Are Academic Gains Enough?

"I believe the level of transparency we have provided around what a quality school is has been transformational in this district," Jackson said.

This quote came from Chicago's Chief Education Officer, Janice Jackson, as she discussed Chicago public schools leading the nation in academic growth. In the last decade, this  district was struggling with rising poverty, shrinking enrollment, and shifting racial demographics. So, this finding is exciting news for Chicago. Still, it is important not to celebrate too fast.

In a previous post on the Academy Awards, we discussed what bureaucrats consider "good schools" vs. the way parents think about "good schools." We described how different those definitions can look. This article in Ed Week is a perfect example of the differing definitions.

- Go ahead! Open it in a new window. Read it and stick with us -

Now, imagine you are a parent in a middle-to-upper income family near or in Chicago, and you have options when it comes to your child's education (thanks to financial security). Does reading this article make you want to send your kid to the school with the "best" academic growth? Most likely, this parent would quickly learn that 8th graders in this school district are still about a half-grade behind the national averages. What then? Would you still call the schools in this district “good schools?” No? Not even if they’ve made such gains?

If you are a parent, you might think that there are things that matter even more than average test score improvements. Consider, for example, this headline from last month: “Students at Chicago high school hold walkout over their everyday violence.”  Or consider this section of last year’s Moody Media Lab report, “A day in the life of a Chicago public School Student:”

“At school, outbreaks of violence can distract students from learning, too. At lunch, Maria’s good mood over “pizza again!” quickly turns to disapproval at the sight of two girls arguing loudly nearby. “Girls, always girls,” she sighs.

These arguments usually start on Facebook the night before and trickle into the following school day. Some days, they escalate to a physical fight. Wells (High School) faculty and staff respond as best they can to these situations. Maria was once in an argument, and to avoid a fight, she was asked to sit and talk things through with the school social worker.

However, Wells staff do not catch all the fights. Videos appear on social media, and students cheer on the violence. Comments such as, “I’m gonna beat that THOT (that hoe over there) tomorrow,” or “I beat that b — a — today and I will do it tomorrow,” are examples of how some students interact with one another on social media.

Principal Raichoudhuri invests a lot of time and energy in students who are susceptible to gang involvement.”

It's wonderful that Chicago’s average test scores appear to be improving. Teachers should be praised and rewarded. But, as a parent, what is your priority? Are the average test scores for everyone your priority, or do you define a “good” school by what is “good” for your child? Would this school be the first choice for your family? My guess is, put into perspective, academic growth alone is not a measure for what a "good school" would mean to you. And let’s face it, most Presidents of the United States would agree with you (yep, we’ve talked about that too - read more here).

Jackson makes an important point when she discusses the importance of school transparency. Transparency helps parents make good choices for their children. But too many parents are not allowed to make choices when they know their children are not being well served or may be in danger. Giving families better information, but denying them the right to act on it is particularly cruel. Let’s celebrate the Chicago school district’s improvements, and also give parents the kind of choices that will carry those improvements outside the schools and into Chicago’s neighborhoods as well.

{Photo: By Massimo Catarinella - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0}