For many years, Oprah Winfrey has written a column for her magazine titled, “What I Know for Sure.” In the column, she shares nuggets of hard-won wisdom. It’s great for inspiration, but it doesn’t rely on data. We don’t expect an Oprah column to offer research-based policy analysis.
But we expect experts to do so. Yet what we’re getting from the first wave of discussion about NAEP results sounds suspiciously like Winfrey wisdom, not rigorous analysis. And that even goes for the good news.
While much gloom-and-doom conversation is taking place nationally about the 2015 NAEP scores, here in Chicago there has been rejoicing. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was the only large urban district of 22 tracked by NAEP to make gains in eighth-grade math. And it was one of only three of those districts to see gains in fourth-grade reading scores. Since 2003, Chicago’s reading gains for fourth and eighth grade have stacked up as second best in the nation among big-city districts.
More important, this year’s results also added further weight to another encouraging trend: Chicago is outpacing Illinois in academic gains on NAEP and continuing to close achievement gaps with the state.
In a press release, the district pointed to double-digit gains in scale scores since 2003 in all subjects except eighth-grade reading, where students gained nine scale score points. Meanwhile, the state has gained five points or fewer in each grade and subject.
All of Chicago’s good news must be tempered with the recognition that racial achievement gaps have not only persisted but widened, a trend that also runs back to 2003.
Naturally, everyone wants to know what’s the secret to our success. But no one has had time to dig in and solve the mystery, at least not yet.
But don’t tell that to some folks.
In a recent editorial, The Chicago Tribune was quick to attribute this year’s hometown successes to key district policy moves in the last four years: an early embrace of Common Core, expanding proven charters, a longer school day, and efforts to reward great teachers and principals.
Sounds good, right? But really, it’s too early to tell.
It’s at least as likely that what’s driving Chicago’s overall NAEP results has roots in policies much older than the ones highlighted by mainstream news media.
For example, Terry Mazany, a Chicago civic leader and former interim superintendent who chairs NAEP’s governing board, recently told Catalyst Chicago he attributes the math gains to a decade of work to beef up elementary teachers’ math knowledge and instructional skills, plus the resurgence of eighth-grade algebra. A similar push on reading, begun earlier, may also have a long tail.
It is even possible that something as simple as making sure students attend school regularly—which the Chicago Public Schools has pushed—could be a factor, too. Establishing good attendance as early as preschool can ensure children’s academic readiness and stave off attendance problems later. “We’ve found small days of absence can make a big difference for learning,” says Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
It will be a while before we know for sure exactly what is driving Chicago’s academic gains. Whatever the real drivers are, I’m convinced they will be found within schools and classrooms, not at CPS’ central office. After nearly two decades of observing Chicago’s education scene, that’s what I know for sure.