Misusing Data Misleads the Public

This is the first of what I'm hoping will be a regular post from CPS communications guru Peter Cunningham, who has been a regular reader and occasional commenter on the site:

"Last spring, the Chicago Consortium on School Research released a study suggesting that only 6.5% of Chicago public high school freshmen eventually graduate from a four-year college. The Consortium has since adjusted the number upwards because of new graduation data from colleges, but the number itself is an estimate based on the performance of students from the 1980s long before school reform took hold or Mayor Daley took control of the system. Nevertheless, many people have quoted the figure as undisputed fact and blamed the current administration for falling short.

"No one can tell you with certainty how many CPS students eventually graduate from a four-year college and until they can, we should all stay away from this statistic. We all agree that, no matter how many of our kids are earning four-year college degrees, its not enough and we must do better. Rather than blaming people for the shortcomings of the past, however, lets talk about what we can do in the future to get more kids through college. The New York Times used the statistic to focus on the responsibilities of colleges to support struggling students and help them succeed. Another dimension of the issue is the skyrocketing cost of college tuition.  Clearly, CPS has the key role in preparing kids for college and we are doing more today than ever before, but we all have a role in raising success rates."

Feel free to comment on Cunningham's argument below, and if you or anyone you know might have a valuable perspective that should be shared on this site -- be it teacher, activist, parent, etc. -- let me know at Alexander RussoRusso@gmail.com.  The point of the site is to hear all views, share information, and learn from each other.

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  • Peter makes an important point, one that holds true for more than the four-year graduation statistic but also includes many of the positive claims CPS makes for itself. Our children deserve better than for us adults to play loose with statistics (see most of the Renaissance 2010 hype for examples).

    As the mother of two of the oldest college seniors in Chicago -- both CPS graduates and the smartest, most successful young men a parent could want -- I appreciate the fact that graduating from college in four years tells little about the quality of K-12 schooling.

    We need to be more concerned about the millions of CPS students who have never attended a day of college because their families don't believe they can afford it, or they haven't had adequate high school counseling, or they dropped out after having been held back three times by CPS.

    Our children deserve our serious attention to all of the danger signs of the neglect and inadequate service so many of them receive. The low four-year graduation rate is one danger sign. CPS and the civic and foundation community need to put far more resources into analysis of the many severe problems in the system.

    Perhaps even more important, we need to take a closer look at models of success that have a track record, not just expensive hype.

    I'd suggest starting with the Designs for Change research (www.designsforchange.org - The Big Picture) which clearly connects local school decision making with the steady, impressive gains from 1990 in 144 CPS schools that escaped central office intervention. Conversely, the schools which experienced the most serious interventions from CPS have barely improved during the same time period.

    Most of those 144 schools face the same social and economic challenges as the schools that have not improved. They should be the obvious models for the system, yet this important research has been ignored by CPS, the media, even Catalyst in favor of "flavor-of-the-month" schools which do not accept or serve all students.

    The saying, "Live by the sword, die by the sword" is appropriate here. Until CPS stops misusing data for its own purposes, it's hard to attack others for doing the same.

  • CPS has a responsibility to do more than "something." You have a responsiblity to learn and know something about what works rather than just hand your responsibility over to some group to do "something else." You need to be able to look parents in the eye and say that you are doing something better, not based on phony data and public relations spin but based on real life success.

    It's very telling that CPS and so many others in Chicago have pointedly ignored the Designs for Change research, and other research about the success of decentralization (Tony Bryk, Harvard's Archon Fung, the Consortium).

    As for the problems of the high schools, the unluckiest elementary school students ended up in one of the majority of high schools that have been on probation -or reengineering or reconstitution or whatever CPS called intervention when it was that school's turn. So what are their chances?

  • Here's a specific example of what CPS does to drive down struggling schools, and how an LSC's efforts to make a difference were blocked. A school on the near west side had been on probation since the day Vallas proclaimed it to be so. The principal was replaced with an interim. After several years without progress, the LSC began to ask that they be allowed to select someone else. They were denied. Meanwhile, LSC-recommended programs to involve parents and address the serious discipline problems in the school with mentoring and other programs were also rejected.

    This is just one example but it's a common story.

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