Highlights of a decade: 1998

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One of the few conclusions that everyone involved in school reform has reached is that local control did not help high schools.

A year into his administration, Paul Vallas acknowledged that progress was “going to take time with the high schools.”

In response to steadily declining high school test scores, Vallas reached for a wide variety of remedies.

In the summer of 1997, the administration hastily “reconstituted” seven high schools, sending 188 teachers in search of new jobs inside the system. By the summer of 1998, only four of the seven schools had improved their test scores. Under pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union, the board announced a moratorium on reconstitution. By the end of the year, the board and union had come up with an alternative, “re-engineering,” that gives teachers a stronger voice in repairing under-performing schools as well as a say in whether fellow teachers should be dismissed. A dozen schools have begun the process, which remains controversial within the union’s ranks.

In 1998, the board also decided to drop mandatory summer school for 9th-graders with low test scores, following a poor turnout. Since low-scoring freshmen who passed their courses went on to take sophomore-level courses anyway, there was little incentive for them to attend, one official noted. However, Vallas has proposed bringing summer school back.

The Chicago Academic Standards Exams, which the board is developing to pressure all teachers to teach to its standards, also got off to a rocky start in 1998. Most students failed three of the four exams piloted with 9th-graders. But the board didn’t flinch. “We will not make the exam easier,” Vallas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re just going to find a way to get the students to the standard.”

Assistance has taken many forms, too:

The creation of alternative schools where trouble makers can be sent.

Retaining low-scoring 8th-graders, which has given high schools better prepared freshmen.

A redesign plan that has both requirements (e.g., freshman advisories to forge closer ties between students and teachers) and options (e.g., double-period scheduling to allow for more creative instruction).

Incentives for schools to try innovative programs, such as schools-within-schools and the International Baccalaureate program.

Help for teenage moms and extra money for tutoring or make-up classes for students who fail courses.

G. Alfred Hess, Jr., a Northwestern University professor conducting a massive, three-year study of high schools for the School Board, found some improvement in the first year, reporting that “high school staffs are working much harder and are much more focused” on improving achievement on reading and math tests.

“There was a significant sense of accountability in reconstituted high schools and half of the schools on probation,” says Hess. “The other half of the probation schools didn’t take [the threat of] reconstitution seriously. They said, ‘Hey, this can’t happen to us.'”

Over all, says Hess, “Students are achieving at higher levels. However, most of the reason for significant improvement is because students are leaving 8th grade better prepared.”