Published Online: August 8, 2006
Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Chicago’s Small Schools See Gains, But Not on Tests

Chicago’s Small Schools See Gains, But Not on Tests

A major Chicago initiative to improve high schools by making them smaller has raised attendance, lowered the dropout rate, and created better learning environments, but has not improved students’ scores on state tests, a study has found.

The study of the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative comes as experts across the country are examining the early outcomes of the small-schools movement, promoted by many as a key strategy for improving public schools. ("Small Schools’ Ripple Effects Debated," May 3, 2006.)

The redesign initiative, using more than $26 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chicago philanthropies, has opened 23 small schools in the city since 2002. Seven of those opened only last year, so they were not included in the study, which was released Aug. 2 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Mills College, in Oakland, Calif.

It found that students enrolled in the 16 schools that opened in the first three years of the initiative, through fall 2004, came to class six to nine days more per year than did their demographically similar peers at other district schools. In addition, the small schools’ cumulative dropout rate was lower, 20 percent of students, compared with 27 percent in other city high schools.

Collegiality and Support

Teachers at such schools reported more collegiality and a greater voice in decisions. But they were only slightly more likely to engage in practices the researchers cited as facilitating instructional improvement, such as good professional development, reflective dialogue, and program coherence.

Students—especially juniors—reported higher academic expectations by teachers, and more teacher support. But the report shows little difference in how students rated the quality of English and mathematics instruction, and no difference in how they scored on Illinois’ reading and math test, the Prairie State Achievement Exam.

“What we see here is that although the environment is more collegial, trusting, and innovative, it doesn’t seem to have translated into instructional reform,” said Susan E. Sporte, a consortium researcher who co-authored the report.

Logistical problems that arise in new small schools can prove so time-consuming that substantive work on instructional change takes a back seat, she said. More must be done to produce change in the classroom sooner, Ms. Sporte said, but in the meantime, the study shows important benefits.

“If the lower dropout rate translates into a better graduation rate, the life chances [for students] will be much more strongly impacted than a change in two or three points on the PSAE,” she said.

Culture Before Academics

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 426,000-student Chicago school system, noted that schools in the redesign initiative serve some of the city’s most disadvantaged students. When those schools reduce their dropout rates, test scores are affected because more low-performing students remain in the testing pool, he said.

“You have to get the culture right before you start to get the academics right,” he said. “Those are leading indicators. The academic gains will follow.”

Mr. Duncan said the district was working to improve high school learning through its High School Transformation project, which will overhaul curriculum, instruction, and teacher training at 14 underperforming high schools this school year, and more in coming years.

Carol Rava-Treat, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which funds many small-schools initiatives nationwide, said foundation officials see many positive trends emerging from the Chicago project. She said they weren’t surprised by the schools’ test-score patterns; many of their grantees spend the first few years wrestling with structural issues before taking on instructional changes. The foundation’s grants are now focusing more intently on ensuring academic change, she said.

“It’s become clear over the last two years that, as funders, we need to push equally hard on the curriculum and instruction [piece] as we have on the structure piece,” she said. “Maybe even more.”

Several experts said small schools started from scratch often produce better results more quickly than those created by breaking up large schools. Four of the 16 schools in the study were start-ups, but researchers lacked enough data on two of them to allow a meaningful comparison.

Julie Woestehoff, the director of Parents United for Responsible Education in Chicago, said the study renews her doubts about whether the time and money spent creating small schools would be better directed toward improving instruction and teacher supports in existing schools. “It’s infuriating to see money spent on supposed solutions that dance around the problem,” she said.

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Pages 5,18

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