Mired in Averageness: What Will It Take, Suburban Schools?

Parents pay dearly for the privilege of living within the boundaries of Chicago suburban schools such as Barrington High and Naperville Central.

Both are ranked among the top 40 high schools in the state, and both have average ACT scores that are 24.4 and 24.7, respectively—solidly above the state average.

But peek below the hood, and you start to see where these affluent suburban schools are mired in averageness.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently released the results of the 2015 5Essentials Survey, derived from decades of research at the University of Chicago about the essential ingredients of school success: effective leaders, teachers who collaborate and commit to a school, strong relationships with families and communities, a safe and supportive atmosphere and challenging and engaging instruction.

The Chicago Tribune’s Diane Rado analyzed the data, and this is what she found:

The vast majority of schools are considered weak to mediocre in most areas that make for successful schools, a Tribune analysis found, such as how well principals are leading, teachers are collaborating and students are feeling safe and supported.

But the portrait is not always bleak: Schools did best in what is called the “ambitious instruction” area, the data show, with students asked questions such as: “Does the teacher ask difficult questions on tests?” and “Are you challenged?”

Suburban readers might be quick to assume that it was city schools that are dragging down the average, but the reality is that plenty of those “weak-to-mediocre” scores landed in some solidly middle-class suburbs, as well as some struggling suburban districts (Elgin, Waukegan, Proviso, for example) that have not benefited from the reforms that have taken hold in Chicago Public Schools to address the disparities that affect a school system’s most vulnerable students.

Let’s take another look at that “ambitious instruction” measure, given that it was generally a bright spot for many schools. This comes from a bank of questions asked of sixth- through 12th-graders at about 2,100 schools, and it’s a safe bet that students are probably more generous graders than their teachers.

So it raises the question:

Why don’t students in Barrington and Naperville feel more challenged and engaged, given the premium these communities place on their schools?

Barrington and Naperville Central are clearly considered “above average” high schools, but students there only gave their schools average marks for ambitious instruction. Will school leaders at these schools take this feedback to heart? Or will it be dismissed as subjective data from capricious teenagers?

As tough as it is to get average grades, at least it’s better than the tony suburban schools that didn’t even bother to participate in the research-based survey and potentially benefit from its valuable insights. Deerfield, Hinsdale and New Trier, you know I’m talking about you.

In my hometown of Oak Park, where more than half of my whopping property tax bill supports two well-heeled school districts, those “weak-to-mediocre” scores popped up in four schools. Our teachers don’t seem to think much of two of our principals, and they are not collaborating in productive ways with their colleagues.

I’d like to think this will prompt some soul-searching by our community, even though, yes, there is good news in other areas. But I suspect our town, like so many suburban communities, has too much invested in the idea that our schools are just so wonderful that we don’t really need to be self-reflective about their flaws.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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