Policy Documents

Trapped in Chicago’s Worst Schools

Joshua Dwyer –
October 24, 2013

In this important policy assessment, Joshua Dwyer writes about the sorry state of Chicago's public schools.  He asserts that, in 2010, then state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), introduced legislation that would have provided opportunity scholarships, commonly referred to as vouchers, to students attending the lowest-performing 10 percent of schools in Chicago.

While the bill passed the Illinois Senate – thanks, in part, to Meeks’ position as head of the Senate Education Committee – it failed in the House and never reached the governor’s desk. Meeks’ argument for the legislation was simple: Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools and high schools consistently fail their students. Giving these students financial support in the form a voucher, which they could take to any school they wanted, would have been their ticket out of these failing schools.

A look at 2012 Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, data of the city’s lowest-performing schools shows just how bad the situation is:

  • 75 percent of students at Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools failed to meet standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, or ISAT, which measures basic competence in reading and math.

  • 95 percent of juniors at Chicago’s lowest-performing high schools failed to meet standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, or PSAE, meaning they can only draw simple conclusions from reading assignments and have trouble interpreting basic algebra.

  • More than 20 percent of students at Chicago’s lowest- performing elementary schools scored in the “warning” category on state tests in reading, meaning they had a difficult time determining the main idea of a persuasive essay or the plot of a short story.

  • Nearly half of all students at Chicago’s lowest-performing high schools scored in the “warning” category on state tests in math, meaning they can only do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems.

    These poor-performing schools have problems that many people, including politicians, believe are too great to overcome. Because of this, they are kept out of sight and out of mind. That means thousands of students are left behind. In total, 15,983 students attend Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools and 5,389 students attend Chicago’s lowest- performing high schools.

    Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts, located on Chicago’s South Side, is one such example. There, fewer than 19 percent of students are ready for high school, and the school has never met federal benchmarks for student success.1 Nearly 78 percent of its students are chronically truant.2

While a few children may succeed under these conditions, the vast majority of students attending a school like Dewey are never able to overcome the many obstacles in front of them. Even though total funding and per-student funding at CPS has grown by more than 60 percent over the past decade, student achievement isn’t where it needs to be.3

Throwing more money at the problem won’t fix anything.

The fact of the matter is that current and future students do not have the luxury of waiting five or 10 years to see if such interventions will work. Every year they stay at a school like Dewey is another year they fall further behind their peers. And success in school is a direct link to success later in life with more steady employment, greater wages and higher self- confidence.

Chicago’s lowest-performing high schools are no better. Fewer than 5 percent of students in these schools met state standards. In these schools, there are almost as many students graduating as there are dropping out.4 These schools are some of the most violent schools in the state.5

This report presents a clear picture of just how bad the 10 percent lowest-performing elementary schools and high schools in Chicago actually are. It examines how these schools compare to other schools across the district and the state, as well as to state and federal standards. It also looks at other statistics that are closely related to the quality of a school, including chronic truancy, and graduation and dropout rates.

Forcing students to continue to attend schools that have failed children for decades is wrong. Providing them with more educational options should be the state and districts’ No. 1 priority.

This means lifting the charter school cap, creating an environment where online and blended learning can thrive and supporting choice programs – such as vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education-savings accounts – that would allow students in Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools and high schools to attend schools that better fit their learning styles and are more responsive to their needs. 

 Students at Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools and high schools need a way out – fast. Their futures depend on it.