With Chicago’s school closings, enrollment declines, funding issues and problematic special education reforms dominating the headlines for the past five years, it’s difficult to trust the research from Stanford University professor Sean Reardon that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students are growing more and faster than students in nearly any other district in the United States.
It’s even less plausible, given the volatility in the district during the years studied by Dr. Reardon—2009 through 2014—during which CPS changed its CEO five times, tangled with the Chicago Teachers’ Union in a seven-day teachers’ strike and closed 49 elementary schools.
However, after seven months, no one has been able to find a hole in Reardon’s research. This is good news for CPS and also good news for our nation.
If success like this can happen in Chicago against the often chaotic district backdrop, then learning from it or even replicating it elsewhere is a possibility. To do so, however, we would have to identify causes.
CEO Janice Jackson, other district leaders and researchers have pointed to principal training and sustainability, and using data to inform practice and hold teachers and leaders accountable. I also believe that three other factors are at play as to why Chicago students are growing farther and faster than other students even in wealthier nearby suburbs.
Sticking with K-8 schools instead of a chunked up elementary experience.
In Chicago, the vast majority of kindergartners through eighth-graders attend a traditional K-8 school. This is not so in many other districts in our nation and in surrounding wealthier districts.
Instead, districts, especially suburban ones, separate out grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8 into three separate schools. What districts are unknowingly doing is forcing mobility where Chicago students have experienced stability (except in the instances of school closings). In this scenario of a split-up elementary school experience, students’ longest stretch of school occurs during the high school years instead of during the elementary school years.
Research shows that students who attend K-8 schools have higher self-efficacy and higher academic achievement while encountering less bullying than they do in a chunked-up educational experience.
According to Science Daily, “90 percent of U.S. public school students attend a middle school or junior high school. Although these schools were developed to suit the needs of early adolescence and prepare them for high school, evidence suggests that they may not, in fact, do so.”
Researchers at Columbia University conducted a longitudinal study that discovered “that the earlier students moved to a middle school, the greater the gap between them and their K-8 attending peers—and that gap widened as students aged.”
Finally, a Harvard University study showed that the middle school transition was often more difficult for students than the high school transition and caused achievement gaps to occur during the transition year, a transition year that doesn’t exist until high school for Chicago students.
From a teacher’s perspective, vertical alignment of curriculum, instruction, missions and processes is a challenge even when teachers are in the same school building. But across several buildings, it is nearly impossible.
How can a school district ensure that it’s prepared for each level of students as they enter a new building, with a new staff, two different times during students’ elementary years?
Elementary schools and high schools are one district.
Being in a big district has its downsides, but there are benefits to having elementary schools and high schools in the same district.
First, the value placed upon both levels is nearly equal.
Let’s take teacher salary for example. In Chicago, all teachers have the same salary schedule. This means an elementary school teacher makes the same amount as a high school teacher with similar experience and education, and on average, this is around $71,000. In a sense, they are valued the same. This is not so in many other districts, including suburban ones.
For another example, the variety of school districts that exist in my hometown, Lockport, a middle and working-class suburb of Chicago.
The high school there is one district, and according to information on the Illinois School Report Card, the average high school teacher’s salary is $75,000. However, the elementary average varies widely.
The elementary school I attended is located in a working-class section of town, and the average teacher salary is $40,000 with a much higher teacher turnover rate than that of the high school.
Many suburban districts operate in this manner, paying high school teachers more than elementary school teachers and thus implicitly valuing their work more while creating sustainability issues at the elementary levels.
A Strong teachers’ union.
During the years the research took place and even as I write this, the one entity of stability for teachers has been the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Currently, teachers in other states have been taking the CTU’s lead as it staged a seven-day strike in 2012 amidst a backdrop of disrespect and threats to cut pay while extending the school day.
During that strike, CTU President Karen Lewis rallied teachers around social justice issues in the name of students and student outcomes in the same manner that leaders in today’s strikes are doing.
The CTU made it a point that classroom teachers and our working conditions would have direct and significant effects on students and their outcomes. As the research revealed, this claim and continued determination that teachers and our working conditions would directly benefit students was dead right.
All three reasons display significant differences between Chicago’s educational system and others in urban, suburban and rural districts. And they deserve a place in the narrative of Chicago students’ success.