HYDE PARK — Parents with kids at the 49 public schools shuttered in 2013 made dramatically different decisions than education administrators anticipated, and more students than expected ended up in lower-performing schools, according to a new study from the University of Chicago.
Researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that more than 800 students ended up in schools that were rated lower than the ones they left when Chicago Public Schools shuttered 49 elementary schools in March 2013, the largest number of school closings in one year ever in the United States.
The “School Closings in Chicago” report released Monday tracked the decisions of the parents of nearly 12,000 students affected by the closings and found that a third of students did not attend the higher-performing school recommended by CPS.
The reshuffling resulted in 21 percent of kids moving up to top-performing schools, when 27 percent were recommended a top school. Though 30 percent of students were recommended to move to another low-performing school, 36 percent remained in the lowest category of public school at the time, according to the report.
Overall, 97 percent of students ended up at a school at least marginally better than the one they left.
"The report characterizes the policy as being a success in terms of getting students into higher-performing schools, and we concur with that assessment," a CPS spokeswoman said.
She said the report shows that CPS kept its promises and upheld its commitments to students and communities during the process of closing the schools.
"Our commitment was to make a higher-performing school available to every child affected," the spokeswoman said. "However, it was up to the families to choose what they believed was best for their child."
Researchers found after interviewing 95 affected families and crunching the data that parents were making dramatically different decisions about what school to move their child to — and for very different reasons — than what CPS seemed to expect at the time.
When CPS finalized the decision to shutter 49 elementary schools in March 2013, the children affected were assigned a new school less than a mile from the closing school that was doing better on CPS’ performance benchmarks.
The report found that half of the students who had to move to a new building balked and enrolled elsewhere, driving kids into lower-rated schools than what CPS had recommended. Similarly, more than half of students who were assigned to a school more than a half-mile from their home also turned down CPS’ recommendation.
About a third of the displaced students ended up in schools that were significantly better, 20 percentage points or higher in CPS’ performance rankings, than their old schools. But the students who turned down CPS’ pick for a new school often ended up in a school that was ranked lower than their welcoming school and that lacked the investment in staff, Safe Passage workers and other amenities that CPS pumped into those welcoming schools.
“This is potentially problematic because past research found that students’ achievement improved only if they moved to a substantially higher-performing school than the one they left,” authors Marisa De La Torre, Molly Gordon, Paul Moore and Jennifer Cowhy write in the report.
But the authors cautioned against thinking parents weren’t making informed and rational choices about their kids’ education.
“Some may interpret this finding as a failure on the part of parents or guardians by suggesting they did not make ‘good’ academic choices,” the report says. “However, the majority of families we spoke to chose schools based on other factors that they thought would better fit their children’s needs. The majority of interviewees also put a lot of thought and effort into finding the right schools for their children.”
In interviews, parents told the researchers that safety and transportation often trumped the academic performance. Parents described turning down a welcoming school because their child could no longer walk to class, or the Safe Passage route would have taken their child through known gang and drug-trafficking areas.
Families told researchers that they felt confused and rushed by the late decision by the Chicago Board of Education, which normally makes decisions about school closures in December.
“Only a few of the families that enrolled into lower-rated schools talked about ‘official’ markers of academic quality,” the report says.
Many parents said they measured quality on class size, parent involvement and the feeling of safety in the school.
More than half of parents declined CPS’ recommendation for a new school if the safety at the school was not above average.
Researchers found that International Baccalaureate and science, technology, engineering and math programs, also known as STEM, had no measurable effect on whether the displaced students would choose CPS’ pick for a new school. They also found that test scores, whether students were receiving special education services or received free or reduced-price lunch also had no measurable affect on whether a student would enroll in the assigned welcoming school.
Elaine Allensworth from the Consortium on Chicago School Research will discuss the findings at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., with filmmakers collaborating with researchers on a six-part documentary about education policy in Chicago.
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