Chicago’s Freshman OnTrack Effort Shows Why Playing the Long Game Makes Real Change

Much of the Chicago narrative in Emily Krone Phillips’ new book, The Make-or-Break Year, parallels the national arc of school reform. Early, stringent emphasis on accountability pried open classroom doors and created urgency around the need to change adult beliefs and practices that weren’t helping students graduate, especially those facing disadvantage due to race or economic status. But Chicago’s unique success with Freshman OnTrack can be credited to a  combination of top-down and bottom-up pressure in which both luck and social networks played important roles.

The roots of the Freshman OnTrack strategy stretch back to the late 1990s, when former Chicago schools chief (and current mayoral candidate) Paul Vallas launched an ambitious, comprehensive set of high school reforms and watched most of them tank. [Disclaimer: a story I wrote about one aspect of this effort is quoted extensively early in the book.] Krone Phillips argues that while Vallas made the classic mistake of pushing top-down reform without buy-in from the people who would make it happen, his insistence on holding schools accountable for their students’ outcomes laid important groundwork for keeping freshmen on track.

His successor, Arne Duncan, made a smart next move: Giving high schools a simple metric to monitor—the numbers of freshmen who ended their first year of high school on track to graduate based on their attendance and course credits. What Duncan did not give the high schools was a formula for how to get those numbers up.

Instead, the people inside the schools had to figure it out, with some help from central office to increase their access to useful data. A handful of pioneering schools led the way in developing new supports for entering high schoolers. While some gaming numbers has occurred, what’s amazing here is the commitment educators made to self-reflection and changing the way they do business with each other and with students.

After Duncan’s departure to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education, it was up to the principals, teachers, researchers and district mid-level leaders already committed to the work to keep the flame alive despite leadership churn and scandal. The Network for College Success, a partnership between UChicago Consortium researchers, the district and a coalition of the most-willing high schools became the center of the work. Not coincidentally, a number of former network principals have become key district leaders, including current CEO Janice Jackson.

Chicago’s experience developing Freshmen OnTrack makes a case that the next phase of education reform will require a more open-ended approach to problem solving and a recognition of the talent and expertise already present within schools. It also requires district, state and federal leaders to strike a delicate balance between offering resources, setting realistic goals and creating clear structures for support and accountability. By contrast, New York’s recent experience with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal initiative—big promises, big money spent, small and unclear returns on investment—shows how hard it is to get that balance right.


Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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