Here’s a quick quiz:
Which big urban school district’s students posted the fastest academic progress from third to eighth grade among the 100 largest districts in the U.S.?
And which district had students whose test scores surged about six grade levels in five years between those same grades — in other words, those students had, amazingly, gained a year’s more learning in that time?
Answer: Chicago Public Schools. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know.
Chicagoans are accustomed to hearing that their schools are trailing the nation, not outpacing much of it. Many Chicagoans greet snippets of good CPS news with skepticism.
For good reason. The district has exaggerated its improvement in the past — and apologized for it. City Hall and CPS leaders have a habit of casting statistics in rosy terms, downplaying any doubts.
But the statistics quoted in the quiz above are genuine. They come from a 2017 study led by Stanford professor Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis.
“Chicago schools seem to have produced a real and sustained pattern of above average learning rates and performance improvement” from 2008 through 2014, he and a co-author write. “These trends are important not only for students in Chicago, but for those in other large districts, because they provide … proof that it is possible for large urban districts to produce rapid and substantial learning gains, and to do so in ways that benefit students of all racial and ethnic groups.’’
Real and sustained. That’s a strong statement. But likely corroboration of the Stanford study’s results came in the recent release of the nation’s report card, aka the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That showed CPS students holding onto earlier gains — a suggestion that the progress cited in the Stanford study wasn’t a mirage.
“In Chicago, there is something special happening,” Steve Tozer, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Education Leadership, tells us. Last year, a UIC study showed that from 2001 to 2016, CPS students surged from near the bottom to the middle of the academic pack among the state’s 55 largest school districts. That is, the CPS students made faster progress than many of their peers in Illinois and nationally, according to Tozer. That holds for all demographic groups and income levels — and across several different standardized tests. “That gives us reason to trust this (upward trend),” he says.
Yes, these statistics measure aggregated results; many individual students still struggle. But let’s pause here to applaud Chicago students, parents, teachers and administrators. Their hard work is paying off.
How did CPS post these gains? Some possible factors: A relentless focus on recruiting, hiring and developing better school principals that translates to higher quality instruction in classrooms. Better tracking and tutoring of students before they fall too far behind. Tougher teacher evaluations that may help encourage the best teachers to stay and the worst to leave.
One of the questions to be answered: What are the elements in schools and in their communities that drive these gains?
Here’s an invitation to researchers around the country: Come to Chicago, confirm that things are going better here and if so help unravel why. The payoff could be huge. If those gains could be replicated at other big urban districts, tens of thousands of children nationally could gain a better education, driven by insights from Chicago Public Schools.
What a remarkable turnaround that would be for the schools labeled, just three decades ago, as the worst in the nation.