Ten years ago, Elizabeth Dozier, an assistant principal at Harper High School in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, took a big risk. She hung a giant board in the main hallway showing each ninth-grader’s academic progress under three headings: green for on-track, yellow for close to on-track and red for off-track.
That was a violation of Chicago school board policy. Many educators and parents would have been aghast to see students publicly labeled like that.
But, to judge from a remarkable book by education writer Emily Krone Phillips, the tactic worked, and helped create widespread support in Chicago for something called the Freshman On-Track indicator. The author reveals the initiative’s bad moments as well as the good in “The Make-or-Break Year,” but provides more than enough information to justify focusing on ninth grade this way everywhere.
Chicago for many decades was an educational disaster. In 1987, William Bennett, who was U.S. education secretary at the time, said the city had the worst schools in the country. Promising ideas rarely survived. Teachers were discouraged. Policies changed often.
The Freshman On-Track approach started slowly in the mid-1990s. It was based on an unconventional concept by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. The researchers decided that instead of seeking big policy shifts such as New Math or Whole Language, “they resolved to focus their research and outreach efforts on helping educators understand and solve their own problems through incremental, steady improvement,” Krone Phillips wrote.
High schools are usually fixated on 12th-grade success. How many students graduated? How many went to college? Freshman On-Track tried to look at ninth-grade success with similar intensity. Students who failed no more than one semester of a core course and earned enough credits to become 10th-graders were labeled on-track.
The data showed those students more likely to graduate in four years. University of Chicago Consortium scholars were also stunned to discover that passing courses in ninth grade was a better predictor of graduation than test scores, family income and race. They noted that some schools in low-income neighborhoods did better on this than others.
Working together, researchers and educators discovered that ninth-graders were more likely to pass their courses if school staffers paid attention to them as individuals. This was not a startling revelation to great teachers, but now they had a major university agreeing with them. Was this kid showing up each day? Did she or he feel safe and respected? If a student was struggling, was there someone who noticed and arranged for extra help?
The provocative multicolored board at Harper High helped ninth-graders realize their attitude toward schoolwork had an effect on their image among their peers, a big deal in that age group. Teachers visited the homes of failing students, which increased parent confidence in what the school was doing.
The most stunning parts of the book illuminate how some veteran teachers resisted any change in their methods. Some tried to be popular by showing lots of videos. Other wanted to be known as tough. “They assigned mountains of worksheets that carried undue weight in final grades,” Harper Principal Pam Glynn said. Some teachers would blame kids for being lazy or their parents for not caring.
The Freshman On-Track average for Chicago schools has increased from 61 percent in 2007 to 89 percent in 2017. That is impressive, although I would like to see evidence that courses haven’t been dumbed down. Chicago has also done better in measures not directly related to ninth-grade success. The number of seniors passing at least one Advanced Placement exam doubled between 2011 and 2018. More Chicago schools have qualified for my annual rankings of top AP, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge test participation rates. (The 2018 Challenge Index list can be found at jaymathewschallengeindex.com.)
American teenagers are often told they have to grow up when they become ninth-graders. But few schools focus on helping each student make that adjustment. The on-track approach has not yet proved itself, but it makes sense. It deserves a try in places far from the Windy City.