Here’s what happened in Chicago public education this year

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
The word 'strike' is taped across a coat as Educators from the Acero charter school network protest during a strike outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters in December

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we have published 200 stories about public education in the city. We’ve profiled programs, policies, and people, from a detailed analysis of the increasingly popular International Baccalaureate curriculum to the very personal story of a 16-year-old boy struggling to read. Looking back on it all, these are the 14 storylines that stood out this year — stories that we’ll be watching in 2019.  

1. Chicago schools continued to show signs of improvement.

Graduation rates at Chicago schools continued to rise this past school year, reaching what district officials described as a record high, and more students from the district than ever before enrolled in college. Meanwhile, math scores trended up slightly on a national test called the NWEA that city students take each year, evidence that the district’s efforts to boost math skills are paying off, while reading scores were flat year over year.

Still, on each of these metrics, stubborn gaps by race persisted, with black and Latino students falling behind their white and Asian peers. CEO Janice Jackson has said that addressing these disparities is one of the top priorities for the district’s new chief equity officer, a first-of-its-kind position.

2. Enrollment continued to fall.

For the 16th straight year, enrollment in Chicago’s public schools fell, this time by about 10,000 students, according to a count taken on the 20th day of school. Size matters, because the number of students determines how many critical state dollars a district receives. At the school level, per-student funding determines how many teachers a principal can hire, whether or not there are librarians and arts teachers, and how many programs are offered.

3. There was stability in the CEO’s office, but leadership changes reverberated through City Hall and Springfield.

After a revolving door of school superintendents across the past decade, homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson officially assumed the CEO job in January, achieving what she described as a longtime professional dream.

Under her watch, the district unveiled a surprise $1 billion capital plan to fund long-awaited facility upgrades, technology, and new schools in Belmont-Cragin and on the Near West Side. 

But beyond the schools chief office were some landscape-shifting leadership changes, chiefly Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek reelection — a decision that will decidedly impact schools. There was also the victory of billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker in the Illinois gubernatorial election. Here’s how candidate Pritzker described his education agenda in an October interview with Chalkbeat Chicago and WBEZ.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff/Chalkbeat
Teachers picket in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters on the second day of the Acero teachers strike.

4. The powerful teachers union experienced a big loss, followed by a big win.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that labor unions could no longer collect fees from employees on whose behalf they negotiate, but who haven’t joined the union as full members. It was a blow to groups like the Chicago Teachers Union, and many are still struggling to gauge the impact on their membership, finances, and, ultimately, their political muscle.

But earlier this month, an opportunity cropped up: The nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers, when some 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job, reverberated across the country. It grabbed the attention of the broader education community that may have regarded charters as on the fringes of their interests — until now. 

5. Attempts to reform the special education system got off to a shaky start.

In spring, the state took over the district’s special education program after an investigation revealed systemic delays and denials of services for scores of students with disabilities. By the fall, special education advocates were complaining that the state’s efforts were slow and understaffed.

They also charged that the independent monitor overseeing reforms, Laura Boedeker, and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education had failed to communicate with parents and roll out a process for repairing harm to students. In a November interview with Chalkbeat, Boedeker had this to say.

6. Chicago schools faced a second gauntlet of ratings.

Ratings are intended to signal school quality. But what happens when multiple ratings measure multiple things and don’t always paint the same picture of school performance? In October, the state education board released its annual report cards for schools across the state — and this year, for the first time, each school received one of four quality stamps. Nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance.

7. It was a cold freeze in the world of charters.

It was a tough year for the independently operated public schools: the state’s newly elected governor, J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters. Meanwhile, state legislators worked to repeal the authority of the state charter commission, and Chicago Public Schools denied all new charter applications for the next school year.

8. A sexual abuse crisis rocked Chicago schools.
The district’s widespread failure to protect student victims was first reported in early June in the Chicago Tribune. In response, Jackson and district leadership announced several policy changes, including redoing background checks on teachers, vendors, coaches, and volunteers. That led to staffing shortages at the start of school and raised concerns from school council members and parent volunteers. Meanwhile, a preliminary report found that instability in leadership at Chicago schools contributed to a gap in oversight.

9. A measure of preschool performance debuted.

A new set of metrics released by the Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with a power list of early childhood advocates showed that three out of four Illinois children starting kindergarten aren’t prepared. The data highlighted a critical need for better preparation in preschool and child care across the state.

10. The early education community wrestled with some tough questions.

A critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools threatened to undercut any push for universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly said he’d pursue.

Meanwhile, advocates throughout the state continued to sound the alarm over a decline in the number of children in state child care programs — as well as a dwindling number of providers. Then there’s this sobering statistic: In Illinois, the average annual cost of child care now outpaces what families spend on a year of rent.

Secret Report
A draft page of the Annual Regional Analysis

11. A controversial school inventory report signaled a change in the way the district does business.

In September, the school district released a comprehensive report confirming what many Chicagoans already know: Supply and demand for schools is uneven across neighborhoods, top academic schools are clustered in wealthier parts of the city, fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools, and more students are forgoing their neighborhood school.

The district’s release of the Annual Regional Analysis came a month after Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the then-unreleased report, which was compiled with help from the school-choice group Kids First Chicago. The report spurred town hall-style meetings intended to engage parents and community leaders and was cited as reasoning in the school board’s denial of a proposed downtown charter high school.

12. Chicago backed down from a school closing.

Parents seeking to stop Chicago Public Schools from displacing the popular National Teachers Academy in the Near South Side won a victory in what attorneys say may be the first court-ordered freeze of a school-closing measure in Chicago. The plan to close a beloved elementary school and open a new high school had pitted neighbors against each other and fueled calls of racism in the school closing decisions.

13. The founder of Chicago’s largest charter network stepped down, ending an era.

Longtime Noble Network founder and CEO Michael Milkie announced that he would retire, after revelations of a pattern of “inappropriate behavior with alumni,” which included hand-holding and “an instance of slow-dancing.” The announcement provided fodder for teachers who have been struggling to unionize Chicago’s biggest charter network. They said the developments strengthened their case for why the network needs a union.

14. Students spoke out about what they want in their schools.

From this video of a Chicago high schooler demanding more diversity in her English reading curriculum to a sit-in staged by students at Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep that included a list of concrete demands, students had a lot to say this year about what adults can do to help improve public education. They even have a message for the next occupant of City Hall. In this Chalkbeat Chicago video, Chicago high schoolers tell the city’s next mayor their ideas for improving public schools.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”