Chicago Study Credits School-Based Reforms

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When Illinois legislators restructured the troubled Chicago public schools in 1988, no one knew to what extent giving parents, principals, and teachers control of school campuses would affect student achievement.

According to a study released last week by a local reform group, the change was for the better. But some researchers questioned its conclusions.

The study from Designs for Change looked at reading scores in elementary schools from 1990, when the first improvement plans were put in place by the local school councils that govern each school, and the spring of this year. Nearly half of the 420 schools examined showed either significant progress in reading or maintained their test scores above the national average, the study says.

About one in four elementary schools made impressive gains. Those schools posted an average seven-year gain of 15 percent in the proportion of students who scored at or above the national average on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading.

The study's authors emphasized that those 111 schools educate about 65,000 students--roughly the enrollment of the entire Denver public schools.

Mixed Findings

The authors say the study is the first citywide look at school-level practices and student achievement. "Now we have some strong evidence that the schools that have taken the greatest advantage of that decisionmaking opportunity are improving student achievement," said Donald R. Moore, the study's author and the executive director of Designs for Change. The organization helped write the 1988 reform law.

But the findings, which briefly mention gains in math, mean about half the schools studied did not make gains and stayed below the national average. The study did not address restructuring's effects on the city's troubled high schools, which most reformers consider a tougher challenge.

Out of 483 Chicago elementary schools, the study examined 420 that met requirements for complete data. To determine which factors were related to reading achievement, Designs for Change studied data from extensive surveys of elementary teachers and 6th and 8th graders in 1994 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Leadership Cited

To assess the effects of school practices on achievement, the Designs for Change researchers used the survey data to compare schools that were low-achieving in 1990 but made substantial progress since then with schools that are still struggling.

Schools were said to be "low achieving" in 1990 if fewer than 40 percent of their students were reading at or above the national average on the Iowa test that year. More than 83 percent of the elementary schools in the study had low reading achievement in 1990.

After controlling for students' backgrounds, the researchers found that the schools that boosted their reading scores received significantly higher ratings than the other group on 14 out of 26 indicators of school practices.

In the most-improved schools, teachers rated the local councils higher in the ways they fostered school improvement; the principals were rated better; and teachers reported having more influence. Those schools also scored better when it came to teacher-parent relationships, safety, teachers working together, and a strong emphasis on learning.

Mr. Moore said the study has national implications. "School systems that are putting schools on probation need to understand," he said, "that really turning those schools around involves creating or building or nurturing a whole new social fabric in those schools, and not just writing them up in the paper and threatening them, although that may be necessary."

Methods Questioned

He acknowledged that the practices identified as successful in the study are ones that have long been seen as crucial for improvement. But, he said, "giving parents a majority voice in how their schools are run is really unique to Chicago."

But some experts were skeptical of the way the study was done.

John Q. Easton, the deputy director of the local research consortium, did not dispute that reading scores are up. But he said the reliance on performance at or above the national average on the Iowa test fails to take into account the changing pool of students in a school. "Those test scores could be going up because they are drawing stronger kids," he said.

A better way of tracking improvement, Mr. Easton said, is to look at the performance of individual students over time.

In responding to the study, the Chicago public schools released its own data that emphasized improvements in test scores since 1995, when a new administration appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley took over. The district's chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas, was unavailable for comment.

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