Failing Students Drafted for Summer School

Published November 1, 1999

At–tention! You’re in school now! I am your drill instructor and I am going to make students and teachers out of you!

Although New Orleans schools this year are being run by a retired U.S. Marine colonel–Alphonse Davis–Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul G. Vallas already has the distinction of applying the military model to both his students and his teachers. Students whose skills are inadequate for the rigors of the next grade are sent to summer school to re-learn those skills before they can be promoted, and summer school instructors are required to follow set lesson plans that now also are being introduced into regular classes.

Prior to Vallas’s action, students routinely were “socially promoted” from one grade to the next regardless of their skills. While the Peter Principle holds that competent managers are promoted to increasing levels of responsibility until they reach their level of incompetence, social promotion is a reverse Peter Principle, whereby unskilled students are promoted to increasing levels of incompetence until they graduate to college or a job, where they finally receive training in basic reading and math skills.

Vallas barred social promotion in 1996. Since then, he has required more than 75,000 failing students to attend summer school for one last chance at acquiring the skills needed for promotion to the next grade. In 1997 and 1998, more than half of the 26,000 students drafted each year managed to pull up their test scores to meet the promotion requirements. This year, only 25,039 students were drafted, and more than two-thirds were promoted at the end of the summer.

There’s a big incentive for students in Chicago to meet each year’s promotion requirements: Vallas is raising the bar for graduation each year. Students who repeat a grade find they must clear an even higher graduation hurdle the following year.

For example, when the new program started, Chicago’s eighth-graders could get into high school with only a sixth-grade reading level, a grade-equivalent of 6.8. This year, the bar was ratched up from 7.4 to 7.7. By 2000-2001, it is projected to be 8.0, rising to an estimated 8.8 by 2004-2005. Other grades have similar projected step increases.

Even with promotion standards set at more than a year below grade level, many students can’t clear those low hurdles. This year, 1,801 students failed for the second year running, and about 160 third- and sixth-graders failed for a third time.

While Vallas’s program to eliminate social promotion protects teachers from receiving inadequately prepared students into their classes, he’s also taken steps to protect students from inadequately prepared teachers, such as the 10 percent of district teachers who teach out of their subject area. In summer school, each instructor’s lessons are laid out in standard lesson plans prepared by master educators from the district. With military precision, the lesson plans tell teachers what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it.

Vallas made no bones about adopting the military model for instruction in a 1998 Newsweek report.

“Despite having some weak instructors, the U.S. military was able to institutionalize quality instruction through the quality of their materials,” said Vallas. “We will do the same.”

Now he is applying this “by-the-book” instructional model to regular lessons during the school year.