When Bill Gates announced in 2017 that his foundation would begin investing in “networks” of schools, he said he wanted to replicate the success of a particular Chicago organization.
On Tuesday, Gates in a blog post heaped fresh praise on Chicago’s Network for College Success, a group housed at the University of Chicago that works with 17 Chicago high schools. Gates also posted video of his visit to North-Grand High School in Humboldt Park, a school he says uses student data to keep students on track for graduation with the network’s help.
“The students I met at North-Grand during my visit liked the fact that there was no mystery about their standing in their classes,” Gates wrote. “I hope more schools around the country can learn from this success.”
Gates was calling attention to the school’s use of the “Freshmen On-Track” metric, which emerged from another University of Chicago group, its influential Consortium on School Research, and eventually became a citywide measure of school success. Writer Emily Krone Phillips described Harper High Principal Elizabeth Dozier’s first attempts to improve that data point in her book “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time”:
She created a community of freshman teachers who met weekly to review data on each student’s grades, attendance, and discipline patterns. The group strategized about ways to support and motivate students academically and to provide additional help for those whose struggles had nothing to do with academics. To make the work feel more tangible, she created a board with every student’s name on it and moved the student on- or off-track throughout the year. The team celebrated every small victory — a kid who went from failing to passing math; a chronic truant who started showing up regularly.
Gates attributes Chicago’s increasing graduation rates and gains on standardized tests to that focus on data. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already begun giving money to organizations that convene schools to help them act on that information, awarding an $11.7 million grant to the Network for College Success and $92 million overall to networks last year. (The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)
Of course, there are a variety of potential explanations for Chicago’s academic improvements, some of which Gates mentions, including longer school days, more principal autonomy and training, and demographic changes. His post doesn’t acknowledge a persistent problem for the district: longstanding gaps in test scores between students of different races. And while graduation rates citywide have shot up 20 points, from 57 percent in 2011 to slightly over 78 percent last spring, stubborn gaps by race remain there too, though they closed slightly this past year.
At North-Grand, a 990-student school that is predominantly Latino, the 2018 graduation rate was 72 percent, up from 69 percent from 2011. The percentage of freshmen on track to graduate last spring was 92.8 percent, outpacing the citywide average of 89.4 percent.
The post comes at a crucial time for Chicago schools, with a new mayor about to be elected and current schools chief Janice Jackson’s fate uncertain as a result. Jackson herself touted the district’s fast-growing graduation rate in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed on Monday, and former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan used the city’s grad rates and test-score growth to argue in the Sun-Times that the next mayor should continue to appoint the school board.