Obama-Led Foundation Spent $49 Million But Had 'Little Impact' on Improving Chicago Schools

By Fred Lucas | October 14, 2008 | 7:11 PM EDT

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the former chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (AP Photo.)

(CNSNews.com) – Despite six years and $49.2 million spent to improve schools in the Chicago area, an education reform initiative run by Barack Obama was less than effective, according to two studies, with one in particular describing the grant program as a “failure” that had "little impact on school improvement and student outcomes."  
The initiative to improve the schools was the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). The Challenge was brought to Chicago by Ayers, a University of Illinois-Chicago education professor and former domestic terrorist, and was chaired by Obama from 1995 to 2001. Over those years, the Challenge distributed millions of dollars to non-profit organizations working with Chicago public schools.
“Results suggest that among the schools it supported, the Challenge had little impact on school improvement and student outcomes, with no statistical differences between Annenberg and non-Annenberg schools in the rate of achievement gain, classroom behavior, student self-efficacy and social competence,” the August 2003 report by the Consortium of Chicago School Research said of the CAC.
The CAC began with a $49.2 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation in 1995. It was one part of a $500 million distributed by the Foundation to 18 school districts across the United States, including Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and South Florida. Like Chicago, each of these Annenberg Challenge programs was run at the local level.
Annenberg grant money went to 210 different schools in the Chicago area, about 90 percent of which were elementary schools, according to the report by the Consortium of Chicago School Research.
Illinois standardized reading and math test scores improved city wide in Chicago by about one point, according to the report. The schools that received Annenberg grants saw no more improvement than the Chicago schools that received no grants.
“Across Annenberg schools, student engagement was only slightly greater in 2001 than before the Challenge,” the report said. “Although some measures of organizational capacity were slightly stronger or weaker in 2001 than at the beginning of the Challenge, there was little net change. In all, the organizational capacity of the Annenberg schools at the end of the Challenge looked much like it did at the beginning.”
The report was written by Mark A. Smylie and Stacy A Wenzel.
Smylie stressed that Annenberg should not be viewed as a complete failure, as public schools need time to improve.
“It was an important piece of a long-term process,” Smylie told CNSNews.com. “It’s a very hard nut to crack. Reforming education is a lot of hard work.”
Others agreed that, despite the reports, the CAc’s efforts should not be dismissed.
John Simmons, with the Strategic Learning Initiative, said he saw the CAC initiative work.
The Learning and Sharing Connection program, for example, run by Simmons’s group, was funded with $665,000 in Annenberg grants from 1998 through 2001. The program helped turn around one of the poorest, worst-performing schools in the United States. Test scores there improved by 11 times in a single year over other schools in the Chicago region, Simmons said.
Simmons thinks the Annenberg program deserves more credit than it has received.
“You read the Annenberg report and it says there wasn’t much progress, but Annenberg did help schools,” Simmons said. “What people miss is that Annenberg took on a bold move nobody ever did before.”
However, according to the report, the Annenberg-funded schools were weaker than other schools in some measurements.
“Student classroom behavior in Annenberg schools declined between 1994 and 2001 at a small but steady rate, although it stayed within the ‘moderately positive’ category,” the Consortium report said. “In 2001, students in Annenberg schools were somewhat less inclined than in 1994 to respect each other, work well together and help each other learn.”
“They were somewhat less likely to report that students who do well in school are not made fun of; that students work together to solve problems; and that they get along well, care about each other and treat each other with respect,” the report continued.
Further, the report said social competence declined. That means students were less likely to help people, to take turns, and listen to what others said.
In the final summary, the report assessed why the Annenberg grants were not more successful.
“The failure of the Challenge to achieve an overall effect on school improvement could be due to a number of shortcomings in the design and implementation of the challenge itself,” the report said. “These include the breadth of its goals and the vagueness of its strategies for school development; the number of participating schools and the inadequacy of the resources they received; and general weaknesses in the levers for change that it developed, particularly with regards to accountability.”
The conclusion continues: “Failure to achieve an overall effect could also be due to weaknesses in the capabilities and resources of external partners and the organizational capacities of Annenberg schools to engage effectively in the Challenge’s approach to reform.”
Coinciding with reforms already in place at the Chicago level was a problem, according to a national report by the Annenberg Foundation that assessed all 18 school districts and how well the initiative worked.
“In Chicago, the Challenge geared up to strengthen parents’ involvement in running neighborhood schools, but the Illinois legislature moved in the opposite direction, giving the mayor sweeping authority in 1995 to run the local schools,” the 2002 Annenberg report said.
“The mayor installed the city’s former budget director as the chief executive officer. The new chief restored the schools’ financial health, built dozens of new schools and repaired hundreds of old ones, but departed finding it considerably more difficult to remedy academic failings,” the report said.
The 2002 report failed to find major improvements across the country in the school districts that received Annenberg money.
“The Challenge did not work miracles, but it breathed new life into American education. It brought hope to schools that had been all but abandoned,” the national report said. “It helped educators who accepted mediocrity and failure to make a new commitment to excellence.”
On the positive side, the national report said that Chicago elementary students at the targeted schools went from being half a grade behind students in the average Chicago schools to being a quarter of a grade ahead of the average. The report said the average grant for a school was $39,000 for schools with an average operating budget of $3.8 million.
While Obama was chairman of the CAC board of directors, Ken Rolling served as the executive director of the organization working there on a day-to-day basis.
Rolling was quoted in the report about Chicago, concluding, “at the end of the day, all fingers point to teacher and principal professional development as the main priority we needed to address.”