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Chicago’s Profile, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

The city of Chicago, like the other great cities of the United States, enjoys a reputation and a status very much derived from how it evolved into its current state, which in turn developed from its unique placement in the country.   With the enormous resources of the Great Lakes as commercial transport venues and its key position in the north of the Midwest, Chicago was from the start poised to become a commercial and metropolitan “heart” of America.  In a great variety of ways, the city has risen to this challenge and attained this standing.   The road has not been without struggle, as many of the labor issues which would erupt throughout the U.S. were most dramatically evident there.   Nonetheless, Chicago is today a vast, successful, and immensely popular city.

There are large issues still troubling the city, however. The unfortunate reality is that a legacy of Chicago’s erratic evolution as a hybrid of an industrial giant, as well as a cornerstone of American civilization, is that its public school system is in substantial distress. As will be noted, a perpetual cycle of budget issues and lingering racial conflicts appears to be in place, with each element abetting the problems of the other.   The cycle is, moreover, complex and self-perpetuating.   In the last few years, for example, thirteen of Chicago’s sixty-four public schools lost nearly a third of their teachers, while seven other schools reported teacher turnover rates of over forty percent (Pepper, London, Dishman  120). More recently,  budget cuts have further and drastically reduced school staffing. Chicago is facing an ongoing educational crisis, and only a comprehensive restructuring of its entire public school system, one that builds on a foundation of existing funding and radically refuses to recognize racial concerns, can address and rectify this major dilemma.

History of the City

For some time, Chicago enjoyed a reputation as America’s most commercially successful city. This stunning development, moreover, came quickly after the city’s founding;  the various Native American settlements once in place in the early 19th century gave way to the rise of the railroad industries, and Chicago was uniquely poised to take full advantage of its geographic site. The country now had a nexus, and it did not take long for all the farmers of the entire Midwest to take advantage of it.  Simply, it was better business to ship corn and cattle by railroad, than transport them by the usual means to nearer cities (D’Eramo, Thomson  22).   By the late 19th century, Chicago was considered the leading metropolis of the United States, eclipsing the Eastern giants of New York and Philadelphia in population growth and industrial progress. This reputation was very much accurately based, as the city became the national headquarters for several, extraordinarily large and profitable businesses. Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour of meat-packing fame, and railroad magnate George Pullman all made Chicago their commercial foundations (Hirsch  1). Basically, as the goods were delivered to it, Chicago created the factories to treat them, rather than merely send them along by rail, which led to its position as the meat-packing capital.   It was the country’s most celebrated city, and served as an example of how American drive and commercial enterprise could create limitless opportunities and fortunes.

The reality was somewhat more complex, however, and certainly not as glowing.  What was essentially occurring in this rise to dominance of Chicago was a stratification within the economics of the city that virtually mirrored ancient, European models of caste systems. The owners of the industries lived like princes, accumulating enormous wealth and wielding vast power. The merchant class beneath them did well, also, and lived at a level of comfort greater than that of the middle-class which would later occupy most of the nation. Below these classes, however, were the workers, and the sheer numbers of these were matched only by the poor conditions in which they were forced to work and live.   Early feminist and public administrator Jane Addams, on touring “wards”, or neighborhoods, of late 19th century Chicago, was utterly horrified by what she witnessed. Infant mortality was very high, as sanitation conditions were deplorable.   Sewage and animal waste was everywhere. Moreover, a form of labor was in place ironically reminiscent of the nightmares of a Charles Dickens’ novel:  “Industrialists kept labor cheap and disorganized.  Women and children were forced into oppressive labor” (D’Agostino, Levine  19). It seemed that, as the city prospered in commercial wealth, its societal and cultural standards exponentially suffered.

This pattern of inequality would remain within the city to the present day, as Chicago continually seems to wrestle with its own needs and best interests as a massive, metropolitan presence. The vast influx of African Americans seeking employment in the mid-20th century greatly altered the city, as the affluent white population moved to the suburbs. It was a “great escape” by the privileged classes, and one that would be echoed by large cities everywhere. These suburbs served to further fragment the demographic identity of Chicago, as well as promote racial tensions and issues with labor, wages, unions, and education (D’Eramo, Thomson  96). Today, Chicago may claim to have substantially addressed many of these problems which have marked its evolution over the years, yet the results are still questionable, at best. This may be most evidently seen in the dilemmas the Chicago Public Schools are currently facing, as halfway measures hurriedly enacted to save money damage the schools, lessen the quantity of teachers, and contribute to an over-all poor scholastic performance from the city’s children.

The Challenge to the Schools: Background

In fairness to the city of Chicago, it is most certainly not alone in experiencing great difficulties in addressing public school dilemmas. This is very much a national problem, particularly as large cities struggle to cope with vacillating, and usually reduced, budgets; challenges in terms of shifting demographics, which then create culturally-based difficulties; and the modern problems of drug use and dealing within the schools, influx of media, and a subsequent and widespread evidence of poor student performance.   As noted, these issues most especially are reflected within urban school populations. It most definitely appears that, the larger the city, the greater the conflicts.

However, no examination of Chicago’s state of public education can be reasonably made without taking into account the pivotal process that, in attempting to improve public school education nationally, actually generated issues still very much unresolved: the desegregation of schools.   As may be expected, this process was born from the vast shifts in racial populations occurring throughout the country, most notably in effect following the World War II years. Job markets were drying up in one area and opening up in the big cities, and formerly segregated populations began a migration of sorts, naturally bringing their children with them. In the case of Chicago, there was, as noted, a drastic abandoning of the city as a residence by the white population in the 1960s and 1970s.   It is no coincidence that this process occurred as the Civil Rights movement gained force, and the U.S. government began what would become a series of legislative acts designed to completely desegregate the schools.

As was evident elsewhere in the country, Chicago did not deal well with these changes, and the students, of course, suffered. For instance, in 1977, the inner city schools of Chicago launched their “Access to Excellence” program, which was a thinly-veiled promotion of an affirmative action plan. These urban schools, unable to manage their student loads because of insufficient funding, sought to orchestrate a shifting of nearly 7,000 urban students, primarily African American, to over fifty various public schools in Chicago’s more prosperous, “white” areas. The program was voluntary, which factor may have contributed to its lack of success. Students were given bus fare to get to the distant schools, as it was believed that the incentives of better facilities would motivate them to go. Then, there was the inducement that the “white” Chicago schools were not overcrowded, as were the city ones. Fewer than 1,000 students actually attempted the program, however; threats of white violence directed at the African American students was, not unexpectedly, an obstacle (Caldas, Bankston, 161).

This already turbulent circumstance was not helped by a Supreme Court ruling, also in 1977, that essentially enabled an affluent, white neighborhood to restrict or deny the building of low-income housing. The ruling, while not overtly discriminatory to racial considerations, nonetheless sent a strong message, and one that affirmed separatist attitudes from whites. Basically, it acknowledged that race and income were strongly linked, as it further conveyed an inclination to “protect” white students in the better schools (Caldas, Bankston, 162). Here, as would occur again and in the present, the inextricably connected factors of ethnic background and economic standing vastly influenced how Chicago’s schools would be both funded and populated.

It is crucial to look back on these occurrences, for they point to fundamental concerns afflicting the Chicago school system today. These concerns are by no means necessarily derived from, or related to, longstanding issues of race relations in the city, although they are clearly a component in today’ problems. Rather, they go more to the ineffectiveness of a system that seeks to correct itself “from the outside in”. These measures of the past, somewhat obviously doomed to failure through the lens of hindsight, were seized upon at the time as an excellent means of equalizing public school education for all concerned. The 1977 initiative was simply noting disparities within the city of advantage and deprivation in the schools, and assumed that a dispersing of the student population would translate to an equalizing of opportunities. Unfortunately, the measure was inherently too limited, for it ignored the strong racial conflicts these students were essentially “carrying with them” from home. It could not succeed because it sought to exist in a vacuum, away from the racial problems blatantly occurring. Consequently, the children suffered, even as the gulfs between the urban and more suburban schools widened.

Issues Today

The reasons vary, depending on which sources are turned to, but the harsh reality is that the Chicago Public School System today is not doing very well. Not surprisingly, the situation has generated a great deal in the way of news coverage, which in turn feeds on the latest statistical data. The prospect is not encouraging: “Earlier this year, the district issued 1,000 pink slips to teachers, cut annual teacher raises, made program reductions and increased property taxes to address a gaping budget hole” (Ahmed-Ullah, Hood). This drastic action was done to save $16 million not in the school budget. While it has been ascertained that some of the dismissed teachers have been offered employment elsewhere in the school system, it is nonetheless a deeply discouraging move. It is also, apparently, ultimately a self-defeating one, for the severe problems the Chicago schools face cannot hope to be addressed with fewer such resources.

Examining the actual resolutions voted on and passed by the Chicago Board of Education in 2010, which resulted in the terminations mentioned above, is a startling undertaking. In basic language, the Board simply asserts that tenured teachers may be dismissed at the Chief Executive officer’s discretion, and that this may be done with no regard to staffing set in place to accommodate increases in class size (cps.edu).   This is essentially an assertion that education itself is irrelevant, in the face of extreme financial considerations. It is an irrefutably ill-advised course to take, as will be addressed in the forthcoming proposed strategy, particularly since other issues are indicating that the schools are suffering from more than one disadvantage.

For example, in Houston and Philadelphia, students spend thirty percent more time actually in the schools than do Chicago students (Robinson, Hargreaves  74). Such a statistic is highly important, for it both conveys the lack of efficacy in the current model of school administration and indicates societal and/or familial issues apart from the schools themselves. As with the racial problems in the schools of years past, the nature of the city is clearly a powerful component in how and when Chicago’s children go to school. More so than ever before, it seems that Chicago is continually seeking to address its severe issues in public school education with no real insight as to how the city itself functions, or how its people exist.  Only a strong sense of the make-up of the city can abet a more sensible approach to improving, if not saving, its public schools.

Strategy for Improvement

In viewing the basic demographics of Chicago, as set forth from a 2008, comprehensive survey, one interesting fact emerges: all the demographics are shrinking. White and African American populations within the city are virtually tied in numbers, running to approximately 1.1 million each. Latin Americans come in third, at about three-quarters of a million, and other races lag far behind in terms of populace.   With the exception of the “other race” category, which shows some growth, all other populations have decreased, and by percentages from five to ten (chicagoneighborhoods.cc). Clearly, the days of the mass exoduses to the great city of Chicago are over.

In a very real sense, the city of Chicago must acknowledge these modern shifts in its population, as well as understand that its historical model of neighborhood demographics as dictating school operation no longer applies. As was noted earlier, the Chicago Public School System appears to be conducting “patch-up” jobs, in order to salvage what it can. It continually cuts resources to attempt to meet cuts in state and federal funding. This is a hopelessly backward approach, for the original model is based upon an adequate supply of such funding. Clearly, no such income may be safely depended upon, and the system must, essentially, reinvent itself in order to, not merely survive, but set a new standard in urban public school education.

To begin with, the Board of Education, which was capable of so cavalierly decreasing its most valuable resource of teachers, must, first and foremost, abandon any existing concerns regarding racial issues as affecting the schools. That is to say, it must not anticipate such problems, for that in itself is likely to generate them. The world has changed substantially since the Civil Rights uprisings of the 1960s and, while racial issues still present difficulties to city populations, they must be virtually ignored in the arena of the public schools. On a rather cynical level, efforts made in the past, through enforced desegregation and permitted zoning restrictions which promote segregation, have yielded little good, and the schools have suffered. In presenting a united determination to assume that race is not a viable component in providing equal education, the Board may then actually best procure this civic response.

Moreover, in accordance with this attitude, the schools must adopt strategies which have proven highly successful in enabling harmonious integration. This effort is not contrary to the above recommendation, but ancillary to it as evidence of commitment. That is to say, it is established that schools that promote social integration, and integration through sports, achieve excellent results (Anderson  126). These schools encourage students of all races to actively invest themselves within the life of the school, and these activities, largely social in nature, promote an easy, even effortless, integrative process. It is past time for the Chicago system to abandon its policies of mandated desegregation, or the surviving ideologies of them, and enable the process to occur in as natural a manner as possible.

Then, as regards funding, the Board must completely review its existing budget, and in a manner beyond that of shifting allocations and making damaging cuts. Given modern perspectives on education and the knowledge gained from extensive research, the focus  itself must be revised to promote only those operations which are known to produce the desired results. This translates to a complete changing of the traditional paradigms. If, for example, an older public school is in need of extensive – and impossibly expensive – repair, the Board should consider the advantages of disposing of the property to the city, or to private parties, in a profitable manner, and then look to how another structure may serve the purpose. A school is, after all, only a place wherein education occurs; consequently, each district should investigate the possibilities of working with churches, community centers, and even unused office spaces. This would free funding for the most crucial resource of all, the teachers.

Conclusion

Chicago, great and impressive city that it is, has always been plagued by issues related to its commercial drive and the consequent migration to it of ethnic minorities.  These factors, among others, have led to both serious problems in its public school system and to ineffective, and sometime harmful, measures to improve these problems. Chicago must once again create a new and striking presence, and in the direction of leading a national evolution in how public school education is administered. Through a uniform and deliberate refusal to acknowledge, and thus create, racial tensions;  a new and expansive conception of how best to spend the diminished funds available to it; and, most importantly, a Board of Education willing to reinvent even its most time-honored approaches, Chicago may be instrumental in changing the shape of public school education throughout the nation, and for the better/

Works Cited

Ahmed-Ullah, N. S.,  & Hood, J.   “Chicago Public Schools Cuts 200 Central Office Jobs to Save $16 Million.”  The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 20, 2011.  Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/education/ct-met-cps-central-office-cuts-0923-20110922,0,6068200.story

Anderson, E.   The Imperative of Integration.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Caldas, S. J., & Bankston, C. L.  Forced to Fail:  The Paradox of School Desegregation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.  Print.

Chicago Neighborhood and City Guide.  Chicago Demographics. Retrieved from http://www.chicagoneighborhoods.cc/chicago-demographics.html

Chicago Public Schools. “Chicago Board of Education Approves Measures to Cope with Financial Crisis.” June 25, 2010.  Retrieved from http://www.cps.edu/News/Press_releases/Pages/06_15_2010_PR2.aspx

D’Agostino, M., &  Levine, H.  Women in Public Administration: Theory and Practice.  Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2010.  Print.

D’Eramo, M., & Thomson, G.  The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago, a History of Our Future. New York, NY: Verso, 2003.  Print.

Hirsch, E. L.  Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth Century Chicago Labor  Movement.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1990. Print.

Pepper, M. J.,  London, T. D., & Dishman, M. L.  Leading Schools During Crisis: What School Administrators Must Know.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, Inc., 2009. Print.

Robinson, V., & Hargreaves, A.  Student-Centered Leadership.   Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011.  Print.

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