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Schools Can Get Better. They Can Also Get Worse.

In 1987 then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett flew to Chicago and pronounced its schools “the worst in the nation.”

“I’m not sure there’s a system as bad as the Chicago system,” he said.

Detroit and a few other cities were clear rivals, but to Bennett, Chicago—with its 43 percent dropout rate and dismal scores on the college entrance ACT test—beat them all.

Thirty years later Chicago is nowhere near anyone’s list of “worst in the nation.” Detroit is.

Chicago is in fact the large urban system that grows its kids the most anywhere, according to an analysis done by Sean Reardon at Stanford University and described in the New York Times last April. That is to say, Chicago students—who are well below average performance in third grade—improve through the grades so that they are more-or-less performing at national averages in eighth grade, according to Reardon’s analysis. At the same time, 75 percent of Chicago’s students graduate from high school, and their ACT scores have vastly improved. Attendance is up; suspensions are down.

On pretty much every measure you can think of, the schools have improved not only for students overall but for every demographic subgroup. In fact, just about every group in Chicago performs comparably or above its counterpart in the state. Students from low-income families match students from low-income families in Illinois; African American students outperform African American students in Illinois.

Chicago still isn’t anywhere near where it should be, but its improvement deserves to be recognized. This is especially true given the difficult circumstances in which the schools operate: Violence stalks the city; superintendents come and go, sometimes to prison; and the city suffers under one of the most inequitable funding systems in the country, meaning that Chicago’s schools receive much less money than their suburban counterparts.

Yet still the schools rise.

If we as a nation are serious about wanting to improve our schools, we should be studying how Chicago has made such progress.

David Leonhardt’s piece (Want to fix schools? Go to the principal’s office, March 10, 2017) was a good start. He is absolutely right to pay attention to the fact that Chicago has worked to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of principals. They have helped lift a city.

But how did folks in Chicago know to push that particular lever so hard?

That may have to do with the canny use of research. Chicago has perhaps the most sophisticated and knowledgeable researchers around, working to provide schools and the district with important information that helps guide action. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Education Leadership has focused on providing Chicago with principals who understand how to improve schools. And the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research has directly provided school and district leaders with information about where their schools stand, what they can do to move forward, and what progress they have made in light of good research and evidence.

Nowhere else have university professors and public school educators worked so closely and to such good effect.

Other things to know about Chicago: Each school has a local school council of parents and community members; there has been a citywide, concerted effort to improve attendance and relationships within schools; substantial professional development has helped teachers improve their instruction; and key business partners have seen the improvement of the schools as key to the city’s viability and growth.

Chicago is a big city with a lot going on. It may be impossible to capture everything important about a generation’s worth of work by educators, researchers, parents, advocate, and city leaders. But it is important to try so that we can understand what might work elsewhere.

Certainly Chicago stands in stark contrast to Detroit, which has tragically deteriorated. Let’s just look at one measure: the results in both cities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Chicago has improved dramatically in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. Detroit has stagnated or declined on each of those measures.

We need a lot more and better information and research on what has contributed to Chicago’s ascent and Detroit’s descent. But the short story is, as Penny Sebring, co-founder of the Chicago Consortium says, “Schools can get better.”

Chicago is proof of that.

They can also get worse.

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