• Caissa Public Strategy

The Impact of School Competition: Chicago Public Schools Case Study


The opinions on school competition are as varied as opinions on which type of car is best. Even the hard research fails to provide proof that competition is either a failure or a success. So how do we know the true effects that competition is having on our schools? The only answer we have come up with is a review of best practices. Luckily, we do have several case studies to review. 


Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) provides a great example of a district that has one of the most flexible school choice programs available to students in the United States. CPS uses an open enrollment system that guarantees admission to students in an assigned neighborhood, but students can also apply to schools out of their neighborhood. Over half of all students in 2000 and 2001 took advantage of this and chose to enroll in a different school.


Now before you send us emails asking why we are providing a case study that is 20 years old, let me just agree now that the findings of the study are too old to be helpful. What is important is the manner in which they tracked key performance indicators in the study. This level of study and the detail provided should be the base line standard of which we operate. 


To attend a different school, students needed to apply in the spring of the previous academic year. If the number of applicants for a given school exceeded the number of available places, lotteries would be used to assign students to a school. These lotteries are digitized and randomized to ensure all al students have the same chance of getting enrolled in a school of their choice. 



The Raw Data

Researchers evaluated many measures of academic achievement including graduation rates, test scores, course patterns, and attendance rates. Students from the two groups were compared: those who won the lottery and those who lost.


The result was to determine the difference between both groups if any. 


For their part, CPS gave detailed access to data on the lottery applications for the years 2000 and 2001. Researchers borrowed figures from the schools as well as conducting surveys from students, including how they were treated by their fellow students and teachers, total attendance, and more.

Researchers also looked at other parameters including the enjoyment levels of students, the trust between students and teachers, their future goals, and the behavior of peers. 



Results and Lessons for Schools

Winning lotteries allowed students to attend better quality schools, i.e. schools with better graduation rates, lower drop-out levels, and high academic achievement. Winning the lottery also raised the number of free lunch-eligible peers and increased the graduation rate of students. These schools were located in neighborhoods of affluence with low crime rates.


Lottery winners had lower four-year graduation rates by about 4.4%. The magnitude of the effect depended on the type of school. There was no discernible difference in the number of graduates at higher-ranked schools. Lottery winners did not show any signs of improvement on 5 of 6 test outcomes, going so far as to perform worse on reading scores by 1.3 percentile points. 


If anything, the relative performance for students who won lotteries was slightly worse. Although attending a ‘better’ school did little to improve academic achievement, it did affect non-academic outcomes for students who reported fewer arrests, cases of disciplinary action, and low incarceration rates. 



The Bottom Line 

The results from CPS make one thing very clear: In 2000 and 2001, competition between schools in Chicago had little effect on determining the relative position of students in terms of academic achievements. You can study this research in greater detail here.


While CPS shows us that competition alone may not improve education, it does not mean that students disregard educational standards when choosing a school. In fact, our internal surveys show that preparedness for life after school with rigorous academic standards is a driving force in school choice. So, it is still essential to show students that they will receive a top-notch education. Since showing educational improvements takes time, we must press on to showcase every reason that gets the students to pick their traditional public-school option. 


Remember, the purpose of this case study was to introduce you to process with which to determine the effects of competition in your district.

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