Study: Drastic school reforms produce some positive results

Board will consider closings or complete re-staffings for 16 more schools this month.

February 9, 2012

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Chicago has tried some drastic fixes for its worst performing schools.

A study out Thursday from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research says these shake-ups are having a positive impact, but it also confirms long-standing claims by some that charter schools attract more advantaged students.

The study looks at 36 elementary and high schools that underwent huge reforms. Some had all staff replaced. Others were closed and charter schools opened in their place. Most also received additional resources, sometimes totaling millions of dollars.

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Researchers found elementary schools showed improvement. 

Schools that started out far below the district average in math and reading moved closer to the district average. After four years, reading gaps between overhauled schools and the district average were cut in half. Math gaps were cut by nearly two-thirds.

Researchers paired the overhauled schools to schools that were similar in terms of student demographics and prior performance. They found sixth graders in schools that underwent drastic reforms, for instance, were about 3 1/2 months ahead in reading, and six months ahead in math. That’s after four years of reform.

The teachers union dismissed that as “incremental change.”

But Chicago’s Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso says the study supports the district’s current course.

“You’re seeing more aggressive gains coming from our turnaround models,” said Donoso. “Definitely the growth is outpacing our similar neighborhood schools.”

The school board votes this month on a proposal to close down or completely re-staff some 16 additional schools.

The models of school reform examined by the study are now being pushed—and funded—by the federal government. 

University of Chicago professor Timothy Knowles said gains made at the overhauled schools should be viewed from a long-term perspective. He says CPS has struggled for decades to do something about its lowest performing schools, and “they’ve appeared impervious to change.”

He said even small gains are encouraging.

Researchers concluded that high schools that underwent reform did not show lasting improvements in attendance or the percentage of 9th graders passing their classes. Most of the reforms they examined for high school took the late 1990s.

“What they’ve done is taken schools at the bottom and made them better. They haven’t yet taken schools at the bottom and made them great. That would be a remarkable tale. But they’re on the path, and the steepness of the graph suggests this is a reform worth paying attention to.”

The study also found:

• When a school is completely restaffed but maintains its attendance boundary, students return to the school at about the same rate as they did before the reform.

• When schools close and are replaced with charter schools, they tend to attract better-performing and more economically advantaged students from further away. Charter schools also re-enroll fewer of a school’s original students. For instance, when Howland Elementary in North Lawndale became Catalyst-Howland Charter School, just 16 percent of students eligible to re-enroll did.

• New staff at schools where drastic reform took place tends to be younger, more white, and less experienced. Teachers are also more likely to have provisional certifications than before the turnaround. The percentage of African-American teachers at many schools dropped drastically, though the reforms took place in mostly black neighborhoods. The shakeups meant a 30, 40 even 60 percent reduction in African-American teachers at individual schools.

CPS says the new teachers are getting results, and that’s what parents care about. But the Chicago Teachers Union filed a complaint Wednesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that under the district's 2011 layoff policy black teachers were unfairly targeted for layoffs.

The Consortium study was 2 1/2 years in the works—and the full version of the report is not finished. Researchers said they rushed to get information out before the board votes on school closures and turnarounds Feb. 22.

The Chicago Teachers Union says it plans to file for an injunction today to keep the board from voting.

The Consortium study had been considered for publication by the federal government. Rebecca Maynard, Commissioner of the National Center for Educational Evaluation, said she read a version of the report in late 2011 and found that “parts of the report were written in such a way that they could suggest the study was intended to answer more complex questions than was judged to be possible with the available data.”

Maynard stressed she had not seen the report being released Thursday. The Consortium says the data Maynard saw was the same, but the report is “completely different.”