Talking Freshmen On Track and “The Make-or-Break-Year” at 57th Street Books

Healthy skepticism fuels good journalism, smart research and thoughtful education. And yet, as Emily Krone Phillips tells us in her new book, The Make-or-Break Year, “the movement that occurred in Chicago to support freshmen hinged not on skepticism, but on belief. … Belief that the dropout crisis was something that could be solved. Belief in the research that showed ninth grade was the make-or-break year for high school graduation. Belief that careful monitoring and support in ninth grade could set students on entirely new trajectories. Belief that, with the right coaching and support, Chicago teachers could be sophisticated problem solvers.”

A standing-room-only crowd of true believers–including many people featured in the book–celebrated its launch last night at 57th Street Books. Krone Phillips joined CPS Chief Equity Officer and former Tilden principal Maurice Swinney and John Easton of the Consortium on Chicago School research for a panel discussion moderated by The Joyce Foundation’s Stephanie Banchero.  The panelists and the lively crowd engaged in a spirited discussion of “the politics of distraction” in education reform, how shifting the focus to solving problems inside schools offers a more effective lever for improvement and the next problems CPS could tackle using that lever.

The roots of the book stretch back to when Krone Phillips left her job as an education reporter and began leading communications work for the Consortium. There she learned about a wealth of research on what works in schools that rarely makes it into the headlines or the policy and political conversation around education. “I thought I knew everything about education,” she observed. “What I found was I didn’t know anything.”

The first time the Consortium tried to work with CPS to support freshmen, under Paul Vallas, the effort largely failed for the usual reasons–it was delivered as a big, externally-imposed plan with no buy-in from the people who would make it happen. (I feel compelled to note that some pieces of the Vallas effort to improve high schools overall did work–notably increasing graduation requirements and launching International Baccalaureate programs in a number of neighborhood high schools. They were steps that high schools found relatively easy to make happen and didn’t fundamentally challenge how high schools worked, so they did happen.)

Under Arne Duncan, a more revolutionary change took place in the way high schools did business–from serving as a sorting machine looking for the “good” kids and gatekeeping the “bad” ones right out of school to building teams of adults actively seeking to support student learning and growth. How was that possible? Krone Phillips and Easton pointed to a number of factors:

  • The district gave schools useful, real-time data on freshmen and their progress
  • Principals and teachers were held accountable for a metric they could actually move, and move pretty quickly
  • There was not a single prescriptive solution imposed, so people in the schools had the freedom to experiment and discover what really helped their particular freshmen get and stay on track
  • Research was coupled with coaching and support, especially from the Network for College Success,  to help people in schools learn how to do the work of building teams and developing strategies to support freshmen
  • When people got good at helping freshmen stay on track, they took the work with them as they moved to other high schools and into central office, where a cadre of believers kept Freshmen OnTrack alive through top leadership churn after Duncan’s departure.

This shift in focus can be really hard on adults, noted Swinney. At Tilden, some of the hardest challenges teachers faced were problems like, “How do we help kids when we feel hurt by their words?” It’s hard for adults, especially in schools with inadequate resources, to stay centered and not get triggered by teens acting out, which they inevitably will. Another tough challenge at schools like Tilden is learning how to help young people affected by trauma without making that trauma an excuse to keep them mired in the racism of low expectations for youth of color.

New ways of thinking about how to support students also challenge long-held beliefs about work ethic, expectations and consequences for missing work. The push to end zeros on missed assignments challenges people to think beyond simplistic equivalences like “if you don’t work at your job, you don’t get paid, so if you don’t do an assignment, you should get a zero.” Swinney noted there can be a significant statistical challenge to overcome even one missed assignment because a zero is so much lower than the 60 to 70 percent overall average usually needed to pass a course.

“The number zero held too much power in grades,” Swinney said. He spent time talking with teachers about how their own ratings worked to help them see the problem. “You can’t even get a zero in your ratings,” he pointed out. There are also bigger questions. “Is it fair and appropriate for every kid to learn the exact same thing at the exact same time?” he asked.

To address the concern that new grading policies might spark grade inflation or pass along kids who aren’t truly prepared for the next challenge, Easton noted that while the numbers of freshmen on track have been rising in CPS over time, so have other measures, including ACT test scores.

During the Q & A, I was able to ask question I’ve been dying to ask since I finished reading the book: what’s the next challenge for CPS to tackle that could be tackled using the collaborative approaches pioneered through Freshman OnTrack?

“We are working on third-grade reading,” Swinney answered, adding that building a solid bridge from preschool through third grade is high on the district’s current radar.

Easton expressed hope that the high schools and the district will continue to deepen their work on “Bs or Better,” a college-preparation strategy that grew out of Freshmen OnTrack and the work to improve student learning and see it reflected in higher GPAs. Consortium research shows more than two-thirds of CPS graduates with a B average or better in high school complete college, so the next challenge for high schools is how to ensure more kids are mastering work at that level.

Whatever the next challenge CPS tackles, what will make or break solving it is the quality of the relationships among the people working on the problem. “The thing that really mattered was how people worked together,” said Krone Phillips. Policymakers and the public have trouble staying focused on that, given the media’s love of conflict and the difficulty of telling an interesting story about collective action in solving problems. “Conflict feels like news. Writing about collective action is a lot harder.”

True enough. Thanks, Emily, for taking on the tough task of telling that kind of story in a compelling way. As Swinney put it, in this book, “there are a lot of hardworking people doing the work and you get to meet them.”



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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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