Chicago gets tough with its dunces

Beset by appalling results from its schools, the Windy City has adopted radical techniques which are attracting international attention
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The Independent Online
As school-leavers in England and Wales contemplate the arrival today of their career-determining A-level results and teachers gird themselves for the inevitable debate about standards, they might spare a thought for their counterparts across the Atlantic, in Chicago. Here, a daring, perhaps desperate, experiment is under way which is intended to raise standards in a city long reputed to have the worst school system in America.

Education officials in Chicago deny that their schools were ever the worst. They admit that they might not have been centres of national excellence, but say they were only among the worst. The label - bestowed by Ronald Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett - stuck none the less. Now the city is in the throes of a system-wide reform that is attracting attention from school departments across the US and even from Britain. Education officers from Birmingham have been over to take a look.

The Chicago experiment derived from a realisation that many pupils were leaving school without even the bare essentials to be employable. True, the city had a special problem; by the early 1990s, the flight of the white middle class to the suburbs had left the city's schools with an overwhelming majority of children from poor, mainly ethnic "minority" homes. Some 54 per cent of today's pupils are black; another 30 per cent Hispanic.

But when a new mayor, Richard Daley - son of the long-serving mayor-baron of Chicago, "Joe" Daley - was elected in 1995, he pledged to re-vamp the city's education. Too many people, he said, had written off the pupils as doomed to fail. It was the schools that were failing, and the city was failing the schools.

Whatever is said about Mayor Daley, and much of it even from political opponents is positive, he has fulfilled his promise to shake up the schools. Seven are being "reconstituted" - with a new head and all staff required to re-apply for their jobs. One in five of the city's 550 schools are "on probation": they are being monitored, that is, by the education department, until they improve either their financial management or educational and attendance standards.

Mayor Daley's initial achievement was to have the state of Illinois, which formerly appointed the city's school board, cede control of schools and their huge, $2.8bn (pounds 1.6bn) budget to Chicago. He then pruned and recast the administration, appointing a chief executive and a finance chief, who together turned a big deficit into a small surplus within a year. Some of that is being used for long-delayed repairs and refurbishment. Of five schools I visited, four were in the midst of extensive works. Perhaps the biggest undertaking, however, is the city's determination to improve standards, above all the pupils' test scores. Chicago pupils, along with most US children, take national tests of basic skills - reading and mathematics - at crucial points in their school careers. In the past, the scores were recorded, lamented - and largely disregarded. The pupils went automatically into the next grade, and lagged further and further behind.

Last year, for the first time, eighth-graders (14-year-olds) who did not reach the standard set by the city were not allowed to go on to high school (the four-year school leading to a diploma). They had to go to special summer classes to try to improve their scores. More than half did.

The others, to widespread consternation, had to stay down a year. If by then they had passed their 15th birthday, they were deemed too old (and, concomitantly, physically large) to return to grade school, and were placed in a "transitional centre" for special classes designed to help them catch up with their year group within a year. Some 1,100 pupils were placed in these centres last year.

At the end of this academic year, the programme, known as the "Summer Bridge", became compulsory not just for failed eighth-graders, but for three other year groups, older and younger. In all, more than 10 per cent of the city's 420,000 pupils were required to attend the special seven- week programme, and in some schools the number exceeded 50 per cent.

Staffed by selected teachers, all experienced and well regarded (and paid for the additional "term"), the summer programmes do not attempt to repeat the school year at speed. They use special course materials, chosen for "relevance" and soundness, comprising a mix of original work and "rote" learning that would please both the "learn by doing" and the "back to basics" tendencies.

Officials at the city's education department stress that the reform is not just about improving test scores or Chicago's position in the national scale. It is mainly about pupils and equipping them for the world beyond school. It is also an attempt to break with two decades of rampant "grade inflation", when teachers felt under pressure to pass every child, regardless of achievement, and the "social" benefits of keeping children in their year group were thought to outweigh individual educational achievement.

It is too early to judge the results of the reforms, but first indications are good. Test scores in the last academic year were the best this decade. Karen Morris, head at a predominantly Hispanic school in the south of the city, said that there had been a clear change in pupils' attitudes once they understood that they would be kept down if they failed. They were, she said, "much more focused this year".

An education official responsible for overseeing the summer programme also noted one of the by-products of the back-to-basics approach and said he favoured much more of it. If a parent comes in complaining that his or her child has failed and that is unfair for whatever reason, he said, "I can call in the child and ask him, `What is six times seven?' or whatever, and if he can't answer, I can tell the parent, `You see, he doesn't know his times tables.' " Without that requirement for specific knowledge the parent could say the child was just a poor test-taker or felt unwell on the day.

There are dissenters from the new approach. Some were involved with previous attempts to improve education in Chicago. They complain that the present administration is actually reaping a harvest that was sown by previous reformers and say that the roller-coaster of the past decade has damaged teachers' morale and confused parents and pupils.

Some dissenters, however, are now converts. Sitting in his cramped un- air-conditioned office, with the fan on full blast, one head of year said he was already seeing the benefits in pupils' attitude and achievement. And sometimes it is the small things that count. The provision of brand- new textbooks and calculators for this year's compulsory summer courses, in sufficient numbers for each pupil to have their own, was itself a morale- booster for teachers and pupils, said Angela Murdoch, director of one of the programmes at a big problem-ridden school in northern Chicago. They were so used to being at the bottom of the pile.

This week, Chicago's compulsory summer pupils will have been awaiting their results with as much trepidation as Britain's A-level candidates. Whether the compulsory summer programme element of the Chicago school reform would transfer to Britain, however, is another matter. How many parents, or children, would forego their holidays to spend another seven weeks at school? In Chicago, every teacher told me, this was the least of their problems: as one put it: "There's not a lot of people here going to Florida."