Think, Know, Prove: Chicago is #1

Think, Know, Prove is an occasional Saturday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra from All the President’s Men: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

Here’s one for your thinker. It’s going to be a bit scattered and jumbled. I don’t mean it to be a carefully developed argument, but rather something more like a journal entry than an essay. Still, I hope you’ll bear with me while I think out loud. I don’t have any answers to any of the problems that I raise here, even if I make it sound like I do at points in what follows, and I am genuinely at a loss regarding all of it. So, let us count the ways that Chicago is #1, shall we? And maybe play a game of connect the dots…

We are the world’s deadliest city! Such a puzzler isn’t it? It’s not violent where I live. Not violent where I go. And yet, there’s a body count every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning in the Tribune, but no information on the whys and whatfors and questions that need asking. Plenty of important stuff in the newspaper pages, though. (Oh, if only fiction were real…but I digress.)

Why do we have dozens of young people dying every weekend in our city? Why indeed. If only someone had a theory that made a lot of sense. If only someone  did some research on the connection between poverty and violence in our city and the near complete segregation of both (which would help to explain the political indifference to both). Maybe if someone had some really compelling data and insight about the deadliness of poverty in general, then the ongoing tragedy of thousands of years of life lost–not just because of gun violence continuing to go unaddressed but because of a lack of moral imagination–would be recognized as a civic crisis…then maybe, just maybe we’d get a better response from a city leader than “Take it to the alleys.”

(If you click decide to click on only ONE link in this whole post, it is my sincere hope that you choose one of the three bold ones in the paragraph above)

Ah, but that’s not all! We can also boast about having the “widest gap in suspension rates between black and white students“! Maybe some sharp mind somewhere might figure out that this finding might have something to do with the “record setting” 60%, 5 year graduation rate .

And maybe, just maybe, that will get some people talking about the fact that this rate is unconscionably low and would be for a 4 year rate. I mean, especially given what we know about the employment and social prospects (and costs) for people without a high school diploma.

Then perhaps someone of importance would become aware that about 1 in 5 male youth in the city are dropouts by one study, and one in 10 females. Suspensions have been connected to dropout rates in all kinds of research (as here–one among many, chosen for its clarity and brevity). And that’s without even considering race and poverty. And that’s after 15+ years of reform! What’s worse is that the life prospects for these kids–and they are kids, don’t forget that–only get worse from there. Think about that.

Take 300 kids, split evenly between male and female. Then take 30 of the boys and 15 of the girls and march them off a cliff. Make everyone in the country watch it. Would it be accepted with a shrug? Multiply that by a million. Would that be accepted with a shrug? It already is. Year after year after year.

Add in race and poverty, and it’s clear that within the city, the dropout rates are wildly divergent from one neighborhood to another (over 30% in some neighborhoods listed in a chart from 2007–certainly higher in other parts of the city over 60+% in North Lawndale, for example, according to what I hear from some educators I know). Look at the dropout rate column in the chart. In particular, look at the amount of variation in the city compared to the variation in the other counties.

Assuming that dropout rates are a proxy for institutional meeting of the educational needs of the population served, we would seem to be at the top of the list of worst at doing that! Think the  chart of schools with the highest drop out rates  would match up with the chart on poverty and violence put together by Steve Bogira for The Reader? And do you think the schools with the lowest drop out rates would be found in the areas with the least poverty and violence? I do.

It’s not news that Chicago is a painfully segregated city–racially, ethnically, socio-economically. Strict segregation has been the de facto ‘solution’ to the city’s challenges for going on a hundred years now and like most institutionally imposed or supported solutions the segregation philosophy and its associated policies have done more to perpetuate and exacerbate problems they were intended to eradicate than to solve any of them.

My guess is that the civic violence and the associated malign neglect perpetrated and perpetuated on huge swaths of Chicago’s population inevitably leads to the (completely rational) inference that aspirational thinking is a form of delusional thinking. “Reforming schools” by introducing new interim assessments and takeover procedures amid such realities is equivalent to destroying a book in the Library of Babel. Yet the reforms keep coming, with ever new targets and leaders  and gadgets to sell, while the roots of the problem remain unchanged and unaddressed. How does one not get cynical about the whole social enterprise? (If you want to get really pissed off about the social trajectory of the last 30 years, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I bet Toni Preckwinckle’s read it. But I digress. Again.)

Getting back to reform, and Chicago’s 15 years of enduring it in our public schools, I offer you as my next exhibit for thought this beautiful graphic from Alvin Bisarya’s May Board report on Early College Initiatives  (it was also part of his DWFDW presentation):

Check out that first and second bubble. For me, that is the hardest one to believe. Every time I see it, I can hardly believe that it isn’t a national scandal. I also can’t believe that if we were somehow able to take away all those initiatives and all that administrative shuffle and all those deals and promises and political ladder climbing and all of their effects, that it would be any worse. It seems that after 15 years of it, all those very important people over there have been an elaborate clown show.

I mean look at how many CPS students graduated as college-ready in three subjects after graduating from what amounts to 13 years of state mandated college preparation! Even if we were to count all of the other students who enrolled in colleges other than CCC as being college ready (which certainly they weren’t), it would still be an absurdly low number. It would be comical if it weren’t so criminal. It is a fundamental, civic, moral failure of gigantic proportion, and it is ongoing.

Three major unions in our city–the police, the fire department, and the teachers are all without contracts at the moment, representing a little over 60,000 Chicagoans. The police and teachers especially, have been subjected to years and years of leadership imposed initiatives which often invoke, as their justification, some kind of professional failure or moral flaw or both on the part of the people who carried out the previous plans (i.e., cops and teachers).

Teachers, who make up more than half of the 60,000, have been under attack for years now for their failure to fix what decades of policy and widespread apathy/tacit acceptance hath wrought. And higher ed is not immune. Reinvention. 7%. Dropping enrollment. These were our reformers’ pitchforks and torches. Then, after a while, when, one might speculate, their eyes are finally adjusting to the realities of our world,discoveries are made (e.g., turns out that almost all of the enrollment drop is due to drops in Adult Education (i.e. G.E.D. programs) and credit enrollment has been growing steadily for years, up 35% or so over the last five. Just like we said way back when–that their big finding about enrollment at the city colleges dropping, while factually true, was ultimately misleading since credit, which is how most non-insiders interpret “city colleges enrollment,” was booming. Ahem.)

It. Makes. Me. Crazy.


Yesterday, I was poking around on YouTube looking for some video clips to use in my logic class so my students could practice recognizing and paraphrasing arguments. A former student dropped in and mentioned Newsroom as a potential source of some good stuff (hence the link in the first paragraph; he thought I should use this one). While looking through some of those, I came across a couple of George Carlin clips (this was a great interview, I thought). Clips like this (warning–NSFW language–use headphones):

I watched it, laughed (again), and then watched this one on “the illusion of freedom” and this one on education (that first scene is filmed in Chicago!) and then started thinking about Marcuse and the ways his ideas parallel Carlin’s and how that would make an interesting class (something about toleration) and then decided that I need to take a break and get off the computer. So I left and walked to Staples (to get paper–no kidding) and on my way out of the school, I picked up a Reader because I thought I might stop at America’s Dog (I’m working my way through the menu) and opened it up while waiting for the light to change, which is when I saw the piece on poverty and death (linked above), which got me to thinking about all of the other really big stuff on what is happening all around us and all of the insignificant minor crap (100 copies… really?) that takes up so much of our public and individual energy and attention and time and, even while sitting (as it were) on a perch of relative privilege, standing on the corner of Lake and Wabash, I found it pretty hard to fight off complete demoralization. How much harder must it be for our students in the worst of Chicago’s neighborhoods?

If I were a young man growing up in the city of Chicago, I would find it hard to imagine that anyone disagrees with George Carlin. It does not take a huge leap of imagination, then, to figure out why some of our city’s kids don’t exactly live for tomorrow.

This cannot go on. I am embarrassed to be complaining about the number of copies I’m allowed while kids are dying. And, at the same time it all seems of a piece to me. I don’t understand it and can’t make sense of it. Not any of it. Especially not all the blood in our streets. If my math is right, more Americans have died in the streets of Chicago  over the last four years than in eleven years of fighting a war in Afghanistan. Over the same ten year period, 5000 Chicagoans have died violently. Granted, many, many, many more people have died over there than those 2000 Americans, but still–I do not know how to make sense of any of it. Our murder rate is 4x that of New York and triple that of L.A. And nobody is scared in my neighborhood. But they are hopping mad about the police station getting closed down and moved. Apparently there have been a rash of catalytic converter and Honda Fit tire thefts up here. People are hopping mad. One wonders what they would be like if it were their children’s futures being stolen. There are days that I love this city; and there are many when I can barely stand another minute.

And, as Carlin put it, and as reported by education writer Paul Tough: the people (in power) don’t seem to care. So, what can we do? What should we do? What needs to be done?

What do you think? What do you know? What can you prove?