Business Group Gives Chicago Schools an F

Published October 1, 2003

Neither increased funding nor administrative changes will produce the significant gains in student performance that are necessary for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to come even close to meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, concludes a new report from an influential Chicago business group.

The group’s recommended treatment for spurring the “radically dysfunctional” school system to better serve the city’s children is competition from schools operating outside the existing system–i.e., voucher schools and charter schools.

“Chicago’s public school system is structured for failure. It needs to be fixed,” declares the July 2003 report, called Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was given control of the city’s schools eight years ago, reacted angrily to the report, even though it praised his efforts and the efforts, talent, and dedication of the school board and current Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan. The report’s criticism is directed at the system, not at individuals.

“The problem lies in the system, which lacks competitive pressures pushing it to achieve desired results,” the report explains. “It responds more to politics and pressures from the school unions than to community or parental demands for quality. Schools, principals, and teachers are largely insulated from accountability or responsibility for results.”

According to the report’s authors, what CPS desperately needs in order to make fundamental improvements is “increasingly large doses of parental choice … competitive alternatives that would give parents the right to vote with their feet.” That means a voucher system or, as the report recommends, dramatically expanding the number of charter schools in the city. Without such reforms, the report warns, any additional funds channeled into the system “would be money largely wasted.”

The report was produced by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a group of about 75 senior executives from the Chicago area’s leading corporations, professional firms, and universities. The Commercial Club’s mission is “to improve the economic and social well-being of the Chicago region.”

The Commercial Club is chaired by Northern Trust Chairman and CEO William A. Osborn. President of the Commercial Club’s Civic Committee is Chicago United Way Chairman R. Eden Martin, a partner in the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. The Civic Committee’s education panel, which produced the report, is headed by John Rowe, chairman and CEO of the Chicago-based utility Exelon Corp.

“The Civic Committee report recommends that at least 100 new charter or contract schools should be created primarily to serve students and families living in Chicago’s inner city,” said Martin.

No Alternative Public Schools

The report’s conclusion about the failure of the city’s educational system was backed up just a month after its publication by the latest application of federal NCLB standards to Chicago’s public schools. Sixty-one percent of the city’s schools failed to make adequate progress in student achievement last year. As a result, more than a quarter of a million students were eligible to transfer to better schools. However, public school officials made only 1,035 seats available for student transfers, leaving the vast majority of eligible students with no alternative but to stay in their existing schools.

As the Civic Committee report points out, when middle- or upper-income families in Chicago need an alternative school, they send their children to private schools, or they move to a suburb with high-quality public schools. In fact, a recent study by the Chicago Sun-Times showed parents pulled almost one-third (31 percent) of the city’s public elementary school students out of the system over the past eight years, taking them to private schools or to the suburbs.

“However, most low-income, minority families who live in Chicago–particularly in Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods–do not have this option,” the Civic Committee report points out. “They have no choice but to send their children to public schools in their neighborhoods. And, today, the educational achievement levels of students who attend these schools are far too often abysmally low.”

Abysmal Achievement Levels

The bulk of the Civic Committee’s report details just how abysmal those achievement levels are, not only for students in inner-city schools but also for students in the system as a whole. The low level of the 2002 test scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) shows the “extraordinarily long way” Chicago’s public schools have to go simply to come close to meeting the NCLB expectation for 2014: that 100 percent of students will meet state standards in reading and math.

Without fundamental improvements to the city’s schools, the report warns, “generations of Chicago’s children will proceed through a school system that continues to produce appallingly high levels of dropouts and students who fail to meet state academic standards.”

For example, 40 percent of CPS high school students entering from the 8th grade have dropped out by 11th grade. Another 10 percent drop out before graduation, leading to an on-time graduation rate of less than 50 percent. For those who remain in school at 11th grade, the percentage who meet or exceed state standards is as follows for 2002:

  • 36 percent in reading (22 percent of 8th grade cohort);
  • 26 percent in math (16 percent of 8th grade cohort);
  • 22 percent in science (13 percent of 8th grade cohort).

In other words, two-thirds (64 percent) of CPS 11th-graders do not meet state reading standards, and the 36 percent who do meet those reading standards represent less than a quarter (22 percent) of the 8th-grade class that entered high school three years earlier.

The percentage of 11th-graders in high-poverty schools who meet or exceed state standards is even lower:

  • 24 percent in reading;
  • 13 percent in math;
  • 10 percent in science.

In other words, three-quarters (76 percent) of CPS 11th-graders in high-poverty schools do not meet state reading standards.

Despite the mayor’s reform efforts, recent test score trends cited in the report give little encouragement of future improvement. Test score data for elementary and high school show no significant progress in reading scores, and there is none at the 11th-grade level. The 2003 ISAT results are even less encouraging, with a significant drop in the percentage of 8th-graders meeting or exceeding state standards.

Teachers Are “Essentially Unmanaged”

The report’s authors recognize that good teachers make the most important single contribution to a child’s success or failure in school. However, they point out CPS teachers are “essentially unmanaged” because of defects in two key personnel management areas: teacher deployment and teacher evaluation.

Although the best teachers are most needed in the worst-performing schools, that’s not where they’re deployed in Chicago, according to the report. In fact, the worst-performing schools–i.e., those in inner-city Chicago with high concentrations of low-income students–are those most likely to have teachers who are not “highly qualified”–i.e., teachers who are not fully certified, or those operating with emergency or provisional licenses.

Teacher evaluation in CPS also is ineffective, according to the Civic Committee report. Despite the fact that most students in Chicago’s public schools do not complete their schooling on time and most of those headed for graduation cannot meet state standards, only about two out of every thousand CPS teachers are rated as “inadequate.” To the report’s authors, it appears as if “the entire collective bargaining apparatus has been designed less to improve teaching or student learning than to protect the interests of teachers.”

What is needed to transform the system is not better administration but competition, the Education Committee concludes. “Competition–which is the engine of American productivity generally–is the key to improved performance of our public schools.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A copy of the Civic Committee’s July 2003 report, Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools, may be obtained from the Web site of the Commercial Club of Chicago at