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Straight Up Conversation: Emily Krone Phillips on Chicago’s ‘Freshman OnTrack’

By Rick Hess — May 23, 2019 8 min read
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Emily Krone Phillips is the author of the new book The Make-or-Break Year, which chronicles how Chicago Public Schools used the metric Freshman OnTrack to boost graduation rates. Now at the Spencer Foundation, she was previously at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, where the Freshman OnTrack research originated. I recently talked with Emily about dropouts and efforts to help students stay on track. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: What is Freshman OnTrack?

Emily: Freshman OnTrack is a metric developed by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research to measure whether 9th graders are making basic progress toward high school graduation. Freshmen who are “on track” have failed no more than one semester of a core course and have enough credits to move on to sophomore year. Researchers call 9th grade the “make-or-break” year for high school graduation because students who are on-track are three-and-a-half times more likely to graduate than those who are off-track.

Rick: So, just to be clear, Freshman OnTrack is a metric—not a program or policy, is that right?

Emily: That’s right. Freshman OnTrack began as a metric. Then, in Chicago, it evolved into a dropout prevention strategy focused on supporting students as they transition to high school. Schools were held accountable for improving their Freshman OnTrack rates, but they also were given latitude to design interventions that would best serve their students. Some, for example, assigned their strongest teachers to freshmen. Others instituted a summer freshman orientation program. And others designated a teacher to be responsible for reviewing data and reaching out to struggling freshmen.

Rick: And how predictive of success is this metric?

Emily: Freshman OnTrack turns out to be more predictive of graduation than all of the background factors researchers tend to measure about students—more than 8th grade test scores, neighborhood, race, or family income. In fact, more than all of those factors combined.

Rick: No kidding. It’s more predictive than family income or test scores? Why is freshman year so important?

Emily: As they transition to high school, students are navigating all new peer relationships and trying on new identities. They are trying to figure out who they are as students and learners and people in this world. How they fare academically during the freshman year—and how teachers relate to them when they struggle—communicates important information about whether they belong and are capable of succeeding in high school. These mindsets have a significant effect on how they engage in school for the rest of their academic careers.

Rick: Can you give me an example?

Emily: I think about Eric, the Hancock student who was failing three classes his freshman year. I interviewed him three years later, midway through his senior year. He had become a strong student, a peer mentor, and the captain of the school’s Model U.N. team. He was on his way to college to be a social worker. He said of the support he received from teachers at the end of his freshman year: “That was when I started becoming more of a student leader . . . I started becoming more conscientious of my decisions. I thought before then that they only affected me. I think I realized after that that people actually cared and were mindful of what you do.”

Rick: How did all this come about?

Emily: Early in his tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools [CPS], Arne Duncan put Freshman OnTrack on the district’s accountability framework as a way to get schools focused on the metric; however, Freshman OnTrack rates didn’t really start to climb until the 2008-09 school year, when schools started receiving grades and attendance data on their freshmen. With support from the district and local non-profits like the Network for College Success, schools began forming teacher teams to analyze the data and keep students on-track. These teams discussed individual students and how systems and structures could be updated to better support freshmen. These teams were key because they allowed teachers to tailor their interventions to fit their particular students and circumstances and to learn from one another.

Rick: How successful has this been? More specifically, what happened to Chicago’s graduation rate?

Emily: The numbers are pretty remarkable. Freshman OnTrack rates have increased in the district from 65 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 89 percent in the 2017-18 school year. Graduation rates have risen apace, reaching an all-time high of 76 percent in 2018. For many years in CPS, students were as likely to drop out as to graduate. Now they are three times more likely to graduate.

Rick: Obviously, there’s been a lot of concern—amplified by revelations about credit recovery machinations—about reading too much into higher graduation rates. How confident should we be that the graduation results in Chicago are credible and should be taken at face-value?

Emily: Credit recovery has indeed pushed graduation rates higher in the district, especially in recent years, but research shows that improvements in students’ 9th grade performance, compared to students with similar background characteristics from previous years, accounts for most of the improvement. It’s also important to note that not only are more students graduating, but graduates have higher achievement levels while taking more rigorous courses than in past years. From 2003 to 2014, CPS graduates’ ACT scores rose from an average score of 16.7 to an average score of 18.6. This increase occurred even as the number of students who made it to the end of junior year and took the ACT increased considerably. Similarly, the percentage of students scoring 3 or better on an AP exam has steadily increased, even as the number of students taking AP courses has increased fourfold since 2000. The percentage of CPS graduates enrolling in college also reached an all-time high last year.

Rick: One thing some administrators did was eliminate zeros for missed assignments. That can help more students pass and graduate, but I wonder about other consequences. How has that played out?

Emily: The “No Zero” policy is a great example of how the same policy can look really different depending on how it is enacted. At Hancock High School, one of the Chicago schools I profiled in the book, the principal audited teachers’ grade books and determined that too many students were receiving zeros for missed homework assignments and were mathematically unable to recover their grade, even if they knew the material. In this case the “no zero” policy was a fair response to the specific problem that Hancock’s grading policies did not reflect what students knew or could do or even how hard they had worked. In contrast, in Texas many school districts issued blanket “no zero” mandates, which resulted in lots of pushback from teachers and a state bill prohibiting such policies, which precipitated its own backlash. One of the messages I was trying to convey in the book is that Freshman OnTrack and reform generally, I believe, work best when educators on the ground are focused on solving their own problems, rather than handed a one-size-fits-all solution.

Rick: In education, we spend a lot of time talking about “bottom-up” versus “top-down” reform. How would you characterize Chicago’s Freshman OnTrack effort?

Emily: I actually don’t think of Freshman OnTrack as being “bottom up” or “top down.” It really was more of a “meet in the middle” reform, which was crucial to its success. Freshman OnTrack would never have taken hold the way it did without the accountability pressure to focus on freshman year and the data reports that the district was able to provide to schools. At the same time, the initiative scaled and survived a tremendous amount of administrative churn because educators on the ground focused on the problem of freshmen course failure, generated their own solutions, and refined and shared those solutions through formal and informal networks.

Rick: What’s an example of some of the creative ways in which schools used data?

Emily: In addition to analyzing individual student data, schools also used data to detect schoolwide trends around freshmen performance. For example, at Tilden High School, teachers realized that absenteeism was a primary driver of course failure. They took several steps to decrease absences, including hiring an attendance coordinator to call home to every absent freshman every day and instituting block scheduling so there were fewer transitions and opportunities to ditch during the day.

Rick: It seems pretty common sensical when you put it that way.

Emily: One moment that many of the pioneers of the Freshman OnTrack movement in Chicago recall is an early meeting where one of the district’s top selective enrollment schools realized its Freshman OnTrack rate was lower than a neighborhood school serving students with much lower incoming achievement. The principal of the neighborhood school explained that she called home every day to every absent freshman. Those who were involved in the network recalled the exchange as a turning point for the group, because they realized how much they could learn from one another.

Rick: Okay, last question. What are a couple pieces of practical advice for parents or teachers who want to help 9th graders stay on-track to graduation?

Emily: We know that freshman year is crucial not just for high school graduation but for college as well. It is also a year in which students everywhere—even those who did very well in elementary school—tend to struggle. Often there is a mismatch between what 14-year-olds are capable of doing from a developmental standpoint and what they are being asked to do as freshmen. Ninth graders need careful monitoring and support with assignments, attendance, and organization skills. That doesn’t mean coddling them, but it might in some cases mean giving them lots of help, as well as second and third and fourth chances, as they learn to become the students they are capable of becoming.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.