Today the Chicago Public Schools epitomize the much larger national problem of over twenty years of punitive, test-based school accountability and neoliberal “portfolio school reform,” by which a school district rapidly expands charter schools and manages the whole system through school choice. There are encouraging signs that Chicago’s leaders are reexamining and trying to ameliorate a set of tragic problems, but it is clear that undoing over two decades of test-based school accountability is going to be complicated and difficult.
In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daily got the Illinois Legislature to give the mayor and the mayor’s appointed school board power over the city’s public schools. Paul Vallas implemented the plan. Later Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010, a plan to move toward universal school choice, open 100 new charter schools by 2010, and shut down so-called “failing” schools that couldn’t compete. In June of 2013, Rahm Emanuel shut down nearly 50 public neighborhood elementary schools—schools that were said to be under-enrolled and underutilized. In her book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing provided the data about exactly who suffered from these policies: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”(Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)
Then in 2014, Emanuel and his appointed board instituted student-based budgeting. Each school received per-pupil funding for the number of students enrolled, and schools with declining enrollment lost staff. This policy reinforced and deepened the school district’s commitment to competition among schools. As schools’ budgets began to drop as students moved to the schools with better reputations, principals in the under-enrolled schools had to increase class size and reduce staff including librarians, music and art teachers, special education teachers, and full time social workers. Student-based budgeting locked in place a race to the bottom for the most vulnerable schools.
It is encouraging that in recent months Chicago has taken steps to turn away from the past two decades of public school policy.
The first steps have been political. In July, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill into state law to phase in a return to an elected board of education. In 2024, eleven members will be elected as part of a 21 member partially appointed board, and by 2027 the phase in of an elected board of education will be complete. Then last month, Chicago elected a new mayor, Brandon Johnson, who had run on a platform that includes reducing student-based budgeting and fully staffing all of the district’s public schools.
There have also been important steps taken within the school district itself. Last week, Chicago’s school board, appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, established a new school rating system intended to reduce the branding of schools. The school board voted to replace the old SQRP—School Quality Rating Policy—a system that rated schools primarily on their aggregate standardized test scores. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp quotes board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who spearheaded the drive for the new plan: “Part of what started this was our communities being very clear about the harm that they felt from a rating system that didn’t just make them feel like it was something wrong with their schools, but something deficient with them as people, as communities, as parents… I want to say again publicly that we are done with SQRP.”
John Easton, an advisor to the development of the new plan, formerly an administrator in Chicago Public Schools, and formerly the director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education is quoted by Karp about the new plan: “This is a soft accountability policy that can be a model for the nation… We’re using a flashlight, not a hammer… The flashlight is to help us find that place where some support can help… that you’re not a bad school because you’re serving kids from impoverished and disenfranchised and disinvested neighborhoods.”
Education Week‘s Libby Stanford reminds readers that federal policy, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, currently continues to require that states rate and rank their schools. But Stanford reports that in January, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona hinted at softer enforcement of this policy when he used the same language as Easton in Chicago. Cardona said standardized tests should serve as ‘flashlight’ on what works in education not as ‘a hammer’ to force outcomes.” Stanford reports that Cardona’s “statement reflects a shift in thinking since annual testing became federal law more than 20 years ago, and it echoes past comments from Cardona.”
Will Chicago’s new system work to eliminate the branding of some of Chicago’s schools as so-called “failing schools”? Here, according to Chalkbeat Chicago‘s Mila Koumpilova, is how the new system is supposed to work: “The new approach does away with rating schools on a five-point scale from 1+ to 3… Under the new accountability policy, the district will compile a wide array of metrics and present them to parents and the public—rather than using a complex calculation to produce a ranking as the old system did. A new dashboard with that data will go live sometime during the 2024-25 school year, based on data from this coming school year. And while the policy aims to hold the district accountable for providing the money, guidance, and other resources schools need to improve, it does not spell out any consequences for campuses that are not making headway.”
The Chicago Tribune’s Sarah Macaraeg explains: “(T)he ‘Continuous Improvement and Data Transparency’ policy will instead measure a range of ‘indicators of success.’ Those include not only academic progress but also student well-being, quality of daily learning experiences, school inclusivity, and the capacity of staff to collaborate in teacher learning.”
Will rethinking school accountability in Chicago be accepted by the federal government? We will have to watch closely to see whether the U.S. Department of Education is fully behind rethinking the nation’s long philosophy of using aggregate standardized test scores to brand schools as successful or failing. Will the Department adjust school accountability enforcement according to the more constructive and less punitive accountability standard that Secretary Cardona has articulated?
And, equally important, will rethinking school accountability help break parents’ habit of automatically ranking and rating schools in a racially segregated, school-choice district like Chicago? It is to be hoped that parents in Chicago will carefully examine the new, more qualitative analysis of each school’s characteristics. One hopes that public opinion will not smear together the more descriptive indicators about schools into parents’ own informal branding system influenced by race and economics.
In Chicago itself there is one very hopeful sign that could help erase the downward spiral of schools in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. In mid-April, the Chicago Sun-Times reported: “Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said the school district plans to move away from student-based budgeting in the coming years… Student-based budgeting, which assigns funding to schools based on enrollment totals, has come under fire since its introduction a decade ago for exacerbating inequalities in the public school system. Under-enrolled schools often serve poorer areas with predominantly Black and Latino students. As those buildings lost students, they subsequently lost funding… Martinez said CPS wants to keep moving toward a system based on student and school needs. During the 2023-24 school year, the portion of the budget allocated based on school enrollment will decrease to 43%, he said. ‘I am optimistic that over the next year or so, we’ll have enough knowledge to be able to fully go away from SBB (student-based budgeting).”
Certainly if the Chicago Public Schools can once again fully staff comparable programming for students across its full system of public schools, the new rating system will begin to elevate the reputation of some of the schools where programming has been so seriously cut due to student-based budgeting. Ending student-based budgeting is an urgently needed reform.
We will all need to watch Chicago Public Schools grapple with the complexities of recreating a system of fully-staffed neighborhood public schools and to watch the Chicago school district create and implement a new more constructive school rating system. We must recognize, however, how hard it will be to undo the damage of marketplace branding and competition. That said, we should be encouraged by Chicago’s formal steps to begin addressing structural injustice.