74 Interview: Janice Jackson on Tutoring, Free College and Choice in Chicago

The former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools is critical of a resolution that would roll back public school choice in the city where she grew up.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Years before the pandemic, Janice Jackson saw first hand the value of what is now widely known as high-dosage tutoring.

She was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools when Saga Education, a nonprofit offering in-person tutoring during the school day, had remarkable results with ninth and 10th graders in the city who had fallen behind in math. Students who received the tutoring scored higher on tests, got better grades and passed classes at higher rates.

“Right away, I saw excitement from our principals,” she told The 74. “It was a phenomenal program.”

There was one problem: At the time, it cost $2,600 per student. “The finances didn’t work,” she said.

Three years after she stepped down from her position in Chicago, Jackson chairs the board of Accelerate, a position that grants her a national perspective on K-12 tutoring needs.

Only about 1 in 10 students who need high-dosage tutoring get it, despite evidence of persistent learning loss, according to federal data released last year. To address the challenge, Accelerate recently brought researchers, providers and state leaders to Washington to discuss how to spread effective programs to more students.

Over a day and half, they discussed innovative models, the potential of AI in tutoring programs and the need for clearer data on its impact.  

“We already have decades of research that shows tutoring frequency matters, the teacher matters, the alignment to curriculum,” said Jackson. “What we don’t know is how to do that in this new learning environment. like virtual and small groups.”

Former CPS CEO Janice Jackson (second from left) stood by as former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot discussed the 2019 Chicago Teachers Union strike at City Hall. (Brian Cassella/Getty Images)

But tutoring isn’t the only thing on Jackson’s mind. As she becomes more prominent nationally, she remains a “critical voice” on issues facing the district she once led, said Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago, an advocacy organization that helps parents understand education policy.

“She’s a parent, she went through the system,” he said. “And from a racial equity standpoint, she’s always been very laser focused on ensuring that families that are the most marginalized are centered in decisions.”

In December, she spoke up when the district’s appointed school board passed a resolution that embraced neighborhood schools but also signaled a desire to move away from school choice. 

In an op-ed, she called the resolution “wrong” and accused the board — appointed by Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former teachers union organizer — of pursuing an anti-charter agenda. 

“There is no justification for taking away the rights of parents and putting the interests of their children at risk,” she wrote.

In an interview, Jackson said while she’s not opposed to neighborhood schools, she feels Chicago’s families have been left out of discussions about the future of their district. She also discussed her work as head of Hope Chicago, an initiative that offers free college to low-income students and parents, and elaborated on her vision for expanding high-quality tutoring.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: High-dosage tutoring has become the most-recommended strategy for helping students recover from learning loss. Can you talk about your experience with tutoring in Chicago? 

Janice Jackson: The study that everyone cites was the partnership with Saga [a nonprofit that provides high-dosage tutoring in math]. Right away, I saw excitement from our principals. It was a phenomenal program, but it cost us $2,600 per student at the time. The finances didn’t work. Today, a lot has transpired in this space, which is why I was attracted to Accelerate. I’m excited about being able to do this at scale and cheaper, because that’s what’s going to make it sustainable. That is what is going to help low-income districts that don’t have enough money. 

We have about 50 studies underway. To really see what’s working allows us to move a little bit faster than education typically moves.

At Accelerate’s recent conference in Washington, there was a lot of talk about how to continue providing students extra support when federal relief funds run out. If you were still running a district, how would you approach that?

I’d leverage online and tech tools a lot more than we did pre-pandemic. We did some things during the pandemic because we were forced to, but I’ve been out in the field and I’ve seen a lot of ways we can leverage technology that aren’t as dependent on humans. It frees up the teachers and frees up other staff members to do the real work, which is to get in front of kids and families and figure out what it’s going to take for them to come to school regularly.

I would pay a lot more attention to accelerated learning. We don’t talk enough about that. We keep talking about recovery, and that is a huge deal, but we can use technology to accelerate learning. In traditional neighborhood schools, there are always a handful of kids who could take advantage of an incredibly rigorous curriculum. Maybe they can’t offer that in the school because of the budget, or maybe they don’t have enough students, but you can access that through technology, through districtwide courses. 

During a recent Accelerate conference on high-dosage tutoring, Jackson talked to Roberto Rodriguez, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, about the Biden administration’s agenda for helping students recover from learning loss. (Accelerate)

Is Accelerate supporting research on the tech side of tutoring as well? 

Yes. The thing that really excited me about Accelerate was the idea that we were going to actually research some of these virtual options. Like so many educators, I saw the proliferation of all these tools, and there’s a lot of crap out there. Don’t make that the headline, but that’s the truth. There are some good tools, too. We need to be able to assess that with rigorous evaluation models. I care a lot about education, but I care even more about quality education.

You also care a lot about college access. What are you learning from your work with Hope Chicago?

Our goal is to narrow the economic and wealth gap for Black and Latino families, and we do that by offering them debt-free college. It sounds simple, but why don’t we do that in this country? We made a lot of progress in Chicago with college enrollment and college completion. One of the biggest things we learned is that our students and families are more discerning around the financial risk of college than we give them credit for. I remember one student said to me, “If I go to college and I don’t graduate, I’m going to be worse off financially than the person who just sat at home.” That’s a very true —and smart —insight.

With Hope Chicago, we’ve seen students select more competitive schools, and then we also allow one parent or guardian to go to college with them. Last fall, we had 93 parents enrolled in college. 

Are other cities looking at what you’re doing?

We haven’t had anybody else say, “Hey, we want to totally adopt this and take it to another place.” But I want to be clear, I signed up for this for the opportunity to really disrupt higher education. I think we’ll get free community college, but I would love to see, in my lifetime, free college. The United States is behind in education. What if every state in America had a free four-year option, if you make below a certain amount? That is doable, and I would argue is actually necessary for this country. 

At the turn of the 20th century, only about 9% of Americans had a high school diploma. We created a higher education system because America was emerging as a superpower. You needed an educated populace. America is reaching that same inflection point. We’re not going to maintain our same global positioning if we continue on the path we’re going. The demographics of this country are changing. We know in 2045, the majority of the people in America are going to be Latino. But they’re not being educated at the same rate as white Americans.

People would actually go to college in much higher numbers if it wasn’t so expensive. This country can afford to do more.

Hope Chicago pays for students and one of their parents to attend college, but CEO Janice Jackson says debt-free higher education should be an option for all low-income students. (Hope Chicago)

As you take on these broader challenges, you’re still very connected to the Chicago schools and you’ve had a lot to say about how the school board’s recent resolution affects Chicago families. Why did you write that op-ed?

This is the thing that really angers me. People think it’s OK to tell poor Black and Latino people where their kids need to go. Nobody would ever question a person of means about where they send their children. Nobody questions white people about where they send their children. But we continue to do this.

If we pushed the button today, and everybody had to attend their neighborhood school in Chicago, Black kids would benefit the least from a system like that, and they actually exercise choice at a higher level than any other group. I don’t speak on behalf of the entire community, but I am a leader in the Black community, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to lift my voice up around this issue. 

You think the timing is wrong?

We’re getting ready to make a decision that literally impacts everybody. If you really believe in participatory democracy and an elected school board, why is an appointed school board making this decision? If people vote for board members and they support this and that’s the way it goes, I believe in that.

Let’s not pretend like a resolution is not important. I don’t know where people can rightfully lift up their voices to say, “This isn’t right for my community or let’s have a discussion.” 

Will this resolution hurt enrollment even more?

Black people are leaving Chicago — largely working class and middle class Black people, so that has changed communities in a lot of different ways. We think people aren’t paying attention. They may not find time to sit on Twitter all day and argue about it, or come to the city council meeting, or come to the board meeting, but what they do is vote with their feet. They just leave.

Janice Jackson (in the back) served as principal of George Westinghouse College Prep High School in Chicago before moving into administration. (Hope Chicago)

There’s a moratorium on school closures until 2025, but it’s likely closures will take place in the future. How did you approach that process when you were in leadership?

Let me talk about Englewood, because that’s indicative of how I think Chicago should deal with enrollment. We had four comprehensive high schools in Englewood that in their heyday, probably had 4,000 students across all four high schools. When we took action, they had maybe [a total of] 400 students. We put out a plan to close those four high schools and consolidate them into one big comprehensive high school and build a brand new building. 

A school is the most well-resourced institution in these communities. When you take that away, you need to put something back. Slapping a name change on an existing building is not going to do it. You have to create a new investment and opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, they called me every name under the sun, but I worked with the community. I didn’t stop showing up. To me, we needed to do that in about seven neighborhoods in Chicago. Ultimately, we didn’t start that plan, because COVID happened. 

I am against a large-scale closing. It should be planned. It shows respect when you lay out a five- or 10-year plan and people know what’s going on. 

This resolution, concerns about enrollment loss — it’s all happening as the city is about to elect school board members for the first time in almost 30 years. How is the community preparing? 

If a mom from Englewood ends up on the board, I’m all for that. But I just haven’t seen that happen. It’s usually special interests versus the union, or the reform community versus the union, and neither group represents the parents. There should be a media campaign. If you walk down the street in Chicago and ask 10 parents, they probably could not tell you anything about what’s coming, and that is a problem.

This is a big change. Parents should be informed, they should be engaged and that’s on the city to do that. 

Disclosure: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation and Overdeck Family Foundation provide financial support to Accelerate and The 74.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today