Catalyst’s recent issue, The Rise of Noble, presents a thoughtful portrait of Chicago’s largest charter school organization, the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In an era where rhetoric sometimes passes for reporting, it provides a glimpse into the inner workings of what has recently been recognized as “the best performing large charter school network in America.” One can reasonably debate the merits of Noble’s discipline policies or its teacher retention strategies, but it’s undeniable that Noble has had a net positive impact on Chicago’s youth. Furthermore, the mere presence of the institution has reshaped the public education landscape in Chicago for the better.
As recently as 2004, there were no CPS high schools (other than selective-enrollment schools) where the average student graduated ready for college. The college readiness benchmark on the ACT is 21 out of the possible 36 points. Not a single open-enrollment high school in the city met that benchmark for its average graduate in 2004. Today, there are three schools – all run by Noble – where the average student has a college-ready ACT score, which opens the door to more selective colleges with higher institutional graduation rates. In fact, Noble schools made up 7 of the top 10 non-selective schools in Chicago on last year’s ACT.
Despite Noble’s proven track record, there are still those who are skeptical of its results. Some try to explain away this remarkable level of achievement by claiming that Noble attracts students who are already higher achieving when they arrive. But the data make clear that Noble performance is the result of what happens after students arrive as freshmen. Looking at the current senior class, if one compares ACT-aligned Explore scores from the fall of 9th grade to those in the spring of 11th grade, the average Noble student moved from a 9th grade score of 15.0 to a score of 20.3. At Noble Bulls Prep, the gains are even more dramatic: average student scores go up by 7 points in those two and a half years. For comparison, the average growth among students at non-selective CPS schools is less than 3 points. This means that the average student at Noble’s Bulls campus makes more than twice the gains of his or her peers at a district-run school. This is an astounding accomplishment, one that cannot be explained away with the tired ‘creaming’ argument.
Noble’s impact is not simply about test scores. Noble exists to make college a reality for more students, many of whom will be first-generation college graduates. The majority of their students come from predominantly low-income households (89%) and are overwhelming African American or Latino (96%)—both above district rates. These populations have historically been underserved by Chicago Public Schools. In spite of this reality, 10 Noble campuses ranked in the top 20 for college enrollment last year. Noble’s UIC College Prep campus had the highest college enrollment rate of any public high school in Chicago—selective enrollment schools included—with 92% of graduates enrolling in college. Noble’s triumphs with their students are a win for the whole city of Chicago, as more students are being afforded a life of opportunity by attending a high-quality public high school.
Noble’s growth has not come at the expense of improved performance elsewhere. Instead, Noble has raised the bar for all schools. The overall ACT attainment in the city is now far higher than it was ten years ago, rising from 16.9 in 2004 to 18.2 in 2015. In fact, the tenth highest performing open enrollment high school today performs at a higher level than the best such school did ten years ago.
The district must adapt to a new reality: it is no longer acceptable to sit idly by while the students facing the greatest hurdles are left behind. Principal Marcey Sorensen from Roberto Clemente Community Academy noted as much when she acknowledged, “The only way we can compete is to be better.” It’s easy to poke holes in Noble’s theory of change vested in principals, teachers, and school culture, but the focus of the discussion should be student outcomes. Nearly 20 years of Noble education have taught us all one thing: students will rise to meet our expectations if we build schools and supports around the certainty of their success.
Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy is a former public school teacher and civil rights lawyer.