Stephanie Banchero, the senior program officer for education at the Joyce Foundation and a former education writer for The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, highlight how CPS students are making strong academic gains. Read the full article here or below.
Stephanie Banchero is the senior program officer for education at the Joyce Foundation and a former education writer for The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Robin Steans is executive director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan education policy organization.
As a new school year gets into full swing, the media coverage of Chicago Public Schools continues to paint a bleak portrait: $500 million budget deficit, crushing pension obligations, superintendent resignation amid a federal probe, hunger strike over school closure and the threat of a teacher strike and layoffs.
There’s no refuting these demoralizing facts are a reality. But the storyline of Chicago Public Schools as a system in shambles misses a story of notable student progress and the undercurrent of hope that courses through our schools.
Amid the frequently facile national caricature of Chicago as homicide central, political corruption run amok and terrible schools, there is a nuanced tale of educational momentum. The fact that this storyline gets drowned out by the intense fascination with failure does a disservice to students, teachers and the national conversation about school improvement.
In the last decade, Chicago fourth-graders have boosted their average math performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 15 points, more than double the seven-point jump in large cities as a whole and nearly quadruple the four points for the nation at large. In reading, our fourth-graders posted an eight-point gain, versus seven for large cities and three for the nation.
Chicago eighth-graders increased scores on the national math exam by 11 points, nearly double the national average. In reading, our eighth-graders showed progress, but slightly below the national average.
Turning to Illinois exams, CPS cut in half the gap between the district’s performance and Illinois at large between 2006 and 2012 on state achievement tests taken by students in third through eighth grades. Chicago’s progress outpaced the state’s overall during that same period.
If test scores don’t convince you, consider this: The five-year graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools increased from 57 percent in 2011 to 70 percent this year. Chicago officials revised the graduation rates last week, acknowledging a statistical error led to reporting somewhat inflated figures. But research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has also shown that many more students are graduating and, as a result, thousands of teenagers who might otherwise have dropped out picked up diplomas and set themselves onto a more positive life trajectory.
America’s urban school systems are patsies for those who worry that other nations are more adept at preparing students to compete in a global economy. In some cases, the concerns are well-founded. In Chicago, students notched their highest score ever on the ACT college entrance exam in 2014 — a composite of 18 out of 36 — yet only 11 percent met college- and career-readiness benchmarks on all four exams.
But a more nuanced view shifts from the shortcomings to the successes and drills down to determine what’s behind the progress.
To appreciate the progress, it’s important to understand the challenges: Nearly 9 out of 10 Chicago students live in poverty and 86 percent eat breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack at school. About 17 percent arrive in classrooms unable to speak English or speak it as a second language. Some 22,000 live in homeless shelters or doubled-up in the homes of others. And some traverse dangerous neighborhoods just to get to school.
Still, some 367,000 children show up in classrooms eager to learn.
Chicago, like many urban districts, has tried virtually every reform imaginable. And each one has been attacked as useless. This simply feeds the perception that it’s time to slingshot to yet another reform.
But we implore CPS officials to block out the haranguing drumbeat of bad press (yes, this might take headphones made of kryptonite) and stick with policies that seem to be working. Here are a few:
•Boosting the quality of teachers and principals. The district has focused on raising the caliber of educators by recruiting from top teacher training programs and intentionally creating a pool of qualified principal candidates. The district also replaced meaningless teacher evaluations with a more robust system that gives teachers meaningful feedback on how to help students reach their full academic potential. The system is not perfect, but two-thirds of teachers and 89 percent of principals say they believe it will lead to better student outcomes.
•Keeping students on track to graduate. About seven years ago, Chicago pioneered an effort to ensure high school freshmen accumulate enough course credits to stay on track to graduate in five years. When students fall off, schools intervene. Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research revealed that on-track freshmen were 3.5 times more likely to graduate in four years than those who fell off track. Researchers attribute the increase, in part, to the on-track effort.
•Choice. Chicago parents can choose from more than 100 charter schools (including some of the top-performing high schools in the city) as well as magnets, a growing number of International Baccalaureate and STEM programs and the state’s top selective-enrollment high schools. The challenge going forward is making sure all students have quality options and that choice doesn’t come at the expense of neighborhood programming.
•Academic rigor. At one time, schools across the city used hundreds of different curricula that spanned from first-rate to frightful. Fifteen years ago, the district identified the best and allowed schools to choose from the narrower band, creating greater consistency and rigor.
Chicago Public Schools has become an easy target for those who favor a deficit view of education, and for those who feed off the brutal politics of education reform. But all the reflexive Chicago bashing misses some obvious successes that could — and should — be copied elsewhere.
Originally Published: Chicago Tribune, October 2, 2015