Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Lessons Learned From the Chicago Public Schools

By Timothy Knowles — May 26, 2009 4 min read

Since his appointment as the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan has championed an approach to school reform based on research. In public appearances from Denver to Brooklyn, Duncan has emphasized the importance of data in measuring long-term student success and in determining which programs should be expanded, and which scrapped.

Duncan’s determination is backed by the unprecedented education funding, up to $100 billion, in the federal economic-stimulus bill. It was further reinforced by the choice of John Q. Easton as the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the nation’s engine for educational research, evaluation, assessment, and statistics.

Duncan and Easton developed a partnership while Easton was the director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago and Duncan was running the nation’s third-largest school system, the Chicago public schools. Easton and his fellow researchers dug deep into Chicago’s schools to document what made a difference. Duncan turned those findings into plans and programs for the Chicago district.

Their partnership came to some key conclusions that will likely play a role in the next wave of national school reform:

The best academic programs won’t succeed if they land in schools with weak principals, isolated teachers, and fearful students."

Freshman year is the make-or-break year of high school. Ninth grade attendance and course grades are key predictors of who will ultimately graduate. These measures outweigh both 8th grade test scores and family background.

Students in Chicago who complete freshman year with a B average or better have a 95 percent chance of graduating in four years; in contrast, those who earn less than a C-minus average are more likely to drop out than graduate.

And course performance is strongly correlated to attendance. Freshmen who miss two or more weeks of school per semester flunk, on average, at least two of their classes—even if they entered high school with high test scores.

Schools that track these key indicators can identify students at high risk of dropping out, and provide them with needed attention and support. In Chicago, Duncan adopted an “on-track indicator” developed by the consortium to measure whether students were making progress toward graduation. Districts nationwide have followed his lead. The federal Education Department has now begun using the indicator as part of its own work to improve graduation rates.

Trust matters, at every level. The best academic programs won’t succeed if they land in schools with weak principals, isolated teachers, and fearful students. Test scores improve when schools are strong on what the Consortium on Chicago School Research calls the “five essential supports” : effective leadership, focused attention on teacher training, instruction that sets high expectations, strong ties to parents and the surrounding community, and a student-centered learning environment in which students feel safe and supported.

If schools are located in neighborhoods where poverty is high, family education is low, social problems abound, and students come from dangerous or unstable home environments, the social organization inside the school must be strong enough to compensate. Schools located in such communities that demonstrate the five essential supports have shown above-average gains in student learning.

High schools must not only educate, but also help students navigate their way into college. Our research has shown that a college-bound culture in high schools, one that supports first-generation students in the college-application process, can make a big difference. Urban students have high aspirations for attending college, but many are derailed by the complexity of the application process.

Even when they are qualified, students struggle with the admissions process or fail to apply for financial aid. Applying for aid is the most important predictor of whether students who are admitted to college will actually enroll.

Chicago’s was the first major school district in the country to track whether its graduates apply to, enroll in, and succeed in college. A comprehensive database uses five sources of local and national data to track the district’s students through college and employment, and connects the data to high school performance and coursework.

Such a tracking system could be used nationwide to assess the progress of individual students, schools, and districts. Last month, the state of Illinois announced that it will begin tracking all schoolchildren from preschool through college, supported by a $9 million grant from the federal Education Department.

Past waves of school reform have relied on grand cure-alls—governance, money—to overcome chronic problems. Most recently, the mantra of accountability led us into a costly and time-consuming fixation on test scores that has done little to improve outcomes for students.

The Duncan-Easton history suggests a new approach, one that pays careful attention to what already works, and why. Reform, for them, is not about grand gestures toward a distant horizon; it is a pragmatic and rigorous process of evaluating and building, one success upon the next. It is a process in which not only students and teachers but also education reformers themselves are accountable to the facts on the ground.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week

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