11/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Renaissance 2010 Gets A Solid 'B'

The headlines have not been good of recent for the Chicago Public Schools. In just the past month, the district has faced tough questions about whether clout affected admissions to its selective-enrollment schools and whether teachers have retroactively massaged up student grades to mollify parents and administrators.

But while these would-be scandals have dominated the headlines, they have distracted attention from a rigorous assessment of a far larger issue: the extent to which Renaissance 2010 -- and by extension, the Chicago charter school movement -- have succeeded in improving public education in the city.

According to a report released last month by the venerable Consortium on Chicago School Research, Renaissance 2010 has created schools with better academic cultures and student attendance but with higher staff turnover and more inexperienced teaching forces. Achievement at Ren10 schools, the researchers report, has barely budged.

So what does this mean for Ren10, the central reform initiative of former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan? Though it's too early to tell, one thing is certain: the findings pour cold water on both the most ardent critics and most ardent proponents of both Ren10 and the charter schools it has created.

The researchers at the CCSR, a division of the University of Chicago, found that most of the schools in Ren10 have significantly tighter school cultures than traditional CPS schools, a self-evident fact for those who have visited schools like Noble Street College Prep. Many, if not most, require their students to wear uniforms, and almost all focus on college from the first day -- even for students who are still pre-teens. As the CCSR researchers concluded:

The Renaissance 2010 schools we visited had established generally positive and orderly school climates that hold promise for the future development of their academic programs.

The picture was similarly rosy for school attendance, as most Ren10 schools had daily attendance figures of around 90 percent. According to a companion report by the CCSR, schools in the "transformation" initiative, which had their curricula revamped to supposedly make them more engaging, saw an attendance rate of just 50 percent!

The chief negative finding of the CCSR researchers is that the Ren10 schools have considerably higher teacher turnover than comparison schools. While extremely low turnover can be bad -- indicating a calcified faculty where it is impossible to remove low-performers -- extremely high turnover is certainly not good either, given that it results in "teachers with only 2 to 3 years of experience serving as mentor teachers." The study also found that the large number of novice teachers led to "chaotic classrooms" that "undermined instruction."

Perhaps as a result of these factors, Ren10 schools have performed no better than their comparison schools when it comes to student achievement. As the researchers write:

Although some Renaissance 2010 schools appear to be performing fairly well, the overall picture is not good. At only a handful of schools are more than half of the students meeting expected gains.

In time, it will become clear whether the positive organizational practices in Ren10 schools combined with a more stable teaching force can produce results for students. Many Ren10 schools are only a few years old and should improve as they settle down; the CCSR researchers note that start-up pressures usually last the first four years. So right now, what this report should do is force the partisans on both sides to take a deep breath and acknowledge what the other side has right.

The research indicates that critics of charter schools have a valid point about the extent to which charter schools rely on novice and inexperienced teachers. But the report should also invite a careful consideration of what traditional schools can learn from charters in areas like school culture, attendance, and using data to track students.

The report's findings also demonstrate how teachers unions could work productively with charters. In Los Angeles, the impressive Green Dot Public Schools charter network is fully unionized, which has allowed Green Dot to see far lower teacher turnover than other high-intensity charter networks like Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Achievement First. (Teachers at three Chicago International Charter School campuses have organized, but no contract has yet emerged.) Unions can also effectively channel teachers' voices, as evidenced by the fact that the mini-scandal over grade inflating was discovered through a joint survey by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Even more so, the CCSR report should be a cold shower for the supporters of charter schools who see school choice as a magic bullet. Earlier this summer, the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago -- which includes many individuals who fund charter schools -- released a report describing CPS's performance as "abysmal" and its "well-reported failure" as "massive."

The report rankled many because the harsh words stood in such stark contrast to the praise heaped on the city's charter schools, which the authors called the "one bright spot in the generally disappointing performance of Chicago's public schools." But as the research indicates, no one has yet found the precise formula for dramatically improving student achievement on a large scale, and school choice alone is hardly a panacea for what plagues public education in Chicago.