December 5, 2017

Fund Principal Featured in The New York Times

Below, we share excerpts from a recent piece in The New York Times, which highlights the academic gains being made by Chicago’s students, and profiles Chicago Principal Tracey Stelly, who is one of our 2017-18 Cahn Fellows

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“How Effective Is Your School District? A New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the Most”
By Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy

 In the Chicago Public Schools system, enrollment has been declining, the budget is seldom enough, and three in four children come from low-income homes, a profile that would seemingly consign the district to low expectations. But students here appear to be learning faster than those in almost every other school system in the country, according to new data from researchers at Stanford.

The data, based on some 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts, tweaks conventional wisdom in many ways. Some urban and Southern districts are doing better than data typically suggests. Some wealthy ones don’t look that effective. Many poor school systems do.

This picture, and Chicago’s place in it, defy how we typically think about wealth and education in America. It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.

In Chicago, third graders collectively test below the second-grade level on reading and math. But this data shows that over the next five years, they receive the equivalent of six years of education. By the eighth grade, their scores have nearly caught up to the national average.

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On the city’s far South Side, scores have risen at Mildred I. Lavizzo Elementary School, which serves a student population that’s nearly 98 percent black and 93 percent low income. Several homes across the street are boarded up, and the area has lost population and jobs. Inside the school, the halls are decorated with emblems of other places: college banners, foreign flags, clocks that tell the time in Nairobi and Dublin.

Tracey Stelly, the principal since 2009, has brought in every enhancement she can find. The school uses an International Baccalaureate curriculum. The students read the Junior Great Books. The school hosts a community farmer’s market. Outside groups lead choir classes and organized games at recess.

“Whatever kids come in here, we know we can grow them,” Ms. Stelly said. She peered into the gymnasium one afternoon this fall while the fifth graders were dancing with their teachers to celebrate a schoolwide fund-raising project. “When kids come in the building,” she said, “they know, ‘This is where I belong.’ ”

At Lavizzo, the district’s emphasis on data and performance tracking is also conveyed to students in a manner Ms. Stelly hopes will inspire competition while remaining playful. One first-floor bulletin board updates the school’s attendance targets. Another records goals that students have set for their standardized test scores.

Across the district, data about attendance and grades is being used to identify the students likely to need extra attention. And the district has emphasized the role of more autonomous principals in improving instruction, an element of reform that Mr. Emanuel said is underappreciated nationally in debates that more often focus on teachers.