The Chicago school district has shifted to a new accountability system that focuses on recognizing all schools’ academic gains, rather than emphasizing the failures of those that continue to struggle.
The more positive approach to accountability, which includes $10,000 cash rewards for some schools, is a departure from a program that began in 1995. That previous system, which some people viewed as punitive, targeted only low- performing schools on probation, identifying those whose students could not meet or exceed minimum averages on standardized tests. Schools that met that mark were rewarded with $2,000 grants.
Phil J. Hansen, the chief accountability officer for the Chicago schools, said the system announced this fall gives the 437,000-student district a broader and more detailed picture of school improvement. In addition to using results from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, the district examines elementary and middle schools’ scores from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
At the high school level, the accountability program includes results from the Prairie State Achievement Exam, dropout rates, and data on whether students are on track for graduation following freshman year. All schools are categorized from a high designation of “excellence” to a low of “probation.”
The district announced last month that 60 of its “rising stars"—schools that made test- score gains during 2001-02—would receive $10,000 each to acknowledge their progress. Local foundations contributed the $600,000 in reward money.
Some parents have complained that the new program unwittingly hurts schools that have met the district’s goals.
Mr. Hansen balked at those assertions: “What it’s done for us is highlighted a lot of improving schools that have not been highlighted in the old system,” he said.
While the new system is a more positive approach to accountability, the district must become more vigilant and monitor how the high-stakes components are measured, said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago-based group that seeks to improve education. Mr. Moore said, for example, that dropout rates are poorly monitored by the district.
Still, Mr. Hansen said that the new program showed that some schools were doing better than anticipated, while others weren’t posting the gains that most people had predicted. Other schools, he added, are receiving some much-needed encouragement to stay the course.
On Chicago’s South Side, Donoghue Elementary School had gained the dubious distinction of being one of the city’s worst-performing schools, said Principal Jo Ann Roberts. The school, which enrolls about 261 children from neighboring housing projects, had been on probation for more than a decade because 90 percent of its students failed to reach national norms on the ITBS.
In addition, said Ms. Roberts, who started running the school in 2001, the building “looked like bombed-out Beirut.”
This year, Donoghue, a K-8 school, became a “rising star,” which along with a facility facelift, is helping it to slowly shed its negative image. Test scores showed that nearly a third of its students were meeting or exceeding the national norms.
“People like being stroked,” Ms. Roberts acknowledged, “so they can continue to grow.”
Some Chicago parents, however, argue that the reward program is unfair to schools that were already meeting or exceeding the district’s goals. A group of parents collected petitions and presented them to the school board on Nov. 20, asking that the accountability system be reviewed.
Parents of students attending Edison Gifted Regional Center, a magnet school, complained that it was impossible for their school to show growth because 99 percent of its students had met or exceeded the state standard in reading. And with additional state dollars earmarked for schools serving low-income students, Edison can’t tap into those funds to bolster its academic program.
Still, Saundra Gray, the principal of the 273-student, K-8 school, stressed: “We’re not crying because we didn’t get [$10,000.] We’re moving on.”
Ms. Gray said her school’s parents simply wanted to point out what they see as the accountability system’s flaw.
In the meantime, schools that are struggling to earn recognition continue to be a point of emphasis for the district. Mr. Hansen said roughly 250 schools have been assigned reading specialists at no cost to the schools. And, he said, low-performing schools are receiving state, federal, and private aid that far exceeds a $10,000 award.
A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Accountability Plan Rewards Chicago Schools For Showing Score Gains