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posted: 6/25/2014 1:01 AM

Suburban Chicago's schools: Not as good as parents think

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By Lance T. Izumi
Guest Columnist

Are Illinois' public schools that serve many middle-class children performing well? Their parents think so. But many of these schools are not as good as they think.

That's according to a new study from the Pacific Research Institute, which analyzed school performance in Illinois using several different methodologies and found evidence of widespread underachievement.

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The study looked at the pool of 1,156 Illinois public schools where 33 percent or fewer of students are classified as low income -- what many parents might consider "middle-class" schools.

In 140 of these schools, or 12 percent, half or more of the students in at least one grade level failed to meet or exceed the proficient level on the 2013 state reading or math test. Meeting the proficient benchmark is the target for all students.

In suburban Roselle, the median household income and home values are significantly higher than the statewide medians. At Waterbury Elementary School in Roselle, 27 percent of students are classified as low income, meaning that almost three out of four students are non-low-income. On the 2013 third-grade state math exam, 51 percent of Waterbury students failed to meet or exceed proficiency. On the fourth-grade math exam, 53 percent of students failed to meet or exceed proficiency.

Or consider another way to evaluate schools -- by looking for those that fare worse than their peers with similar low-income student populations.

At Prairie View Middle School in South suburban Tinley Park, selected a few years ago by Business Week as the best place to raise a family in America, less than 3 percent of students are low income. Yet on the eighth-grade state reading test, 34 percent of Prairie View students failed to meet or exceed the proficient level. That's 11 times the percentage of low-income students at the school.

On the eighth-grade reading test, the school's marks were 14 percentage points below the average performance of schools with the same proportion of low-income students.

In fact, on all state reading and math tests in grades 6-8, Prairie View Middle School performed worse than the average performance of schools with the same percentage of low-income students.

Statewide, among the 1,156 regular public schools with predominantly non-low-income student populations, 817 -- more than 70 percent -- have at least one grade where the subject-matter proficiency rate was below the average performance of peer schools with the same percentage of low-income students. Illinois did raise the benchmark for proficiency on its state tests in 2013. But it's still easier to achieve proficiency on Illinois's tests than it is on more rigorous tests like the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP).

On Illinois' eighth-grade reading exam, 75 percent of non-low-income students scored at the proficient level. Only 50 percent of non-low-income Illinois eighth-graders scored proficient on the NAEP reading exam.

For middle-class parents seeking schools that better meet their children's needs, school-choice alternatives may be the answer. No less an authority on the challenges facing the middle class than former Harvard law professor and current U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, has recommended a universal public-school voucher for middle-class parents.

The Friedman Foundation, an educational reform organization based in Indianapolis, has commended an Illinois program that gives parents a tax credit of up to $500 for education expenses, such as private-school tuition. According to the Foundation, the tax credit would stand as one of the nation's best school-choice programs if it were increased to give parents more funding power.

Illinois policymakers should heed the words of Per Unckel, the late former Swedish education minister and architect of his country's successful universal school-choice voucher system, who said, "Kids should never ever have to stay in a school if the school is lousy. The right of the kid is to get a good education. If the public sector cannot offer it, he or she should have the right to go somewhere else."

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He is co-author of the new PRI study, "Not as Good as You Think: Why Middle-Class Parents in Illinois Should Be Concerned about Their Local Public Schools."

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