In his seven years as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan has taken on a host of urban education policy challenges to varying degrees of success.

This week, Catalyst revisits some of these signature initiatives, and weighs their significance on the national scene.

Today, we look at the efforts of the Secretary of Education designate to transform high schools, offer families more and better school choices and raise the performance bar for teachers, principals and administrators.

Reforming high schools

Duncan’s oft-stated goal was to create the “best urban school district in the nation.” Yet here, as elsewhere, high schools have made little progress.

Overall high school graduation rates improved under Duncan (up to 55 percent from 47 percent), as did college-going rates (up to 50 percent from 44 percent).

Also improved is the district’s accountability around making sure students go to college. Duncan created the Office of Post-secondary Education and charged it with tracking students after they graduate. CPS is one of the few urban districts that partners with the National Student Clearinghouse, a data warehouse, so it can keep tabs on its graduates. And this past year, Duncan personally pushed principals to get more students to fill out financial aid eligibility forms.

But even with these modest improvements, fewer than a third of the students who were freshmen in 2003 and graduated four years later enrolled in college.

Individual schools, particularly neighborhood high schools like Marshall in the impoverished West Garfield Park community, have not done much better under Duncan’s leadership. Marshall’s graduation rate, for instance, is 40 percent, up only four points; and its college-going rate actually declined 4 points to 31 percent.

Meanwhile, districtwide high school test scores remain stagnant—only 31 percent of juniors meet state standards—leading many to question whether CPS graduates can succeed in college or in the job market. All but two of the 10 lowest performing high schools in 2001 lost ground by 2008.

Duncan has used three strategies to fix high schools: Close them down and replace them with new, smaller schools (Renaissance 2010); fire school staff and reopen under new management (turnaround strategy); or infuse classrooms with new curriculum and materials (High School Transformation). On all fronts, long-languishing, often-ignored high schools got some much needed attention. Also, education experts laud the focus that these efforts have placed on what goes on in the classroom.

But problems with high schools are so entrenched and intertwined with poverty that it is difficult to predict whether these efforts will be enough.

High School Transformation, for instance, launched in 2005 with the promise of delivering carefully chosen curricula designed to engage low-income students, and the teacher training to go with it. Currently, 50 schools are participating at a cost of $80 million. The influx of equipment, such as laptops and science lab materials, has been especially welcome in resource-starved schools.

But the implementation has been rocky. Earlier this year, Catalyst reported that hundreds of students in the city’s worst high schools showed up weeks after the school year had begun. On average, students in these schools were absent 50 days or more. Teachers wound up spending weeks doing catch up and back tracking. Meanwhile, this problem has received little attention in recent years, and the one tool schools need to combat it—truancy officers—are long gone. [See High School Transformation]

Duncan concedes High School Transformation has its limits. To fill some of the gaps, he has created programs to keep freshmen on track academically, and to support small groups of students most at-risk of dropping out.

For individual students, these kinds of supports show promise. The question is:  Can Duncan bring them to scale, especially nationally?

School choice and competition

The district’s new schools initiative—Renaissance 2010—has garnered much national attention for Duncan. The idea is to close low-performing schools and replace them with smaller, entrepreneurial schools, many of them free from union contracts and some state regulations.

So far, Duncan has presided over the opening of 75 such schools, 42 of them in areas that have been identified as most in need of better schools. Early on, though, a Catalyst analysis found that of the students who were displaced by school closings, only 2 percent were enrolled the next fall in new Renaissance schools. Nearly half of the displaced students landed at schools that were on academic probation. [See Schools Set Free]

Catalyst also found that not all students are making the best choices. Nearly 23 percent of African Americans who opt out of their neighborhood high school go to schools that are not much better. [See Challenges of Choice]

The effort has caused tension on the labor front, as the bulk of new schools are run by charter or other education management outfits that do not hire union members. Add to that, displaced teachers have no seniority rights on the job hunt, due to state legislation dealing with Chicago schools only. 

New on the scene is the district’s turnaround strategy, a response to community uproar over students who were displaced by school closings. Turnarounds, as they are called, allow the children to stay put while the district cleans house among staff, firing teachers and principals wholesale. To date, there are eight such schools, two of them high schools.

Despite the early claims of success, this model is largely untested. Sherman, the first turnaround school is in its 3rd year. Experts predict it will take three to five years to know whether this strategy produces solid academic gains.

Accountability and performance culture

Another hallmark of Duncan’s tenure is bringing business-oriented reformers into the fold, taking cues from Harvard University’s business and education schools. Their input has shaped a data-driven, performance-based culture that rewards well-run schools and their teachers and leaders, and penalizes schools that make no progress.

Star schools and principals have been granted more flexibility and autonomy, and often financial freedom and bonus pay. Teachers in 40 pilot schools can earn bonuses based on how well they teach and their student do. (As important, this modest program offers extra support and training for teachers.)

On the other hand, struggling schools have seen their decision-making powers greatly reduced. Probationary schools, for example, have little say over how they can spend poverty funding, an area otherwise controlled by elected local school councils. LSCs at struggling schools have also lost the right to hire or fire principals—restrictions that have outraged some parent activists.

Transparency and government efficiency

President-elect Barack Obama has promised more responsive and transparent governance of the country. Duncan did the same when he took over, promising to flood schools with data for them to make better decisions. 

Since then, the district has released a deluge of data around student learning. Its website is a treasure trove of school-by-school and grade-by-grade performance measures ranging from attendance and freshmen “on-track” rates to “value-added” test score gains.

But little has been done to shed light on district spending decisions, particularly construction and renovation budgets. CPS continues to gather input on capital needs through public meetings, but it has not laid out a clear spending strategy nor has it ranked renovation priorities from school to school. Community groups have long demanded, in vain, for just such a plan.

The district has also stalled out on its attempt to revamp budgeting practices that create inequities across schools. More progressive budgeting models—often called “student-based budgeting” or “weighted student funding”—are used in districts like Oakland, San Francisco and New York to link funds to students and their individual needs. CPS is  piloting the approach in 14 schools, but has yet to gain traction for further expansion.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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