Since 1996, the School Board has sought to spur improvement in the city’s lowest-achieving schools by holding principals accountable for their students’ test scores. Schools where less than 20 percent of the students score at or above the national average in reading are put on probation, bringing them unwanted publicity, an external partner and, possibly, a new principal. In some cases, this policy has motivated principals to become better instructional leaders, in some cases it has not.

Chicago’s accountability system, “provides strong incentives for schools to get their math and reading scores up,” notes Melissa Roderick of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, but offers no guidance on how. Schools alone decide: “Are we going to do short-term strategies or invest in long-term solutions?” she observes.

At Cameron Elementary in Humboldt Park, probation brought Principal Florecita Valignota training on teacher observation from an external partner and prompted her to spend more time in classrooms, according to several teachers.

“The principal went for training herself so when she went into the classrooms, she was looking for different [reading] strategies, not just discipline,” says Cameron Literacy Coordinator Renee Schneiderman.

Valignota also worked to build morale and unity among staff, adds 2nd-grade teacher Ronelle Robinson. “The main goal was to put the kids first, forget any problems we have with each other.”

Cameron got off probation in 1998; last year, 26 percent of its students scored at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS).

In contrast to Valignota, the principal at one West Side elementary school on probation took a negative stance that one award-winning veteran teacher described as: “If I’m going down, you’re going down with me.” The principal did not invite the faculty’s participation in choosing an external partner, and the faculty subsequently resisted the partner’s program, the teacher reports. For the most part, teachers shut their doors and did what they’d always done, she says.

However, the 4th-grade teachers teamed up to adopt new reading strategies, the teacher continues. That year, the 4th-grade scores rose high enough that they alone pulled the school off probation, School Board data show.

Probation had a similarly disparate affect on schools that were hovering just above the test-score trigger. Some schools in that category raised reading scores by enriching their reading programs, adopting, for example, Junior Great Books or a reading emphasis in all content areas.

Others narrowed their curriculum in the pursuit of ITBS gains. At one South Side elementary school, the principal told her faculty to cut science, social studies and writing from the curriculum and “just prepare for the test,” an 8th-grade teacher reports.

The principal even disallowed the School Board’s daily lesson plans known as a “structured curriculum,” the teacher says. Those lessons are designed to meet state and city standards that encompass a broader range of skills and knowledge than the ITBS measures. “They had really great lessons, but when you put them in your lesson plan, you got a note back saying, ‘What is this? I want you teaching the test!'”

External partners themselves concede scant success in improving principals’ instructional leadership skills. (Catalyst interviewed several partners who worked with a total of more than 40 schools.)

Many principals simply lack time to learn new skills. “To learn something you have to be able to focus on it, and the job of the principal is so demanding in terms of its complexity and the distractions,” explains Barbara Radner of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education.

Some principals refused to change their leadership style, reports Morris Williamson of North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. “One principal said, ‘It’s the teachers, students and the parents.’ [She] thought the problem was everybody but her.”

Al Bertani of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association holds a different view. Many external partners failed to engage principals in their programs, he says. “Most external partners see that their primary focus in the schools is working with teachers.”

External partners also frequently neglected “the core issues that are necessary to changing a school culture,” such as building good working relationships among adults and setting high expectations for students, he says.

The School Board bears some responsibility for these shortcomings, Bertani says. “There’s been no systematic professional development for external partners to work in this role as external change agents in the school. It’s almost assumed that if you’re an external partner, you have that.”

Vallas principals

Replacing principals, the most serious consequence of probation, also had mixed results, observers say. To date the School Board has ousted 40, according to the Office of Accountability.

“We’ve definitely gotten rid of some people who were not very good,” says researcher Fred Hess of Northwestern University. “The jury is still out on whether we replaced them with better people. In some places, clearly they did. In other places, it’s been one disaster followed by another disaster, followed by a third disaster.”

Radner of DePaul maintains, however, that some new principals were never given a chance to succeed; rather, they were yanked out of schools before they had built a leadership team.

“When you have a new leader come in, there should be a transition period,” she insists. “There should be a sharing of information [from the outgoing administration], an analysis of the school’s situation and some recommendations about what could have been done differently.”

Another problem, according to Hess, is that in its rush to replace unsuccessful principals, the School Board often promotes people with inadequate experience. For instance, some principals from small elementary schools were suddenly put in charge of large failing high schools, he notes. “The administration is constantly raiding its very shallow [candidate] pool before it gets much depth,” Hess observes.

He acknowledges that the School Board and the principals’ association are working to improve the pool through improved training. However, short-term training is no substitute for a long-term plan, he says.

Businesses “think about who their potential leaders are,” Hess notes. “They script a career path for them. They promote them into broader responsibility and give them a chance to succeed or fail.”

In Chicago’s more decentralized school system, principals themselves help develop the pool of future leaders when they select their assistant principals. Hess supports the practice but says principals often consider only their friends for these jobs. He suggests the district make principals aware of especially promising candidates.

The administration also should aggressively recruit principals with demonstrated success elsewhere, he says. The vast majority of Chicago principals come from within the system. “We’re trying to dramatically improve schools with an employee base that has very little experience with high-performing schools,” he says.

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