Coffee Break: Sarah Duncan on How Chicago Is Solving the Dropout Problem

Nov 2, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Maureen Kelleher

In a recent speech to the Council of Great City Schools, Bill Gates singled out Chicago’s Network for College Success (NCS) as an example of a network of schools using data and research to solve problems and boost student achievement. Since 2007, Chicago has seen huge jumps in the rate of students graduating from high school and going on to college, and NCS has been a key partner with the district in creating that success. NCS co-founder Sarah Duncan talked about what it took to make that happen. How do you take your coffee, and who do you like to take a coffee break with to talk big-picture about education? I am mostly a green tea drinker, but I make my own cold brew and drink a cup of it a day with half-and-half. I really appreciate my conversations with the researchers at the UChicago Consortium. They have a long history of studying Chicago’s schools, have a deep understanding of the challenges facing schools and the district, and they know how to make research findings accessible and actionable. We’ve been close partners with the Consortium since our inception. We learn from their research findings and support schools to translate those research findings into improved outcomes for students. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has seen its graduation rates rise dramatically over the last eight years. How has NCS played a role in this achievement? We are so proud of what Chicago has accomplished! We are close to being able to say that we’ve solved the dropout problem, which was once thought to be intractable. It’s thrilling. The combination of research on what matters for improvement; actionable data to understand what’s working and what isn’t; and professional learning from NCS has proved to be powerful for schools and the district. NCS helps schools access and socialize the research; builds educators’ capacity to use data in cycles of continuous improvement; and creates opportunities for cross-school learning. We also work with CPS’s central office to get the research and data out to all the high schools in the city. Why is keeping freshmen on track so important for their later success, and why did schools struggle to do this for so long? Prior to 2007, schools didn’t work on keeping freshman on track because they didn’t know it mattered. This is a clear example of the importance of research. Many teachers believed that failing grades were wake-up calls to students. Unfortunately, most 14-year-olds interpret an F as a message that they don’t belong and aren’t smart enough for high school and that no one in the school cares about them. This often means they withdraw from school. Many people thought that high school dropout was a result of poverty, or gangs, or teenage pregnancy. The research clearly demonstrated that high schools are the biggest factor in determining whether students stay in school or drop out. The Network for College Success is very focused on the concrete challenges facing kids and schools rather than on theories of reform that are often a challenge to implement. How did you arrive at this approach? We are implementers and problem-solvers—it’s a deeply practical approach. We are interested in seeing real change and we are not selling a particular model. We are research-based and use data and evidence to drive our decisions, and we also see the need to adapt to every unique school context. We see our role as helping to build educators’ capacity to solve the problems in their schools. We act as thought-partners to educators and spread effective practice between schools. Your focus is explicitly on traditional neighborhood schools rather than magnet or charter schools. Why—and what kind of results are you seeing? Many of us at NCS were involved in the small schools movement and charter schools in the 1990s. Charters were supposed to be laboratories of innovation that the rest of the state could learn from, thereby improving outcomes for a greater number of students. The innovation definitely happened, but the transfer of innovation did not. So we have been working on how to transfer innovation between district public schools so that all students succeed. Most students attend neighborhood schools. We want to move the mean, and that means neighborhood schools. Chicago’s great gains in graduation are due to the improvements in neighborhood schools that came from understanding research and using data. What's the next frontier? College graduation! It’s very exciting that college enrollment is increasing in Chicago, despite the national rate remaining flat. In the last 10 years, college enrollment increased from 49 percent to 64 percent, with most of the increase coming from enrollment in four-year colleges. We’re working on improving students’ academic credentials—most importantly their GPAs—as research shows that is actually the best predictor of success in college. We need students doing academic work and developing the non-cognitive skills that will prepare them for college, and getting the support they need in order to effectively engage in learning.
Photo courtesy of author.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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