If You Care About School Improvement, This Book is a “Must Read”

When it comes to reading for pleasure, I’ve always enjoyed different genres and types of books, everything from Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens to what I’m currently reading, The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison. Everyone has their own tastes, but if you’re interested in understanding how school improvement can work — and work at scale — there’s a new book out that I consider a “must read.” In fact, I ended up buying copies for some of my work colleagues and members of my own family.

The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time by Emily Krone Phillips is one of the best books I’ve read about how change can happen at both the school level and at the system level. In her book, Phillips tells the story of how the 9th grade On-Track indicator — where students are considered “On-Track” if they earn at least five full-year course credits with no more than one semester F in a course in their first year of high school — grew from a research insight into a key driver of improved student outcomes in the Chicago Public Schools district.

Back in the early 2000s, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that 9th graders who were on-track were four times more likely to graduate than students who were off-track. In fact, as an indicator to forecast student success, they found that 9th grade On-Track was more predictive than test scores, socioeconomic status, and race combined.

From there, what started as a focal point for several neighborhood high schools became a district-wide movement, and over time the results became evident. In 2000, the on-track rate for Chicago 9th graders was 56 percent. In 2017, it was 85 percent. Graduation rates also improved, climbing from 51 percent in 2002 to 74 percent in 2015.

By itself, that progress is inspiring and worth noticing. But what makes The Make-or-Break Year special is that Phillips tells the story at different levels. Part of the book tells the story of 9th grade On-Track as a district-wide improvement effort that withstood changes in leadership, budget cuts, school closings and more. Other parts of the book tell the story of how that work played out in two high schools and in the lives of administrators, teachers, and students.

It’s the personal stories in the book that make it shine. They reflect the incredible obstacles many Chicago students face every day, trying to stay on a positive trajectory while grappling with poverty, gang and gun violence, and low expectations. They also capture the passion of dedicated teachers and principals who keep returning to the data to improve their approaches and find new ways to engage and motivate at-risk students. You experience their collective victories and feel the heartbreak when students experience set-backs.

The book is also a window into the Gates Foundation’s most recent round of investments, in what we call Networks for School Improvement (the Foundation is mentioned in the book but didn’t provide any funding for the project). The earlier work of one of our new grantees, the Network for College Success, features prominently in the book and illustrates the important role partners can play by working directly with school leaders, helping them translate research into practice and measure what’s working and what isn’t. Our foundation is investing in similar networks of schools across the country to build on the success in Chicago. Groups of 10–20 schools will work with intermediaries (like NCS) to figure out which approaches work best in their local context to improve key student success indicators (like 9th grade On-Track, 8th grade proficiency, college access, among others).

Too often we hear about what isn’t working in education, so I’m excited about the opportunity to talk more about what is working and how school leaders, policymakers, communities, and funders can build on that great work. I had the opportunity to sit down with Emily Krone Phillips as part of a Facebook Live conversation earlier this month, and we talked about her book and why it should give anyone who reads it a sense of optimism — that we can help students onto a path of opportunity, no matter how challenging their circumstances. You can watch that conversation below, but I would encourage everyone to read the book in its entirety. I came away inspired by it, and I think you will too.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.