Chicago School Quality Report

This Chicago School Quality Report summarizes the results of interviews with administrators (Principals or Assistant Principals) at 13 schools that are underrated by GreatSchools, a popular school ranking system. SchoolSparrow aims to be a more equitable school ranking website by factoring out the influence of parent income on test scores.


Studies have shown that parent income is positively correlated with test scores (Coleman, 1966; Reardon, 2011). This means that parent income is often predictive of test scores. This sad reality contributes to the overarching opportunity gap within the United States. Students from all backgrounds have the same innate ability to excel and achieve. However, there is a disparity in the academic performance of students of color and white students (Haycock, 2011). This disparity also finds itself where black, Indigenous and people of color have greater education debts and loans (Landson-Billings, 2006). 

Racial disparities are often similar to and sometimes overlapping with socioeconomic disparities. However, according to Reardon at Stanford University, the income achievement gap is even deeper than the achievement gap between white and black students in the United States. Additionally, the achievement gap has increased from 1975 to 2001, leading to an even greater disparity between children from families in the 10th percentile of income distribution and families in the 90th percentile of income distribution (2011).

According to Spencer & Castano, there is also stereotype threat among individuals of lower socioeconomic status when testing. When socioeconomic status was made salient prior to the GRE test, students of low socioeconomic status performed more poorly than when socioeconomic status was not made salient before testing (2007). 

Parents often face the challenge of finding a place to live that is within the boundaries of a quality school. GreatSchools’ aim is to help parents identify quality schools in their community. However, the top 25 ranked schools in Chicago on GreatSchools are on the north side of the city (figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1

GreatSchools Top 25 schools are predominantly located on the north side of Chicago. Furthermore, Chicago is a segregated city, where white residents often live on the north side and black and latinx residents often live on the south side. Additionally, there is more wealth on the north side of the city.

At SchoolSparrow, we factor out the influence of parent income on test scores. We do this by giving each school an expected score, based on average parent income at the school. If a school is performing above their expected score, they will receive a C+ and above. If scores at the school match the expected score based on parent income, the school receives a C rating. When schools perform below expected based on parent income, the school receives a C- rating and below.

SchoolSparrow’s ranking system aims to be more equitable, and below are the top 30 schools in Chicago according to our rankings.

Figure 1.2

SchoolSparrow highlights schools across Chicago, not only on the north side, that are changing the narrative for their students. The schools that have a C+ rating and above are working against the odds to move test scores above expected.

This report specifically focuses on schools that are ranking at a B+ and above on SchoolSparrow, but at a 6 and below on GreatSchools. These are the schools that are traditionally underrated outside of the school community. SchoolSparrow has named these schools Out-Performers.

SchoolSparrow conducted interviews with administrators from 13 Out-Performer schools in Chicago to understand the commonalities between these schools that are underrated on popular ranking systems, but highly ranked by SchoolSparrow. The aim of this study is to understand factors that contribute to school success, measured specifically by a school’s ability to bring test scores well above expected.


Out-Performer schools met both of the following criteria: B+ and above rating on SchoolSparrow and  6 and below rating on GreatSchools. Schools that receive a B+ and above rating on SchoolSparrow are schools that are performing well above their expected score. The expected score is determined based on average parent income. GreatSchools defines ratings of 5-6 as average schools. 

First, SchoolSparrow identified a list of 65 schools in Chicago that met the Out-Performer criteria. After emailing principals and assistant principals at 65 schools, 13 school administrators agreed to conduct an interview.

Administrator Interviews

When conducting interviews, school administrators were asked to call via zoom, so that the interview could be recorded and saved as a video file. Five out of thirteen administrators were more comfortable doing the interview over the phone. In three of these five phone interviews, the interview was recorded as an audio file. In two of these phone interviews, there were two individuals calling with the principal and two note records of the responses, to ensure that all of the response was captured. 

In each interview, we asked 12 consistent questions. These questions were designed to address different factors that may contribute to school quality. The 12 questions are listed below. 

School Administrator Interview Questions:

  1. Tell me about your school and the neighborhood you serve.
  2. How is your school unique?
  3. What do you think your administration is doing well that has had a positive impact on student achievement?
  4. What do you think your teachers are doing well that has had a positive impact on student achievement?
  5. How is your school connected with the community around you?
  6. How do you involve parents at [name of school]? 
  7. What does teacher coaching and development look like at [name of school]?
  8. What kind of curriculum do you use? Is it consistent across grade levels? How much leeway do you give teachers in using their preferred curriculum?
  9. Do you monitor the pacing of curriculum? 
  10. Our data at SchoolSparrow shows that students at [name of school] have test scores above expected based on where test scores are projected to be based on parent income. What do you think is bringing up test scores at your school?
  11. Is there a strong PTA? How much money do they raise for the school? 
  12. Do you think SQRP paints an accurate picture of school quality? Why or why not.

Teacher Questionnaire

In order to compare these schools against a control group, SchoolSparrow sent out a google form to teachers in schools all over Chicago. This is not a true control group, but it functions to strengthen results found from the administrator interviews. There were 11 teacher responses about 11 different schools in Chicago. In the google form, we replicated questions five and eight from the school administrator interview questions. Teacher question three is the same as school administrator question five, and teacher question six is similar to principal question eight. In addition, we also asked the following questions below, based on salient trends from the school principal data. All the administrator interviews were completed before the teacher questions were developed. All responses on the google form were typed in by the teachers themselves.

Teacher Google Form Questions:

  1. How many years has your Principal been at your school?
  2. How many years has your Assistant Principal been at your school?
  3. Explain how your school is connected with the community around you?
  4. Does your school have community partners? If so, what partners?
  5. Do teachers collaborate between grade levels on curriculum?
  6. What kind of curriculum do you use? Is it consistent across grade levels? How much leeway do teachers have in using their preferred curriculum?


Principal Longevity

There are several trends from the school administrator interview data. The average length of time that the Principal was at the school was 10.63 years. When compared against the teacher interview data, the average length of time that the principal was at the school was 4.68 years, based on the google form data. 

Community Connection

Another trend from the schools performing above expected based on parent income was that 12 out of 13 schools had community partners. Specifically, 3 schools mentioned having 1-2 community partners; 8 schools mentioned having 3 or more community partners; 2 schools did not bring up any community partners in their school administrator interview. When comparing this with data from teacher interviews, 5 out of 11 teachers mentioned that the school didn’t have any community partners; 5 out of 11 teachers mentioned that the school had 1-2 community partners and only 1 teacher mentioned that the school had 3 or more community partners. Graph 1.1. shows this data in depth.

Graph 1.1

Many of the Out-Performer schools have also received grants. 7 out of 13 school administrators brought up that the school received grants in the interview. The schools received grants for a wide variety of things like: 3-D printers, school garden, after-school program, arts programs and school technology.

The number of community partnerships among the thirteen Out-Performer schools identified, demonstrates a high level of community involvement. This community involvement also extends to relationships with local police, alderman and parks district. 6 out of 13 school administrators mentioned that the school has a relationship with either the local alderman, police or parks district.

When you break this data apart, 5 out of 13 school administrators mentioned having a relationship with the ward alderman. 2 out of 13 schools mentioned having a relationship with local police force and 1 school mentioned having a relationship with the local parks district. At this school, the parks district has an office inside the school building.

Curriculum and School Mindsets

In regard to curriculum, the school administrator interviews showed a consistent response across schools. 12 out of 13 Out-Performer schools have a set curriculum that teachers can supplement as they see fit. 1 school out of 13 schools has a teacher created curriculum. When talking about the curriculum, 4 out of 13 school administrators mentioned that teachers helped select the curriculum at the school. 

In terms of school mindsets, 7 out of 13 school administrators brought up having high expectations for students at the school. There was not a question directly about this, but it came up with 7 schools without prompting. 

Many of the Out-Performer schools go beyond only teaching to state standards. 8 out of 13 schools mention having either a strong STEM focus or arts focus. Specifically, 4 of these 8 schools mention a performing arts emphasis and 4 mention a STEM emphasis. When talking about the arts, one school has a drama teacher and students take drama classes in addition to their music classes. Another school allows students to form bands together.

When talking about STEM, one school mentioned having a STEM lab through Northwestern University. Another school discussed teaching students how to code in a coding lab and teaching students how to use a 3-D printer. Each of these 8 schools had community partners in the arts or STEM to support the STEM/arts emphasis.

Teacher Trust

At the Out-Performer schools, school administrators also brought up school decision making. 6 out of 13 Out-Performer administrators brought up including teachers in school decision making and utilizing teacher feedback. Table 1.1 shows direct principal quotes from these six schools.

Table 1.1 Administrator statements that demonstrate teacher trust

Direct Administrator Quotes
“anything we do, we always seek teacher input”
“most decisions i really include the team …  I use collaboration as a key piece in decision making”
“when you have six people think about an issue they give more ideas”
“we are responsive with feedback and we talk with teachers”
“when you have a successful organization, you need voices of all those involved”
“they (teachers) want to be empowered in decision making at the school”


The school administrator interviews uncovered several common trends that may have helped the Out-Performer schools to boost test scores above expected. One salient trend was the amount of time that the Principal was as the school. Over time the Principal can build a culture that fosters high expectations, a solid curriculum, and facilitate communication among teachers to continuously improve the curriculum. Futhermore, Principals that have been at a school for a long time allow the Principal to really have a presence at the school, build relationships with parents over time and cultivate a long-term vision at the school.  It could also be the Principal’s level of experience that benefits the school. 

Another salient trend was the amount of community connection at the Out-Performer schools. These schools discussed their partners in the community and their relationships with local government as well. This is meaningful because the Out-Performer schools clearly utilize the resources in the community to benefit students. Many of the schools had partners, which allowed the schools to offer more activities and resources to students.  A few principals discussed that they frequently notify the local alderman about what is going on at the school. This shows that it is important for schools to be connected with the community around them. 

Community partners provide resources to the Out-Performer schools such as free after school care for kids, tutoring, and a curriculum focused on the arts or STEM.

There is a trend of enrichment in education as well. This is clear because of the grants the schools were receiving, which allows the schools to offer additional resources and activities to the students. Many of these schools also have an arts or a STEM focus, which also functions to enrich students’ experiences at school beyond test prep and beyond the state standards. This means that it is meaningful when schools can go beyond academics and foster student creativity.

The school administrator interviews also revealed commonalities in school mindsets. Many Out-Performing schools had administrators that include teachers in decision making and allow teachers to select school-wide curriculum. The Out-Performing schools also endorsed having high expectations towards students. High expectations for students and teacher trust were evident in many of the Out-Performing schools. 

Three Take-aways:

  1. The Principal’s experience level seems to be correlated with schools that outperform their peers. 
  2. Strong community partnerships are prevalent among our high-performing Out-Performer schools in Chicago.
  3. Administrators that trust their staff and hold high expectations towards students may foster higher levels of student achievement.

How SchoolSparrow is Addressing Inequity in School Ranking

Schools in urban areas with socio-economic and racial diversity need more recognition. A school ranking system has taken hold in America that favors schools in wealthy areas and discounts diverse schools.

Read more about how the popular school ranking systems favor wealthy areas.

Our mission is to bring equitable school rankings to all the major real estate websites, so that parents who can make a home purchase decision with a balanced view of school quality.


If you support this mission, please take action and share our social media urging all the real estate search portals to display equitable school ratings. In this way, traditionally underrate schools can get the recognition they deserve, and parents can make housing decision with a more balanced view on school quality.

Works Cited

Breymaier, R., Davis, M., & Fron, P. (2013). Fair Housing and Equity Assessment: Metropolitan Chicago. Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance. Available at http://www.cmap. illinois. gov/livability/housing/fair-housing.

Coleman, J. S. (1968). Equality of educational opportunity. Integrated Education, 6(5), 19-28.

Flores, A. (2007). Examining disparities in mathematics education: Achievement gap or opportunity gap? The High School Journal, 91(1), 29-42. doi:10.1353/hsj.2007.0022

Haycock, K. (2001). Closing the achievement gap. Educational leadership, 58(6), 6-11.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Reardon, S. F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. Whither opportunity, 1(1), 91-116.

Spencer, B., & Castano, E. (2007). Social class is dead. long live social class! stereotype threat among low socioeconomic status individuals. Social Justice Research, 20(4), 418-432. doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0047-7

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