Helpful and Harmful School Reform in Chicago

K-12 Testing
A major study from Chicago's Designs for Change (DFC) offers significant implications for school improvement efforts and a powerful caution to the overemphasis on standardized testing and the use of NCLB-style sanctions. The Big Picture ( reports that 144 initially low-scoring Chicago K-8 schools made sustained gains on standardized test scores, substantially exceeding improvements in schools that have been subject to the sorts of sanctions now mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The gains in the "up" schools were found on two reading tests, two math tests, and overall scores on the state exams. The gains came with less narrowing of curriculum and instruction to match the content and format of standardized tests than occurred in 113 schools with a minimal upward trend on their test scores. In addition, the "up" schools saw far greater test score gains than did schools placed on probation, schools with high rates of grade retention, and schools with literacy coaches assigned by the central office.


Earlier research by DFC and other Chicago studies indicates that the "up" schools are much more likely to carry out specific practices tied to "Five Essential Supports for Student Learning": school leadership, parent and community partnerships, social supports for student learning, staff collaboration and development, and high-quality instruction. The "up" schools are more likely to teach a full curriculum tied to state learning standards, rather than emphasize teaching to the test. Other Chicago researchers have found that interactive, cognitively rich instruction produces higher test scores than does didactic instruction that emphasizes rote learning, such as teaching to the test.


The "up" schools have effective parent-led Local School Councils that selected and collaborated with strong principals, strengthening what DFC terms the "complex human systems" of schools. Overall, the "up" schools have high levels of teamwork among all of the adults important in children's lives in their school communities.


The 144 "up" schools were 37% of the grade K through 8 schools identified as low-scoring in 1990. These schools, serving some 100,000 students, have greater percentages of students in poverty than the school systems of Baltimore and Milwaukee. Most of the "up" schools are overwhelmingly African American or Latino.


The report profiles several "up" schools in which education is not the drill-and-kill, one-size-fits-all instruction increasingly found in urban schools serving poor kids, as documented by Jonathan Kozol in Shame of the Nation. Many people in Chicago say there is far too much teaching to the test, with too little attention to higher order, critical thinking. The Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) relies primarily on low-level multiple-choice items and fails to adequately measure the state's own standards. The Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), long used in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for grade promotion decisions and principal evaluations, is an all-multiple-choice, norm-referenced test. Chicago's "up" schools tend to resist the powerful pressure to teach to the test. Case studies also indicate that these schools have implemented more sophisticated assessment strategies.


Chicago had created an independent task force that produced a set of useful recommendations for improving assessment, linked to professional development. . Unfortunately, CPS declined to release the report and has not acted in any systematic fashion on the recommendations. An alliance of local organizations, backed by FairTest, proposed an alternative approach to assessment and accountability, the New ERA Plan ( Instead, CPS has focused on high-stakes testing, punishment and, increasingly, privatization.


CPS' Failed Policies
The DFC report concludes: "School-initiated efforts to improve achievement resulted in major gains in high-poverty schools, while the three expensive Central Board programs [school probation, grade retention and literacy coaches] analyzed in this study either had little impact or were harmful to students" (emphasis in original, p. 66).But Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley and the school officials he appoints have often claimed their test-based efforts are working. CPS has been an extremely test-driven system since 1995 when a new state law enabled the mayor to seize control over low-scoring schools. High-stakes testing was wedded to a series of punitive measures.


Under the leadership of Paul Vallas, Chicago instituted test-based retention at grades 3, 6 and 9 in 1996 (see Examiner, Fall 2000). Several studies have shown that retained students in Chicago are far more likely to drop out (see Examiner, Spring-Summer 2004). Design's report shows that the retention policy also was not successful in motivating students in general to work harder and achieve more. The 100 schools that retained the most students made far smaller test-score gains overall than did the 144 "up" schools. From 1996 to 2003, the high-retention schools increased their percentage of students scoring at or above the national average by 7.3% percentage points in reading. By comparison, the "up" schools made a 15 percentage point increase during this period. Similar differences in gains occurred on the state ISAT reading test.


The Big Picture also reinforces other Chicago studies indicating that the use of school probation and reconstitution in Chicago has failed. CPS' solution for schools with low test scores has been to strip their LSC's of authority and exert greater central office control. CPS has replaced principals and staff and at times introduced scripted curricula geared to the tests. However, the results were parallel to the meager results of grade retention, with "up" schools gaining far more than probation schools on the ITBS and the overall ISAT.


The central administration has also required low-scoring schools to use their "discretionary" budgets to hire literacy coaches -- primarily ones chosen by the central administration. But schools with literacy coaches made smaller gains from 2000-01 to 2004-05 than did "up" schools.


Rather than build on its successful schools, making them resources to help other schools, Chicago has initiated "Renaissance 2010," a privatization scheme concocted by a business group in a report that contained no evidence that their strategy would succeed. "Ren 2010" aims to privatize 100 schools in Chicago. The schools will not have elected Local School Councils - though the successful schools all have LSCs. "Ren 2010" also bars the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) from unionizing the teachers in most Ren 2010 schools -- though teachers in all the 144 successful schools are part of the CTU.


In short, under the gun of standardized testing and NCLB, as well as pressure from corporate leaders, CPS is blaming parents, teachers and unions who are not causes of the problems, selecting "reforms" that don't work, and ignoring documented successes.


o DFC's report is at