Now More Than Ever:
Making Equity THE Education Focus in Chicago

Education is both the lifeblood and litmus test of a city, equal parts a reflection of where we are and a window into where we are headed. As such, the school system has rightly been a central issue in Chicago’s upcoming mayoral elections. Society is transforming faster than it ever has, and the decisions of our next leader will impact the fate of Chicago education for decades to come. As we proceed into the future, it is vital that we become even more vigilant in addressing our critical need for equity in the classroom.

Chicago Public Schools’ graduation rates for students of color are at record highs, but our graduates are still not set up for success in the world that awaits. It’s projected by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research that only 19 percent of 2017 CPS graduates will earn a bachelor’s degree in 10 years. For Latinx young men, this estimate drops to 13 percent. For Black young men, it drops to 10.

This isn’t just a Chicago challenge; it’s a national one. A recent study by TNTP, “The Opportunity Myth,” points to a deeply unsettling truth about this lack of preparedness: For students, especially students of color, the issue is not their failure to meet expectations but the expectations themselves. Young people—especially young people of color—are not being challenged in the classroom.

The study followed 4,000 students across five diverse school systems. It found that students spend 530 of their 720 total hours in core classes on work that is not grade-appropriate. And it found that in four of every 10 majority-minority classes, students never encounter a single grade-level assignment, despite succeeding on the large majority of assignments they receive.

Recently, LEAP hosted an event with TNTP and A Better Chicago where we gathered more than 100 diverse education leaders, influencers and donors from around our city to discuss the barriers that remain in our fight for equity in the classroom, and to make renewed commitments for hurdling these barriers. Digesting the TNTP findings, participants identified specific actions they can take to address the expectations gap within their community contexts. Among the ideas discussed were new ways to heighten student engagement, enhance teacher development, deepen student understanding and strengthen communications around instruction. Delivering the future our children deserve is going to take a powerful team effort, and it was inspiring to watch so many important voices put their hands in.

Of course, expectations gaps are driven by human disconnects that are unconscious. They are not the fault of educators but of an education system that was not built to recognize each child as an individual. Until we make purposeful, methodical efforts to foster empathy and deeper connection part of every child’s classroom experience, the same stereotypes, cultural barriers and implicit biases will continue to influence our perception of what’s possible for our Black and Brown students.

This makes me all the more proud of the work we are doing in Chicago. A seismic shift in our country’s approach to education is already underway, and our city is leading the charge. Across Chicagoland, some 140 LEAP schools are building empathy and tailored instruction into the way school works. Their educators are gearing instruction around their needs, strengths and interests, using the things that make each young person unique as fuel in their learning. As students face an unknown future of opportunity, this trust-infused, student-centered approach fosters the development of the leadership skills, critical thinking and personal agency they will need to guide themselves as lifelong learners. I’m immensely proud that LEAP is leading the charge to make these learning experiences the standard, and I’m ceaselessly inspired by the change we are seeing across my hometown.

Make no mistake: Equity is not created by lowering our expectations. Neither is it created by giving all students the same content at the same time without regard for who they are or what they need. It’s about being proactive in making sure all students are getting the tailored opportunities they deserve.

We will shape the future of our city, but today’s young people will live in it. Now more than ever, it’s important that we double down on the commitments that will allow them to thrive.