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Early Results on 'No Child': Chicago Reports Progress

Ohanian note: If all kids are scoring better--whether they transferred out of NCLB-labelled failing schools or not--could it possibly be because the test is now familiar?

Just asking the question the reporter doesn't seem to consider.

Kids who won highly prized transfers out of failing Chicago public schools averaged much better reading and math gains during the first year in their new schools --just as drafters of the federal No Child Left Behind Law envisioned, an exclusive analysis indicates.

And, contrary to some predictions, moving low-scoring kids to better-performing schools didn't seem to slow the progress of students in those higher-achieving schools.

Even kids "left behind'' in struggling schools generally posted better gains in state tests once their peers transferred elsewhere.

"It's a win-win-win,'' said Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan. "I couldn't have asked for better results.''

The analysis -- conducted by the Chicago Board of Education at the Chicago Sun-Times' request -- is believed to be the first in the nation to track the progress of students who changed schools under the controversial "choice'' provisions of the No Child Left Behind law.

During 2002 -- the often chaotic first year of the program -- 120,000 Chicago children attended schools whose state test scores made them eligible for transfers, but only 26,000 in some of those schools were allowed to apply for 2,500 seats.

In the end, some kids who won seats never used them; only 737 stayed in their new schools.

Craig Jerald, senior policy analyst with the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., said the study was a good first crack at trying to answer the threshold question about the 2002 law: Did the transfer kids show more improvement in their new schools than in their old ones?

"The answer is a great big 'Yes,'" said Jerald, whose organization focuses on learning achievement gaps. "Based on these numbers, the transfers in Chicago appear to be working exactly as the framers of the law hoped.''

Still unanswered is what would have happened if a far bigger chunk of the kids who were in failing schools had transferred. But this fall, the third year of the program, even fewer spots will be open -- 457.

Duncan caught heat initially for granting so few transfers, but said the study seemed to validate his strategy.

"We refused to overwhelm schools. That's why this worked well,'' he said.

Some researchers questioned the results, and said further study is needed. But some parents of transfer kids said they didn't need further study to tell them a switch was the right decision for their kids.

"My son has made almost a 360-degree turnaround,'' said Tammie Summerville, whose son, Isaac, now 10, barely paid attention in school and balked at doing homework -- until he won a coveted seat at Dixon Elementary, in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood.

"Now, he enjoys school,'' Summerville said. "I'm happy I switched.''

The Sun-Times asked the nation's third-largest school system to track the gains of kids in the year before and the year after "choice'' transfers, using Iowa Tests of Basic Skills scores. Three separate groups of students were studied: those who transferred in the fall of 2002 to better schools, those left behind in "sending'' schools, and those students the transfer kids joined in their new "receiving'' schools. Only 290 students had the three years of scores needed for the analysis.

The study showed that while in the "sending'' schools, transfer kids gained at a smaller rate than the average student nationally -- they were falling behind. In fact, they were even making smaller gains than other kids in their low-scoring schools. But in their new schools, they made slightly better gains than the national average.

In their sending schools, transfer kids posted 24 percent less than the expected gain in reading, and 17 percent less than the expected gain in math. But in their new schools, transfer kids produced 8 percent more gains than the average student -- in reading and math.

Their improvement was "statistically significant" in both subjects, said the Education Trust's Jerald. Especially in reading, the change in the pace of their growth was "huge,'' he said.

In addition, the analysis indicated gains didn't slacken among kids in receiving schools after the transfer kids joined them, said Dan Bugler, Chicago Accountability chief. Kids in sending schools also made significant growth after transfer students left, although the transfer kids gained even more, Bugler said.

But John Easton, co-director of the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, raised technical questions about the results, saying transfer gains could be "spurious.''

"You don't know why their gains went up. Did they go up just because they had a bad year the year before, or did they go up because they went to a better school and had a better teacher? You don't have the evidence to say that,'' Easton said. "You need a comparison group.''

Another year of pre- and post-transfer data also would be more definitive, he said.

Some might say it's obvious that kids who go to better schools would make better progress. Several parents of transfer kids said they know in their gut their children are now in better schools.

Parents who landed in three of dozens of receiving schools -- Dixon, Galileo Scholastic Academy and Healy Elementary -- noticed the difference right away: Teachers sent home more challenging homework, communicated with them regularly through assignment notebooks, called them immediately with good news or bad.

In other words, teachers nipped problems in the bud. Suddenly, there was no mouthing off. Calls or notes came home the minute homework was missing.

Quiana Wilcoxon, 11, said she visited three possible new schools and picked Healy during its open house for potential transfer kids.

"I could just tell, from the assistant principal talking about the school, that I wanted to go there,'' said Quiana, whose Healy test scores last year showed strong math gains. "She said if somebody did something wrong, they would be sent to the principal's office immediately -- five seconds later.''

Transfer student Rodney Gandy, now a fourth-grader at Galileo, said his new teacher called home immediately when he repeatedly drummed on his desk during class. At Galileo, Rodney said, teachers "will be right on your behind if you get into trouble. They will be right on you -- like that.'' And, he said, "That's good.''

At her old school, Quiana said, the teacher sat behind a desk and listened to music during after-school classes while kids worked. At Healy, the teacher moves around the room and helps kids after school. For regular class, instead of doing one project a year, Quiana now does at least four.

Of the chosen few, nearly 300 returned to their original schools. Some may have felt more comfortable around their old peers, principals said. Other families just couldn't adjust. Dixon Principal Joan Dameron Crisler said her five transfer students have stayed with her, although some initially bristled at the "culture shock'' of high expectations.

But, "When you expect nothing, you get nothing,'' Crisler said.

DePaul University education professor Barbara Radner, an outspoken critic of the federal law, wondered if the transfer gains were triggered by nothing more than the so-called Hawthorne effect first observed in the late 1920s in Cicero. There, assembly line workers became more productive every time a researcher tinkered with work conditions.

The researcher finally concluded productivity improved merely because each change made workers "feel special,'' Radner said. And now, "These kids feel special.''

In addition, Radner said, transfer kids came from homes where parents cared enough about education to take on stiff odds, tackle confusing paperwork, and swallow any culture shock -- another way transfer kids were sifted from the chaff.

Even so, Radner said, it still looks like "Something's happening here.''

— Rosalind Rossi
Chicago Sun-Times


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