The biggest reason Chicago’s school district says it’s closing 53 grammar schools is to give students a better education.
Here’s what Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters shortly after the closings were announced:
“The status quo is not working, and it’s falling woefully short for the children of the City of Chicago, regardless of where they live and regardless of their circumstances. Every one of the children—if they go to a better school—can achieve.”
During two months of public hearings and debate, Emanuel has reiterated that claim, and CPS has promised that every student from a closing school will be sent to a better performing “welcoming” school.
But just how “better” is defined has become a point of contention in a heated debate. It's a debate that parents like Valeria Hinton now find themselves in the midst of.
The case of Goodlow
Hinton’s son is in the sixth grade at Goodlow Magnet Elementary in Englewood.
Goodlow is slated to close. Earle is the designated receiving school.
Hinton carries a very large purse, and lately she’s taken to keeping test score data in there. She pulls it out whenever the discussion of closing Goodlow comes up.
“Right here,” she says one day outside the school. “Earle School had 50 percent that meet or exceed. Goodlow is at 57.3 percent meet or exceed, and that’s in science.” Hinton shows me the school’s latest ISAT test scores for reading (Earle: 52.5 percent meet/exceed; Goodlow: 54.9 percent) and for math (Earle: 65.5 percent meet/exceed; Goodlow 65.8 percent). Then she turns to numbers for attendance, numbers showing which school is getting a greater proportion of its students promoted to the next grade.
“From what the data is showing us, Goodlow is a higher performing school than Earle,” Hinton concludes.
Goodlow is definitely better on many measures. Goodlow has higher overall ISAT scores. But Earle has shown tremendous growth in the past few years—which is why CPS considers it the better school. In reality, both schools are on probation, both earned the district’s lowest performance score. Both have negative value add scores, meaning both do worse than other schools with similar types of students. On paper, they’re both quite similar.
Consortium study: to see academic improvement, receiving schools must be in the top quartile
So what happens when a school like Goodlow closes and kids are sent to a school like Earle? Marisa de la Torre studied that question.
In 2009, de La Torre, a director at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, followed the test score trajectory of 5,445 Chicago kids whose schools closed. She found the academic effects of sending them to other schools was, mostly—nothing.
“Statistically it’s not different from zero,” says de la Torre, which in researcher lingo means that after students moved to their new school, they continued on an academic trajectory that looked just like the trajectory they were on in their closed school.
De la Torre found there was just one way for kids from low performing closing schools to show better academic results. And that was to go to a “top performing school.”
“And when we say top performing schools, we look at the achievement level of those schools, and the 25 percent of the schools with the highest scores, those are the ones we called ‘top performing’ schools.’”
De la Torre basically put schools into four broad categories—quartiles—like grades handed out in school: A, B, C, D.
When Chicago Public Schools says it’s sending kids to “better” schools—it is not using those same broad categories. Instead, it’s getting into some really fine-grained distinctions in test score data to be able to say one school is better, even though in broad terms the schools might be very similar.
I asked de la Torre about the effect of moving students to different sorts of “better” schools. Here’s en excerpt from my conversation with her:
LUTTON: So if a child moved from the bottom quartile to the third from the bottom quartile—the next quartile up—what effect did you see there?
DE LA TORRE: On average, not much. Nothing positive nor negative either.
LUTTON: So if we move children from the bottom quartile to the second quartile did you notice any effect?
DE LA TORRE: We don’t see any effects. It would have been the same as you had predicted had the schools not closed.
LUTTON: So basically the only way you can get a positive effect is to move kids to the very highest performing schools?
DE LA TORRE: Based on the sample we had in the past, yes. That’s what we saw.
Few students slated to move from low-performing closing schools to top performers
In the closings the school board will consider Wednesday, just six receiving schools out of 55 are in the top quartile of all CPS schools. And in only three cases—3 out of 53 closings—are kids being sent from a school in the lowest quartile to a school in the highest. (They are King to Jensen, May to Leland, and Trumbull to Chappell.)
In 18 cases, students are being sent from Level 3 schools (the lowest performing designation CPS uses) to other Level 3 schools. In one of those cases, Overton Elementary students are slated to go to receiving school Mollison. Both schools are on probation. As recently as 2010, CPS tried to close Mollison for low performance. In his report, the indpendent hearing officer who considered Overton's closing wrote, “If the concept of a higher-performing school is to have substantive meaning, the mere fact of a mathematical variance between two schools with low academic performance and on probation is insufficient to be deemed a higher-performing school for the purpose of school action [closing].”
Another notable finding from de la Torre's study: While kids’ test scores in the long term didn’t get better or worse by having their schools closed, in the short term, there was an effect. Kids lost ground academically as soon as their school was put on the closings list.
“The biggest effects that we saw was the year of the announcement of the school closings,” says de la Torre. “You know, we think the stress and the anxiety takes place after the school closes, but it’s already happening right now to all these kids as well.”
This year, Chicago is proposing something it’s never tried before. The district is making an unprecedented investment in receiving schools: in staffing and amenities like iPads, air conditioning, and libraries. That approach is unstudied.
District spokeswoman Becky Carroll criticized WBEZ for "going back" to de la Torre's study. She says the Consortium report and community input helped CPS come up with its school closing policy. And she repeated the district’s stance: Every child at a closing school will have an opportunity to attend a higher-performing welcoming school this fall.