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Dramatic Gains for Large Group of Once–Failing Chicago Schools That Capitalize on Autonomy


CHICAGO, Sept. 21 -- In 1988, the Illinois legislature dramatically decentralized the Chicago school system, shifting major authority to parent-majority Local School Councils and school staff at each school.

A Designs for Change (DFC) study of the city’s grade K-8 elementary schools over the period from 1990 to 2005 indicates that 144 K-8 “Substantially Up Schools” -- all low-achieving at the beginning of school reform in 1990 -- moved in a steady progression from about 20 percent at or above the national average on the Iowa Reading Test in 1990 to the 50 percent national average by 2005, under this school-based improvement system.

Further, the study draws on a range of research to identify the distinctive practices of these Substantially Up Schools, organized around Five Essential Supports for Student Learning: Effective School Leadership, Social Supports for Student Learning, Family and Community Partnerships, Adult Collaboration and Development, and Quality Learning Activities.

The 144 Substantially Up Schools educate nearly 100,000 students, are distributed throughout Chicago, and serve 87 percent low-income students. Almost all are neighborhood schools that accept any student in their attendance area. If they were a separate school system, they would be larger than the Baltimore Public Schools.

Earhart Options for Knowledge School on Chicago’s South Side, for example, is 100 percent African American and 77 percent low-income. Its Iowa Reading Test scores have risen from 33 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2005. The upward trend in Iowa test scores in the Substantially Up Schools is also reflected in major gains on the state’s ISAT Tests that determine No Child Left Behind sanctions.

“The most consistent feature of these schools is that all the adults work together as a team to improve education, including educators, parents, and the community,” said Donald Moore, the study’s director. “These schools have created a high level of Adult Teamwork, what researchers call social capital.”

“The quickest improvements occurred in schools that took swift advantage of authority granted by the Legislature in 1988. Their Local School Councils hired a principal who was a strong leader, but also welcomed broad participation. Then, they kept building on their success,” Moore explained.

The study recommends that these schools that have substantially raised achievement should be given extra resources to help each other continue to improve and to aid schools that have not shown significant progress.

The study also indicates that three expensive central administration reform initiatives (school probation, large-scale grade retention, and assigning Reading Specialists to low-achieving schools) have not significantly raised test scores. The study recommends that these initiatives should be scrapped or radically restructured, with the savings being invested to support local initiative that has proven effective.

“The Big Picture: School-Based Reforms, Centrally-Initiated Reforms, and Elementary School Achievement in Chicago (1990-2005),” is available at


Designs for Change is a 28-year-old educational research and reform organization focused on improving the quality of urban education for the most vulnerable students.


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