Chicago's mixed record on school reform

Bush cites city's gains on sixth anniversary of No Child Left Behind. Critics see uneven results.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Chicago classroom: President Bush touted the success of the No Child Left Behind Act at Horace Greeley Elementary School Monday.

When President Bush marked the sixth anniversary of his landmark No Child Left Behind reforms this week, he did it at a Chicago elementary school that has shown impressive gains over the past few years.

In many ways, Chicago – a city that embraced accountability, standards-based reforms, and consequences for failing schools even before the 2001 law mandated them – is a perfect place to examine how such reforms are playing out.

"Chicago's been lucky for having a real reform history and maybe even a little innovation tossed in with that," says John Easton, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. "We were ahead of No Child Left Behind on accountability."

With several complex reform measures of its own ongoing, it can be hard to distinguish which changes in Chicago are due specifically to the federal law. But No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its effects have proved as controversial here as they have nationwide.

Some of the shortcomings of the law, such as an inability to follow through on promises that students in failing schools can transfer, are magnified in a big city like Chicago, because higher-performing schools are already at capacity. In other ways, the transparency and accountability NCLB promises – already in place in Chicago before the law – are starting to pay off as some schools record gains.

Nationally, Mr. Bush has been touting NCLB, crediting it with raising fourth-grade reading scores and narrowing the achievement gap between whites and minorities. Others say they're still waiting to see major results and blame the law for an increased focus on "teaching to the test" rather than giving more resources or training to underfunded schools.

NCLB has become a whipping boy for teachers' unions, state legislatures, and Democratic presidential candidates. On Monday, a federal appeals court revived a lawsuit on the part of the National Education Association and several school districts, arguing that states shouldn't have to comply with the law because it creates unfunded mandates. The constant criticism has some advocates worried that when changes are made to the law the good will be thrown out with the bad.

"Nobody is jumping up and down and throwing confetti and saying 'victory,' " says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, which works to close the achievement gap. "But we are in a better place than we were before NCLB."

The improvements on national test results, while tiny, are important, as is the slight narrowing of the achievement gap in certain grades and subjects, says Ms. Wilkins. As she sees it, the law has accomplished part of its mission to get accountability measures in place and provide data on how each school and subgroup is performing. Now she'd like to see changes to the law that would help schools do better: improve instruction, give states the resources to create high-quality curricula, make districts and states take responsibility for failing schools.

Few expect that NCLB will be reauthorized before a new president is in office, though Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts have continued to call for it. In his speech at a Chicago's elementary school Monday, Bush reiterated his belief that the law can be strengthened through key changes, and noted that he's asked Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to take steps to adapt the law if reauthorization does not occur.

He highlighted steps the Department of Education has taken to give schools in certain pilot states credit for the growth students make from year to year – even if those students are still not reaching the target proficiency levels – and discussed implementing a more accurate way to measure the dropout rate and making it easier for students to get tutoring.

"I know No Child Left Behind has worked," Bush said. "And I believe this country needs to build upon the successes."

Many critics say NCLB has been not only ineffective at producing big results in achievement, but also harmful, narrowing curricula, pushing teaching geared only to faulty tests, and punishing schools or closing them down rather than helping them improve.

"Having some set of growth expectations is reasonable, but the fantasy that all kids will be proficient in 2014 should be removed," says Monty Neill of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a frequent NCLB critic. He'd like to see classroom-based assessment measures rather than standardized tests, and have kids tested less frequently than every year. Mr. Neill sees Chicago as a perfect example of why NCLB is ultimately the wrong approach.

"Chicago took the jump-start on No Child Left Behind," he says, citing in particular the city's program of shutting failing schools and opening new ones, many of them charters and contract schools. "It's a spurious reform effort with a lot of statistical sleight of hand going on."

Some parents and local groups have criticized Chicago's approach, particularly the havoc it can wreak in the lives of children pushed from one school to another. But others note that the city has made impressive gains, especially in its elementary schools, since it created a strong accountability system in the mid-1990s.

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