‘The Make-or-Break Year” Offers Ed Reformers Sobering Lessons in Real School Change

“If we have to remove dead weight, we will remove dead weight.” That’s what the assistant principal of Chicago’s Orr High School told me in 1998, when I asked him how he dealt with no-show students. What he meant was, they’d be dropped from the school rolls and handed a list of alternative schools to call.

As both an education reporter and a former alternative school teacher, I found it shocking to hear an administrator so blatantly dismiss any young person. Yet at the same time, I well knew how few adults in city high schools really knew—and sometimes, how few really cared to know—the specific challenges of individual students’ lives and how to help them stay in school.

Today, the focus inside Chicago’s high schools has shifted from removing “dead weight” to ensuring young teens finish their first year of high school on track to graduate. Decades of studies from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research show that supporting students through a strong freshman year is the single most important thing educators can do to steer them toward graduating, regardless of  their race, income or even previous academic performance.

Recent increases in Chicago’s graduation rates bear this out. Last June, more than three-quarters of the city’s class of 2018 earned their diplomas. That’s a far cry from the 50/50 chance of finishing high school that was business as usual for decades.

Chicago’s Success Transcends the Usual Ed Reform Debates

In “The Make-Or-Break Year,” Emily Krone Phillips tells us how the Chicago Public Schools made this dramatic shift. By showing how principals, teachers and (some) district leaders transformed what goes on in Chicago high schools from dropping dead weight to building kids’ academic and interpersonal skills, Krone Phillips argues powerfully against education reform as we’ve all grown to hate it. She shows the futility of top-down mandates and the “politics of distraction,” which encompasses most reforms that don’t fundamentally change how adults work together within schools to support students.

Even more interesting, she argues just as powerfully against the opposing notion that poverty is the real problem and schools can’t make a difference simply by improving what they do.

While resources matter, especially for schools facing the toughest challenges, the stories here show that when educators make a commitment to change their limiting beliefs about students and open themselves to new approaches, they can get better results with what—and whom—they already have. “The Make-Or-Break Year” offers a look inside a groundbreaking, third-way approach to stubborn problems of school improvement and equity.

At first glance, the work Chicago did to keep freshmen on track seems simple. The UChicago Consortium on School Research identified a clear problem, with high payoffs for students when solved. District leaders unlocked and strengthened the capacity of principals and teachers to develop new ways of reaching freshmen, then tested and evaluated them based on whether kids came to class and earned credits.

The district and its research partner created a network of schools where adults trusted each other enough to get real and share their problems and solutions, then shared those solutions with other interested schools. In actual practice, herding the cats at both the system level and within high schools to focus on keeping their freshmen “on track” to graduate—meaning present in school and passing their core subject courses—demanded a great deal of thought and effort.  School improvement work is messy, and much as we wish there were silver bullets, even the Freshman OnTrack measure is not one of them. But the story of how it took root in Chicago offers complex lessons about making deep and lasting change in schools and districts.

Krone Phillips weaves three narrative strands that together chronicle the story of this particular sea change: the big-picture context of Chicago education politics and the struggle to get and keep a perpetually distracted system focused on one high-payoff problem; the history of Hancock High School’s pioneering success with the Freshman OnTrack indicator; and the daily ups-and-downs of supporting freshmen at Tilden High, arguably Chicago’s most deeply challenged neighborhood high school.

Over the course of this week, we’ll look at each strand in depth.

Photo by NESA by Makers 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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