Very low-performing Chicago schools make progress after reform efforts

A new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that at the elementary level, turnaround efforts in Chicago had positive effects on students in chronically low-performing schools. Success at the high school level remained elusive, however.

Four years after undergoing dramatic reform efforts such as turnaround, very low-performing elementary schools in Chicago closed the gap in test scores with the Chicago Public Schools average — by almost half in reading and two-thirds in math, according to the study. The improvements took time to develop; test scores were not significantly better in the first year of reform, but grew larger over time.

The study, “Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago,” examined five different reform models initiated by the Chicago Public Schools in 36 elementary and high schools identified as chronically low performing. The reform models were: Reconstitution (seven high schools); School Closure and Restart (six elementary schools, two high schools); School Turnaround Specialist Program (four elementary schools); Academy for Urban School Leadership (10 elementary schools, two high schools); and Office of School Improvement (two elementary schools, three high schools). Each is consistent with one of the four improvement models recommended by the federal government — turnaround, transformation, restart and school closure.

Despite the attention and activity surrounding the models, there is a lack of research on whether or how they work. To begin to address this knowledge gap, CCSR and the American Institutes for Research partnered to examine dramatic interventions in Chicago, an early adopter of such reforms.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • High schools that underwent reform did not show significant improvement in absences or ninth grade on-track-to-graduate rates over matched comparison schools, but recent high school efforts look more promising than earlier ones.
  • Schools that underwent these reforms and remained neighborhood schools generally served the same students, and the same types of students, as before intervention. Schools that were closed and replaced with charter or contract schools generally served more advantaged students after intervention.
  • The teacher workforce after intervention across all models was more likely to be white, younger and less experienced.

The report was written by Marisa de la Torre, Elaine Allensworth, Sanja Jagesic, James Sebastian and Michael Salmonowicz at CCSR, and Coby Meyers and R. Dean Gerdeman at the American Institutes for Research.

CCSR is part of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.