Getting the questions right on Chicago schools

November 5, 2012

Dr. Charles M. Payne
Dr. Charles M. Payne

The awkward departure of Jean-Claude Brizard from Chicago Public Schools seemed to surprise no one. Many figured the deed was already done when the Chicago Tribune (on August 31) started speculating about his future. Given the ending of the teachers’ strike, given the looming fights over school actions, given new leadership untarnished by old fights, it would be wonderful if Chicagoans could take a step back and think for a moment  about the larger issues of how the education debate is being framed in our city. 

I’ve spent considerable time recently trying to understand why schools in several other cities seem to be outperforming ours.  If we take reading proficiency in 4th grade as one measure of doing well, for example, about 18% of Chicago’s children reached that mark on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Of 21 cities tested,  NAEP ranks 12 of them as doing significantly better than Chicago, among them Boston, New York, Austin, Atlanta , Houston, and Miami; at least 7 districts have 30% or more of students reaching proficiency.  Chicago does better than a few cities, including Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit, the latter trailing the nation at 7%.   

There are measures on which we look a little better or a little worse, but overall, Chicago is squarely in the middle of the national pack. After twenty years of vigorous reform -- If it’s twenty years old, can it still be called “reform?” – our schools still look mediocre. Why can’t we do better?  During the first few days of the strike I sent a letter to the Tribune suggesting that part of our problem may be a deeply dysfunctional civic culture, most easily exemplified by the state of educational journalism in some of our most influential media outlets.  At the time, I was complaining about the one-dimensional and static portrayal of the teachers’ union, the polarizing rhetoric, the oversimplification of important issues, and the uncritical advocacy of “reforms” with little empirical support.  I complained too soon.  Had I but waited a few days, I would have had so much more to complain about.

Setting a low bar

Consider the breathless editorial (on September 19) with which the Tribune greeted the end of the strike, opening with:

Wednesday will be another school day for 566 students at Fuentes Elementary charter school on Chicago's Northwest Side. Fuentes isn't a traditional Chicago public school, but part of the United Neighborhood Organization network of charter schools, run under different rules without union teachers.

Fuentes students — who outperform students in traditional Chicago public schools in reading and math — have been in class since Aug. 6. They haven't missed a single day of instruction while 350,000 of their peers have slept late and waited for striking teachers to return to classrooms.

“Let 100 Fuentes Elementaries bloom” proclaimed the subhead.   With all respect for that school-community, the choice of that school as some kind of exemplar says a lot about what ails the city.  If we look at 2012 test scores, Fuentes has 82% of its students meeting or exceeding state standards, better than the 74% rate for traditional schools or the 76% average for charters.   Still, over a hundred schools outperform Fuentes by that measure, many of them traditional neighborhood schools with student bodies that don’t reflect any form of selection.  Let us hold some of them up for praise as well.  (I know, by the way, that at least a handful of Chicago charters are making earnest efforts to shape student bodies that better reflect the city’s student population, for which they should be commended.)  One of my pet peeves is that when our schools do good things, they should get more public praise than they typically do but that should apply to all schools, not just those of a certain type.

More importantly, using ISAT scores in this way sets a pretty low bar. One of the ways in which our newspapers have dumbed down the conversation in Chicago is by uncritical use of the “meets and exceeds” standard.  I’m fairly certain that every education reporter knows that state standards are so low that just knowing which students meet standards tells you very little. One of the things adding rancor to school closing debates is that CPS has in the past made decisions about which schools stay open based on very small differences on a very dubious test.  The students who score in the “exceeds” category are the ones likely to do well subsequently.  The 2011 exceeds number for Fuentes is about 16%,  just under the city average. So we are saying, “Let 100 Average Schools Bloom?” Only in Chicago.

It can be very instructive to look at the ISAT exceeds category across school types. The latest data I have comparing charters, traditional public schools, and magnets are from 2010, when traditionals showed about of 11% of children in the exceeds category,  charters showed 12% but magnets, which select their student bodies in the same way charters do, showed 24% of students exceeding.  On average, then, the charter vs. traditional schools debate is over that 1% difference.  The starting point for discussion should be that both charters in Chicago and traditional schools in Chicago are failing the overwhelming majority of their children. Magnets are showing substantially more promise, and maybe more of our citywide discussion should be about what they are doing, whether it can be expanded and how fairly they are distributed across the city.  I know CPS is committed to expanding the magnet program, which is good, but that is different from giving them the kind of place in our civic conversation the charter issue has held.

Aspiring to mediocrity

Our problem in Chicago is that we think prosperity means having ten cents more than a beggar. The September 19 Tribune editorial offers an even better example of aspiring to mediocrity: 

CPS has other powerful tools to revive troubled schools, including its successful "turnaround" program in which the district replaces school leadership and staff, revamps curriculum, beefs up security and brings in more social workers and counselors. This strategy is yielding impressive student gains in many cases. CPS should put more schools into turnaround.

By way of full disclosure, I was, once upon a time, very hopeful about what turnarounds could do.  That was before the Consortium on Chicago School Research released its evaluation some months ago. It is instructive to look back at some of the headlines with which those results were greeted:

Chicago Sun-Times, “Editorial: CPS must learn from successful turnarounds.”

Chicago Tribune,”Progress seen at city ‘turnaround’ schools”

Catalyst Chicago, “Turnaround study shows only small gains”

The Catalyst headline is the one most aligned with reality.  The research showed that at the high school level there was little difference between turnarounds and comparisons.  At the elementary school level, over four years, schools made up half the distance between themselves and the system average, and the pace of change may be improving.   One doesn’t want to disparage hard work in tough schools, but four years to get halfway to average in a system where most children are failing is hardly what people envisioned from the turnaround experiment and it is long way from being “a powerful tool” for anything.   

Here again, looking at other cities can be instructive.  In their first year, Philadelphia’s  K-8 turnarounds outperformed comparison schools by 14%  in math (students reaching proficiency on state test) and by 8% in reading.   In Philadelphia, the teachers union was involved in the design of the schools  -- I used to call this the world’s meanest union-  there was a provision for community advisory councils and it looks like there was considerable concern with developing stronger teacher efficacy.  We can’t say whether these differences had to do with the outcomes, but the point is that different cities have very different ways of thinking about the same reform and the more we know about that, the more likely we are to ask the right questions about reforms in Chicago.

Caution on charter expansion

The main message of the September 19 editorial is that we should be expanding charters as rapidly as possible.   It’s not clear what evidence supports that conclusion.  We’ve already noted that test score data in Chicago might, with some charity, be called a push.  I don’t have comprehensive data, but I think charter high schools are frequently improving graduation rates, as would be expected from smaller schools. I understand that in other cities, there are data suggesting parents find charters more responsive. Given the number of stories I hear from Chicago parents about feeling pushed out and demeaned by the professionals in traditional public schools, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a pattern here as well.  Still, there is nothing compelling in the local record of charters. Nationally, I take it that the most authoritative national study is still the 2009 report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford, concluding that while 17% of charters showed significantly better academic achievement than traditional neighborhood schools, about 46% showed about the same level of achievement and 37% showed significantly worse.

Charters also seem to suffer high student turnover – over 50% in three years in some cases – with the students who leave being disproportionately low-achievers. There are places – Boston and New York being among the most cited –where charters seem more likely to outperform other schools, but I would note that Boston and New York seem to do a lot of things more effectively than we do; that is, the differences may have more to do with infrastructure than model If we look at early reading on the NAEP specifically among poor children, of the seven poorest –performing districts,  5 are heavily chartered, with 20% or more of their students in charters (Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, DC and Milwaukee).  That is not causal data but it is also not data that makes a case for more charters. If we as a city are going to make a substantial commitment to charters, we need to reason to believe that at scale they are substantially better than alternatives and I have yet to see that data.

We should be especially cautious of rapid expansion.  The history of urban school reform is littered with cases where rapid expansion undermined promising work.  Projects outrun their supply lines.  The little data we have nationally on teacher turnover in charter networks may be an indication that some of them are already reaching that point.  It is not clear that Chicago’s central office, after much turnover of key personnel and the downsizing of some key offices is in much of a position to support rapid expansion of charters or anything else (which, again, tells us that the discussion we should be having is about building system infrastructure, not expanding this week’s fad).  It would be foolish not to attempt some expansion of our best charter networks, but it should be done with due caution and in the context of renewed emphasis on developing the schools we already have, irrespective of type.  

A real conversation on the future of schools

I don’t want to leave the impression that media coverage of these issues has been entirely one-sided.   A recent (October 24)  Tribune  front-page story carried the headline “A Cautionary Tale on Charter Schools.”  The story chronicled the long-running problems with the performance of charters in Ohio.  It missed some important points but perhaps it was a step toward a more cautious discussion.  Chicago media should also be commended for their persistent sense of urgency.   They act as if the current system is intolerable, which is right. One of the ugliest notes creeping back into the national conversation is the idea that maybe schools can’t really do anything for poor children after all; the real issue is poverty.  We have to acknowledge without blinking that poverty damages children but we also have to recognize that the stronger schools and school systems do much better by children than schools where the leadership spends its time whining about poverty.  Public figures who don’t get that, forfeit their right to be taken seriously.

Other cities spend more time talking about building real partnerships with parents and communities, about building trust across sectors, about benchmarking themselves against genuinely high standards, about balancing business expertise and educational expertise,  about dramatically ratcheting up the quality of instructional leadership and support, about having resources follow need,  about making sure children get a strong early start, about improving all schools, about enriching opportunities for learning beyond school hours, about access to and transparency of information. All of these conversations exist in Chicago but they tend to be pushed to the side by our bloody wars over one oversold silver bullet after another.  Sometimes we seem like children desperately defending our little mudpiles. 

Part of what is so frustrating is that I know people in the neighborhoods are past ready for a real conversation about the future of their schools, even though they know it cannot be an easy conversation.  Instead, they get one quick fix after another thrown at them. This is a failure of leadership to frame the conversation the city needs.

Charles M. Payne is the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is the author of So Much Reform, So Little Change, which examines the persistence of failure in urban school districts. Dr. Payne served as chief education officer under former Schools CEO Terry Mazany.