Tag Archives: Chicago Public Schools

Building a School Performance Framework for Families? Lessons from Chicago.

Families and communities need access to reliable, understandable information about school quality to make decisions for their students. One tool district leaders can use to provide this information is a school performance framework (SPF). But SPFs are only useful to families if they are designed with families in mind. If leaders treat the needs of families as an afterthought during the design phase, it should be no surprise when families don’t use the tool.

Chicago Public Schools' School Quality Rating Policy screenshot

In our recent project at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, my co-authors and I identified family and community information as one of three primary “use cases” that could shape SPF design decisions. My colleague Bonnie O’Keefe explains the concept of use cases and offers another example — school continuous improvement — here.

An SPF designed to show families and communities how schools are performing should include:

  • Early, authentic, and ongoing engagement of families and community members in the design process: District leaders should involve families from the beginning to understand what information they need or may already have. This can be accomplished through task forces, roundtables, or listening sessions, or by administering parent surveys. Leaders should be cautious not to engage only the most visible stakeholders, but instead should use various methods to engage families that will be most impacted by the SPF. Inauthentic engagement risks alienating key stakeholders and reinforcing harmful power dynamics.
  • The information families and community members most want to know: Families typically prefer a higher level of detail, a focus on outcomes, and a summative rating, because they are easier to understand. This contrasts significantly from the granular level of detail school leaders might need. If leaders create a tool that primarily serves families, the SPF might be less useful to school leaders or system leaders.
  • Results displayed in an understandable and accessible way: One reason families may struggle to understand school performance frameworks is when they are full of jargon. For example, parent advocacy organization Learning Heroes has found that someone could misread the phrase “School Climate” on a school report card to mean building temperature as opposed to the quality of school life. District leaders should present data to families that is free of jargon and available in high-quality multilingual translations.

Many of the districts profiled in our report have made improvements to their SPF over the years to make them more accessible to parents. For example, the School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) in Chicago was not originally designed with families in mind, but the growth of school choice options prompted the district to make changes to give families access to more transparent, shared information across schools. SQRP reports now include the size of the school, the names and contact information for school leaders, programmatic offerings, and information about transportation options to each school. Reports are available in multiple languages and families can easily find the definitions of key terms within one click.

To learn more about other use cases for SPF design, and other long-standing local SPFs, visit SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org.

Five Lessons on School Performance Frameworks from Five Cities

While an increasing number of cities have implemented school performance frameworks (SPFs), very little has been written about how these tools compare with one another.

SPFs provide information on school performance and quality across a variety of measures to numerous stakeholders, and New York, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have all had their own version for, in some cases, more than five years.

Still, few resources exist for district leaders interested in SPF redesign or development. That’s where Bellwether’s newest project comes in.

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Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading

What High School Applications and Acceptance Offers Tell Us About Chicago’s System of Schools

Before digging into the research on Chicago’s education system and talking to many of the city’s leaders for a current project at Bellwether, I categorized the district as largely traditional with a decent sized charter sector. What I learned was that Chicago has more school types and school choice than I realized, especially at the high school level. It turns out that while most of the headlines regarding the district have been about scandals and violence, a lot of people have been focused on making sure more kids go to better schools faster.

That fact was reinforced when I looked at a recent report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research on the first round of applications and offers from Chicago’s brand new high school unified enrollment system. Neerav Kingsland provides a good take on the results. I just want to reiterate one point and add a few more observations.

Screenshot of GoCPS

Screenshot via https://go.cps.edu/

Neerav points out that Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) school information and application website GoCPS is easy to use. I can’t reiterate that enough. It’s insanely intuitive and informative. When I was making school choice decisions for my son in San Francisco earlier this year, I had to toggle between Google Maps, a PDF with school information from the district, and school performance information that I collected and analyzed myself. GoCPS has a map-based interface that provides the all information parents need, and it would have given me everything in one place. Why don’t more cities with school choice have a similar platform?

On a different note, the Consortium report notes that CPS has approximately 13,000 surplus seats in the district, an oversupply in other words, which might lead to more school closures and mergers. In addition to creating easier and more equitable enrollment processes for a district, unified enrollment systems provide detailed information about parent demand (and lack thereof). School closures have been painful for CPS in the past. The unified enrollment system now gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson more information to make changes that reflect the preferences of the district’s families and, hopefully, make difficult decisions a bit easier.

Neerav also points out that families rarely rank the lowest performing schools as a first choice — a fact he interprets as families making choices based on school performance. I agree but I see something troubling in the same graph:

Students' Top-Ranked Program by School's SQRP Rating

https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/gocps-first-look-applications-and-offers

Low-income students, low-performing students, English Language Learners, students with special needs, and African American students ranked the top-performing schools lower than other subgroups. The Consortium researchers made the same observation and call for more research. I agree. It’ll be important to know whether this difference is because of inadequate communication about school choices or quality, parents preferencing lower rated schools closer to home, or some other reason altogether. (The question is ripe for human-centered investigation.) The answer will help system administrators decide how to allocate scarce resources.

I can’t say this enough: the University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research is a remarkable institution providing high-quality, actionable, relevant, and timely research for Chicago’s education leaders to use while making high-stakes strategic decisions. Every big city should have a similar outfit.

Violence Prevention Efforts Hit Close to Home for Me and My Students

I — like many Americans — have been engaging in a daily routine of relief every afternoon that the news does not report another school shooting.

But the violence in low-income, urban areas where I’ve lived and worked are also on my mind. I was a teacher in South Central Los Angeles, where my students risked their safety simply by walking to school. I’m from Chicago, a city notorious worldwide for its rate of violent crime (when I lived in London and mentioned I’m from Chicago, a typical response was, “Isn’t that the murder capital of America?”). And a prior student from St. Louis, Reh’yen — a black, male teenager, one of my all-time favorite students — was shot and killed a few months ago, an incident I am still grappling with.

“Violence in Chicago: Realities + Root Causes” panel brought young civic leaders and Cook County State’s Attorney @SAKimFoxx to the stage to share personal stories and real solutions. #ABetterChicago – at Venue SIX10

Panel photo via @_abetterchicago on Twitter

And yet, data presented at a recent conference — A Better Chicago’s annual Education Summit — was still shocking to me: In a survey of six hundred African American students in Chicago, one third reported seeing a dead body not related to a funeral. How can we possibly expect kids to focus (let alone flourish) in school when this kind of violence is an inescapable reality? And how can we accept that there is only 1 social worker per 1,200 students in Chicago Public Schools?

Weeks later I continue to be taken aback by the raw, simple, and necessary words of the panelists who spoke on the topic of violence at the Summit. Continue reading