Friday, July 01, 2011

School Reform, Chicago Style

This cover story in today's WSJ highlights some incredible results from Chicago's efforts to improve its worst schools, with a particular focus on one dropout factory (here's the key: "The school used its turnaround funds to replace 80% of its faculty, revamp curriculum and enhance anti-truancy efforts, among other steps."):

Chicago won $20 million in federal money over three years to help improve its worst-performing schools, part of a $3.5 billion program that targeted 1,247 failing schools nationwide. The district is kicking in another $7 million in local money, and officials were determined to invest in programs that would help them measure progress, use the information to fine-tune tactics on the fly, and hold staff and students accountable for the results.

"We want to move investments to things that work," said Don Fraynd, the district official overseeing Marshall's turnaround.

One year in, results from Marshall are far from conclusive, but district officials see promising trends. Average attendance rose 22 points to 75% for the year, and 79% of freshmen were on track to advance to 10th grade, up from 34%. At each grade level, scores on standardized tests improved from fall to spring in English, math, reading and science. Other Chicago schools that have been in the program longer have reported similar gains.

It's unclear whether the program can be sustained. Chicago's district, which has a $5.5 billion budget, faces a $712 million deficit. It has slashed its share of the turnaround funds by 60% for next year.

Data collection and analysis aren't new to public education; Houston's district was an early proponent and judged it a success. But few districts have embraced them to manage student and staff performance the way Chicago has. Mr. Fraynd said the data he tracks have played a role in disciplinary actions and job losses for employees of his office and the schools he oversees. The data haven't been used against teachers, as their union contract bars it. But by 2013, such benchmarks as student academic growth will become part of broader teacher performance evaluations.

Chicago's program was partly modeled on CompStat, a New York City police system that required precinct commanders to analyze and answer for weekly crime statistics. Proponents said CompStat sharply reduced crime, though critics said the pressure led precincts to manipulate results. Similar concerns have been voiced about data-driven reforms in schools.

District officials targeted Marshall—a basketball powerhouse spotlighted in the documentary "Hoop Dreams"—based on some grim statistics. It had the city's lowest percentage of freshmen on track to become 10th-graders, and the lowest attendance rate among Chicago's conventional high schools: 53%. Half its students were dropouts; only 3% passed state proficiency exams. Most came from poor homes in violent neighborhoods.

The 118-year-old building stands in East Garfield Park, a depressed West Side neighborhood where redevelopment efforts stalled. A few blocks away, a sign on a vacant lot heralds the construction of a new condo project. Expected completion: 2008.

The school used its turnaround funds to replace 80% of its faculty, revamp curriculum and enhance anti-truancy efforts, among other steps; it adopted the CompStat-style system to measure progress on all those fronts.

Two number crunchers at Marshall digested tens of thousands of data points, from the frequency of fights to cheerleaders' GPAs. Charts lining the hallways listed attendance rates of individual students. Staff members gathered regularly for "performance management" meetings to review data and outline solutions.


School Reform, Chicago Style


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