In 1997, the Chicago public school system embarked on an unusual experiment. It implemented the IB (International Baccalaureate) program—a rigorous, test-based curriculum with specially trained teachers that is usually only available at high-achieving high schools—at 13 Chicago schools serving overwhelmingly poor and minority students. University of Chicago researchers tracked the outcomes for the students involved, and published their findings in a 2012 paper, and three Johns Hopkins education policy experts have summarized the findings in a new review essay, “An Education Success Story That Didn’t Travel.” In short, the program was a stunning success:
The CPS students who completed all four years of the IB program were 40% more likely to attend a four-year college, 50% more likely to attend a selective four-year college, and significantly more likely to persist in college than their matched peers outside the program. The program influenced not only their academic success but also their self-regard and confidence; in-depth interviews showed a strong academic orientation and high sense of self-efficacy. There were no negative results for the students involved, even for those who began the program in 9th grade but did not complete the program.
But despite these stellar results, according to the review essay, comparable school districts have shown virtually no interest in implementing the IB program themselves:
We highlight this particular study because it meets two criteria that matter: the research is driven by sound methodology and design, and the researched program shows strong positive effects for students, in this case many of whom were disadvantaged. But we also highlight the study because the aftermath of its publication fits with a familiar pattern of very modest influence. Why haven’t urban school districts across the country taken note and in some cases at least chosen to build their own system-wide implementations?
The failure of other schools to even experiment with the model that proved so successful in Chicago doesn’t say anything good about America’s K-12 education system, or its capacity for reform. The authors speculate that one reason that school districts haven’t responded to the Chicago program is that district superintendents would be unable to “persuade the necessary stakeholders that this particular intervention—unfamiliar and strange sounding—is worthy of attention.” This is a feature of blue model education—stagnant, unaccountable bureaucracies that resist changes to the status quo, and that favor the interests of government employees over the interests of the students they are supposed to serve.
Charter systems and reforms oriented towards school choice might create more competitive pressure on the people running schools to be on the lookout for the best ideas. After all, the Chicago study shows that there is buried treasure even in America’s most underperforming schools. It’s not necessary, as some interests in the education establishment would have us believe, simply to lower expectations for low-income students and resign ourselves to poor outcomes. Smartly implemented back-to-the-basics reforms—good teaching coupled with a demanding curriculum—may be able to unleash tremendous potential at relatively low cost. It’s time for the K-12 establishment to start paying attention to the ideas that work.