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Chicago Works to Adapt to NCLB

The Chicago, Illinois, public schools, one of the largest districts in the U.S., started planning early for implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, but then ran into discrepancies between state and federal law and physical constraints. Included: How Chicago is trying to incorporate its reforms into meeting NCLB.

In the early months after the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was enacted, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) legal department carefully reviewed the law and began to put on a series of workshops and seminars. The goal was to actively get the word out about the law -- both internally, so that CPS departments would be prepared to do what they had to, and externally so that the community would understand the new law.

Chicago people had no problem with the overall focus of the law: improve professionalism among teachers, offer additional tutoring for struggling students, strengthen accountability, improve reading scores, and create urban schools that work for children. But in the details of implementation, Chicago school officials saw potential difficulties that could slow down reform in a system that had finally begun to show progress through its own efforts.

School leaders worried that implementing the school choice provisions alone would not only tax CPS departments but also make it difficult for them to accomplish the real intent of the law -- to give students safer and better schools to attend. Even preliminary reports and analyses from the Illinois State Board of Education were leading many to believe that few Chicago students would really be able to move to another school. There simply weren't enough schools not on the school improvement list with empty seats in them to accommodate the students who would be deemed eligible to switch.

CPS officials felt that they did not receive clear answers to their questions about these and other matters from the state and federal levels. The district anxiously awaited guidelines from the state and specific information about which schools would have to offer choice and supplemental services.


Shortly after schools' CEO Arne Duncan took office, when action began in earnest on implementation of NCLB, Duncan opted to develop teams from different departments rather than create a new NCLB department. This allowed the district to build on what it was already doing, rather than viewing NCLB as a new reform that would have to be layered on top of what was already in place.

The reforms occurring in Chicago at the time the law was passed were far more advanced and orderly than in many other cities across the country. With school reform elements already well underway in Chicago, the question became how to implement NCLB without undermining the work already started in public school choice options, teacher improvement, accountability, reading instruction, and other areas.

Duncan put together a quality management team to manage NCLB, consisting of members from many CPS departments: Academic Advancement, Research and Accountability, Education, Human Resources, Technology, Communication, Law, Budget, and Finance. Duncan headed the group and other departments were brought in on an as-needed basis. Because of the senior level of those who work on the team, effective decisions could be made promptly and implemented quickly.


One area of confusion between CPS and the Illinois state board on one hand and U.S. Department of Education on the other concerned the rate of students' adequate yearly progress (AYP). According to CPS officials, conversations between CPS, state officials, and the Department of Education, led to what many felt was a reasonable solution. AYP would be flat at first, then rise sharply and sustain itself at that level over a period of time.

Initially, the Department of Education agreed to this concept, or so Illinois educators thought, and the state proceeded under the assumption that this was acceptable path. But in June 2003, indicated dissatisfaction with the plan because the growth would not occur in equal increments. CPS and state staffers -- along with educators across the country -- argue that no growth is ever consistent in all groups over a sustained period of time.

A new assessment system was newly rolled out in fall 2002, and by early accounts a Chicago school could fall in CPS's Schools of Distinction category ("exceeds standards") and then find itself on the state watch list created by the NCLB criteria for measuring AYP. This might happen as a result of disaggregating student populations or because of student movement through choice.


In August 2003, more than 270,000 letters went out to CPS parents advising them of their school choice opportunities. A lottery was held that included the names of students who returned their forms before the deadline. There were approximately 1,100 seats available. Nineteen thousand applications were received for the lottery, and 1,097 students were offered the opportunity to move under choice for the 2003-04 school year. It was estimated that about half of those who "won" the lottery actually reported to their new schools when classes began in September 2003.

Frustrations with school choice implementation among district officials ran so high that many speculated whether it would be worth implementing in future years.

Duncan also went on record as indicating that supplemental services should be undertaken first before the drastic step of moving children.


Approximately 1,200 parents completed the process for receiving supplemental services and were assigned to supplemental service providers. CPS reported that 800 children actually registered for the tutoring. The program began in late April 2003 and ran for seven weeks.

CPS encountered other implementation problems. In Illinois, teachers were allowed to teach "off endorsement" for up to two-fifths of their daily schedule -- a ruling endorsed by both the Illinois State Board of Education and the North Central Accrediting Association. This long-standing Illinois practice was in direct contradiction to NCLB, which insisted that teachers face the immediate label of being not highly qualified if they lacked the proper credential in any content area taught.

When the NCLB criteria replaced existing state practices, this created an inordinate number of core content teachers who were publicly labeled as not highly qualified. The NCLB requirements for new hires to be "highly qualified" by the law's definition posed further difficultly for CPS because the district, like many across the country, was facing a dwindling pool of teacher candidates from which to choose.

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

To read the full report, see A Look Inside 33 School Districts: Year 2 of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Share Your NCLB Strategies

Education World's Working With NCLB feature highlights schools or districts with stories to share about how they are implementing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. If you have a Working With NCLB story to share, send an e-mail toEllen Delisio.