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Chicago Sun-Times


Chicago Must Find Way To Help Students Finish High School

April 19, 2006

By Jay P. Greene, Marcus A. Winters

Just about everyone knows that Chicago schools are performing poorly, but sometimes it is useful to remind ourselves exactly how severe the problem really is. In a new Manhattan Institute study we estimate that only half of the students who enter the city's public schools earn a diploma. Further, African-American males are disproportionately likely to suffer from the dropout epidemic. Unless Chicago pursues dramatic reform of its school system, half of its students will be condemned to a life of limited opportunities.

For the class of 2003, the most recent year for which data are available, we calculate that the overall graduation rate in Chicago was only 50 percent. The odds that a student entering the 9th grade in Chicago public schools will earn a regular diploma are no better than a coin toss. This horrific graduation rate is low even when compared with other large metro school districts.

Of the 100 largest school districts in the United States, Chicago Public Schools ranks 88th in overall graduation rates. Other urban school districts such as Philadelphia, Long Beach (Calif.), and Miami all graduate substantially higher percentages of their students than does Chicago, though none of these other districts performs particularly well either.

Things are even worse for male students in Chicago, particularly African-American males. While 54 percent of African-American females graduate, slightly below the national average, only 38 percent of African-American males in Chicago earn a regular diploma, far lower than the national rate (48 percent), and lower than most other major metropolitan school districts.

In part, minority males are likely leaving school because they are not learning sufficient skills in school for attendance to be worth their time. When students don't have the basic skills to benefit from staying in school, minority males in particular might find short-term opportunities in the marketplace more attractive and are thus enticed out of the classroom. These opportunities could include jobs in construction or even in the underground economy.

Thus, if Chicago is to improve its graduation rate it needs to improve the academic achievement of students so that the opportunities provided by schooling�better-paying jobs over the long term, and the opportunity to go to college�outweigh the short-term pull of the labor market for dropouts.

How do we improve academic proficiency? Promising reforms focus on improving the incentives for educators to produce success for their students. Unfortunately, there are no meaningful consequences to educators for making wise or foolish decisions about the education of children. If children fail to acquire the basic skills that would permit them to learn, stay in school and graduate, no one besides the child is punished. There are also no rewards for successful educators who prevent these failures.

The city should look toward systemic reforms that can improve student academic proficiency by altering the incentives facing educators. In particular, Chicago should consider programs that strengthen the accountability faced by public schools and their employees, such as merit pay for teachers or sanctioning low-performing schools more strongly. The city might also consider school choice policies, such as vouchers and additional charter schools, which empower dissatisfied parents by allowing them to take their child to another school. Research has shown that these reforms that focus on the incentives of public schools can significantly improve performance.

To be certain, Chicago is not alone in the graduation crisis. There is a near-consensus that too few students across the nation earn a diploma each year. However, the city is a major offender and needs to look for ways to improve the education it provides. When graduating high school is only a 50-50 proposition, it is time to consider dramatic changes to the system.

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