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Op-Ed: UEI director discusses how Chicago Public Schools budget cuts threaten a decade of progress

June 9, 2016

This op-ed by UEI Director Sara Ray Stoelinga originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business »

As the school year draws to a close in Chicago, teachers and parents are reflecting on their students' progress and anticipating their next milestones. Tiny preschoolers, eager eighth-graders and jubilant seniors will soon don mortarboards and celebrate their achievements.

As these celebrations draw near, however, there looms the prospect of extensive CPS budget cuts—a critical hit that threatens to shut down schools and not only interrupt the next school year but the progress our children and teachers have made over the past decade.

The fact that CPS has made incredible gains is undeniable. Suspensions have gone down. Teacher evaluation scores have gone up. This week, a report from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research showed  yet another year of improvements to Chicago's high school graduation rate, with a climb to 74 percent—a result of focused work on the ninth-grade year that propelled a 15-point increase in CPS' high school graduation rate over the past decade. That progress came without sacrificing student achievement: ACT scores have been increasing every year, even as thousands more students are making it to the junior year to take the exam.

Chicago's gains also stand out in comparison to the state and the nation. A study by the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that from 2001 to 2015, student growth in Chicago exceeded growth elsewhere in the state among all racial subgroups. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes dubbed the "nation's report card," Chicago's fourth- and eighth-graders have made significant leaps since 2003. With increases in math and reading achievement  often double and quadruple the gains seen elsewhere, Chicago's trajectory has defied the declines reported in many other cities as well as the stagnating progress of the nation as a whole.

School improvement in Chicago was the result of true grass-roots change sparked by teachers and leaders drawing on research on what matters most for students' success:

It required investments in data. Solid data infrastructure is the backbone of school improvement. Chicago has committed to putting actionable data on students' progress into the hands of school leaders and teachers; this has paid off in the form of steadily improving high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

It required investments in thoughtful engagement of families and communities. Keeping students engaged and on track to graduate from high school and succeed in college often hinges on engaging families as partners. Research shows  that when schools communicate regularly with families, families trust teachers and principals more, the school climate improves and families become deeper allies in school improvement.

It required investments in time for collaboration and professional development. Teachers and school leaders need ways to build professional capacity and access to knowledge to improve their work. Time is one of the most precious resources in a school; finding more of it requires thoughtful use of financial and human capital to build space and resources for professional learning. But, done well, research shows  the result is worth the effort: Schools that foster collaboration among teachers have greater levels of trust, stronger commitments to not letting students fail and, ultimately, higher student achievement. In fact, the level of teacher collaboration in a school is a stronger predictor of school improvement than individual teacher characteristics, like the rank of their college or their years of experience.

We need funds to sustain what's working. All parties, in Chicago and in Springfield, have a role to play in coming together, with urgency and without divisiveness, to articulate a path forward. We must fight to hold on to the successful systems we have built as a city, drawing on the lessons we have learned about how to improve the outcomes of our students.

The future of generations of young people depends on finding funding solutions to fuel investments that have led Chicago's students to make these impressive gains.