When President Bill Clinton visited Mayer Elementary School in October, he was favorably impressed. “I want what is happening in Chicago to happen all over America,” he said, 10 years after then-Secretary of Education William Bennett proclaimed Chicago’s school system the worst in the country.

There is widespread evidence that the accountability push got just about everyone working harder. However, critics contend that the work has been narrowly focused on basic-skills tests that bear little resemblance to the academic standards that the School Board itself has adopted and is now promoting through a set of lesson plans that cover every major subject in every grade for every day of the school year.

At the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, schools chief Paul Vallas put 109 schools on probation because less than 15 percent of their students scored at or above the national norm in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (in elementary schools) and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (in high schools). He assigned each an external partner, such as a university or professional development organization, and a probation manager to oversee the process.

By the end of the school year, nine schools had worked their way off probation, but another 15 were added to the list after their test scores fell below the threshold. Also, the hammer fell on 11 principals, who were dismissed “for either low test scores, lack of completion of the school’s corrective action plan or severe leadership problems,” said Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. It also fell on seven high schools, which were partially restaffed under a process called reconstitution. Principals at three of those schools were removed, and, eventually, 40 teachers were forced out of the system because no principal would hire them.

In August 1999, Vallas raised the bar: Any school with less than 20 percent of its students at the national average was put on probation. Today, 70 schools remain on probation.

Accountability for students swung into full gear in 1997, too. Some 80,000 3rd- 6th- and 8th-graders were required to attend summer school because they fell short of test-score targets. At the end of the summer program, 10,000 were retained. Another 2,497 were promoted even though their scores again fell short.

A study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found mixed results of the board’s programs to end social promotion: Compared to the past, many more students raised their scores to minimally acceptable levels during the school year. Many students got a big boost from summer school but, once promoted, began to fall behind again. Students who were retained did not progress even though they got extra help.

“Almost every study that has been done has proven that [retention] doesn’t help kids at all—in fact they proved that retaining kids damages them,” notes Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). Her organization has gotten the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the impact of the board’s policy on African-American and Latino students. “If it was a medicine,” she says, “it would be banned.”

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