Where’s the SQRP That Measures ‘Academic Gusto?’

To many parents, teachers and principals in Chicago Public Schools, the letters “SQRP” spell a four-letter word. SQRP–which stands for “School Quality Rating Policy“–has been a simmering issue for years, and it boiled up last June when Mayor Lightfoot’s newly appointed Board of Education approved tweaks proposed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Currently, SQRP is the yardstick by which the district measures how well schools are serving students. Schools are rated on a five-point scale with 1+ at the top and 3 at the bottom. The ratings also appear in school profiles, which many parents use when making decisions about where to send their children.

Critics have a lot to say about SQRP. Some critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, charge that SQRP’s narrow focus on test scores unfairly penalizes schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, because higher test scores closely correlate with greater wealth. In essence, they argue that only well-resourced schools with plenty of middle-class kids can possibly be rated well. I disagree. While it’s harder for high-poverty schools to earn high ratings, it’s not impossible. We’ve profiled a number of those schools here on Chicago Unheard: Columbia Explorers, Fernwood, Ryder and Sandoval, just to name a few.

Others think the district doesn’t need SQRP since the state also rates schools, and, the ratings don’t match up. (In 2019, many schools improved their state rating, in part because the state expanded the definition of special needs student to include children with 504 plans.)

Many people note that school quality can’t be separated from resources. Parent Bridgitt White wants school ratings that factor in whether schools have arts, technology, libraries, and sports. As she said during public comment (as quoted in Chalkbeat Chicago), “We’ve lost our arts, our libraries — I’m tired of my son saying school is ‘blah’ to him because he has no sports, no extra activities outside of academics. What kind of environment is that for a child?” 

In 2013, CPS made a change intended to at least partially address the problem of rating schools by test scores when they correlate so closely to income. CPS shifted the ratings’ emphasis from attainment–how high kids actually score on tests–to how much they grew in a year, no matter where they started. A WBEZ story this week noted that while this is fairer to schools where kids start farther behind, it also means that schools with the same high district rating could have kids scoring at very different levels on tests, which could confuse parents into thinking kids are scoring well on tests at a school when they are not.

Could We Think More Boldly About What Makes a Good School?

The new board is pushing district leaders to give SQRP a broader overhaul with broad input from stakeholders. Last Monday night, the parking lot was astonishingly full at Englewood STEM High School. The board’s Whole Child Committee met there and took public feedback on SQRP and how to improve it. In the cafeteria, groups gathered at tables for facilitated conversation about how improve the policy. They also talked about how the board can do a better job of reaching out to parents and community members. (That was a sore point with many in the room. CPS has a lot of work to do to build trust with people at the school and community level.)

At the end of the night, there was time for public comment. So I went for it.

I spoke off the cuff but have been thinking about the issues for a while, so here are my full remarks as best I can reconstruct them:

As a child in the 1970s, I attended a middle-class elementary school in a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, that was just beginning to be integrated. Here are some key opportunities I had then that my daughter in CPS does not have now: I had visual art and music classes, each once a week. I had science and social studies every day. I had the same school nurse on site every day. I had a library where I had the opportunity to read poetry from Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes as well as Shakespeare.

My daughter has attended four CPS schools–one charter, one neighborhood and two magnets–and none had all of those opportunities under one roof. The two magnet schools she attended briefly came closer to having all those things, but the 2-hour daily commute to the North Side for each of those schools was more than we could handle. If we’re measuring school quality, why is the district not holding itself accountable to provide all these opportunities in every school in the city?

We know what it takes to create quality schools: strong academics and deep personal relationships among adults, among students, and between students and adults. But I’m tired of talking about “academic press” and “academic rigor.” I’ve never met a 3-year-old who lacked for intellectual curiosity. But I taught returning high school dropouts, and most of our work was bringing that spark back to life. I want to see academic gusto, academic curiosity. I want an SQRP that tells me if my child’s curiosity is being fostered or killed.

Banner photo courtesy Chicago Public Schools via Facebook.

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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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