About a year ago, Stanford researcher Sean Reardon was digging deep into a 300-million-piece database he created, containing five years’ worth of state test scores taken by every public school student in the United States—when he noticed something startling.
Scores showed that elementary school students in Chicago were getting six years’ worth of learning for the five years they spent in school between third and eighth grade.
Compared to test score results elsewhere, Chicago was a big, good-news outlier, showing the fastest growth in student achievement among the 100 largest U.S. districts.
At first, Reardon was suspicious. Back in the mid-2000s, Atlanta had been a good-news outlier, too. But that was due to a massive standardized-test cheating scandal. And even if Chicago teachers and principals weren’t changing student answers, could they be gaming the system in other ways, like teaching to the test?
To get at this, he decided to analyze student scores on a different test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. NAEP has no consequences for students, teachers or schools, so there’s no pressure to cook the results or teach to the test.
Reardon found the same pattern—fourth-graders starting at the same level as their peers in other large urban districts, but growing faster year over year, so that by eighth grade, Chicago kids had learned the equivalent of an additional year of school.
“This seems to me this is a real thing. This isn’t Atlanta,” Reardon told a room full of researchers, civic leaders and journalists in Chicago, at a November 2 conference sponsored by The Joyce Foundation and The Spencer Foundation.
The good news for elementary students is complemented by gains in graduation rates and college entrance and persistence among high school students.
On Equity, Chicago Makes Strides But Has Room to Grow
In terms of equity, Chicago has made strides but still has a long way to go. While students from all ethnic backgrounds are showing accelerated learning gains, achievement gaps remain and not all are narrowing.
Most promisingly, Latino students in Chicago are making strong enough academic gains to narrow the gap with their White and Asian peers. But the White-Black gap has held steady, and Black boys in poverty are still being left behind.
At the high school level, the equity news may be even more promising. Recent gains in graduation and college entrance have been driven by more Black and Latino boys staying in school, getting their diplomas and going on to college.
“Even non-graduates are leaving with higher credentials than in the past,” noted Elaine Allensworth, director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research. Many more students not counted as graduates are fifth-year seniors still in school and hoping to graduate, or are earning GEDs or alternative-school diplomas.
It’s all a big change from where the system was 10, 20 and especially 30 years ago, when then-Secretary of Education Bill Bennett deemed Chicago’s public schools “worst in the nation.”
The as-yet unanswered question is why are we seeing such success. It’s easier to explain the changes for high schools. The longstanding partnership between the district and the Consortium put a key piece of data into principal and teacher hands: the number of freshmen on track to graduate.
“Prior to 2007, schools didn’t work on keeping freshmen on track because they didn’t know that mattered,” says Sarah Duncan, co-founder of the Network for College Success, a research-practice network that has helped Chicago’s neighborhood high schools retool their practices to increase graduation, college entrance and college persistence.
At the conference, many theories were advanced to explain the increased learning for elementary school students. Researcher Paul Zavitkovsky of the University of Illinois Chicago pointed to big gains in school effectiveness for the youngest students, in grades K-4.
But we still don’t know how much that is driven by children entering kindergarten better prepared and how much by improvements in instruction and climate within their elementary schools.
Another startling feature of the improvement across K-12 is that it persisted despite rapid changes in top district leadership between 2009 and 2015 and continuing financial challenges, though a new education funding formula has brought stability to Chicago this year.
A number of conference attendees pointed to the district’s longstanding focus on school leadership as a driver of consistent gains in the face of these obstacles.
When the Going Got Tough, the Principals and Teachers Got Going
Forrest Claypool, chief executive officer for the district, likened the situation in the last couple of years to the Battle of Gettysburg, the protracted but decisive battle of the Civil War.
“The one lesson from that battle [was] leadership must be diffused throughout the organization,” Claypool said. “Once the chaos started and bullets were flying, General Meade did not have control of the situation.”
Similarly, while CPS leaders were focused on managing district finances and navigating the hardball politics needed to win the funding formula fight, “that diffused leadership came through,” Claypool said.
Great principals were hiring and training great teachers and keeping a thoughtful eye on data and using it to reach students in creative ways.
Kenwood High School Principal Greg Jones, himself a CPS graduate, sees the difference between then and now. “Our teachers today are better teachers than we were as teachers,” he said.
“I’m seeing how our teachers are using data to influence student outcomes, and teacher teams. Changes in principal practice have been a cornerstone of the work.”