From High School to the Future: Chicago Leads the Way

May 4, 2008 | Blog

As I’ve been accused a few times since starting this blog of being too negative about the possibilities presented by schools & teachers, I want to pass on my good vibes from attending an event this week that made my quite optimistic indeed.

For the last several years I’ve been working with a crew of outrageously talented folks at the Consortium for Chicago School Research (including Melissa Roderick & Jenny Nagaoka) who are collaborating with the Chicago Public Schools (most notably Greg Dardinier) to get high school students, teachers, and administrators focused on increasing the potential for student success after high school. With loads of financial support from both CPS (Arne Duncan) and the Gates Foundation (among others) CCSR and the school system built a tracking system that allows them to follow kids out of high school and into college & work, to see how they do– and even more importantly, to figure out how to help them do better.

It’s so unusual for a school district, especially one as large as Chicago’s (130+ high schools!) to have the data capacity to do this. The vast majority of high schools in the U.S. rely on a student exit questionnaire administered in the spring of senior year, which asks kids “What are your plans for the fall” (choices include 4 yr college, 2yr college, work, etc) and their responses are used as a proxy for the real destination. In other words, the college-going rate for a high school or district is based on a student’s self-report in May of senior year. This is a highly inaccurate measure, as several different data sources have proven– plenty of kids who say they are going to college do not (or do not go to the kind of school they said they were going to, even if they were admitted and accepted) because they realize they cannot afford it, or get side-tracked during the summer, and many who say they aren’t going, do decide to show up at a community college. Clearly districts need a much more reliable source of information if they are to learn about their high school graduates, and use that information to inform and change their educational practices.

Well, Chicago’s got it figured out. They hooked up with the National Student Clearinghouse, which is able to identify students attending 91% of the colleges nationwide– if they are enrolled, NSC usually knows about it. CPS checks with kids before they leave high school to make sure they have the right social security number & birthdate, and an idea of where the kid might be going, and then uses this data to track them. This is a not-too-complex and pretty inexpensive way to get consistent and reliable information back to individual high schools about their grads.

The results have been transformative for the Chicago Public Schools. Too much to get into here, but you can check out in this report and this report from CCSR to see what they’ve learned about who goes to college, what helps them get there, what the big barriers are to accessing more elite institutions, who graduates & from where,etc. Some principals were stunned to learn that even at their “high-performing” high schools only 3 or 4 in 10 kids actually went on to attend college. Because the district also asks about what students want to do (what they aspire to), and follows up on their wages, they can respond to people who make excuses such as “Not all kids want to go to college” (not true, nearly 90% do), or “Some kids are better off going to work” (not so–the wages of CPS students who go straight to work are very, very low). Changes have been made, and over the last several years, while the college-going rates of high school graduates nationwide have declined, they have gone up in Chicago.

Which leads me to this week. The Gates Foundation recognized how amazing this has been for CPS, and funded them to hold trainings to let other school districts from around the country in on the action. So we gathered in Chicago this week– districts applied and 8 or 9 were chosen (including Philly, Austin, Portland)–to attend two days of sessions on how to use NSC data effectively to generate positive changes in high schools and colleges.

I was there as part of the Milwaukee team. As someone deeply concerned about all of the kids in urban districts left behind as the great masses moves towards higher education, I can’t tell you how much it warmed my heart (really, it did!) to listen to k-12 district folks talk (in some cases for the very first time) about college-going and completion, and realize that these problems are real, widespread, and there is something we can do about it. It was especially wonderful that CCSR’s team (led by Chris Mazzeo) also provided social opportunities for the districts to get to know one another, as they will need support in coming years when they try to go home and reorient administrators and teachers’ thinking about how and why high schools can help increase college completion rates among our poorest kids.

During the next several months the teams will be working with their district data and then we’ll reconvene in the fall to discuss what we’ve found and plan to do. I’ll keep you posted.

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