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Editorial: CPS must learn from successful turnarounds

Updated: March 11, 2012 8:32AM

A seminal report hit the Chicago Public Schools last fall like a ton of bricks.

Despite 20 years of reform efforts, reading scores in the city’s weakest elementary schools didn’t budge, the report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found. Among African-American students, reading scores essentially were unchanged from 1990.

Against that sorry backdrop, a report released Thursday offers a needed dose of encouraging news.

Dramatic reforms at failing schools are starting to pay off, a new U. of C. report found.

Struggling grammar schools that were reformed using any one of four strategies made significant progress compared with schools that weren’t reformed. Four years later, these chronically failing schools closed the gap in test scores with the school system average by almost half in reading and two-thirds in math. The schools are still well below the average, but the reforms, at least in the short run, have put them on an upward trajectory. That is a real progress.

The newly devised reforms include “school turnarounds,” in which students remain but most staff are replaced over the summer. Turnarounds account for about half of the 22 schools studied. This is the highly controversial strategy embraced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, since 2006, by CPS. Turnarounds are mostly done by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a private nonprofit. CPS also does a smaller number of turnarounds itself.

The nation is watching Chicago, a pioneer in turnarounds, as this experiment unfolds. On Feb. 22, the Board of Education will vote on a proposal to turn around 10 more schools. We support this for most of those schools.

A less radical model, which replaces the principal and some staff, was studied as well. The U. of C. also looked at schools that were shut and reopened later as new schools.

With respect to the turnaround schools, the researchers found that they served the same students before and after reform, hopefully putting to rest the notion peddled by the Chicago Teachers Union that turnaround schools systematically push out kids. However, schools that restarted in a closed building ended up educating different students, who were generally better off and higher-achieving. This is troubling, particularly in light of other U. of C. research that shows kids displaced by a school closing have mostly ended up in equally weak schools. This should weigh heavily on CPS board members as they prepare to vote on four proposed school closures.

This page has long supported turnarounds, and this new research supports that stand. But the study is by no means definitive. As part of a public relations war between CPS and the CTU, which opposes turnarounds, CPS’ spokeswoman called the research “undeniable proof that AUSL is making significant improvements in student achievement.”

Yes, the report shows very encouraging trends for schools turned around by the academy, but it didn’t compare different reform approaches, saying there weren’t enough schools for a valid comparison. The report offers only an overall conclusion. It’s also important to note that only two of 10 academy schools even have four years of data.

CPS can turn around only a handful of schools each year, making it imperative that it uses the lessons of turnarounds — extra resources along with strong leadership, staff and effective teaching strategies — and applies them to the sea of remaining low-performing schools, some of which have made remarkable progress without all the turnaround supports.

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