Achievement Gap

From Last to Leading: How Chicago Public Schools Made the Leap

Thirty years after being labeled the worst school district in the nation and after two decades of fiscal crisis, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) welcomed more than 381,000 students back to class last month as a leader among the nation’s urban school districts. If Education Secretary William Bennett intended to motivate the city with his harsh critique in 1987, mission accomplished. A recent spate of independent studies documents substantial gains made by Chicago students:
  • Graduation rates have soared to 77.5 percent, increasing more than twice as fast as graduation rates nationally.
  • College entrance exam scores are at an all-time high.
  • Low-income, minority students at CPS fare better than their peers in Chicagoland and downstate, reports a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Academic growth of CPS students on national test scores is 25 percent higher than the average among large urban systems, according to data from Stanford University.
These studies tell us the what. But we need to understand the why—the drivers of school improvement in Chicago that will help sustain progress and perhaps suggest paths for other large cities. These remarkable gains happened against the odds—made possible by the emergence of a determined, resilient education community driven by the urgency to support the city’s children. This community of parents, schools, nonprofits, community organizations, universities, philanthropies and research organizations was the backbone of a movement that focused relentlessly on improvement. The cornerstones of the improvement strategy were strong principals and teachers, a data-practice partnership focused on evidence-based strategies, and a culture of innovation.

Strong, transformational school leaders

Research shows school leadership is second only to teacher instruction among school-related factors that impact student learning. Teachers are the linchpin of every education success story. But, great teachers don’t stay in buildings without supportive, transformational leaders. Chicago took this research to heart, developing high-quality principals through initiatives like the CPS Office of Principal Preparation and Development, the Chicago Leadership Collaborative and most recently the Chicago Principal Partnership. The district identifies the highest performing leaders through smart, multi-indicator evaluations, including the Illinois Performance Standards for School Leaders and school climate surveys called “My Voice, My School” to provide actionable feedback based on research on how to organize schools for success. Once identified, the city retains the best with a mix of high-level professional development, autonomy and support. Chicago principals enjoy a considerable amount of autonomy around budgeting, scheduling, and curriculum, particularly when compared to other large urban districts. Top principals also have access to executive leadership development at Northwestern University.

Data-practice partnership with university researchers

Shortly after Bennett’s critique, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research was created, launching one of the nation’s first data partnerships between higher education researchers and an urban school district. This partnership has produced an extensive set of reports that have provided CPS with guidance for nearly 30 years. A key insight from the research was the vital importance of freshman year and keeping students on track to high school graduation. Being “on-track” in ninth grade (earning five full-year credits with no more than one semester F in a core class) is more predictive of high school graduation than any other factor, including race, gender, socioeconomics and prior academic achievement, combined. Recognizing the critical path illuminated by this research, then-CEO Arne Duncan put it into practice through biweekly on-track data reports for every CPS high school, allowing them to create targeted efforts to improve course grades and attendance. The Network for College Success provided training and resources to help schools use the data to greatest effect. Freshman OnTrack rates began to move. Then they began to skyrocket. CPS achieved a 24-point increase in on-track rates between 2007 and 2015, and now hits nearly 89 percent. During the same time, high school graduation rates rose from 57 to 74 percent. The district was firing on multiple cylinders with Consortium research; CPS real-time data; Network for College Success resources; philanthropic support over multiple years from many, including the Spencer, Joyce, and MacArthur foundations; and the dedication of educators.

Willingness to innovate

The district has never shied away from innovation. CPS and the Mayor’s office led the charge on reform efforts, including innovative school models and digital learning. Chicago offers a multitude of successful school models, including magnet, contract, charter, STEM, military and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s IB program has greatly expanded and is now the largest in the country. As a result of the Renaissance 2010 charter school initiative launched by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2004 and backed strongly by the civic and corporate community, Chicago is now home to 130 charter schools, serving 14 percent of district students. Putting “charter” over the door by no means ensures success, but Chicago is home to some of the strongest charter schools in the country. Chicago has similarly embraced the promise of technology. LEAP Innovations, in partnership with CPS and educators, develops, pilots and scales personalized learning technologies and practices. The Chicago City of Learning connects students to learning opportunities throughout the city and online. Students have digital portfolios that track accomplishments and allow them to earn digital badges that explain their skills to educators and employers. Chicago’s once maligned public school system now stands as an example of how persistence can pay off even in the face of daunting political and financial challenges. It took the slow, steady work of teachers, principals, and administrators strategically using data, supported by the steady hand of civic leaders, philanthropies and nonprofits. It was district educators and political leaders embracing innovation in relentless pursuit of results for students. And it was the unflappable spirit of parents pushing for quality education for their kids. A committed education community has propelled CPS from last to leading. This kind of dramatic improvement can happen in other cities, too.
Beth Swanson is Vice President of Strategy and Programs at the Joyce Foundation. She was at the center of Chicago’s successful effort to lift student achievement as a top deputy to former CPS CEO Arne Duncan and as Deputy for Education in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term, and was recently appointed to the board of City Colleges of Chicago.

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