New York Times Column Exaggerates Mayor's Record

David Leonhardt's Sunday New York Times column credulously praised Mayor Rahm Emanuel's education record, seemingly based exclusively on data provided by Mayor Emanuel in October in emails FOIAed by the Better Government Association. But the mayor's record is more mixed than Leonhardt concedes. 

There have been academic gains, but they have been marked by racial and economic inequality. In Chicago, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Trial Urban School District (TUDA) data shows that  achievement gaps between white students and both black and Hispanic ones and between those qualifying and not qualifying for free school lunches have expanded substantially under the Emanuel mayorship. The gaps grew by double-digits while scores for blacks, Hispanics, and free-lunch eligible students grew by single digits or not all between 2011 and 2015. NAEP measures math and reading in 4th and 8th grade. In 8th grade reading, there was no statistically significant gain in scores for black, Hispanic, or free-lunch eligible students and none for 4th grade Hispanics. For math, black students had no statistically significant gains in either grade. In other words, math and reading scores increases were driven primarily by gains from white students and students with higher family incomes. 

We can see this in 4th grade math scores for free-lunch and non-free lunch students below. A 15-point gain for higher income students but only a 6-point gain for low-income students. The trend for low-income students is what it was prior to 2011, but a spike for higher-income students. 


We get a similar picture for black students, except there were no real math gains at all from 2011-2015. 


The high school graduation rate has improved, but the true increase is really 9%, not 16%, from 2011-2016 based on the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research age-cohort method. As Becky Vevea and Sarah Karp at WBEZ have reported extensively, CPS under Mayor Emanuel has expanded the use of for-profit, mostly on-line, "alternative" schools and counts students who graduate from them as if they were enrolled at the school they dropped out from. A 9% increase is very good; exaggerating it by pushing low-quality options is unnecessary and harmful.  

I agree with Leonhardt in principle that principals matter, and there are excellent principals in CPS. But under Mayor Emanuel, CPS has restricted the principal candidate pool, from which Local School Councils must select a principal, largely to candidates who focus predominantly on boosting standardized test scores. In recent principal hires, several councils have found only a single acceptable candidate. 

Chicago teachers and administrators are making progress, and so describing Chicago's schools as "failing" is misleading at best. They are succeeding under very challenging circumstances, but the progress is inequitable. Neither Leonhardt or Mayor Emanuel acknowledge this.