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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Most improved cities: Chicago? Or New Orleans, D.C.

New Orleans and Washington, D.C. — not Chicago — are the fastest-improving urban districts, argue Emily Langhorne and David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute on The 74.

Chicago’s third to eighth graders made six years of reading and math gains in five years (2009 to 2014), the best record of any major city, according to a new Stanford study.

“The district has received heat for inflated graduation rates and three years of flat scores on PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests, which reveal that only 1 in 4 CPS elementary students reads at grade level,” write Langhorne and Osborne.

A look at more comprehensive data makes it clear that while Chicago did improve from 2009 to 2014, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have improved faster. A key reason for rapid improvement in all three cities appears to have been aggressive replacement of failing schools with stronger schools, most of them charters. Unlike in New Orleans and D.C., however, Chicago’s leaders virtually halted charter growth five years ago — which could explain the stalled growth since 2014. . . . In all three cities — and nationally, according to numerous studies — replacing failing schools with stronger operators has been far more effective than trying to turn around failing schools.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged in 2013 not give any closed school buildings to charter operators, “effectively ending charter expansion,” the authors write. “A new labor contract will limit the growth of charter enrollment to 1 percent over three years.”

The surge, then halt, in charter expansion might help explain why Chicago’s public schools improved so rapidly from 2009 to 2014 and then leveled off. By stifling charters, the city may have stifled the academic growth of its students. If Chicago wants to once again be a rapidly improving district, it should continue to replace failing schools with autonomous, accountable public schools of choice, operated by nonprofit organizations — whether it calls them charter schools, contract schools, or something else.
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