Chicago’s marketplace of schools attempts to close educational gaps


Innovating school reform
Intro: Reinventing public schools across the U.S.
Part I: Changing fortunes of troubled Watts high school
Part II: Nonprofit attempts makeover at Crenshaw
Part III: Marketplace-of-schools model reigns in Chicago
Part IV: Boston University manages entire district
With more than 400,000 students and more than 600 schools, Chicago has the third largest district in the nation, behind New York and Los Angeles, and its modern approach to school reform has been, more or less, to break the grip of bureaucracy in favor of more local control. But the path hasn’t been straight and problems remain.

In 1989 the Illinois Legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Act, which put much of the governing power—including the ability to hire principals and approve budgets—in the hands of local school councils comprising parents, community residents, teachers, and in some cases students.

Some schools flourished with their new sovereignty while others floundered because they didn’t know how to navigate school reform, says Tracy Dell’Angela, the senior manager of outreach and publications for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, an organization that has been studying school reform in the city since 1990.

With many of the traditionally underperforming schools remaining that way, the business community mounted pressure on the Legislature to restore greater accountability. It responded by passing several amendments to the Chicago School Reform Act in 1995, one of which put the mayor in charge of the district and streamlined his ability to push through education and finance plans. This second wave of reforms marked a slight shift back to central authority.

Then in 2004, Mayor Richard Daley created an initiative called Renaissance 2010, which set a goal to close 60 underperforming schools and open 100 new ones with varying degrees of autonomy. Schools get to choose various incentives, from minimal district oversight to increased budget flexibility. This latest trend marks a kind of free-market thinking in which autonomous schools’ experimenting could lead to scalable models. More schools, more options, greater competition. By September 2008, the district had launched 75 new schools, mostly charters.

“There’s some push and pull about whether they can really deliver, but the idea is that the ultimate check on this is the parents, because if there are enough options, parents are going to vote with their feet,” Dell’Angela says, adding that those schools parents don’t choose will eventually have to change or close. But she also points out that if the district had found a scalable model it would have acted on it by now.

Meanwhile, while many schools in Chicago are showing real signs of growth—increased graduation rates, lower dropout rates, higher standardized test scores—many of the students that reform efforts are designed to help are still falling through the cracks. Dell’Angela says you can’t just look at low-income students versus middle-class or white versus minority, either, since 84.9 percent of Chicago’s students come from low-income families and 92 percent are minority.

It’s the troubled kids, the kids in gangs, kids who are in and out of foster care and who lack interested and caring mentors in their lives, that suffer, she says. The brightest and most highly motivated students flock to the new schools, while traditional neighborhood schools remain the default and place of last resort for everyone else.

Chicago public schools remain stratified, and other areas of reform still need to be addressed. Linda Lenz, editor of Catalyst, a publication devoted solely to reporting on school reform in Chicago, has said that the next wave of reforms will likely target teacher training.