Dr. Janice Jackson is a Carnegie Foundation Senior Fellow. The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Janice shares with Tim her observations and insight about school choice, the role of technology in the classroom, and what a post-pandemic education system will look like. She also speaks about issues of equity, including that of “curriculum equity” in which high-quality curriculum is available to all students at every grade level, and how bringing together research and practice resulted in remarkable gains for CPS. “While I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Janice, “(CPS) has made dramatic improvements in graduation rates and college matriculation and completion, and that would not have happened if we didn’t take a serious look at what we were doing and if we didn’t monitor for success. And if we didn’t adopt a kind of spirit of continuous improvement as a school system, I don’t think we would be able to talk about these successes.”
Tim Knowles (TK): Greetings to the first in what will be a series of short discussions with friends, allies, and conspirators about education, equity, and the future of learning. Today I’m thrilled to introduce Dr. Janice Jackson. Janice, as many of you know, has served as the CEO, the chief academic officer, an extraordinary principal and teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Not only that, she graduated from Chicago Public Schools and is a parent of children in the Chicago schools as well. I’m also thrilled to share that Janice has agreed to serve as a senior fellow for the Carnegie Foundation. She is insightful, grounded, and dedicated. A true pathfinder in the story of how Chicago Public Schools improved over the last decade. I hope you enjoy our brief conversation.
Janice, it’s great to see you. I hope you’re well. I have some questions that I want to ask. And the first is this. The first is the fact that you are unique as a Chicago Public School CEO, not only because you are a CPS alum. You are also a former CPS teacher and principal and you’re a current CPS parent. How did those experiences position you to be such an amazing CEO?
Janice Jackson (JJ): Yeah, you know Tim, I’ve gotten this question a lot over the years, but I’m going to share something with you that I haven’t shared with a lot of people. And it’s when I think about all of those different roles, one benefit is that I have a vantage point from every kind of place in the district, which helps to guide my decision-making. But what is surprising to most people is that although I’ve been a teacher, principal and a parent in the district people would automatically think that maybe my mind works and I look at things through my lens as a parent, or maybe as a CEO.
But I actually think about things as a principal first. And I don’t know if that is because I spent more time in that role or because maybe from an implementation standpoint I understand how important it is for principals because they can really ensure that a school is moving in the right direction and that the students within that building are thriving. But either way every role gives me a unique perspective and it drives the decisions that I make.
And so of course, there are a lot of benefits and drawbacks. One drawback is that people expect more from you and I believe that they should, because they know that I understand the system, that I understand the issues, that I’ve been subjected to those and so they expect more. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks a hundred fold. Some examples include as I think about my time as a student in the district, my passion around high-quality curriculum and access to opportunities for students is directly tied to the experience that I had or didn’t have in the district.
And so when you look at the CPS success story and we see that the district is improving on rates like freshman on-track, graduation rates, et cetera, I know that that is the direct result of high-quality curriculum being implemented in our schools. And I know that it’s much stronger than it was when I was a student at CPS. And that’s something that gives me great pride.
When you look at the CPS success story and we see that the district is improving on rates like freshman on-track, graduation rates, et cetera, I know that that is the direct result of high-quality curriculum being implemented in our schools. And I know that it’s much stronger than it was when I was a student at CPS. And that’s something that gives me great pride.
TK: The principal’s job, it can, as you know can make or break a school.
JJ: Yes it can, yeah.
TK: And so your thinking with those lenses doesn’t surprise me. You know the superintendent at Baltimore Schools, Sonja Santelises, she is on the Carnegie board and she gave a keynote this year at our Summit meeting. She in her keynote referred to an ice hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, and about a quote he made about not going where the puck is, but going where the puck is going to be. As you look forward, what should we anticipate about where public education is going to be in a post-pandemic landscape?
JJ: Yeah, well I think we’ve heard this phrase used a lot that education or public education will never be the same. And to some people that’s a scary notion and then other people actually welcome that. To me, I think that there are three big things we have to pay attention to in a post-pandemic environment in this setting. Number one is time. What does the school day look like? How do students engage in other activities during the school day, outside of the school day? And also I think the structure of what is school? I think you’re going to see a lot more families choosing homeschooling, tiny schools.
There will, the choice debate is going to shift. It’s going to move away from in district versus charter or vouchers and some of the other things that we have debated over the past decade, and you’re going to see new options and opportunities enter the fray. And mainly because there are some students that have been successful and some parents would even say were thriving during this environment. And so I think that that’s something we should pay attention to. Talent will be extremely important. I think that teachers, administrators, central office staff they’re going to expect greater flexibility. And I know for me in particular that was a shift that we had to make quickly in order to adequately address the concerns that we were experiencing during the pandemic. And I think that we should expect that to carry over.
And then I think the third category, which is the biggest one, is technology. And I can talk about this all day, but we have to figure out how to use technology to be more efficient, but also do that in a way that feels seamless in a traditional classroom setting. So the good news here is our teachers were thrusted into this during the pandemic and rose to the occasion, exercised and implemented things with a lot of creativity. What I hope doesn’t happen is that people go back into a traditional classroom and do the same things. But we’re going to have to support teachers in how they use technology in the classroom in a way that doesn’t feel odd to them. I think ubiquitous access to internet and high-speed internet is necessary. Chicago was already leading on that through our Chicago Connected program. But I think gone are the days where we think it’s a big deal for school to be one-on-one. CPS is a one-to-one district and it always will be from this point forward. And I think it’s safe to say that’ll be the case across the country.
And I think that that also opens up new challenges that we have to be paying attention to, which is digital literacy. We have started to focus on that as a school system because children get a lot of their information online. Textbooks don’t have the same utility that they had 30 years ago. And so how do we make sure that they are using the information that they’re accessing in appropriate ways and that they are able to differentiate what they should be using and what they should be avoiding when you’re bringing information into an academic setting.
We have to figure out how to use technology to be more efficient, but also do that in a way that feels seamless in a traditional classroom setting.
TK: Your comments about technology strike me as important. They’re important for Carnegie. Carnegie sits as you know at the heart of Silicon Valley. And you’ve suggested some things that schools need to do to be responsive to a highly digital world. What does Silicon Valley need to do in your view? What kinds of disruptions can push forward education, especially as it impacts communities of color?
JJ: Yeah, well, I think there’s a lot that can be done. First, we have to invest in innovation and that’s something that Silicon Valley does well, but how do we do that in the education space? I would imagine I can’t speak for individuals in that industry, but I would imagine that there’s probably some frustration with the pace of change in a school system. But one positive thing that came out of COVID is the speed with which schools had to turn on a dime and innovate. And I think that there is some muscle there that can really be utilized to really take us to the next level and educate kids in this post-pandemic environment.
And so making those types of investments in innovation can really pay off. It would be a shame if we go back to doing things the way that we did it pre-pandemic when we were already struggling to bring about equity and solve these major issues. And so I think now is an opportune time to bring those two industries together to do some transformational work for school systems.
TK: You raised the equity issue, Janice, and I think there’s been more written about the pandemic exposing many of the inequities embedded in the public education system than I’ve seen written about almost anything. But clearly the existence of the inequities is undeniable. So in terms of an authentic and aggressive equity agenda and pursuing it, what are the most important levers as we come out of the pandemic that you want Chicago to push and you think the nation needs to push on the equity front?
JJ: I think the biggest one and the one I’m most passionate about is grade level appropriate curriculum. It’s not the sexiest thing to say, but I honestly feel good that we’re moving in a direction where places like Carnegie other foundations are now supporting and seeing the value in that. And what happened during the pandemic is that that was brought right into people’s living rooms. So in some cases people or parents saw that children were exposed to things a lot earlier in their educational career than they were maybe 20 or 30 years ago.
But conversely people also saw some of the gaps that exists and some of the disparities that exist even within the same school system like a Chicago Public Schools. And so some of the work that we’re doing around curriculum equity where we’re making high-quality curriculum available for everybody at every grade level I think that that’s a really important lever.
We have to move past the debate around what kids should be learning at each grade level and settle on that. There’s enough data and research to show us what we should be doing, but we need to spend more time on how we do that. I also think we have to have a serious focus on student achievement in the post-pandemic environment. We’ve gotten away from some of that. And I think that there are a host of reasons that that has occurred, but we really have to take stock of where students are in order to see what lies before us. And I think that there are going to be some dramatic challenges both in the academic space, but we should also remember that there will be some implications in the SEL realm as well.
And so the effects of the pandemic, I think we’re starting to have conversations about that, but I think it’s going to be a few years before we fully understand the impact that this has had on students. And I can just share my own personal experience, and I know I’ve shared this with you. This has impacted me as an educator. I think a lot of us have a lot of, I guess processing to do after we have seen how difficult it was to educate everybody and give them the quality education that they deserve when we were forced to do that remotely. And there’s going to be an educational reckoning as a result of that. And I hope that we’re prepared to address that and get our school system and our country back on track.
In order to do that I think there are a couple of things we’ve got to pay attention to. And Tim, this is not going to be a new list. This is the type of stuff we’ve been talking about. High schools, accountability, teacher evaluation, educating students with disabilities and our EL students. The pandemic showed us that these are still huge issues and if we don’t start to enforce some type of corrective action, we’re going to see ourselves falling further behind as we try to make sure students in America are getting a high-quality education.
We have to move past the debate around what kids should be learning at each grade level and settle on that. There’s enough data and research to show us what we should be doing, but we need to spend more time on how we do that.
TK: So Janice, if you pull back the curtain on Chicago’s success under your leadership, and there is a truly remarkable story of improved attainment of high school completion, of post-secondary entry, post-secondary success, of closing the achievement gap on the things that really matter in terms of attainment. What are the most important messages you would send to high schools across the nation with your principal hat on.
TK: About how to learn from the really extraordinary success in Chicago?
JJ: I’ll start with where we are today and then take people back. Because I think historically there are some things that are important. I think number one, we have focused so much on the high school experience. What do we want students to experience, to see, feel, be exposed to during their high school years? And that moves us away from just looking at acquisition of Carnegie units or, you know … no off … I love a good Carnegie unit.
If we take a step back, I think one of the things that has been critical to our success here in Chicago is the use of data. And this marriage between research and practice.
TK: It is what it is.
JJ: I love a good Carnegie unit. but the high school experience is more than that. And so what we have found is that with our students when you start talking about the experience and that encompasses what happens in the classroom, outside of the classroom, access to early college, et cetera, students are connected to schools in ways that they were not connected before. And I think that’s the direction that high schools have to go.
If we take a step back, I think one of the things that has been critical to our success here in Chicago is the use of data. And this marriage between research and practice. Now, I’ve had the experience of being a practitioner for a couple of decades now. And I know that oftentimes there are some, sometimes people are slow to adopt recommendations that come out of the research. And I think because of our connection with the consortium some of the things that have been lifted up as a result of that, I think the thing that has been the single biggest game changer is the freshman on-track metric. And I say that as a former high school principal it became something that was manageable.
When I was a principal, I felt like I could do this. I can do something about this. The research says, if students are earning X amount of credits by the end of ninth grade, they’re three times more likely to graduate on time. I felt like that was within my sphere of influence to control. That led to policy changes in the district that then led to increased outcomes, vis a graduation rates.
And so for me, I think that that type of marriage between research and the field is what’s necessary in order to take things to the next level. And then just having a laser-like focus on outcomes and course-correcting when you see that you may be falling short and while I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done to your point, we have made dramatic improvements in graduation rates, college matriculation and completion and that would not have happened if we didn’t take a serious look at what we were doing and if we didn’t monitor for success. And if we didn’t adopt a kind of spirit of continuous improvement as a school system, I don’t think we would be able to talk about these successes.
TK: That’s really, really great to hear that guidance. And it’s one of the reasons I was so excited about you saying yes to playing a role with Carnegie in the years ahead. My last question, and it may be too early to ask, but in addition to working together with Carnegie, what are you thinking about doing next?
JJ: That’s the million dollar question.
TK: It is the million dollar question.
JJ: Well, I can’t rule out a run for the presidency. No, I’m just kidding. You know how politicians. So seriously, I meant what I said. I think I want to take some time to process the past 22 years working here in CPS. It’s been, I’ve been running at 150 miles per hour and I really haven’t had an opportunity to slow down. So I really do welcome the opportunity to work with you and to engage in this fellowship because I think it’ll give me the time and space to think and to write about and talk about what has happened in Chicago for the last couple of decades. And hopefully that’s instructive to a new set of leaders who are now facing some challenges of our lifetime, in this post-pandemic environment.
I want to contribute in that way, but I will definitely let you know when I make my final decision. But it’s just an honor to be working with you and to be working with the Foundation. And so more to come on that.
TK: And I want to be the first person to make a contribution to your campaign fund as Jackson for president.
JJ: Good, I’ll let you know about that.
TK: Thank you, Janice. Really appreciate you taking some time and can’t wait for you to start adding lots of value across the board with Carnegie and across the country. Really appreciate it.
JJ: Absolutely, take care.