Steve Zemelman

We create school report cards, compare schools, and hope American-style competition will spur change. But while there are schools making a difference in the poorest neighborhoods, few of their neighbors imitate them. Why?

Well, spreading good ideas from one school to another is challenging. There’s no tradition for it, and it’s not clear anyone really knows how to do it. Individual schools are worlds unto themselves, and this isolation has hobbled school reform efforts repeatedly over the past 100 years. We ignore it at our peril.

One problem: models engender as much resentment as imitation. Outsiders are sure the model school has extra resources or better-prepared kids—whether true or not. “Why don’t we get those programs? Great ideas, but they wouldn’t work with my kids.” These are sometimes excuses, but the issue of fairness is legitimate. A teacher at one innovative Chicago public school remarked, “Our [area instructional officer]] is always saying how great we are and having us present to the other schools. I’m sure those teachers are saying, ‘Oh no, here they come again.'”

Meanwhile, change in any school takes a skilled leader and committed faculty. Imposing a new program gets grudging compliance, but rarely leads to inspired learning for kids. At the other extreme, laissez faire leadership can be equally demoralizing. A teacher or team may develop some new effort, but without the principal’s real commitment, other teachers may ignore or undermine it.

As the Consortium on Chicago School Research has found, a professional climate of trust, shared decision-making and shared responsibility are crucial. Trust is needed between schools as well. No one hangs out dirty laundry with strangers. If schools are to work together, the staffs must build long-term relationships.

Further, change requires focused effort, on top of teachers’ intense everyday classroom work and the endless crises and bureaucracy that beset their principals. CPS—like most school systems—simply doesn’t schedule sufficient common planning time for a major change effort, an issue for another day. Lack of professional time for Chicago schools is a serious obstacle to their improvement, though gaining more without giving up teaching time will require serious dollars and meaningful plans for how to use it well.

Some sharing strategies are great for individual teachers, but don’t alter whole schools. Best Practice High School, at its prime, offered all-day visits for teachers from Chicago and across the country. NKO Charter School offered two-week visiting residencies, as long as funds were available.

At the Chicago Schools Alliance, we are working to build a community of shared learning in a diverse network of charter schools, in-district schools, and elementary and high schools. Alliance sponsors are Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Each of the 10 schools pursues an in-depth project of its choosing, on a high-priority need.

But common themes run through them. Widely distributed teacher leadership, for example, has emerged as a key to successful projects and is now a network focus. Weeklong “Practice Based Inquiry” (PBI) visits by peer educator teams—now in use throughout the state of Rhode Island—help schools pinpoint the issues they need to focus on. Next, we are looking at how to meaningfully share professional learning with schools beyond the network. The keys to success are trust and mutual accountability.

One example of how good ideas spread: The principal and a teacher from Namaste Charter School participated on a PBI team at an in-district school, where, as part of the protocol, each team member shadowed a student for a full day. The Namaste participants found this so valuable they proposed that every teacher in their building get to do it. Namaste teachers will tell you they learned things about their school, both good and imperfect, that they’d never been aware of.

We believe long-term networks and partnerships are central to school improvement in Chicago. A number of such networks are now developing, and are sharing their thinking. These include the Network for College Success, the Urban Schools Improvement Network, the CPS Autonomous Management Performance Schools (AMPS), and the Principals Network in the Urban Education Leadership Program at UIC. Groupings like these should be nurtured by CPS and given flexibility to advance their work. There’s a lot to learn, but without real communities of schools working together, we believe change will remain limited and isolated.

Steve Zemelman is Director of School Innovation and Planning at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools and a facilitator of the Chicago Schools Alliance. He can be reached at

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