Another Casualty of Chicago School Closures

Over the past decade, closures of schools across Chicago have disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of students, along with their teachers and parents. They have damaged some of the city's most vulnerable communities, which lost key neighborhood hubs as schools were shuttered. A recent Chicago Catalyst article brings to light yet another casualty of this misguided policy -- an initiative which, unlike closures, has shown promise in narrowing CPS's income -- and race-based achievement gaps.

The Children's Literacy Initiative (CLI), which won an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2010, provides professional development services to pre-k and early elementary school teachers to help them foster a culture of literacy in high-needs classrooms. Rather than simply drill vocabulary, CLI equips classrooms with libraries stocked with high-quality fiction and non-fiction books, and with rugs and furniture that foster a relaxed reading environment. Teachers receive targeted training and support so they can employ those resources to help disadvantaged students become strong, engaged readers and critical thinkers. The article reports that students in the CLI schools made substantial gains in reading compared to their non-CLI peers, improvements that mirror those found in Philadelphia, where CLI has a larger presence. Unfortunately, the Catalyst reports, despite the initial progress, "some schools suffered from high turnover among teachers and other staff [and] Manierre and Brennemann [two of the schools that had joined CLI in 2012] landed on the list of schools that CPS could potentially close."

CLI may make a real difference, especially if its enrichment can expand beyond the few CPS students whose teachers and classrooms currently receive its benefits. If schools just beginning to implement it are closed, however, CLI will have a hard time demonstrating its potential and expanding. Moreover, CLI and other promising initiatives cannot attain sustained district buy-in until "CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett gets past the current school closings issue and takes a closer look at curriculum and instruction."

More importantly, this story shines a spotlight on many of the larger problems associated with narrow, test-score-based "reform" policies.

First, teacher and staff turnover is extremely high in high-poverty and minority schools throughout CPS, as it is in other large, urban districts. Extensive research has documented the importance of teacher qualifications and experience in boosting student achievement, especially for at-risk students. Yet current "reforms" have not focused on ensuring that such teachers work in the schools where they are most needed. Indeed, as a forthcoming report from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education finds, attaching high stakes to student test scores (whether to evaluate teachers or entire schools) exacerbates that problem, rather than alleviating it. Closing schools forces out experienced teachers and provides a disincentive for strong new teachers to work in those districts. As this article illustrates, turnover also frustrates other reform efforts that might otherwise bear fruit, and wastes precious resources in the process.

Second, CPS is prioritizing a policy -- school closures -- that emphasizes quick fixes over patience. There is no question of the urgent need to improve outcomes for low-income and minority students. They have been left behind for far too long. But successive waves of reforms in Chicago -- and elsewhere -- that promised to close the gap and left it as wide as ever should provoke serious skepticism of the most recent such claims. Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the latest in a long line of CPS superintendents who have made such promises. All have largely failed to deliver and left -- Byrd is the third in the past four years. Such churn at the leadership level makes clear the gap between superintendents' promises and their capacity to deliver on them. It also highlights the difficulty of scaling up programs, such as CLI, even if they show real promise. As the reporter notes, "implementing a large-scale program in an unstable environment" poses major challenges.

Finally, the Catalyst article highlights the district's failure to invest in its most at-risk students. A federal grant is the major source of funding for the 10 elementary schools that have so far received CLI funding, and Target Corp. would support its expansion. In a district in which 87 percent of children come from low-income families, and thus disproportionately lack quality reading time, and excellent books, at home, why has the district not made great libraries a high priority in every classroom, and every school? Indeed, as one teacher noted, even among CLI schools, "principals aren't always given the amount of money needed to supply each classroom [ with complex rather than "cheap" textbooks]."

CLI's struggles to take root in CPS highlight the district's misguided approach to closing its long-standing race- and income-based achievement gaps. Very few students benefited from the past 10 years of school closures, and many endured real harm. Add CLI to the growing list of casualties if the next round is implemented as planned.