A report in the Chicago Sun-Times and a similar report in the Chicago Tribune (reg. req'd), state that only 6.5 percent of graduate of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high schools earn a degree by their mid-twenties. The information was developed by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. The article was interesting because it said much, mostly unintentionally, about why the students at the schools I visit in my consulting work lack so many basic skills.
The Sun-Times article starts with a pair of quotes that I think clearly intend to defuse, which will lead a reasonable person to conclude that they have no idea how to fix the problem, much less how horrible it was to begin with. The first is from one of the study's authors, who points out the obvious: that the results are appaling. But this is followed deftly by a set of assertions said to be from the researchers as a group. These assertions caution the reader not to draw any actual conclusions from the data the researchers so assiduously obtained:
...many of the kids they studied were not exposed to a batch of recent reforms intended to improve graduation rates, including smaller high schools, stiffer graduation requirements and a new department focused on post-high school plans.
In other words, despite one of them willing to speak the truth about what the data means, the Sun-Times writer wishes to defuse the obvious conclusion by making the outspoken author sound either extreme or at least self-contradictory. "Move along, nothing to see here," is what the reporter seems to want the quote to say. Further, the author overlooks the obvious question, which is, given the scope of the problem, how can any of those things make a difference in the college readiness of CPS students, at least those in currently in high school? The efforts cited to dissuade us from drawing conclusions about the state of CPS high schools are woefully insufficient for solving the problem of sending kids to colleges only to watch them fail.
The next quote comes from Arne Duncan, the CPS CEO, who says the result affirms his belief that Chicago Schools need drastic change, a statement that I translate as "I've always known it was this bad and and I've always wanted to do something about it, so move along, nothing to see here, and if anyone asks, it's not my fault."
The article then articulates, despite itself, the heart of the problem. First, discussing the fact that more boys than girls fail to complete college, the study's principal researcher points out, "Clearly, high schools are not engaging boys in ways to get them the grades they need." yes, clearly, that is the problem. The students have not been failed by years and years of social promotion, a lack of strong parenting, or callous, useless educators. They have simply not been "engaged", and if they were merely "engaged", all that ignorance would dissipate into the mists of "engagement".
Nonsense. These students will not succeed if engaged by any material because years in the Chicago Public Schools have left them unable to write grammatically, do basic math problems, and read above the 6th grade level. It won't matter how interested they are in the material they study, they won't be able to understand it sufficiently to make anything useful of it. These students don't need engagement; they need teachers who care enough about them to drop all the pretensious prattle about engagement and help them learn the basics their other teachers never bothered to help them learn and the school district leaders never bothered to ensure were being taught. The call for more "engaging" coursework only reminds the sensible about what the schools are really missing.
The author then adds that because of their low grades, many students are relegated to nonselective two-year colleges, which have low graduation rates compared to four year schools. This is probably the most contemptible sentence in the article, and it comes from the study itself, though perhaps taken out of context. First, the word nonselective was in scare quotes, suggesting the authors of the study think a two-year college is some dirty thing the best people shun like they shun Walmart and Nascar. Second, the authors seem to think that attending such a school is being "relegated" to some tragic fate. I would instead suggest they look for ways to help typical CPS students succeed at such schools, rather than suggesting attendance at such schools is a failure in itself. The journey of this particular thousand miles best begins at a two-year school.
The author next reports two "important" conclusions of the study. The first is that grades are more predictive of college success than ACT scores. The second is that students need help finding colleges with better graduation rates.
The first point is a little nonsensical, since the subjects of the study all attended local colleges with extraordinarily low ACT requirements. Basically, on the ACT, if you score 18 out of 36 on the scale, you're in the 33d percentile, which is to say you scored better than 33 percent of the other test-takers. If you get a 16, about the average of CPS, you're in the 19th percentile. An 18 is what you generally need to get in to the colleges mentioned, but you might squeak in with a 16 or 17. If you get a score this low, you are barely showing knowledge of anything at all. On the ACT you only need to answer about 40-45% of the questions correctly to get an 18, and since the ACT is a multiple choice test that doesn't penalize for incorrect answers, you expect ot get 20-25%, or half of what you need to go to college, just by guessing. In other words, an 18 on the ACT means your a minimally competent at academics.
If you do get into a college with that accepts those low scores, alongside many others with similarly low scores, what will separate you from others is your work ethic, and the article itself suggests that this all that separates the strong students from the weak students at CPS schools. Therefore, saying grades predict success better than ACTs is a little silly, since at the levels we're talking about for Chicago, ACTs predict hardly anything at all. It is inappropriate to use this study to denigrate the use of the ACTs for testing because the study was about college graduation rates, which the ACT cannot pick up on at these low levels, and not about whether the ACT shows how much students have learned through high school.
The second "important" point is nonsensical, but in a different way. It's nonsensical because the colleges that were mentioned in the articles are not known to be highly demanding. I don't know of many schools that have lower requirements than the Universiy of Illinois at Chicago, so its low graduation rates probably stem less from it's demands than from the number of kids from Chicago public schools that enroll there. Also, as the article later describes, most of the kids come from families that cannot afford out-of-state colleges. So this search for colleges with better graduation is either pointless because if the kids can't finish at schools like UIC then they probably can't finish anywhere, and if they could finish at another school, a dubious proposition, they probably couldn't afford to go.
The article next quotes a UIC senior from a CPS school who points out that apathy was widespread, and that most students found a C acceptable. This is probably true at a lot of schools, but most of those schools have a majority of kids that can multiply fractions and read at grade level. The CPS schools do not, so a C there would probably be a failing grsade elsewhere. What always disturbs me at the CPS schools I visit is the talk about honors classes. On the one hand I understand the need to support the best students and give them challenges. On the other hand, I've seen their grades and test scores: they qualify for honors at CPS high schools alone. Everywhere else they are hard working but average students.
The last major piece of the information provided is that most of the kids in the study come from economically disadvantaged homes, making it difficult for them to graduate in four years if they can even afford to go at all. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I find it hard to believe that many of the CPS students capable of getting into college despite all the problems at their schools would be unable to get some kind of financial assistance. And while the article rightly reminds the reader that some students may not graduate in four years because they have to work, the study itself mentioned students not graduating when the reach their mid-twenties, which in fact gives the seven years to graudate. The principal quoted in that part of the article makes a good point, but it's hard to believe that expanding the study to include people who graduate by the time they reach 30 would improve the number much.
The article concludes by describing additional flaws the authors admit their study may have. This is reasonable, but what kills me is the last sentence of the article:
Still, even with the maximum possible adjustment for those caveats, researchers said the 6.5 percent number would not rise to more than 10 percent.
What bothers me about this is all those caveats at the beginning of the article. If the caveats given for the study make such a small difference, the act of highlighting them so early and without stating how little they mean in practice borders on deliberately dishonest. It causes the reader to wrongly conclude that what they are reading may be inaccurate, when in fact the flaws make little practical difference at all.
So what is to be done about this problem? I would suggest that the only solutions are so unlikely to be implemented in Chicago that they hardly merit mentioning, but despite that, here goes:
1) Privatize, privatize, privatize. Or at least come as close as possible and still have "public" schools. The communities these high schools serve are terribly flawed, and the schools themselves are top heavy with bureaucrats, bad teachers, and curricula that the students as a group can't handle. The only way to fix things is by allowing the hard working students find schools that help them achieve something and let the rest attend vocational or remedial schools where they are expected to learn the basics and no one pretends they really understand algebra II and Shakespeare. It would salvage a lot of the raw talent that exists in this city and provide the rest with the skills and discipline that will help them have a successful working life, skills I can assure are not now being developed.
2) Liberate us from tenure. No public education system as bad as Chicago's has any right to guarantee a job for life. It teaches both students and the public at large that all that matters is playing the game, doing your time, and figuring out how to get your hands on other people's taxes.