Thursday, December 11, 2014

On Chicago graduation rates. They're dizzy with success.

 "This is a moment to celebrate." -- Consortium senior researcher Kaleen Healey, lead author of the report.
According to a study by the U. of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, CPS' graduation rate is up 4 points this year and more of those grads are enrolling in college and graduating (14%). Last year, 57.2% of CPS graduates enrolled into college, which was an increase of 1.2% from 2012. That's good, isn't it? It's an estimated rise of 6% over 8 years (Wow!). If that is, you have faith in the transparency of the system and faith that the researchers are measuring the same thing. I don't. But that's for another blog post.

Rahm and Byrd-Bennett are dizzy with delight, as is the Sun-Times editorial board. The Mayor bristles at the suggestion that the rising high school graduation rate might be the result of changes put in place under former Mayor Daley, saying his administration has “doubled down on that strategy” (what ever that strategy was).

While he may give a perfunctory nod to teachers and school administrators in his CPS press releases, it is clear from all the photo ops around the release of the report that he's happy to take credit. And Rahm deserves it, say the pundits (especially in an election year), for all the extra time he and BBB have put in, teaching and coaxing kids who might have otherwise dropped out or abandoned hope of going to a 4-year university after catching sight of the state tuition rates.

The Consortium gives credit to its own research, which they say has led to successful early interventions on the part of BBB and the school district. There may be some truth in the claim. But the way it's being spun -- good data trumps poverty -- makes me leery. I'm not exaggerating. Here's a quote from U of C's Tim Knowles:
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.
So wait. Let's not pop the cork on the bubbly quite yet, Kaleen and Tim.

A closer look reveals lots of spin and cherry picking of the data to cover over the continued widening of the racial gap on grad rates Take the rates among African-American male students for example. It's true that their grad rate went up slightly over past years. But the rate of degree attainment remains in the single digits for black boys, at 6%. It was only 4% 6 years ago so you could say that's an amazing increase, percentage wise. Yes, you could say that if you're the incumbent mayor, running for re-election and in charge of the entire school system.

Or you might compare it to the grad and degree attainment rate of white males which improved from 17% to 27% over the past 6 years, or a 62% increase, nearly double the rate of black student improvement.

Of course, one can spin these numbers any which way. And since school data has become little more than political fodder, one will. But here's the essentials, at least the way I see them.
  • Talking about percent increase is meaningless here. Grad and college degree rates of CPS students are still dreadfully low, especially for black and Latino students. 
  • There is a trend upward, here and in most urban districts. But it's relatively small and uneven.
  • The Consortium Report gives no indication of any causal relationship between the mayor's imposed education policies and any of the gains in graduation or degree attainment. 
  • While most racial, ethnic and gender groups have shown slight increases in grad and college-going rates over the past decade, the gap continues to widen and educational inequities continue to grow.
  • All this may have more to do with demographic changes in the city and nationally over the past decade than anything going on inside of school classrooms, ie. a decline in the black student population (200,000 black people have left Chicago) or the worsening of living conditions for families on the south and west sides of the city while post-recession economic conditions improve on the north side.
  • Whenever we talk about quality of life statistics or chances of success or survival statistics (crime, shootings and murder rates, unemployment), we really need to examine them from the "two-cities"-- increasingly separate and unequal-- perspective. This, rather than averaging them all in together, which tells us little about what's really going on in the schools. 
It's my opinion and many others in the field that educational inequality, not school, teacher, or parent "failure" is the central problem facing CPS and other urban districts. It's the issue that Rahm, as well as his two main contenders need to address directly as we approach election time in February. We should be happy about any upswings in reported graduation rates. But we should keep a critical eye on the research and on early calls for celebration. 

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