July 1988 / The Illinois Legislature passes a sweeping school reform act for Chicago, transferring significant powers from the Board of Education to newly created local school councils (LSCs). The law gives the system’s subdistrict superintendents, but not the general superintendent, authority to intervene at schools that are not following their school improvement plans. Ultimately, principals can be replaced, and new LSC elections held. February 1994 / Supt. Argie Johnson unveils a plan to put schools in three categories based on test scores, and to assign outside experts to the bottom group. After school reform activists criticize the plan as top-down and overly reliant on test scores, Johnson backs off and names a task force to come up with an alternative.
December 1994 / Under pressure from Supt. Johnson, subdistrict superintendents reluctantly begin to put schools on remediation, the mildest form of intervention. Seven schools receive the designation and outside partners to help them improve.
May 1995 / With covert assistance from Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Legislature, newly dominated by Republicans, gives the mayor control of the school system. He will appoint a new School Reform Board and a chief executive officer; they will have the power to intervene directly at low-performing schools. Two new forms of intervention are added: “reconstitution,” which allows the board to transfer staff, and “intervention,” which allows it to dismiss staff, following hearings and staff evaluations.
June 1995 / Mayor Daley taps his hard-charging budget director, Paul Vallas, for chief executive officer and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, for Reform Board chair.
September 1995 / Announcing that Austin High school has “flunked remediation,” Vallas allows the removal of 17 Austin teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union files a grievance, arguing successfully that remediation does not permit the removal of school staff. Five of the teachers eventually return to Austin while others accept positions elsewhere. Most of the fired teachers had performance ratings of excellent or superior.
January 1996 / Citing declining scores on the state IGAP tests, the Reform Board places 21 schools on remediation and removes the principal from seven of those schools. One of them, Debrona Banks of Tilton Elementary, successfully challenges her firing in court; a federal judge agrees that remediation does not permit the removal of a principal.
September 1996 / The board places 109 schools—71 elementary and 38 high schools—on academic probation because fewer than 15 percent of their students score at or above average on a nationally standardized reading test. As under remediation, each school gets an outside partner. It also gets a probation manager, typically a retired or current principal, to help it develop an improvement plan; the manager also monitors implementation.
October 1996 / School officials announce that teachers who fail to follow improvement plans at probation schools can be removed without benefit of standard procedures, which include an evaluation, a warning and a remediation period. The board says it will remove teachers directly and reassign them to short-term positions if they fail to find jobs elsewhere in the system. Later that month, however, the board’s chief attorney acknowledges that the statute allowing probation doesn’t override the standard procedures.
June 1997 / The Reform Board singles out seven of the lowest-scoring high schools for reconstitution. All their teachers must reapply for their jobs, and five schools get new principals.
Summer 1997 / About a third of the teachers at reconstituted schools—174 in all—are not rehired. Board policy gives “reserve” teachers (those who lose their positions at a school due to declining enrollment or a program change) 20 months to find another permanent position in the system. The Reform Board decides the “reconstituted” 174 will get only 10 months, causing the first serious breech with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The union goes to court but is told it has no cause for action until one of the 174 loses his or her job.
July 1997 / The Reform Board votes to remove principals from 11 schools on probation. In her first public challenge to CEO Vallas, Bevery Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, charges, “There was no educational malpractice at these schools. … The only criterion I see being used is when someone in the school has a conflict with the principal.”
August 1997 / Nine schools get off probation because the percentage of students scoring at or above the national average tops 20 percent. Fifteen schools slip below the 15 percent mark and are added to the probation list, putting the new total at 115.
September 1997 / Reconstituted high schools reopen with many vacant positions.
May 1998 / Paul Vallas announces he will wait at least a year before reconstituting any more schools, so the process can be studied. Negotiations are underway with the CTU to craft a form of interven-tion stronger than probation but less sweeping than reconstitution. Fifty-eight “reconstituted” teachers have not yet been offered permanent jobs, and the board agrees to give them an extra four months. The CTU vows it will file suit if any teacher loses his or her job. Vallas says he’s not worried. “We don’t do things that are legally risky,” he says. “We do things that we think will withstand a legal confrontation in court.”
Preliminary test scores show the percentage of students at or above norms in math and reading has reached a high for the decade, continuing an upward trend that began in the early 1990s. Of schools on probation, 25 score above the 20 per-cent mark needed to get off. Only two more slip below the 15 percent mark that triggers probation.
Vallas credits the board’s extra resources—summer school, after-school programs and outside partners. Anthony Byrk of the Consortium on Chicago School Research notes the board’s policy of holding back low-scoring students likely inflated citywide gains.