In early February, Arne Duncan takes the mic in Chicago Vocational High School’s auditorium to pump up the leading actors in his administration’s most important production, the Chicago reading initiative.

“Along with principals, you guys have the toughest job in the school system,” Duncan tells 114 reading specialists who have been sent to the system’s lowest-achieving elementary schools, including 51 on probation.

Still in training, the specialists are being asked to do what more than a decade of effort has failed to accomplish: transform teaching. And whether they’ve been in their schools for years or just walked in the door, the specialists can’t get far without a good principal on their side, Catalyst reporting has found.

Hanging over their heads, meanwhile, is pressure to demonstrate to Mayor Richard M. Daley that reading achievement is on the rise. In the January/February issue of the CPS newsletter Chicago Educator, Daley praises his new school leadership team because they “accepted my challenge to take new approaches to improve the reading skills of our children.”

In addition to reading specialists, the Chicago Reading Initiative also includes new money for classroom libraries, a required two hours a day of reading instruction and training for principals and teachers to improve instructional techniques. (For details, see story.) Together, these measures are aimed at directly changing what happens in regular classrooms during the regular school day.

In contrast, the previous administration relied on the pressure of test-based accountability and on supplemental programs, such as after-school and summer classes, to improve reading achievement. That approach accelerated a rise in reading test scores that began before the arrival of former CEO Paul Vallas, but scores hit a plateau in 1999, raising Daley’s concern.

Speaking of the new effort, Mildred Hillman, the reading specialist at Farren Elementary in Grand Boulevard, says, “I’ve never seen anything as serious, as intense, as this on reading. I’ve been in the system 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything this serious.”

Catherine Snow, chair of a National Academy of Sciences committee on preventing reading difficulties in young children, says the switch in emphasis is appropriate. “That’s what people in general would recommend—to increase the resources available to the schools with the greatest need, and to focus on providing teachers with serious opportunities for professional development, not workshops, not just new curriculum.”

Like others, she warns that change won’t come quickly. “It’s not a short-term effort. That’s one of the difficulties. People are often not willing to wait for the changes to happen.”

Flexible or lax?

The reading initiative gives schools lots of flexibility, requiring only that they work in four areas during the two hours of literacy instruction: word knowledge, comprehension, writing and fluency, which is the ability to read smoothly and easily. This flexibility has drawn both praise and questions. “I like the program. It doesn’t limit you,” says Carl Lawson, principal of Price Elementary School.

However, Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, wonders why the system isn’t offering a menu of fully developed, research-backed programs, such as Success for All, to help schools implement the framework. “We would suggest they offer more opportunities to be aware of existing, nationally recognized, schoolwide reform models with important literacy components.” She says there are about a half dozen models for elementary schools that provide resources for teachers but fewer for high schools.

Shanahan counters that even with multiple choices, a menu would be limiting. “The notion of somehow constraining people’s choices when other things work just as well doesn’t sit well with me. As soon as you start constraining people’s choices arbitrarily I start to wonder.”

Similarly, though reading specialists get earfuls of recommendations, they have wide latitude to guide teachers as they see fit. “I’m not willing to tell teachers they can’t use a method I don’t like if it works,” says Shanahan.

Most reading specialists are coming in with strong credentials—two-thirds of them hold master’s degrees or endorsements in reading; the remainder must earn at least an endorsement to continue in the role.

But far fewer have experience working with teachers and developing schoolwide strategies to boost reading. “This has turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would when I signed up,” says one. “We’re used to dealing with children. Adults are a lot harder.”

Shanahan says many specialists are locked into a view of professional development that stresses workshops and equal time for everyone, rather than strategizing how to maximize the impact at a given school. “You’ve got to start targeting who you can move,” Shanahan advises. “Right now, they’re not making those kinds of judgments. That’s a problem.”

Solving it will require coaches for the specialists, Shanahan has concluded. Specialists currently attend training sessions led by Shanahan and the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago. Shanahan wants to send out mentors who can “sit down with them and work out a plan. I need close-in stuff where someone can come out and say ‘I want to see you working with a teacher.'”

The initiative went ahead without this layer of coaching simply to get the ball rolling. “There were some political reasons to get out there,” observes Sharon Greenberg, co-director of the Center for School Improvement. “Then they have to build it up as they go along.”

For next year, Shanahan hopes to provide one coach for every 15 to 20 reading specialists; they likely will be recruited from among the specialists themselves.

Principals pivotal

The reading specialists also have found that they need the support of their principals. The majority “meet regularly [and] keep the principal informed,” says Shanahan. “They’re respectful of each other, and they’re sharing information.” But he acknowledges the relationships need more time to develop. “I don’t know that they are necessarily a team in any true sense.”

To longtime observers, that’s no surprise. The working environments in bottom-tier schools are “very corrosive,” says Anthony Bryk, a director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. In Consortium surveys, these schools “get very weak reports from teachers on leadership, on trust. If you’ve got a school with very weak principal leadership and a weak history of teachers working together, this is gonna be a really tough job.”

Some fear principals don’t know enough about effective reading instruction to be of help. “Frankly they should have had the principals [attend training],” says Barbara Radner, a veteran external partner and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University. “The principals needed the full two weeks.”

Some help is on the way. Last month, a small group of principals piloted new observation checklists aimed at helping principals know what to look for and determine where their teachers fall in a continuum of practice. Al Bertani, chief CPS officer for professional development, says the checklists are not meant for formal evaluations.

Bertani’s office also is sending video crews out through the end of the school year “to capture on tape exemplary examples of reading instruction.” They will tape examples in all four areas of the literacy framework, at all elementary grade levels, and in a wide variety of schools. The tapes will be used in training sessions with teachers and principals.

Bryk says that some teachers in low-achieving schools, which are high in such debilitating factors as poverty and mobility, were getting results before the initiative. At some sites, students in one classroom make a year and a quarter’s worth of reading progress while students next door make only three-quarter’s, Consortium research has found.

“It’s not that the kids can’t do it,” says Bryk. “It’s really about the quality of instruction.”

Some classroom teachers argue that what they really need is more classroom teachers. “If you gave me another person with these 32 children, I might be able to do some real reading teaching, the way I know you need to do it when you have a wide range of abilities,” says Patricia Cheeks, a 5th-grade teacher at Brown Elementary on the Near West Side. Though she appreciates having a specialist with whom to bounce around ideas, her bottom line remains: “I need another body.”

CPS has paid for an extra teacher at each of the 114 schools to reduce class size in the primary grades. Shanahan says there isn’t money to do more. “What’s the best way to use the limited resources we have? If you don’t invest in [staff development], the research says, you don’t get that much out of reduced class size.”

External partners

For the past six years, getting that quality up has been left to external partners, typically university-based programs. Some welcome the changing emphasis. “I believe that the CPS effort to build internal capacity is moving in the right direction,” says Connie Bridge, executive director of the Council on Teacher Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Without a knowledgeable reading specialist in each building, it will be difficult to maintain any changes accomplished through an external partnership.”

Bridge works with Henson Elementary and Manley High. At Manley, the leadership of a closely watched reading improvement project is about to move from outsiders to in-house teachers. (See Catalyst , May 2000.)

At least one external partner sees her species slowly becoming extinct. “I really do think we’re moving towards the San Diego model” of in-house coaching, observes Radner. (For more on San Diego, see page 16.) External partners that are heavily invested in reading may be left in the cold. “If their focus has solely been on reading, on that reading score, then indeed that would say you are superfluous,” Radner says. For them, she adds, “I think it’s time to downsize.”

“It’s not that I’m anti-external partners,” says Shanahan, himself a former external partner who helped Jungman Elementary get off and stay off probation. (See story.) He says external partners sometimes helped schools, but that in the end, they leave, and much of the system’s investment goes with them.

While Shanahan focuses on instruction, others are looking to see whether his program will move test scores this year. Some are guardedly optimistic. “I think if schools are implementing it properly, we will see improvement this year,” says Radner. “You should see significant quartile shifts. This more responsive approach allows the learners who have been locked out of reading to finally make some progress.”

But she cautions that the real test will be in how much headway specialists can make in working with their schools to change practices. “I think it’s being misunderstood in some schools, where they are taking it as more work with your [textbook],” she says. “As with anything, implementation is key.”

The research and advocacy group Designs for Change spent seven years working to improve reading achievement at five schools. The project included a reading coach, called a literacy facilitator, for each school.

“It took two or three years for that to show up in their scores,” says Don Moore, executive director. “So the notion that the scores are somehow gonna go up this year is contrary to what we know about how these schools change.”

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