Only weeks before Chicago School Board members vote on whether to turn around a record number of schools, a new study indicates Chicago’s “turnaround” elementary schools produced better academic gains than other “worst of the worst” schools that did not undergo similar reforms.
Chicago’s public high schools were another story. There, researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that, after four years, “turned around” high schools did not perform differently than similar struggling high schools on at least two important indicators.
And, said Consortium co-author Elaine Allensworth, although the elementary gains are “statistically significant, whether they are substantially significant is a matter for interpretation.”
After four years, sixth graders in turned-around schools were 3.5 months ahead of kids in similar low-scoring schools in reading and 4.5 months ahead in math, Allensworth said. Turned-around elementary schools narrowed their test score difference from the district average by almost half in reading and almost two-thirds in math after four years, the study said.
Consortium researchers rushed the analysis into print, releasing only an “overview of findings” and not the final report, because they said they wanted to inform the current debate over Chicago’s turnarounds and stop inaccurate “rumors” about what their study actually showed.
Allensworth noted that there weren’t enough schools in any one of five CPS turnaround models studied to say that one worked better than any other. However, School Board members will vote later this month on whether to use two of the turnaround models studied — both involving giving all the adults in a building pink slips – on 10 failing schools.
CPS officials quickly seized on the study to tout the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which turned around 12 of 36 schools studied and, if approved, will oversee six more.
“I would say the report shows there’s promising and encouraging data about our turnaround models in particular and about AUSL as an example,” said CPS Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso.
In elementary schools, the AUSL model comes with $300,000 in one time start-up costs, $141,000 for an assistant principal, $420 per pupil for five years, and teacher “coaches” that visit new or struggling teachers at least three times a week. Plus, schools sites are spruced up physically.
“All the schools would thrive if they were given the resources AUSL has,” Chicago Teachers Union researcher Sarah Hainds said Wednesday. “The model is still in an experimental stage and a full evaluation should take place prior to expansion.”
However, CPS officials said some schools targeted for shakeups are among the top 25 in the district for per-pupil funding. “Resources alone are not the answer,” Donoso said.
School reform researcher Geoffrey Borman said it’s difficult to control for the huge influx of resources some turnaround schools receive, as well as the fact that, in one model studied, some neighborhood schools were “turned around” by replacing them with schools that picked kids by lottery.
“There are many limitations to this study and if one were to take a true, critical eye at these results, they do not conclusively show these reforms caused these schools to turn around in the way described in the report,” said Borman, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
To make such a conclusion on such a high-stakes matter, Borman said, CPS should randomly pick turnaround targets from a basket of similarly failing schools, and compare them to other schools in the same basket.
The study was released amid a drama about whether it would be published by the federal Institute of Education Sciences, where the Consortium’s former director, John Easton, now serves as director.
Rebecca Maynard, commissioner at a regional agency within the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), said IES withdrew plans to publish the study because “parts of the report were written in such a way that could suggest the study was intended to answer more complex questions than was judged to be possible with the available data.”
Allensworth said the Consortium used comparison groups “developed with input from” IES reviewers, but Maynard nixed publication anyway.