Ira Glass' Chicago Public Schools Series

In the early '90s, National Public Radio sent Ira Glass to do a series of stories about two different public schools in Chicago. Both schools—Taft High and Washington Irving Elementary (which Ira revisits in Episode 275: Two Steps Back) were, at the time, implementing massive and ambitious reforms.

Taft High spent three-quarters of a million dollars and four years trying to implement some of the most popular schemes for restructuring schools. They failed, for common reasons that are rarely discussed in the national debate over education. Test scores went down. Attendance went down. The dropout rate worsened. Teacher and student morale sagged. By the end of Ira's year of reports, many of the pro-reform teachers had quit or resigned.

Washington Irving Elementary had more success back in the '90s. They changed the way classroom instruction was done. Students did a tremendous amount of reading and writing. Test scores climbed. Attendance was no problem. The mood of teachers and students at the school couldn't have been better. But even at this exemplary inner-city school, there were problems. Lots of kids simply didn't want to do their work, despite all the attempts to make it appealing and interesting. And while test scores were rising, they were still about a year below national norms.

This American Life started the year after Ira's Washington Irving series, and these stories are a precursor to the program: Told through scenes and characters, with funny moments as well as sad ones.

Taft High School

1. School Reform Proves to be a Tough Sell to Faculty
November 8, 1993
2. School Reform Gets Setback in Chicago
November 9, 1993
3. Times Are Tough at Taft with Some Signs of Hope
February 10, 1994
4. Motivating Students Is Hard for Taft Teachers
March 3, 1994
5. Taft High School Nixes Alternate Bell Schedule
March 24, 1994
6. Chicago Teachers Skeptical of New Education Legislation
March 28, 1994
7. Chicago Teachers Skeptical of New Education Legislation
March 28, 1994
8. Chicago High School Using Metal Detector
March 31, 1994

Washington Irving Elementary

1. Part One
December 21, 1994
2. Chicago Students Commemorate Martin Luther King Day
January 16, 1995
3. One Teacher's Approach to Classroom Innovation
February 15, 1995
4. Washington Irving Elementary Shares Its Culture
February 23, 1995
5. Little Basketball Players Comment on Jordan's Return
March 10, 1995
6. Chicago Elementary School Makes Reading Fun for Kids
March 17, 1995
7. Students' Fascination with O.J.'s Trial Creates Game
March 24, 1995
8. Report Card Day Comes to Washington Irving Elementary
April 14, 1995
9. Sixth Graders School Their Second Grade Peers
April 27, 1995