Knowledge Exchange Recap: Closing the Achievement Gap through School Reform

Each month we’re reporting out on our Knowledge Exchanges, held as part of our Visiting Fellowship in Urban Poverty with Loyola University of Chicago’s Center on Urban Research and Learning (CURL).

In April we had two discussions, the first of which was on “The Learning Gap: Connections between Housing Reform and Education Reform” and was lead by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.

The second was a presentation by Dr. Timothy Knowles, who serves as John Dewey Director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI), on how school reform could be a tool in closing the achievement gap in public education.

The recap below of the session’s conversation is provided courtesy of our Visiting Fellow.


Timothy Knowles

The Urban Education Institute (UEI) strives to develop effective school reforms that can increase the social mobility of low income students living in poor neighborhoods. Attainment rates, or the number of students who complete high school and obtain a post-secondary degree, have been a priority for the Urban Education Institute because attainment leads to social mobility, increased income and decreased incarceration rates. In Chicago, only 8% of CPS freshman obtain a BA degree by the age of twenty-five. For African American and Latino males, these rates are even lower—only 3% of freshman from this group will obtain a BA by the age of twenty-five. One of the reasons these rates are so low is that educational policies and practices have been developed with little understanding of what factors actually lead to attainment.

The Consortium on School Research began to investigate attainment rates and found that the best predicator of graduation is a student’s performance in ninth grade courses. This is a better predictor than test scores or socioeconomic status, yet test scores are often used as a primary measure of a school’s success, and many people assume that poor students in low income neighborhoods face too many barriers to succeed. The Consortium found that ninth grade academic performance indicators are very useful in devising individual dropout prevention strategies. There are concrete steps that educators can take to improve the subsequent performance of ninth graders, and therefore significantly increase graduation rates.

In 2007 the Chicago Public Schools implemented an early warning system which generates data on ninth grade attendance and academic performance. Teachers and administrators then use this data to create personalized interventions for struggling students. Since 2007, the number of CPS ninth graders who are on track to graduate has risen from 55% to 82%, attendance rates have increased (there are currently 25,000 more students attending school) and overall, the GPA’s of CPS students have increased. African American and Latino males are seeing the greatest improvements—their on track rates have increased by 25%.

In addition to high school graduation rates, the Urban Education Institute has been tracking the performance of CPS students in post-secondary institutions. Some institutions provide more support for first generation college students, and UEI is exploring how these supports can be further developed.

“It is difficult to accurately predict who will graduate based on background characteristics and test scores when entering high school. Using a model that predicts graduation with students’ eighth-grade reading and math test scores, gender, race, age when they entered high school, socio-economic status, and mobility during the middle grades, we only correctly predict 65% of graduates in Chicago.

In contrast, the one indicator of on-track status, by itself, correctly predicts 80% of graduates. If one combines all of the background information with the on-track indicator into one model, it improves the prediction by just one percentage point—from 80% to 81%.

In other words, once one knows whether a student is on track in ninth grade, all of the other background information about that student does not give substantially more information about whether that student will graduate.”

-Elaine Allensworth, “The Use of Ninth Grade Early Warning Indicators to Improve Chicago Schools,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 18 (1): 68-83, 2013.

Discussion Summary

What makes the ninth grade indicator different than previous school reforms?

The ninth grade indicator is a successful tool that has been flexibly adapted by teachers and administrators. These adaptations rely on personalized interventions, foster greater organization and communication within the school, and prioritize grades over test scores. Many school reforms require a “one size fits all” implementation plan which may not be appropriate for the institutional and neighborhood context of different schools. In this initiative, CPS provides data to teachers and administrators, but each school has the freedom to develop their own intervention strategies, which can range from morning wake up calls to intensive tutoring. Therefore, an approach can be tailored to the needs, strengths and weaknesses of a particular school. Teachers are more invested in the implementation because they were actively involved in the development of their school’s intervention program.

Despite the variation of implementation between schools, a key element is an individualized approach that gives 9th graders personalized attention. Developmentally, the ninth grade is a very delicate time and this is exacerbated by the relative lack of structure in high schools as compared to middle schools. Many students get on track relatively quickly once they realize they have support for this transition. Most schools create “ninth grade teams” comprised of teachers across disciplines, administrators, and social service staff to discuss the ninth grade indicator data. These teams foster greater communication amongst staff and better organization within schools. A well-organized school that creates a supportive, rather than punitive environment has a stabilizing effect on students. Finally, this model is based on a great deal of research which demonstrates that a B average, rather than test scores, is the best indicator of whether a student will persist through high school and in to college.

Does this intervention work better for some students than others? What about students who have attended very low performing elementary schools and had little access to quality pre-K programs? How can the 9th grade indicator compensate for a poor educational foundation?

It is clear that despite the importance of early childhood; a lot can be done in 9th grade, especially if schools use personalized interventions. For example, Jens Ludwig established an intensive tutoring program for 9th grade students at Harper High School. The students met every day for nine months, and during that time period, they gained 3 years of math skills, attendance rates went up, and violence decreased. Despite the intensity of the program, it was a relatively inexpensive intervention. However, the ninth grade indicator is not a silver bullet, and students from low performing schools are at a disadvantage. Underperforming schools need reform. If is a school is failing, more effort should be put into assessing the school’s challenges, developing interventions, and establishing performance standards.

Are there other policy interventions that could be used to improve the educational attainment of Chicago’s low income students?

There are several CPS policies that impact the performance of students from an early age. Schools serve as a social anchor for communities and a source of stability for students. However, CPS policies that require students to switch schools every time they move undermine this stability. Schools should also be a supportive environment, but long term suspensions and the presence of police in poor schools create a punitive environment. Finally, the City of Chicago’s alternative school system could be improved. In Boston and New York City, alternative schools offer a range of options for students who did not fit into traditional high school. In Chicago, alternative schools are only open to students who have been expelled. The curriculum is not as diverse and the dropout rates are high.

One of the biggest challenges for CPS students is the fragmented nature of the school system. The transitions between Pre-K, kindergarten, grade school, high school, and college are often extremely difficult to navigate. There is a great deal that could be done to ease these transitions and create a more cohesive birth to college public school system. Finally, school leadership is extremely important, and this could be enhanced through more leadership development within CPS.

“The majority of our nation’s
public schools fail to prepare students from low-income families to succeed in college and life. Only 8 percent of students who entered Chicago public high schools as freshmen graduate with a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 25. Of those students, only 3 percent are African American or Latino males. Many view these problems as intractable. The University of Chicago Urban Education Institute does not.

Since the implementation of the ninth grade indicator early warning system in 2007, the number of CPS ninth graders who are on track to graduate has risen from 55% to 82%, attendance rates have increased (there are currently 25,000 more students attending school) and overall, the GPA’s of CPS students have increased. African American and Latino males are seeing the greatest improvements—their on track rates have increased by 25%.”

-EUI Overview, University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, 2014. Click here to download.

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