Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: Janice Jackson on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, Common Core, the Role of Principals & Curriculum Equity
To commemorate the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, that convened 49 of the nation’s 50 governors to discuss a single policy issue — the education of America’s children — the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program is partnering with The 74 to produce a series of Q&A’s with distinguished leaders across politics, education and advocacy to reflect on the legacy of the summit and what lies ahead for public education. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed and edited for clarity and length. Participants were asked some of the same questions, but also queried specifically about their careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their thoughts on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and shortcomings of education policy and what is required for propelling further gains for students. You can see all the interviews here.
When Janice Jackson applied to graduate school, she stated that her long-term goal was to become CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Fourteen years later, in 2017, Jackson made good on her aspiration. She is rare among urban superintendents — she is not an outsider but has spent nearly her entire life at CPS. She attended the district’s schools until college and rose through the ranks as a teacher, principal and administrator before assuming the top job.
Jackson is a stabilizing force for the scandal-plagued district, which has been under mayoral control since 1995. She is the seventh CEO in the past decade; her two predecessors were ousted. Recognizing her leadership, newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked Jackson to remain in her role instead of installing her own superintendent.
In Jackson’s first year alone, she created an office of equity to address achievement gaps, confronted the painful aftermath of a sexual abuse crisis, released an unprecedented data-centered analysis focused on academic offerings and briefed communities across the city on the findings, and managed community blowback around school closures. Despite all this tumult, coupled with declining enrollment, a 2017 Stanford study found CPS to be one of the fastest-progressing districts in the nation for children in grades 3 through 8.
Jackson’s impact has been as swift as her professional ascent. Here, she talks about why she was a big proponent of the Common Core, how CPS redefined principals’ roles and the need for curriculum equity.
What do you think are the greatest positive accomplishments that come from the 1989 Education Summit and subsequent standards-based reform agenda?
The thing that’s most powerful to me is that leaders from across the country came together, and the goal was not only to establish education standards, but it was also around how we reach those goals, which was a shift in the conversation. Based on what I know about the history of education reform, it was a turning point. I’m not just talking about what kids should be learning in every classroom and every part of the country, but how we teach them.
It eventually laid the groundwork for Common Core. The rollout of Common Core got mixed reviews, but from my vantage point, having been educated in, and working for, Chicago Public Schools, I can tell you that having a common set of standards that are grade-level appropriate and rigorous changed the conversation about what should be happening in classrooms. It allowed administrators to push for needed change and rigor to occur in our classrooms.
What parts of the agenda didn’t get enough attention in the past 30 years?
Two things I would point out that could have been stronger is first, the focus on competency at benchmark grades and making sure that every kid met a particular standard by the year 2000. I think it was commendable that they wanted such an aggressive goal, but it wasn’t realistic given the starting point, as well as the state of school funding. In hindsight, people could have pushed a little bit harder on what would it take to do this. We’ve learned a lot around the role of social and emotional learning and wraparound supports that kids who come from impoverished communities need in order to be successful.
We’ve learned that it’s not just access to a highly qualified teacher and rigorous coursework — it’s all these other things that students need to be successful. But I’m happy to say we’ve learned a lot more over the past 15 to 20 years that’s got public education to a better place.
What have been the lessons learned in standards-based reform?
The next phase beyond equity is getting our students in school a lot earlier. There is a lot to be said about early childhood education, and there’s a debate around once you get kids in early childhood programs, what they should be doing. But I believe that we can use those programs to help students develop social-emotional skills and habits.
The language acquisition piece that many kids, in particular middle- and upper-class kids, get by virtue of their economic station in life, I think we’ve got to focus on that in our school systems. In CPS, we’re making pre-K universal for 4-year-olds, no matter their background or social class. Programs that get students in school earlier and keep them in there longer are needed to make sure kids can access standards.
We’ve come a long way, but now that we’ve made it to this level, we’ve got to narrow the gap between students of color and their peers.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to Sean Reardon’s study on Chicago being one of the fastest-improving school districts in the nation. What are the secrets to CPS’s success that has allowed it to make those gains?
There’s no secret sauce. As soon as you say “secret,” I’m like, “There are no silver bullets.” I’m an educator to my core, so I know this work is hard. As a large school system, we prioritize and empower school leaders in a way that I’ve not seen throughout the country. We work closely with the Chicago Public Education Fund to provide innovative principal development and retention and leadership opportunities, and the fund has engaged more than 250 principals last school year. Additionally, the Bush Institute has been a leader in this space for their innovative framework for effectively recruiting and retaining principals. Through this partnership, CPS was one of the school districts that they identified as a model.
“The focus has to be on equity and equitable opportunities for kids, and that means a lot of different things. In short, it means giving students what they need in order to be successful. And that can’t be kind of a lofty thing that we say; it has to be backed up with funding and resources and human capital.”
Principal leadership played an important role because we couldn’t leverage the type of change that we needed at the central office for 660 schools. We developed our principals to be instructional leaders; we shifted that role from command and organization of the school and made it much more focused on instructional leadership.
We also made college the North Star in CPS. We’re at a point now where our views around that have evolved, because one unintended outcome was that we didn’t pay as much attention as we should have to career and technical education, which we have recommitted to. But I would say, as somebody who has spent my entire life in CPS, we didn’t have a college-going culture at all, or we had it for a select group of students. Because of some of these changes and increases in standards, we make that a goal for everybody, knowing that some kids choose not to go to college, but they should at least be prepared.
The third thing was the use of Common Core and aligned standards. This was one of the best rollouts of an initiative that I’ve seen. Our teachers were interested in getting guidance on what to do at every single grade level to make sure kids were successful. The standards, in my opinion, provided a baseline of what was grade-level appropriate and took the debate away, which was needed.
The last piece is data. We are a very data-rich school system. We got much better at analyzing that data to inform practice.
Are there other aspects where you think the state either ought to be doing more, or other areas where the state is trying to assert its authority in a way where local leadership is more appropriate?
We’ve been lucky that there’s been a lot of alignment. One example I can give is around graduation requirements, where in both Chicago and the state of Illinois, we require students to take a college entrance exam in order to graduate. It used to be the ACT, now it’s the SAT. I can imagine for some districts that could be seen as problematic. There were people who worried that it would make the average SAT or ACT score go down for the district, but that didn’t happen. We saw consistency, and in some cases, increases in those scores. But more importantly, we saw more children going off to college and postsecondary who didn’t bubble up naturally as college-ready students, but because they had access to these exams, they saw it was a possibility.
Speaking as a district chief executive, what do we need to be doing differently in education policy?
It is imperative to have people who are on the ground informing policy as it’s being created and having a role in co-creating it. The last thing we want to do is spend a lot of time researching and learning and then codify a policy that goes absolutely nowhere because folks on the ground think it misses the mark in some way.
We’re trying to make our practitioners see that they are a part of that process. We believe that’s going to create more ownership and increase the likelihood of implementation being successful, and them owning the work and moving it forward.
When I was a principal, one of our superintendents came to a meeting and he said, “If you have an issue around policy, it only takes 45 days to change policy.”
Of course, he was exaggerating; we know it takes longer than that. But it made me think, “You don’t have to sit around and hope things change. As a practitioner, you have something to say and something to offer.” So a lot of my colleagues and I took him up on that.
When I became a central office leader, I wanted to institutionalize that so it’s not just a principal who has a connection with a decisionmaker that has an opportunity to share their thoughts.
We created the Chicago Fellows, which is a program for distinguished principals, and it’s a retention strategy. Each year we invite 25 or 30 of those principals to get executive training, and the other piece is, they do a year-long policy project with me, and I meet with them monthly. They introduce policies; some of them actually become real board policies. We have close to 100 leaders in our schools, among our 660 schools, who not only better understand policy formation and implementation, but they also feel like they’re a part of some of these things that we have introduced. It makes announcing and implementing those things easier because you have true believers on the ground.
Let’s look ahead. What do you think about the future of work and democracy? What do we need policymakers to focus on going forward?
The focus has to be on equity and equitable opportunities for kids, and that means a lot of different things. In short, it means giving students what they need in order to be successful. And that can’t be kind of a lofty thing that we say; it has to be backed up with funding and resources and human capital.
I think the other piece is we have to make sure that students are challenged in every school and every classroom, and unfortunately that still isn’t the case. We can talk about a lot of different inequities, but the biggest one to me is the expectation around what students should do in class every day.
A lot of reforms are innovative and attractive and get people excited, but what happens in the classroom every single day is what’s most impactful on the child’s learning. We have to make sure they have access to high-quality curriculum and teachers who are certified and know what they’re doing — teachers can’t be burdened with doing 10 different things, like curriculum design.
Schools and systems have to be organized in a way where we support teachers so that they can focus on presenting lessons, assessing students’ learning and intervening when appropriate.
In CPS, what we’re focused on next is curriculum equity. We’ve tried adopting various textbooks and creating curricular standards, but what I saw from roles that I’ve had at district leadership levels is you can go to two classrooms in different parts of town, using the same textbooks, yet have students doing very different things.
There’s no explanation aside from the expectations are different, which is wrong, and in some cases, the teachers don’t have the tools. They don’t know whether a book is typically read at the seventh-grade level, as opposed to 12th grade. There are skills and standards students should have mastered, but if they haven’t, teachers have to remediate, but that can’t be the core curriculum because the core curriculum at 10th grade is X.
Those are the kinds of conversations we’ve started to have and unpack in the district. By creating a full library of resources, pre-K through 12, we will be able to point back and give examples of what kids should be doing in classrooms that is appropriate for their grade level. We think that’s going to help us close the achievement gap, which is the single most important thing in public education that we can focus on.
Ross Wiener is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its Education & Society Program. Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.