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How Big Business Has Driven Chicago Public School Reform for Over a Century

For generations, Chicago’s private power brokers have tried to shape the school system according to the management principles of the day, whether it’s the hierarchies of 19th-century industry or the disruption of 21st-finance.

The CPS headquarters on West Madison Street.   Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

WBEZ’s excellent education reporter, Becky Vevea—not surprisingly, an alumna of Catalyst Chicago [Correction: the Chicago News Cooperative, which was also a fine institution], Chicago’s excellent education magazine—has a great piece as part of WBEZ’s Curious City series: “Were Chicago’s Public Schools Ever Good?”

It’s a great question, not just because, as Vevea unsurprisingly says, “as an education reporter, I’ve heard many versions of this question during my time covering Chicago Public Schools.” More broadly and philosophically, it’s a good question because nostalgia is a powerful influence on how we think about the systems around us. Survivor bias, in particular—things that are good, from books to ideas to technologies tend to last, and because they last, they connect us to history, and color that history in rose.

And Vevea comes across such memories in reporting the piece. “For me the golden era was my time at Metro High School,” the head of Evanston’s District 65 tells her, about one of Chicago’s early magnet schools. But:

Magnet schools became isolated islands of success, but if you didn’t get into one, public education was a mixed bag.  

Among other problems, inequalities persisted. Danns says when schools started to integrate, local trade unions pulled support from Washburne Trade School. An article from the Chicago Tribune in 1986, mentioned that in 1963 fewer than 2 percent of apprentices at Washburne were black.

In other words, even with years of effort on the part of the district, a career-ready curriculum remained out of reach for large swaths of CPS students.

A couple years ago I looked into this question as well. One of the fascinating things I found had to do with the city’s notorious “Willis Wagons,” which live in infamy as a symbol of racism—Benjamin Willis, the school superintendent, crammed black students into aluminum trailers, the kind you see as temporary offices on construction sites.

The Willis Wagons were undeniably bad. Not only did they serve to maintain school segregation, they were aesthetically a symbol of that divide: cheap and temporary structures sitting next to the solid, august, historical school buildings that evoked the city’s commitment to education. But what they addressed, however poorly, was also terrible: massively overcrowded classrooms and the widespread use of split-shift scheduling that deprived students of hours of instruction every day.

Vevea’s piece also reminded me of a fascinating work of history on Chicago’s schools, School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-1920, by Dorothy Shipps, who used to run the Consortium on Chicago School Research. It also traces patterns throughout the system’s history, but specifically about the system—how it was run and the power brokers that ran it. Take this paragraph, which sounds like it could be written about CPS today:

[Commercial] Club members self-righteously believed that the rapidly growing public schools could simultaneously upgrade the masses, preserve order, and provide young workers. They sought to vocationalize, economize, and rationalize schooling, steering it by judicious application of the same governing principles they thought best for their own businesses: keep taxes low, organize the work “scientifically,” and, above all, trust in management. Labor groups provided an alternative version of schooling that emphasized worker democracy in governance, social change through education, and equal access for all students to the highest levels of public schooling. Teachers federations and industrial unions fought to maintain teacher autonomy, union control over workplace skills, and a secure flow of public funding.

Only this was the 1880s, the very beginnings of the city’s public school system. Shipps follows this thread of technocratic, business-inspired management back to the 19th century, when University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper chaired the 1898 Commission on Educational Reorganization. Harper’s commission recommended an “independent business manager” who would “mimic ‘the executive in any well-conducted business enterprise.’” It also recommended “performance-based promotion,” and “established ‘efficiency’ as the primary performance criterion for teachers.”

Generally, the Commercial Club and its ilk were successful in shaping Chicago’s schools through the 20th century. One Chicago superintendent, William McAndrew, who served for four years in the 1920s, described education’s purpose as “to produce a human, social unit, trained in accordance with his capabilities to the nearest approach to complete social efficiency possible in the time alloted.” Eeek!

As Shipps writes (emphasis mine):

A management hierarchy very much like the one club members envisioned in this era would direct schools for most of the twentieth century. They were successful in modeling the structure of the school system on the industrial corporation, and the bureaucratic governance structure adopted in the Otis law facilitated the transfer of modern management techniques in successive eras. Club members in this era believed that good management principles required that educational and business functions be administered separately. But they would later prefer a unitary management approach when corporate models shifted…. Such innovations would be more easily rationalized to the extent that they fit the Progressive era standards of being “non-political,” quantifiable and measurable, and justified by a business efficiency rationale.

So: an alliance between conservative businessmen and good-government progressive reformers formed over an agreement over data-driven efficiency in structuring schools that mirrored the management theories of the day.

Compare that to a speech that investment banker, CPS board member, and educational entrepreneur Deborah Quazzo gave in 2009, “A Double Espresso for Education.”

I am working with entrepreneurs and innovators…. What’s fascinating for me, on the topic of scale and spread—spread, for me, the way I define spread is efficacy and engagement—everyone out there is looking very hard at the issues around efficacy, and they are very much linked to engagement, particularly with the dynamics going on in our social-networking world.


The reason I titled my speech is that… I think we can all agree that, and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, is the litany of sorry statistics around American education today, is really shocking, and we need to be jolted into innovation now.


It’s critical that we are developing scaled solutions that deliver engagement and efficacy, whether those are online, technology, or site-based, and like this very highly caffeinated little man, we need to do it all right now…. It’s time we got out of the proverbial box and think a little differently about things.

While talking about “scaled solutions that deliver engagement and efficacy,” she shows a PowerPoint slide of a Dilbert cartoon. It’s like management bingo.

Or the Chicago Public Education Fund, the board of which is a who’s-who of Chicago’s most powerful businesspeople (Ken Griffin, Penny Pritzker, Susan Crown, Mellody Hobson, etc.), and was in some ways the public-sector launching pad for Illinois governor Bruce Rauner. Here’s how my colleague Carol Felsenthal describes it:

That CPEF’s board is much heavier with finance titans than educators shouldn’t surprise anyone. CPEF is designed to mimic a private equity or a venture capital firm in the way it raises money—its funds range from $10-25 million—and spends it. CPEF’s current board chairman, Brian Simmons, a managing partner at Shorehill Capital, told me when I interviewed him about his friendship with Bruce Rauner (their sons were classmates at the Latin School), “many elements of CPEF are like private equity. But CPEF is not-for-profit…. [We invest] in organizations that help improve educational outcomes.” He mentioned specifically CPEF’s role in raising money to bring Teach for America to Chicago. (CPEF’s President and CEO, Heather Anichini, is a TFA alum.)

Funny she should mention TFA:

In many ways Teach for America was modeled on the success of top Wall Street firms, which seek to recruit the best and the brightest college graduates. In her 2001 memoir, the program’s founder, Wendy Kopp, wrote that she hoped to both improve the stature of the profession and give the recruitment process a much-needed jolt. In the book, she said she envisioned creating “a teachers corps that would recruit as aggressively as the investment banks and management consulting firms that were still swarming all over campus.”

Same story, new industry. Generation after generation, business titans have leveraged their money and power to instill the city’s public schools with the forms of management they know. Back in the day it was large-scale production, with people like Phillip Armour and George Pullman; now it’s financiers like Ken Griffin and Deborah Quazzo. Then it was heavy centralization and strict hierarchy; now it’s competition and disruption. Whether it prepares students for the “real world” is a different question, but as always, it echoes that world.


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