Earlier this month, Bruce Rauner caused a backlash when he unloaded on CPS:
“The simple fact is that when you look objectively at the state of Chicago Public Schools, many of them are inadequate. Many of them are woeful, and some are just tragic. Many of them are basically almost crumbling prisons. They’re not a place a young person should be educated,” Rauner said.
Despite being asked to do so, Rauner never specified which schools are "woeful," "just tragic," or "basically almost crumbling prisons." But it is a familiar lament; the narrative of CPS decline is a powerful one even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
But it has been a difficult few years for CPS, not that it's ever easy. The district is all but out of money. It's passed through scandal and multiple superintendents. How is CPS faring?
"We don't see the schools that are just miserable places to be; that would be very rare now. There's just been a lot of change in the district. And you can see it in terms of students' outcomes," says Elaine Allensworth, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. "The worst schools way back in the early 2000s, in terms of schools that had really poor educational climates, little trust, and things like that, we don't see it. Even the schools that are the lowest today don't look anything like the schools that used to look the worst."
Allensworth is the lead author on a new CCSR report, which looks at 20 years of high-school graduation rates and student performance in CPS. And the numbers are, quite simply, encouraging. The graduation rate by age 19 has increased steadily from 53 percent in 2003 to between 71 and 75 percent in 2014. Graduation rates for regular, non-selective high schools have closed the gap with charter schools over the same time frame. And achievement data in the form of test scores suggest students are—at least by those measures—doing better beyond being more likely to get through with a diploma.
It's true that CPS did itself no favors in terms of trust with coding errors that inflated graduation rates, and counting alternative diplomas under graduation rates for regular high schools, as Becky Vevea of WBEZ and Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ discovered in a series of investigative reports. The CCSR report takes that into account, though, and the trend remains the same. Even subtracting all students who transferred out of CPS, correctly coded or not, the graduation rate rises from 44 percent in 2002 to 62 percent in 2014.
The largest gains have come from students who are off-track for graduation in their ninth-grade year. Of those on-track in ninth-grade, the graduation rate rose from 81 percent in 2002 to 88 percent in 2014; of those off-track, it rose from 22 percent to 36 percent. And those students have been an intentional focus for CPS in recent years, stemming from CCSR research, as the Atlantic's Kate Grossman reported last year.
"What we see is much better attendance, students' grades improving, pass rates improving, and those improvements coincide exactly with the time period when the district started giving schools early warning indicator reports, real-time data, and focusing on ninth-grade on-track," Allensworth says. "Sometimes you have 9th grade teams. The 9th grade team will get together with the early-warning data, and talk about students that teachers share. A student may be failing one class, but doing fine in all the other classes. The teacher where the student is failing wouldn't realize that unless they got together with the data—oh, so the student's failing my class, but not your classes.
"Other schools have on-track coordinators that will look at data for students who are failing a class at the midterm, for each student, call in a conference with the student, the teacher, and the parent, find out what's going on, why is this student failing, and together, talk about the data. And say, hey, they need to change what they're doing or they're not going to pass."
The early-warning reports include "credit-recovery" reports, which gather the information on what students in which schools need which makeup-classes in order to graduate. "Just having it nicely organized like that makes it more obvious what it is you need to do," Allensworth says.
Grossman's Atlantic piece brings up the specter of data errors or manipulation, unsurprising given that CPS had to lower years of graduation rates last year after media reports. But other data in the CCSR lend credence to the idea that CPS high-school students are performing better. Credits attempted and earned in ninth grade have risen; incoming math scores are up; ACT scores of graduates are up, even though many more students are taking the ACT. The number of students taking AP courses increased by over 10,000 from 2002 to 2013, but the percentage of students scoring a three or more increased slightly, from 34 to 37 percent.
Nor is it just the ACT and AP, or even CPS high schools.
"I feel like this should be a time when we're celebrating because our schools have improved so much, and now we're also seeing improvements in the elementary schools, too, the last few years," Allensworth says. "Test scores are going up, attendance is going up in the elementary schools. Gains in Chicago outpace gains in the nation on the NAEP. Chicago showed bigger gains than the rest of the country and other big cities; they're far outpacing the rest of Illinois in terms of the gains students make on tests from year to year."
She adds, "Instead, all we're talking about is the fact that we have this giant fiscal crisis. So far the schools have kept getting better and better despite having a lot of churn at the leadership level for the past eight years. At what point is it too much? I don't know."