from five hours and 45 minutes to 7.5 hours. He announces he will offer incentives for schools if they vote to override the teacher's contract and adopt a longer school day.
March 2012 — Emanuel and the schools leadership announce the first of several major expansions of International Baccalaureate programs. This expansion comes after the University's of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that students in IB programs were more likely to go to selective colleges than comparable students who weren't in IB programs.
September 2012 — After voting overwhelming to authorize a strike in late August, the Chicago Teachers Union take to the picket line. This is the first strike in a quarter of century. It is a particular affront to Emanuel who had helped get a state law passed that required the CTU to get 75% of all bargaining unit members to authorize a strike. The strike ends after shutting down school for seven days.
October 2012 — Emanuel's first CEO is forced out after just 17 months. Emanuel appoints Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who had been working on a contract as the chief education officer. Formerly superintendent of Cleveland public schools, she was a consultant immediately prior to coming to Chicago.
May 2013 — The Chicago Board of Education votes to close 50 schools due to underutilization. Emanuel promises to send displaced students to better schools and commits $50 million to the schools taking in those students. He says every "welcoming" school will have a library, air conditioning and new computers.
April 2015 — The feds serve Chicago Public Schools with wide-ranging subpoenas. It quickly comes to light that they are investigating Byrd-Bennett and a no-bid contract to a principal training organization, SUPES. She would eventually plead guilty, admitting her roll in a kickback scheme. Emanuel appoints Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz to serve as interim CEO.
July 2015 — Emanuel appoints Forrest Claypool, a bureaucrat who had previously run the CTA, to the CEO post. Janice Jackson, a former principal, is named chief education officer.
February 2016 — The school system takes the unprecedented step of slashing school budgets in the middle of the school year. Schools lost $120 million. Claypool says he had to do this because a contract offer to the CTU was rejected and because the state failed to adequately fund schools.
August 2016 — A group of activists and parents begin a hunger strike to force CPS to keep Dyett High School open. Dyett, in Washington Park on the South Side, is seen as a symbol of neighborhood schools starved of resources while money went to private organizations to run schools. Emanuel eventually agrees to re-open Dyett as a performing arts high school with guaranteed admission to local students.
February 2017 — For the second year in a row, principals are told midyear they have to cut their budgets. This comes after Emanuel allowed Claypool to include $300 million from the state in CPS' budget that was not guaranteed . Furlough days for administration also were imposed.
August 2017 — Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a bill overhauling how the state distributes funding to public schools. The bill immediately sends an additional $450 million to Chicago Public Schools. The signing takes place in an elementary school auditorium in Chicago, and Emanuel declares, "We finally got it done."
December 2017 — Claypool resigns after the CPS inspector general finds he repeatedly lied during an ethics investigation. Jackson is appointed CEO.
May 2018 — The state of Illinois appoints a monitor to oversee Chicago Public Schools' special education program. This comes after a state investigation found the school district illegally cut services to special education students. The investigation was spurred by outcry from parents and advocates after a WBEZ investigation revealed how Claypool secretly orchestrated these cuts.
May 2018 — Emanuel announces universal full-day preschool for 24,000 4-year-olds by 2021.
May 2019 — Mayor Rahm Emanuel leaves office. Chicago Public Schools has 361, 314 students, about 37% are black, 46% are Latino and 10.5% are white. The state standardized tests have changed dramatically, but the most recent scores show 27.9% of students meet or exceed standards in reading and 22.2 percent in math. The average composite score on the SAT is a 951, which is equivalent to 18 on the ACT. The official graduation rate is 78%.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.