Javier Suárez

An Unlikely Endorsement

By the Mayor’s own evaluation, public schools, not charter schools excel

Starting with the 2011-2012 school year, the Mayor’s Office began to hand out its principal merit pay award. This award is given to principals based on the performance of their schools. However, the award is not based on high test scores. In the mayor’s own words, it is based on students making significant improvement in four criteria: for elementary school students, those criteria are Growth in Reading, Growth in Math, Closing the Achievement Gap, and College Readiness. There are three levels of awards based on how many of those four criteria a school meets. You can see every award given on a spreadsheet at the bottom of a Catalyst Chicago article entitled “Report raises concern about principal turnover.” That spreadsheet shows that the school I’ve led for the past five years—Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview—is one of only four schools to have met three or more of those four criteria for three years in a row.

It is important to remember once again, that this award is not based on having high performing students, it was based on substantially improving the performance of students regardless of their performance level when they arrived. A school can selectively enroll the highest performing students in the district and teach them nothing for an entire year, and that school will still outscore and outperform most schools across the district because its students were already high performing when they arrived. Those students certainly won’t grow and improve their performance as much as they would have with a skilled teacher, but their average performance attainment will remain higher than that of students in schools that do not get to selectively enroll the highest performing students.

The question of what makes a school effective is not the overall performance of its students, but the impact that a school has on improving the performance of the students they get, no matter what level they started off at. That—surprisingly—is the criteria of the mayor’s award. So, besides Blaine, which of the more than six hundred schools were the four best examples of consistently effective teaching and learning?

First, I think it is important to note that none of the four schools was a charter school. All four were public schools. Only one was a public selective enrollment school, Keller. The others were all regular public neighborhood schools: Blaine, Chavez, and Laura S. Ward. Blaine is 60 percent white with nearly 20 percent of its students from low-income households; Chavez is 94.5 percent Hispanic with 99 percent of its students from low-income households; and Ward is 94 percent African American with 99 percent of its students from low-income households. Again, all three are public neighborhood schools.

What happens when I expand the criteria? The above four schools are those that were able to meet three or more of the mayor’s criteria for three years in a row. What about schools that meet two or more of that criteria in that same timeframe? The list expands to eight schools, and still, none of them are charter schools. The additional four schools with consistently substantial student academic growth are Skinner, Healy, LaSalle, and Whitney Young. Healy is a neighborhood school with 64.5 percent Asian students and 87 percent coming from low-income households. LaSalle is a magnet school, and both Skinner and Young are selective. It is also interesting to note that the magnet and selective enrollment schools that meet this new criteria are among the most diverse in Chicago. For example, Keller—a South Side selective enrollment school—is composed of 34 percent African American students, 33 percent white students, 16 percent Asian students, and 12 percent Hispanic students.

The larger point however is that all eight of the schools that have had the most significant impact on the academic performance of their students are public schools: one diverse magnet school, three diverse selective schools, and four neighborhood schools.

The Emanuel administration has been touting charters as the place where we might learn something new about teaching and learning, but it appears that his own data clearly demonstrates that the only places in Chicago where you can find the teaching practices that consistently and substantially improve student performance are our public schools, and in particular our public neighborhood schools. In establishing the criteria for excellent student outcomes and then—for three years in a row—identifying schools that consistently and substantially meet those criteria, the Mayor’s Office has acknowledged that its pet project, charter schools, have failed to keep up with the performance of the schools in our public system.

The most important question to ask now is “Why?” Why is it that none of the schools the mayor’s office touts could consistently meet his own criteria for excellence in teaching and learning? The answer to that question lies in looking at the strategies for the success of the schools that did meet the criteria. I plan on exploring the answer to that question in an expanded version of this article that I will publish on my blog, troylaraviere.net, in the near future.

In the meantime, public school advocates, rejoice. You have a new unwilling partner in your efforts to defend public education: the Office of the Mayor of Chicago.

Troy LaRaviere is a CPS graduate and a parent of a CPS student. He was the principal of Blaine Elementary, one of the highest performing neighborhood schools in Chicago, from 2011 to 2016, and he continues to relentlessly defend public education. He blogs about education policy and his own observations of CPS policy at troylaraviere.net. Catch Troy’s column every second week of the month.

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