A recent report from the University of Chicago revealed that after intervention in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), despite rising test scores, the student body and staff saw considerable changes in demographics, prompting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to further question the CPS model for education reform.
The report, titled “Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago” found that four years after undergoing dramatic reform efforts such as turnarounds or closure, the gap in test scores between reformed elementary and middle schools and the system average decreased by almost half in reading and by almost two-thirds in mathematics. Test scores were not significantly better in the first year of reform, but grew over time.
But the study, authored by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, also found that the staff and student body population changed drastically after intervention.
“Schools under the closure and restart model experienced substantial changes to their student body composition, serving more economically advantaged students, students of higher prior achievement, and fewer special education students,” the report reads. “After intervention, schools under the closure and restart model also served fewer students from the neighborhood around the school.”
“The teacher workforce after intervention across all models was more likely to be white, younger, and less experienced.”
Facing a $1 billion budget deficit, CPS is targeting underutilized schools for its next wave of school closures, eliminating roughly 100,000 empty seats. Nearly 140 schools are more than half empty, according to the district. The school system has classroom space for more than 500,000 students, but just over 400,000 students are enrolled.
The original list of 330 schools that could be closed was whittled down to 129 last week.
“We have found that the practices of the Board of Education are discriminatory, the loss of black educators and the displacement of black students is one of the most threatening experiences right now as a union and as a city,” said Brandon Johnson, organizer for CTU and chair of the CTU’s Black Caucus. Johnson is also a former teacher at Westinghouse College Prep in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood on the city's West Side.
“Public sector workers make up a strong economic base for a community, so when reform like this occurs in many of the schools that have already been neglected for ages, they remove the adults that have been connected to these children, in some cases for generations,” he said. “It sends a very negative message to the black community and perpetuates this notion of inferiority.”
“We’ve lost half of our black teachers within the last several years as a result of these school actions, and it just seems quite ominous that somehow thousands of black children and poor children should find their place of learning closed within a couple of months.”
Majority of the neighborhoods being hit hard by possible school closures are on Chicago’s South and West sides, including Englewood, Grand Boulevard, the Far South Side, Austin and West Humboldt Park
One representative from CPS said this wave of school closures was crucial to address a utilization crisis and was not reflective of school performance.
“We need to make sure that we’re directing our resources more wisely so that we can invest the maximum possible in our students, so that all of our schools can benefit,” said Robyn Ziegler, spokesperson for CPS. “There are things that we’re less able to provide now because we’re using the resources in underutilized buildings.”
Ziegler added that the district is spreading its resources too thin, and that combining schools was “necessary and important” to right-size the district and benefit the students.
“Safety and security for students is a top priority in this process and we’re continuing our engagement process with the community to hear their concerns,” she said.
The Board of Education has hosted more than 15 public hearings to engage the community and encourage feedback regarding school reform. Many of the school closure meetings have been tense, with protesters carrying signs and chanting about keeping neighborhood schools open.
“We’ve got to get some serious discussion going about the unintended consequences of school reform; there’s no good solution here, but there’s got to be something better than what’s happening,” said Victoria Chou, dean of education for the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
A former teacher and principal investigator for the federally-funded Chicago Teacher Pipeline Program (CTPP), a four-university effort to develop high-quality teachers for CPS, Chou said she trusts the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research data implicitly, calling their research “100 percent reliable.”
“What can policy makers do to undermine this problem of student and teacher displacement during school actions? It’s necessary to have community input, but we need a process that doesn’t devolve to a lot of shouting and pestering,” she said. “This is tough to do in an environment where trust is so low.”