CN Feb. 19, 2015

The question on the table just a few days before the mayoral election is: are kids in our public schools today better off than they would have been five or ten years ago as a result of Mayor Emanuel’s policies?

And there’s nobody better equipped to help us with this discussion than WBEZ’s Linda Lutton,who’s been reporting on schools for over a decade and has produced reports for national radio and print publications. She’s one of Chicago’s most senior, and most knowledgeable, education reporters.

So let’s start with choice. Since the earliest days of Mayor Daley’s “takeover” of the schools twenty years ago, he and his schools chief Paul Vallas put a high priority on choice. Charters, schools-within-schools – all kinds of approaches were tried, and Mayor Emanuel has continued the tradition. Today, if  you have a child in Chicago’s public schools, you have more choice than any parents have ever had. You can decide, to a large degree, where, or where not, to send your kids. So what are families deciding?

(13:35)  “While we have a choice system that in theory says kids and parents will always be looking for the best option,” says Lutton, “what we find in fact – a consequence of that choice system – is that students begin to sort themselves out based on prior achievement. It’s fascinating to consider that under an expanded school choice system that basically says your zip code doesn’t matter any more, it doesn’t matter that you were born in Englewood, you can go to any school you want to. Under this system we have more racial segregation than we had before in a system rooted in neighborhood schools.”

Early in Supt. Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s tenure, she ordered the testing of all high-school freshmen shortly after arriving at their new schools. This gave Lutton a massive data-base with which to compare how students with given achievement levels were selecting their high schools.

6:30 “We know we have these high-performing, hard-to-get-into selective test-in high schools,” Lutton explains. “And we’ve understood that we are creaming off our very top students. But my question was to what degree was it happening further down the food-chain?”

There seem to be at least two strata lower down in the hierarchy, she explains. The next one down is sometimes referred to as the “B” schools – places where kids who didn’t make the top scores can go. More importantly, they’re schools  where the higher scoring kids in low-performing schools can go to escape. And that’s making it even harder on the lowest-performing schools.

8:30 “If you are a lower-achiever, the places where you can go are drastically reduced,” Lutton claims. “You don’t qualify to test for the test-in schools. A lot of people don’t know this, but a lot of our vocational programs actually have a minimum “stanine” requirement. We have whole schools that fall into that category. So your choices are reduced. We’ve also had charter schools that have set up barriers. Charter schools are supposed to be open to anyone. That’s not exactly what has been happening in the case of some charter schools, including our largest charter high school network, the Noble Street Network.”

Lutton’s reporting has led her to the conclusion that (20:30) “The number one determinant of the culture and climate in a school is the achievement level of the students. It’s not the poverty. It’s not race. So when you have a school that’s all low achievers you have a school where it’s very difficult to set the culture that promotes learning.”

And when a lower-eschelon school’s highest achievers migrate elsewhere, an already difficult existence becomes even more challenging.

(21:50) “We know about the sorting that’s pulling out the top kids and putting them in the Lane Techs or the Northsides or Paytons.  But what we didn’t understand and we have a much better picture of now – is that schools that are demographically identical and in the same neighborhood are attracting wildly different kids,” she says.

For example, compare Kelvyn Park High School and its neighbor, a Noble Charter high school. Fewer than ten kids in the incoming freshman class were above the system-wide average. But at Noble, there were two classrooms filled with above-average kids.

“Same neighborhood,” she asserts.”Same demographics. and the conclusion we’re coming to too often, is to say, well, look at the Noble Street school. They’re doing better with the same kids. Their ACT scores are higher in four years. Their college rate is higher. But what we haven’t looked at is where those kids started.”

And this mid-level creaming is not an insignificant issue. (7:40) “Right around a quarter of our high school students are no longer being educated in district-run schools. They’re in charter schools,” she tells us.

Because the system has adopted “student-based budgeting” which purports to allocate the same amount of money to each child in the system, those schools with rising proportions of low-achieving students, and simultaneously dropping enrollments (some of Chicago’s oldest classic high schools have fewer than a hundred freshmen this year) the schools are caught in a death-spiral of dwindling enrollment and funding.

(12:15) “That is the biggest issue, I think, that the school district will need to grapple with. Have we created a system that simply segregates out our lowest-performing students and keeps those kids all in one school?”Lutton asks.

By aggressively providing increased choices to parents and kids, the system has facilitated a massive “sort”. Students are associating more and more with their own achievement-level cohorts, and have become increasingly unexposed to children of other abilities and demographics. Lutton says CPS officials have told her that was never their intent, because they believe education works best when there’s a cross-section of kids in the same environment. But it won’t happen unless the system works to achieve it.

(15:210) “If you care about integration of any kind – whether it’s academic integration, economic integration or racial integration, that doesn’t happen on its own, Lutton explains. “We have to have a policy that says – we want economic integration, and here’s why. And here’s what we’re going to do to promote it. It takes an intentional policy focus. Policies that push kids into situations that they may not choose on their own.”

Having said that, Lutton’s not weepy-eyed about the classic neighborhood high school. (17:20) “We’ve begun to sort of romanticize neighborhood high school,” she explains. “And I want to point out that comprehensive neighborhood high schools in Chicago, you have to go very far back, prior to white flight, to get to a point where you can say, comprehensive neighborhood high schools worked well for lots and lots of kids.”

We close the show with a prediction: Will CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stay in her job, presuming an Emanuel second term?

(26:15) “I took a bet once (on the First Tuesdays Show with Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky), and I bet no. I don’t think she lives in Chicago, actually. Now I haven’t gotten enough evidence to prove that, and I guess no other reporter has. But I think reporters should look at whether we have a CEO who may not live in the City.”

You can read the Big Sort, and see its richly-detailed charts and interactive data-bases HERE.

(The time-codes above are shown to help you find the quotes in the video.)

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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