Chicago Again Imposes ‘Reconstitution’ As Though It Will Cure School Ills

The school board in Chicago will turn three more schools over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), its contractor of choice, when the turnaround ax falls this spring.  Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, began his career in Chicago, where he launched the turnaround options that have now been prescribed for the public schools across the country that score in the bottom 5 percent: reconstitution, closure, charterization, and one gentler option, transformation.  Last year Chicago used closure—of 50 schools.

This year it is reconstitution. The Chicago Sun Times reports, “Staff—down to janitors and lunchroom workers—must reapply for their positions…”  The principal must leave, and in most instances the entire staff will be replaced.  Three Chicago schools are being reconstituted because of low standardized test scores and low attendance rates.

But turnarounds by reconstitution haven’t always worked, according to a recent investigation by Catalyst-Chicago: “In CPS, however, more than half of turnaround schools are still among the lowest-performing schools. Some started badly and had to undergo another turnaround.  Others have improved more than other schools, yet are still far from meeting district averages, much less the statewide averages.   What’s more, large chunks of the new staff—teachers who were hand-picked and spent weeks over the summer getting to know each other, becoming a team and learning how to spark improvement when the school reopened—leave within a few years.”

AUSL is awarded extra money to turn around a school, reports the Sun Times.  The district awards  AUSL an additional $300,000 for start-up and an extra $420 per-student, per-year for five years.

Diane Ravitch devotes six pages of Reign of Error (pp. 214-219) to examining the school reforms launched in Chicago when Arne Duncan ran the school district.  She examines two very well known 2012 studies that tracked the impact of school reconstitution.  The first by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that schools that had been turned around with significant investment and new staff did improve, though not nearly as significantly as had been promised by AUSL.  The second investigation by Designs for Change found that while schools turned around by AUSL improved, a significant number of neighborhood schools that lacked the enormous financial investment provided for AUSL turnarounds but that were governed by very effective Local School Councils—involving community members, parents, teachers, and administrators working collaboratively—improved even more.  Designs for Change titled its 2012 report, Chicago’s Democratically-Led Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform Chicago’s ‘Turnaround Schools.’

Today as Catalyst-Chicago is reporting new data about ongoing staff turnover at schools that have been reconstituted by AUSL, the conclusion of the Designs for Change report seems especially prophetic: “Given the meager academic progress of Elementary Turnaround Schools and their high teacher turnover rate, which undermines the basic culture of the school, the researchers conclude that the resources devoted to Turnaround Schools can be better spent by supporting the alternative research-based strategies.”

One of the essays in a Harvard-published collection edited by Thomas Timar, Narrowing the Achievement Gap (2012) speaks to the challenges in Chicago and other communities where schools struggle in neighborhoods with intensely concentrated poverty.  In “Reframing the Ecology of Opportunity and Achievement Gaps: Why ‘No Excuses’ Reforms Have Failed to Narrow Student Group Differences in Educational Outcomes,” the researchers Robert Ream, Sarah Ryan, and Jose Espinoza remind us:

“The plain fact is that the gaps between minority or poor students and otherwise socially enfranchised children is already at roughly a year with regard to educational outcomes for math and reading by the time children enter kindergarten.  These differences at the group level remain fairly constant between the first and the twelfth grades, so it is safe to say that it is not generally the schools themselves that create or even foster the inequity.  Indeed, while children are in school, the gap typically narrows, but when they’re outside the classroom, it widens.  In short, there is no getting around that fact that children are beings embedded in social networks, nested in families, navigating relatively complex social lives with peers, and functioning as members of neighborhoods and communities in which school is one important social institution among many shaping their reality.” (pp. 39-40)