The Chicago Public School district (CPS) has been in education news many times over the years, and not typically for its successes. Yet a recent report produced jointly by the Joyce and Spencer Foundations claims that, far from being a poster child for dysfunction, the district is helping students make gains that are among the fastest in the nation. The report presents data and outcomes from a November 2017 conference hosted by the two foundations, in which civic and educational leaders in Chicago met to explore research on the city’s progress, identify possible drivers of the improvement, and reflect on next steps for the district.

The report’s authors primarily rely on a Stanford University study by Sean Reardon as proof of CPS’s progress. The research examines growth of Chicago scores on state tests from 2009 to 2014. Comparing the yearly gains of students in CPS to the two thousand largest districts in the country, Reardon found that CPS elementary school students grew faster than those in most other districts and states. On average, Chicago students achieved six years of growth during the five years between third and eighth grade; the black-white achievement gap held steady because the two groups grew at the same rate; and the Hispanic-white achievement gap narrowed because Hispanic students actually improved faster than their white peers.

Chicago is therefore producing growth, but it’s not clear how. With numerous projects, partnerships, and reforms in play, the report’s authors were not able to identify exactly which programs, policies, or inputs caused the gains. But the report outlines some possible causes that experts and stakeholders discussed at the November conference.

One is the district’s partnership with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The Consortium studies policy changes in CPS and provides frequent feedback, which the district uses to adapt practice. For example, the district’s “Freshman On-Track” indicator, a system to help ninth-graders meet core metrics of standards in attendance, grades, and behavior, is based on Consortium research. Other potential causes for Chicago’s gains are CPS’s efforts to prepare and support new and experienced principals, improve teaching quality through a new evaluation system and stronger curriculum and standards, and train principals and teachers to be stronger users of data on the school level. Additionally, CPS works with a number of outside organizations, including the Chicago Public Education Fund, Network for College Success, and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, whose support might contribute to its progress.

One potential issue, however, is that the report frames the Chicago story rather rosily. It tends to emphasize gains while glossing over the current levels of Chicago’s achievement, like the fact that only 18 percent of CPS ninth-graders in 2016 are expected to earn a BA within ten years of beginning high school (a number which, encouragingly, is up 7 percentage points from 2006). The district also continues to experience conflict over the role of charters, the closing of community schools, and budget issues.

Still, the report is aptly named “Progress and Promise.” Chicago has not discovered an educational panacea; its test scores are not suddenly top in the nation. There is no one magic program or factor to which CPS’s gains can be attributed. In fact, perhaps the takeaway from the report is just that. Investment in personnel quality, consistent use of data and research, and involvement of numerous stakeholders and partnerships are all part of the narrative, as are the effort of countless individuals and decades of struggling for reform. CPS still has a tall mountain to climb, but it seems to have gotten a foothold.

SOURCE: Maureen Kelleher, “Progress And Promise: Chicago’s Nation-Leading Educational Gains,” Joyce Foundation and Spencer Foundation (January 2018).

Emily Howell was a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and had been pursuing a master’s degree in education policy at The George Washington University. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Yale University, and before returning to school she taught middle school in San Antonio, TX, and Washington, DC, in both charter and traditional public schools. Her research interests include school climate, teacher…

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