The Problems of Education in Chicago

Standard Club | February 6, 1958

No school system is any better than its teachers. In fact, for your child in his classroom on Monday morning, the entire school system is represented by, and summed up in, the personality, abilities, background, devotion and dedication of the one school teacher who stands in his classroom ready to teach the day's assignment.

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the problems of Chicago's schools with the American Jewish Committee. This group's active interest in civil rights for everyone — regardless of race, religion or national origin — is a major national force in helping all minority groups to attain the American dream. In this work you are quite properly concerned with the operations of our educational institutions. But it is significant and appropriate that The American Jewish Committee tries to reach its goals, not by carping criticism, but by constructive suggestions and extensive programs of education and action, designed to improve understanding between all groups in our Nation.

Chicago schools are actively concerned with civil rights insofar as education is concerned. The schools are trying to develop healthy social attitudes in students. The very atmosphere of our schools should teach the art of living together, and of judging one's fellow men and women on the basis of their abilities and accomplishments, not by factors such as religion or the accident of race.

Chicago schools recognize that there is no point in having empty civil rights. We need facilities and programs which enable all our students, as a practical matter, to take advantage of the city's educational system. We must help our students to be able to overcome the economic difficulties which are often found in combination with membership minority groups. These conditions are more than a personal loss to the individual affected. They deprive our community and country of valuable talents.

To achieve these desirable objectives, however, it is necessary to concentrate money and effort. As in a military campaign, it is not possible to advance equally on all fronts at all times. We must pick our targets. In Chicago we have tended to concentrate on the four major problems which confront nearly all public school systems in the U.S. today — the shortage of classrooms, the shortage of teachers, the shortage of money, and the imposing task of improving the quality of education for all children, of all races, of all capabilities, in all states, and in all economic and social conditions.

Today I would like to discuss each of these major problems. I hope you will find that in Chicago we have addressed ourselves to them in an intelligent manner. After discussing them, I would also be happy at the conclusion of my remarks to attempt to answer other questions which may be of interest to this distinguished audience.

Let us look, first, at what Chicago has done to meet the shortage of classrooms.

In 1953 your Board of Education provided 6,300 seats.

In 1954, we provided 14,000 new seats —

In 1955, 7,000 more

In 1956, 12,000 more

In 1957, buildings and additions 13,200 more seats were constructed.

And in 1958, the budget provides for at least 20,000 additional new seats. 

This totals 72,500 seats for pupils in six years, at a cost of over $100,000,000, costing more in 5-6 years than in any decade of the past. By 1960 your Board of Education will have constructed twice as many schools and classroom seats in the ten year period 1950-1960 than ever before.

The citizens of Chicago have endorsed this building program. First in 1951, the people voted 3 to 1 in favor of a $50-million Bond Issue to finance school construction. In 1955, a second $50-million Bond Issue was submitted to the voters, and they approved it by a vote of 6 to 1.

In June 1957, the people of Chicago approved a third $50-million Bond Issue by a vote of 4 to 1. These thumping majorities represent, I believe, confidence in the Chicago public schools and their management.

Despite the urgent necessity of building schools rapidly, your Board of Education has not been willing to construct unattractive, poorly planned, “cheap” school buildings. We have wasted no money, I hope and believe, and we have gotten the tax payer a dollar's worth of school construction for every dollar expended.

This has been accomplished in part by the employment of 18 separate and individual architectural firms, in addition to our own architectural department. Your Board of Education today is employing Holabird, Root & Burgee; Naess & Murphy; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Loebl, Sohlossman & Bennett; Perkins & Will, Childs & Smith, and many other architectural firms whose work is known in every State of the Union.

And, most important, I would like to stress that we are getting our building constructed, today at a square foot cost and cubic foot cost comparable to, or less, than we spent four to five years ago.

According to the latest available figures (those for 1956) the average cost of Chicago public elementary school buildings is $1.14 per cubic foot or $17.26 per square foot. This is 13% lower than in 1952, primarily because of simpler design, and better bidding techniques.

I think it can be truthfully stated that no city in America is meeting the shortage of classrooms, which is a nation-wide problem, more fully or more expeditiously than the City of Chicago.

Before I depart from this subject of school building construction, I should like to make this one final point: America still desperately needs additional classroom space. The recent concentration on science and mathematics should not blind us to the fact that it is very difficult to teach science, math, English, history or foreign languages if the student has no place to sit down.

Let us, therefore, never forget that the classroom shortage continues to be a vital, aggravated situation confronting American education, particularly in the elementary and high schools.

The second crucial problem facing America in education is the shortage of qualified teachers. No school system is any better than its teachers. In fact, for your child in his classroom on Monday morning, the entire school system is represented by, and summed up in, the personality, abilities, background, devotion and dedication of the one school teacher who stands in his classroom ready to teach the day's assignment.

It is supremely important for every citizen to know what the Board of Education is doing to attract, pay, and retain the best teachers.

First of all, your Board of Education instituted a new single salary schedule in 1954. Under this schedule all teachers from kindergarten through college receive the same pay for the same educational background and achievement. Thus, a teacher with a Master's Degree giving instruction to first grade students receives the same pay as a teacher of the same seniority with a Master's Degree in one of our junior colleges.

This "single salary schedule" attracts and keeps many teachers, because it gives appropriate recognition to well-trained teachers at all levels of education. 

The great shortage of teachers in America is in the elementary school, not in the colleges, or even in the high schools. True, we need good college teachers. True, we need more qualified teachers of science and math in our high schools. But, I repeat, the overwhelming shortage of teachers in America is in the elementary schools. In Chicago, for example, we are short three times as many elementary school teachers as high school teachers. Significant also in this context is the fact that it is impossible to produce good college students or good high school students without an effective program of elementary school education.

With respect to actual wage scales, I think you will be interested in these facts:

In 1952, our elementary school salary ranged from $3,000 to $4,900 per annum; high school teachers from $3,400 to $5,900. In 1952, Chicago's salary schedule for teachers was close to the bottom when compared with salaries paid teachers in the 16 largest American cities. As of September, 1958, all of our teachers will begin with a minimum salary of $4,350 per annum, and all of them can rise to a maximum of $8,350 by continuing satisfactory service and by acquiring advanced degrees. Chicago's "single salary schedule" is one of the best. Among the 16 largest cities, it is fourth best in the salary paid to beginning teachers. We are exceeded only by Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. As to maximum salary, Chicago stands first in the nation. (Damn, I like that!)

Nothing is more important for the future welfare of Chicago than to keep our city at the top of the teacher salary schedules nationwide. Perhaps we can stand the Cubs in last place, but let's keep our teachers in first place.

In addition to salaries, however, there are many features which attract and retain able, teaching personnel. For example, we have instituted new personnel policies by which teachers are given greater opportunities to select the schools to which they are assigned.

We have instituted teachers’ "seminars" before the opening of schools, in order to create a "team spirit" among the teachers in each school. We have provided master teachers who help new members of the teaching staff with problems of instruction and discipline in some of our more difficult neighborhoods.

We have encouraged all our teachers to increase the number of courses they study in the liberal arts and general education, compared with courses in "methodology." At Chicago Teachers College, for example, we have reduced the courses in methodology by 20%. And last year for the first time in a quarter of a century we started to require entrance examinations for admission to Chicago Teachers College. These are effective means, I believe, for improving the status and dignity of the teaching profession.

We have instituted teaching by television, so that the services of a superior teacher are available to thousands of students in our schools, and the techniques of this teacher can be seen and emulated by hundreds of young teachers trying to improve their professional abilities.

Results speak for themselves.... In the matter of teacher-recruitment and teacher-retention, it is significant that more than four thousand new teachers have been appointed by the Board of Education from eligible lists in the three years since the single salary schedule was adopted. This is 1/4 of the total staff. Further, the Department of Personnel reports that there is an unusually small percentage of teachers leaving the service despite the allurements provided by private industries, retirement benefits, or suburban schools.

The third important problem facing American education has been described as the shortage of money. This so-called money shortage is responsible, at least in part, for the great demand for federal aid to education. I shall not attempt to discuss such aid as part of this talk, but, I believe the people of Chicago can be proud and happy that the Board of Education has not waited for the Federal Government to do something.

We have not waited for federal money to build schools; we have not waited for federal money to pay our teachers; we have not journeyed to Washington looking for a hand-out. Instead, we have built buildings, and we have paid our teachers because we believe that the people of Chicago want a good education for their children now, not 3, 5, or 10 years from now when the heavy machinery of Federal Bureaucracy may manage to move off of dead-center.

It is easy to spend money if the people of a community are willing to provide it. The real test is to spend tax money wisely most of you are businessmen. You are entitled to know why we need so much money and how we are trying to be efficient in the expenditure of it.

There are three primary reasons why large sums of money are needed:

First, is the well-known factor of inflation. Increased prices of raw materials means increased-prices for school buildings. Inflation means increased salaries for teachers. Inflation also means increased costs for all the maintenance service, janitorial services, administrative services, etc. which support the educational program in our schools.

The second basic reason why the Board of Education needs and will continue to need, more money, is the phenomenal growth in the number of school age children. In Chicago, we increase 15,000 each year. How many children are 15,000 children? Well, let me put it this way. In 6 years Chicago's public school population has increased by an amount equal to the total school population of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee is the 15th largest city in America. At minimum costs, we would need approximately $15-million per annum just to supply the new classroom seats for these 15,000 additional children per annum. That $15-million would be a capital expenditure, and does not represent any of the increased costs of maintenance or teaching services for the additional 15,000 children per annum.

Our school population is suffering also from double-shift. As of today there are approximately 22,000 children on double-shift. This means they are receiving half of the educational program to which they are entitled. To remove these 22,000 children from double-shift would cost another $22-million in capital expenditure alone.

The final point to remember in the growth of our school population is the overwhelming fact that it is growing faster and faster with each passing year. Children already born in the city of Chicago will be applying for admission to our schools at a rate which guarantees no let-up in the growth of our school population for the next 5 years.

The rate at which families are moving into Chicago from other parts of the country further guarantees the fact that our school population will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

These are the most important reasons why your schools need more money, but I want you to realize that we are saving money at a time we are asking for increased sums.

We are saving money first by efficient utilization of the school plant and by equalization of the pupil load wherever possible, without hardship to children. Boundaries have been adjusted, upper-grade centers opened, rooms partitioned and otherwise rehabilitated, plus rapid construction of needed additional facilities. In some cases, partially filled high school buildings

have been used for elementary school branches. These steps have saved the taxpayers of Chicago millions of dollars. As recently as the opening of the present semester (February 3) more than five thousand pupils have been taken off of the double shift organization by some of these steps.

Second, we have been investing all available monies to the extent that last year alone we earned, through wise investment practices, $716,531. This was a fifty-five per cent increase over 1955. I wish I could do as well with my own.

Third, through efficiencies in our business administration we have been able to increase our discounts on bills 28% in the last two years. In 1957, the amount saved was $93,176; in 1955, it was only $72,553.

Fourth, during November and December, Chicago Board of Education Bonds sold at an interest rate of 3.07%; during this same period, bonds sold by Los Angeles, Akron, Seattle, Detroit, and even the Corporate Government of Chicago all sold bonds at a higher rate ranging from 3.19% to 3.97%. Our school building bonds sold at a lower interest rate than all other governmental bodies with an "A" rating, even one city with an AA-rating.

Fifth, we have begun to use our school buildings during the summer months so that the number of years some children stay in school has been reduced. This reduction rebounds ultimately to the taxpayers of our city.

Sixth, we raised tuition rates for children who do not live in Chicago, but attend Chicago public schools. Tuition earned in 1956 was $612,582 as compared with $530,716 in 1955, a 15% increase.

Finally, we have made and are making every proper and reasonable effort to get the State of Illinois to increase its share of the cost of providing a "good common school education" in keeping with the requirements placed upon the State by our Illinois Constitution.

Now, I would like to speak for just a few minutes about the efforts we have made in Chicago to improve the quality of our educational program. This is the fourth major problem confronting every school system in America. It is the most important problem, so far as your speaker today is concerned.

We need citizen help and understanding to build the buildings, and raise the money, and pay the salaries — and we have been getting such support. But it is our responsibility to assure, and re-assure, the citizens that they as taxpayers are getting the quality of education for their children which they as parents want and deserve. Your Board of Education has not stood still in its efforts to improve our educational program.

The secondary school curriculum has been revised to give it more solid substance and permit greater depth of learning. The Board of Education increased the requirements for high school graduation. These requirements are now four years of English, three years of social studies, two years of mathematics, one year of art, one year of music and four years of physical education. There are still many electives available to students such as foreign languages, business education and vocational courses. But we have definitely toughened the curriculum.

We have started classes for gifted children. Classes in chemistry and physics and in the foreign languages are being offered in all of our high schools today. We have introduced the teaching of foreign languages into the elementary schools, and approximately 2,000 children are studying French, Spanish and Italian in the elementary grades. In the summer schools we are providing classes for gifted, schools. in advanced mathematics, English, and the sciences; on the other hand, we are offering special remedial classes in reading and arithmetic to elementary pupils who are normal in intelligence but are retarded in these subjects, probably due to lack of educational opportunities before they came to Chicago.

The results of these programs are already manifest. During 1957, the number of scholarships and awards received by graduates of Chicago high schools totalled approximately 1200 and represented a dollar value of approximately $403,000.

I might also mention at this point that the Chicago public schools have benefited in excess of a million dollars through grants to conduct needed researches for the improvement of education. The Sears Roebuck Foundation contributed $11,500 for a study of vocational education; the U.S. Office of Education contributed $591,000 for a study of mentally handicapped children; The Fund for the Advancement of Education (The Ford Foundation) contributed $55,000 for high school and junior college studies in the field of curriculum and television.

As a further method of improving our instruction, we have authorized certain district superintendents and principals to create flexible curricula, tailor-made at the schools. At the Bryn Mawr Elementary School, for example, pupils are divided into groups according to their special abilities and are accelerated or permitted to take enriched courses depending on their abilities. At the Hess Elementary School, on the west side, pupils are also classified according to ability grouping, but at this school many shops are provided for students with less aptitude for academic subjects. Many other schools conform to local needs. No longer is it necessary for every school and every child to march lock-step to the same rigid course of studies, irresponsible of personal ability and interest.

Today we are trying to stimulate gifted children, while at the same time providing a special training and vocational education necessary to bring out the best in some of our less gifted youngsters.

We are also trying to reduce the size of the classes, but when you hear that classes are too large in our public school system — (the average size today is 38 per class) — I caution you to remember this fact:-

To reduce the class size over the entire City of Chicago by 1 pupil per class would cost $1-million per annum. Thus, to reduce our average class size from 38 pupils to the recommended size of 30 would cost Chicago's taxpayers a minimum of $8-million per annum. To the real estate men in the audience, today, that means 9¢ per every $100 of assessment evaluation in the City of Chicago.

Yet, we can take pride in the fact that the average class size in Chicago in the last 30 years has been reduced from 44 to 38. This is a further indication of the unselfish devotion to the cause of education which is typical of the people of this great city. Yes, we have many problems in public education today, but Chicago has been meeting problems as great as this throughout its history.

35 to 40 years ago, there was no vocational education in the City of Chicago. Today, our vocational schools like C.V.S., and the new and fabulous Dunbar are developing students with skills far greater than their parents ever hoped to attain. They are providing the skilled manpower for the growth of this industrial area. Plans for the new Prosser Vocational High School are nearing completion, and in the near future the north and northwest sides of the city will be served with another modern vocational high school.

35 years ago, there was no special education in Chicago for the deaf, for the blind, for the physically handicapped, for the mentally retarded. Every citizen of this city can take pride in our program of special education which ranks at the top of all such programs in the civilized world. No city in the world, to my knowledge, does more for these unfortunate and handicapped members of our society than does this city, where you have the honor and distinction of living.

Some day I hope that each person in this room will visit the Spalding School for Crippled Children, or the new Jane Neil School, and see for yourselves the inspiring work done with your money for the least fortunate in our community.

Yes, we have many problems. But relying on the courage of our citizens, I am sure that we can marshal, our forces, raise our sights, and produce an educational program in 1958 equal to the greatest achievements of the past.