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Chicago: A national laboratory for school overhauls

Controversial approaches introduced by the former schools CEO, Arne Duncan, are now part of federal policy.
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    Photo: John Booz for Catalyst

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On the last day of school in 2004, parents of students in 20 of 22 neighborhood public schools in the Mid-South section of Chicago were told that their child’s school was slated for closure.

Over the following years, 60 schools across the city would be closed for low enrollment or poor performance. Meanwhile Chicago Public Schools (CPS), led by then-CEO Arne Duncan, promised to replace them with 100 new contract, charter, and CPS “performing” schools in an initiative called Renaissance 2010.

By 2009, Duncan was promoting his brand of reform on the national stage as President Obama’s education secretary, making “school turnarounds” a federal priority.

And in Philadelphia, schools chief Arlene Ackerman was attaching the “Renaissance” name to her own plan for restructuring Philadelphia’s lowest-performing schools.

As recently as November, Ackerman touted the Chicago model in testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee.

“Like Secretary Duncan, the School District of Philadelphia supports turnaround strategies and charter school strategies that support the expansion of high performers while forcing actions such as closure on all types of failing schools,” said Ackerman. She quoted Duncan saying that while school turnarounds and closings in Chicago under his tenure as CEO had been contentious, they were “the right thing to do,” adding, “Philadelphia is likewise committed to ‘doing the right thing.’”

But back in Chicago, the heralded Renaissance 2010 initiative is increasingly acknowledged to be a failure, and the school system now talks simply about “turnarounds” – yet another round of attempts to overhaul struggling schools.

Start of a ‘Renaissance’

The Renaissance 2010 plan was first announced at the Commercial Club of Chicago amidst massive public housing closures. It was easy for community residents to see it as more about political and business interests than school reform.

“It was clear that our neighborhood had been targeted for massive school closings … because of gentrification,” said Jay Travis, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in the Mid-South region, the area hardest hit by school closings. “It didn’t have anything to do with school improvement.”

A report from the Consortium for Chicago School Research (CCSR) confirmed community accusations that students displaced by closings often ended up in similar or even lower-performing schools under Renaissance 2010. Meanwhile, new schools have not delivered promised results in terms of student achievement.

A January analysis by the Chicago Tribune showed that state test scores from Renaissance 2010 elementary schools were no different than those of neighborhood schools, and that passing rates on state tests in Renaissance 2010 high schools were even lower than the district average.

Faced with a community backlash and lack of positive data from the new schools, CPS has pulled back from school closings. In the newest “turnaround” model, children are allowed to remain in the same schools, but the adult staff is replaced – down to the last lunchroom worker.

The latest round

Right now there are only 10 official turnaround schools in CPS, all of which are run either by the Office of School Turnarounds at the district or the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit partner that specializes in teacher training.

Although some in the community see a clear difference in this newer model with less student displacement, others remain skeptical.

 “The closings are disasters; turnarounds can be,” warned Madeline Talbott, a long-time community organizer in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago.

But she acknowledged that there are AUSL elementary schools that seem to work, and added that community members are “all looking to see” what progress students make in those schools.

One focus of positive national attention in Chicago has been Harvard School of Excellence, a neighborhood elementary school in its third year of turnaround under AUSL. Results are impressive: pass rates increased from 32 percent to 56 percent since the takeover. However, the influx of additional resources to turnaround schools makes it difficult to parse out exactly what is having the positive impact.

Harvard Principal Andre Cowling believes strongly that the transformation would not have been possible without the turnaround model. “It has to be that drastic to work,” he said, explaining that turnaround principals have the power to hire their entire staff, so they all “have the same vision.”

But Talbott argued that community residents, used to jurisdiction over their schools because of a tradition of powerful Local School Councils, felt the district’s turnaround initiatives have been top-down and condescending to teachers and parents. “CPS does not believe that parents have their own students at heart,” she said. “It is very frustrating to know that they claim to be on our side.”

Despite the positive results at Harvard, researchers remain skeptical of the model of replacing the whole staff.

“If you think about what is driving people who say all we have to do is change the adults in the building … that comes along with an implicit understanding that the faculty in that building are inept,” said Sue Sporte, associate director at CCSR in a January interview with Research for Action. “And maybe they are, but maybe they’re not.”

Sporte said, “It’s too soon” to say whether there are successful models of school turnaround in Chicago, but that a similar reform agenda in 1997 known as “reconstitution” can be considered a “failure” in hindsight.

“The research suggests … turnaround on its own doesn’t guarantee that what you’re going to get the next time around is any different than what you got the last time around,” observed Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and founding senior director of CCSR, in a recent web symposium. “We’ve seen these cycles of reform for many years.”

He said that the latest research from CCSR suggests instead a critical formula of five “essential supports” that schools need to dramatically improve: school leadership, parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty, school learning climate, and instructional guidance.

Bryk agreed that “there are certainly some people who don’t belong in classrooms” but stressed that replacing an entire staff does not address those critical needs. “You still have to work on the large group of people who are there who care deeply about our children and want to improve,” he said.

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