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From Last to Leading: How Chicago Public Schools Made the Leap

Thirty years after being labeled the worst school district in the nation and after two decades of fiscal crisis, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) welcomed more than 381,000 students back to class last month as a leader among the nation’s urban school districts. If Education Secretary William Bennett intended to motivate the city with his harsh critique in 1987, mission accomplished.

A recent spate of independent studies documents substantial gains made by Chicago students:

  • Graduation rates have soared to 77.5 percent, increasing more than twice as fast as graduation rates nationally.
  • College entrance exam scores are at an all-time high.
  • Low-income, minority students at CPS fare better than their peers in Chicagoland and downstate, reports a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
  • Academic growth of CPS students on national test scores is 25 percent higher than the average among large urban systems, according to data from Stanford University.

These studies tell us the what. But we need to understand the why—the drivers of school improvement in Chicago that will help sustain progress and perhaps suggest paths for other large cities.

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