Monday, December 1, 2014

Does Rahm deserve the credit for bump in grad rates? Uh uh.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett claim credit for a reported 4% bump in CPS grad rates

Rahm Emanuel has rankled the Pilsen and Little Village communities with a new campaign ad — one in which, anti-coal activists say. he attempts to grab full credit for closing two area coal plants, when in fact it had taken years of work. Community response has been quick and angry.

But I'm wondering why there isn't the same angry response from parents and educators as Rahm and CEO Byrd-Bennett try and take credit for the reported steady rise in CPS graduation rates which began more than 5 years ago when Daley was the mayor and the likes of Ron Huberman and J.C. Brizard were running the schools for him and all claiming credit for improved graduation rates? This is also part of a national trend that began about the same time as in Chicago.

Perhaps Rahm and BBB will claim credit for the upward national trend as well.

It's my hunch that few even know how graduation rates are determined or how much credibility goes with the latest calculations, let alone what's driving them.

University of Chicago researchers report that grad rates have increased by 15% since 2008. But given a 2011 change (see below) in the way graduation rates are measured, it's hard to know how they got that figure. They attribute the increases in large part to the power of their own research, which shows a strong correlation between freshmen being on-track and graduating on time.

A TIME Magazine report points to studies released in 2005 and 2007 by researchers at UC's Urban Education Institute’s Consortium on Chicago School Research which "made a simple but powerful finding: Graduation is mostly determined in the ninth grade year."

Institute leader Tim Knowles touted this research back in April:
Freshmen who are on track to graduate in the ninth grade (earning no more than one semester F in a core course and accumulating sufficient credits) are four times more likely to graduate than students who are off track. Researchers found that being on track in the ninth grade is a better predictor of high school graduation than a student's race, family income, the neighborhood they come from and prior test scores, combined.
 Suddenly, addressing the dropout problem was not about the host of factors over which educators have no control — neighborhoods, poverty, violence or prior academic achievement. There was a single, manageable intervention point: ninth grade course performance.
There! claims Knowles. Finally, a magic bullet. Just examine the Institute's data. Forget about all those silly distractions like race, poverty, gun violence, family circumstances and the decimation of neighborhoods (including the mass closing of neighborhood schools), over which we supposedly "have no control". Then implement a few early interventions in the freshman year -- not a bad idea but certainly not a new one -- and voila!

When I say it's not a new one, I'm thinking back to the small-schools movement of the early '90s in Chicago, where early interventions like freshman academies were short-lived. As for 9th-grade on-track rates, you can go back earlier than that. There are tons of early intervention studies showing, for example, that 3rd-grade reading proficiency drives future academic success and that retaining (failing) elementary grade students increases the probability of them dropping out by 5X.

This is not to say that there's no value in the U of C study. Consortium researchers like Melissa Roderick have been pointing to the need for early intervention to reduce high school dropouts for years, and without overstating the power of good data, she and they deserve lots of credit for their focus on urban schools and students.

But research aside, whenever there is reported progress in public education, you can bet your last buck that teachers will be the last ones to receive the credit. First in line are glory-grubbing politicians like Rahm Emanuel who are quick to claim all the credit for last year's bump in grad rates. This, even though his current approach drains these very schools of badly-needed resources and shifts them instead to crony-run charter networks like UNO as well as to pet selective-enrollment schools.

An all-too-compliant media is quick to play along, either rendering unto Caesar... or trying to be "balanced" (OMG, even my pal, the usually critical-thinking Ben Joravsky).

But whether you buy all of the U of C research or not, there is little evidence that the current mayor's top-down, imposed education policies; i.e., more seat time, mass school closures, replacing neighborhood public schools with privately-run charters, whitenizing the teaching corps, cutting community-based health clinics, etc... have anything to do with improved graduation rates.

Other factors to consider

  • Has anyone considered the possibility that CPS' shrinking student population along with the mass exodus of nearly a quarter of a million African-Americans, including thousands of school-aged children, has impacted graduation rates?
  • In 2011 new federal guidelines set up a single, uniform standard that all states must follow when calculating these rates. Now, the rate will be based on a strict measurement of what is called a “four-year adjusted cohort.” The formula divides the number of students who earn a diploma in four years or less by the number of students who formed the original cohort—that is, the number of students who entered 9th grade together—of the graduating class. So the question is -- how much of the small 4% increase should be attributed to the way dropouts and grads are counted? I'm thinking back a few years to 2006, when this same Consortium found that  only 6.5% of CPS freshmen went on to earn four-year college degrees by their mid-20s, and among African-American and Latino males, only 3%. I'd be curious to see how that number has changed.
  • I still haven't seen how newly-reported graduation rates break out by school, neighborhood, race and poverty. As I reported before, I am concerned that the rate increase may be more reflective of the changing demographics in the city than any single school intervention. 


  1. Pursue the statistical tricks. Are there more pre-9th grade drop outs? What do they do with students who "disappear" -- I was always able to count most of those as "moved out of zone" "state" "country"
    (p.s. does it include charters?)

  2. Those are all great questions, Deb. So far, little has been revealed.


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