There is no end to the changes, initiatives and programs schools could undertake to improve the education of their students. But there isn’t enough time, money or people for all of them. So the challenge becomes figuring out what will make the biggest difference.

To help schools do that, Chicago’s new school administration is promoting a framework for school analysis and improvement that was developed during the tenure of Supt. Argie Johnson.

Called “Pathways to Achievement,” the framework aims to focus school planning in five areas that a body of research says are key to good schooling. They are: school leadership, a student-centered learning environment, parent and community partnerships, professional development and collaboration, and a quality instructional program.

Pathways also lists “best practices” for each area. For example, a best practice for school leadership is that local school councils meet regularly, and a best practice for a student-centered learning climate is that schools are safe for students and respectful of all cultures in the school community.

All of this is common sense, acknowledges Barbara Radner, a DePaul University education professor who is working with a number of Chicago public schools. But she says that spelling it out helps schools decide how best to use their resources.

“Schools begin to ask themselves, ‘What should we be focusing on. How are we going to improve reading.’ Having it in black and white helps schools focus,” she says.

Dorothy Aguirre of the School Reform Board’s Office of Professional Development concurs, noting that one principal “told me he now knew where to put his money. Schools are saying this is the first time they have been able to align their curriculum and budget toward student learning.”

Pathways does not have universal support, however. “I don’t have as much a problem with what’s in Pathways as I do with what’s omitted from it,” says Barbara Sizemore, dean of the School of Education at DePaul University, who wields a fair amount of influence at Pershing Road.

What’s missing, she says, is monitoring and evaluating teaching performance and student achievement.

“What exactly is a best practice?” she asks. “Some ‘best practices’ don’t boost student achievement. Some schools are using cooperative learning, but their children still can’t learn. Teaching has to be child-centered. Study your children, what is it they need, what’s a best practice for them, not the other way around, which is to create best practices and then use them on your students.”

While central office is not requiring schools to use Pathways to develop their school improvement plans, schools that don’t will be swimming against the tide. Staff from both central and regional offices are being trained to help schools use the framework, and a half-day presentation is available for schools. Further, schools that have made demonstrable gains in a given area will become professional development sites for other schools.

“What we are doing now is not a mandate or a policy or a program; it’s simply a process that we hope schools will use to assess where they are at and where they need to go,” says Aguirre.

However, Pathways is the foundation for intervention at the 149 schools identified as having exceptionally low or declining state IGAP scores over the last three years. (See story.)

Born of controversy

Pathways was born of the controversy over Argie Johnson’s initial plan for citywide school improvement, which called for assigning schools to one of three categories based on test scores and then assigning outside experts to schools in the bottom category.

The proposal met heated opposition from school reform activists and many principals. “It was a top-down approach that we strongly objected to,” says Donald Moore, executive director of the reform group Designs for Change.

Help schools analyze themselves

At a hearing on the proposal, Karen Birolami Barrett, senior advocate for the Latino Institute, proposed instead that central office “provide user-friendly data to each school—pointing out which numbers indicate problems—and give schools a list of suggested questions to ask themselves … as well as a list of consultants, trained in organizational development, that are available to facilitate the process.”

To Johnson’s credit, Moore says, the former superintendent took the complaints and suggestions to heart and formed a task force of principals, teachers, local school council members, researchers and school reform activists to devise a substitute.

Completed in May 1994, Pathways was first put to the test last fall at 97 schools that had been scheduled to undergo a state quality review this school year. (The reviews subsequently were postponed, pending a revision of the state’s accountability system.) The board offered outside facilitators and financial incentives for participation.

Also using Pathways as a framework, the Consortium on Chicago School Research conducted citywide surveys of teachers and students. Schools where 50 percent of teachers participated received individualized reports.

Myrtle Burton-Sahara, principal at Locke School in Montclare, says the surveys helped them with their self-analysis, which eventually led them to integrate Pathways into their school improvement plan. (See story.)

When the administration of the school system abruptly changed hands this summer, however, many involved with Pathways feared that their work would be scuttled. Moore of Designs for Change gathered 46 signatures on letters to the new School Reform Board of Trustees, CEO Paul Vallas and other top board officials urging them to retain the approach.

“Who said we were going to scrap it?” was the response of Cozette Buckney, chief of staff to Vallas. “There was never any plan to cut Pathways.”

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