Researchers See Some Progress in Chicago High Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — May 12, 1999 2 min read

Chicago’s systemwide push to propel high school students to loftier achievement is changing how teachers conduct their classes, but some district efforts are facing resistance, a University of Chicago study has found.

The mixture of sanctions and support introduced in 1996 is helping lift woefully low test scores in the city’s high schools, in part because of a strong emphasis on test preparation, the researchers say. But they also conclude that the accountability agenda needs fine-tuning if schools are to achieve long-term gains.

One area that bears rethinking, the report says, is the use of “external partners"--teams from universities or national reform groups--at schools that have been put on probation. Though principals typically viewed these partners as helpful, teachers often regarded them as being of limited value.

“The teachers are very skeptical about some of these sanctions and support,” said Kenneth K. Wong, the study’s lead researcher and an associate professor in the university’s education department.

The researchers surveyed principals in all non-specialty high schools and conducted interviews and observations in four of them. One school had been completely overhauled, one was on academic probation, the third had been put on probation and then removed, and the fourth had never been on probation. None of the schools was identified in the report, which was made public last month.

Test Prep Rises

In their observations of 9th and 11th grade mathematics and English classes, the researchers found teachers responding to pressure to raise test scores. Poor scores are a crucial factor in triggering district intervention.

Typically, English teachers devoted more time to test preparation than math teachers did. In the year that one school underwent the kind of extensive staff shake-up known as reconstitution, the instructional time its English teachers spent on test-related activities jumped from 36 percent to 63 percent.

For More Information

“Implementation of an Educational Accountability Agenda: Integrated Governance in the Chicago Public Schools Enters Its Fourth Year,” is available by e-mail at

The report raises questions about the city’s mandatory summer school program for students who fail to qualify for promotion to the next grade. Teachers in the program often omitted many of the activities listed in the district’s scripted curriculum, prompting the researchers to call for better training and selection of instructors.

The study also found that nearly all high schools had followed orders to create separate “academies” for upper and lower classmen, and that educators believed they had improved attendance and discipline. But it found that a plan for teacher-led advisory periods for students had been less successful, largely because of a pay dispute with the teachers’ union.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Researchers See Some Progress in Chicago High Schools


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