A new miracle school in Chicago

I’m not an education reporter.  I’m just a guy with a computer and a healthy amount of skepticism and internet access.  I also am someone whose been in education for twenty years and am fearful about the direction it has been taking.

So when I learn about a new miracle school I get worried since whatever statistics are being used to praise that school are also being used to shut down and fire the staff of another school.

Take the recent article about the turnaround school in Chicago called Marshall High School, recently reported about in The Chicago Tribune.

We learn that the principal just finished her first year there after a successful four year turnaround of another Chicago High School, Harper High School.  The article reports that the principal did have to get rid of 161 students as part of her way of accomplishing that turnaround.

But when I researched the school report cards from 2007 to 2010 for Harper High, I learned a few unusual things:

For one, the enrollment in that school went from

1301 in 2007 to only 771 in 2010.  That’s a 40% attrition.

Then when I checked the test scores, I saw that they barely changed

2007                         2010

English 12.9            13.0

Math 14.6                14.7

Reading 13.2            14.0

Science 14.6             15.1

Here are the report cards for the school from 2007 to 2010





And the new school, Marshall High hasn’t even gotten any test scores back yet.  The principal is just finishing her first year there.  It seems premature to call that school a miracle already, just because it has a charismatic new leader.

I can’t understand why education reporters do this all the time.  Are they that desperate for a story that they have to build up a school to be a miracle school when it really isn’t?

Maybe there have been a lot of improvements in those schools, things that are hard to measure and that don’t show up in test scores.  If so, then it’s sad is that these reporters are so close to getting the real story.  Rather than take a miracle school with poor test scores and fail to report the poor test scores, why not say “here’s a miracle school.  It has poor test scores.  Therefore test scores don’t determine how good a school is.  Therefore our country should not be pursuing an agenda where teachers are fired and schools are shut down because of test scores.”  Now, that would be a scoop.

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15 Responses to A new miracle school in Chicago

  1. Robert Hiles says:

    The loss of students from 2007 to 2010 could be the reason for the changes in Test Scores. I have seen Principals get rid of so called “Bad Students” to gain better Test Scores.

  2. Diane Ravitch says:

    Brilliant detective work, Gary! Why can’t reporters check the scores and attrition rates before they declare a miracle? If you can do it, so can they. I like your suggestion at the end, that we stop relying on test scores as the measure of “good” or “miraculous.” We should come up with better measures of improvement.

  3. Thank you for doing the research on this. It is quite evident to anybody who has been around long enough that miracles don’t happen overnight. We must continue calling out the press on this because it diminishes the hard work that educators do every day–the educators who are left to teach those kicked out by Harper and Marshall.

  4. AdamH says:

    Way to call it like you see it. We don’t see much evidence for growth on turnarounds, but we do see evidence that turnarounds are manipulating numbers to the press. Now why would that be?

  5. parus says:

    Well, geez, if one’s allowed to get rid of students as part of a “turnaround,” I can turnaround any school you’d like. Just point me toward it!

  6. Wess says:

    It’s funny that the only evidence cited for the turnaround at Marshall is the way the students get to class.

    It seems like this article’s purpose is to inform readers about what CPS is doing to deliver on their promise of ‘dramatic interventions’ by providing a bio of one principal–I don’t think the reporter declaring an education miracle as much as she’s trying to emphasize the district’s drastic measures. But you’d think she’d say something about achievement, period. Or at least mention that the jury’s still out as to whether test scores are as drastically improved as the culture is.

  7. eminnm says:

    Before she went to Harper, she was assistant principal at Dyett High. I volunteer at the school–Dyett’s attendance is abysmal and it’s test scores are worse. Does that mean it’s an awful school? Not necessarily, but when 9th graders can’t read the word “consequence,” it’s not looking good. On the one hand, if none of the principal’s past schools show significant improvement, it’s hard to call anyone a miracle worker. On the other, you can’t teach a kid anything if he doesn’t come to class, so getting attendance and behavior up are an essential first step to any academic change. But it’s hard to notice that when we’re so focused on test scores.

  8. Pingback: Parents United for Responsible Education » Blog Archive » Houston math teacher + internet = Chicago “miracle” cure

  9. G says:


    This blog posting is mentioned in the NYTimes OpEd by Diane Ravitch.

  10. chicity says:

    Hey Gary –
    Interesting post. Certainly, lack of change in ACT scores during this principal’s time at Harper is problematic. However, to your claim about 40% attrition, it is worth mentioning that much of that “loss” came from transferring students who were mathematically beyond graduation-eligibility to alternative schools (per the Trib article, pg 3). It seems to me that, while alternative school quality in Chicago isn’t completely dependable, those students’ transfer is laudable, if it is their only remaining path to a diploma.

    I agree with you that a newspapers’ zeal in search for “miracle schools” often takes it beyond strictly reliable evidence, but I wonder whether the greater problem is that few if any of us know what to look for in the first year of a successful school turnaround (here, I mean lowercase-t turnaround: simply, creating massively different academic outcomes without significant change in the student body). Too many unsuccessful turnaround efforts obfuscate their results and that clouds the issue, but I don’t we should let that keep us from focusing on solving the problem of massively low performing secondary schools (dropout factories, if you will).

  11. H says:

    I have just come across your blog, and am reading as many entries as I can. As a 2002 TFA corps member, I have often wondered about TFA but have struggled to find alumni whose beliefs about the organization depart from the standard “party line”.

    I taught for my 2 year commitment, and then taught an additional 5 years. I pursued and achieved a masters degree in Curriculum an Instruction as well as a masters degree in Educational Leadership and Admin. I also earned my Principal’s certificate.

    I feel like the PR for TFA is far different from the “way it actually is”. I worked at an elementary school and was one of the first 2 TFA teachers placed there. I had a horrible first year and felt totally ineffective. I felt TFA let me down and that I had no one to turn to for support. TFA encouraged me not to turn to veteran teachers because veteran teachers were part of the problem, not part of the solution. TFA’s meetings and support groups were more of a drain on my time than anything helpful. It was only after the completion of my first year, when I did a lot of reflection, a lot of reading, and figured out for myself what changes I wanted to try making for my second year, that I felt any hope that someday I could be a more effective teacehr. I also made the decision to turn to my veteran teaching teammates for help, and it was the best decision I ever made.

    I became one of the only TFA teachers at my school that was accepted and respected by the veteran teaching staff (those who became teachers through traditional routes). I was accepted and respected because I talked to them. I asked questions. I asked for materials. I shared materials. I never thought I knew all the answers– in fact, I always assumed I knew nothing and that there MUST be a better way than what I was currently doing.

    Over my 7 years of teaching, I watched as new TFA CM’s would come in and be mostly dismissed by the traditional and veteran teachers at the school. I felt torn because I, too, was a TFA teacher at one point. I understood where the new CM’s were coming from. However, I also cringed because the TFA CM’s were — for the most part– embarrassing. Many implemented ridiculous classroom procedures. They conducted pointless lessons on abstract concepts that meant nothing to their students. One female CM wore business suits to school everyday as an elementary school teacher. Those of you who are established elementary school teachers know just how silly this is. They plastered their walls with signs about big goals. They called their students “Super Scholars” or “Star Scholars” and didn’t hesitate to go on long diatribes to other teachers about WHY they called their students scholars. These TFA CM’s rarely if ever asked for help. THey rarely if ever asked for or used materials from other teachers. These TFA’s rarely if ever accepted any help when they were approached with suggestions by other teachers. Most of these CM’s had classrooms that could be described as isolated bubbles of TFA-ness. When we studied test results as a school at the beginning of the next year, these TFA CM’s were never more effective than anyone else.

    There were also multiple TFA CM’s who quit during the school year. I am not sure if they were misplaced (similar to the other blog posts you wrote) or if they simply didn’t work out. Out of the 10 CM’s I can think of from my school that lasted their 2 years, I can think of at least 3 that quit after only a few weeks or months. These failures were never addressed or discussed by TFA. Of course, they never became a part of the media stories told by TFA about our school district. They just quit and disappeared.

    Thank you and I look forward to reading more!

  12. cps says:

    As someone who knows firsthand about the turnaround at Marshall, and as a 2003 CM, I feel the need to comment.

    In the OSI turnaround model, the first year of turnaround is focused almost entirely on building a positive culture and climate. Academics are certainly important, and teachers are held to high expectations, but the most important measures of growth in year one are in culture and climate. Thus, the 25% improvement in attendance, the doubling of freshmen on track and the decrease of loitering and major in-school incidents are all indications that the first year was successful.

    This isn’t to say that the PSAE wasn’t important this year. It was, and I believe we will show higher scores this year. But, the heavy emphasis on improved test scores, etc., doesn’t really come until next year.

    Finally, it is irritating to read a blog about a school to which the author has never visited. Had you had the opportunity to visit Marshall last year and again this year, you wouldn’t be so quick to discard the transformation that’s underway here. It isn’t a miracle–a miracle suggests that the transformation can’t be logically explained. Actually, it CAN be explained–the administration, the staff, the students, the parents and the community have worked almost to exhaustion to ensure that it would happen.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      @cps If you would read my post more carefully you would see that I’m not saying ANYTHING about Marshall High, but about the supposed turnaround at Harper High School and the prior success of your principal. I’m happy that Marshall High has a better culture and I commend them for that. They haven’t even gotten any scores back yet, so it has not been declared a miracle by anyone. This entire post is about another school, so relax.

  13. Richard Stanton says:

    Gary, I’m awaiting your comments on the Atlanta cheating debacle. Isn’t this another example of setting unrealistic expectations?

  14. Pingback: If I Were the Coach, “Ed Reform” Would Not Make the Cut | River Deep, Mountain High

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