Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins recognized early on the importance of principals in raising student achievement. The problem, however, was that many of them needed training and coaching to be more effective in that role.
Enter area instructional officers, a post Eason-Watkins unveiled in 2002 to support and oversee groups of elementary and high school principals. The idea was that these new managers, dubbed AIOs, along with a staff of academic coaches, would focus on helping schools improve instruction. They would be deployed across the city and be charged with responsibility for groups of 18 to 44 schools each.
Four years and close to $60 million later—the budget for area offices has doubled since they were created—the strategy shows promise, particularly for elementary schools.
Reading, math and science scores are up, most notably this year, in each of the district’s 17 elementary school areas. Districtwide gains in reading and math outpaced statewide averages between 2001 and 2005.
Two Harvard researchers, Richard Elmore and Allen Grossman, are writing a case on Chicago Public Schools, the role of the AIO and how a district can help schools reach their full potential.
“I think [AIOs] have made a tremendous impact,” says Eason-Watkins. “We are seeing ongoing professional development for the principals. There is more direct contact with teachers. It has been a great benefit.”
Yet the payoff is uneven, especially for areas that initially were made up of mostly low-performing schools. Mixed performance gains in those areas suggest that some AIOs are not as effective as others, or that schools in some communities are beset with negative influences that go beyond an AIO’s power or influence.
In a recent report about managing reform in Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Public Education Fund President Janet Knupp wonders what it would take to improve the track record.
“Is it really possible to effectively support more than 20 schools?” she asks. “If it’s an impossible task, the system may only be setting the AIOs up to fail.”
A tale of two areas
Two areas—one centered in Belmont Cragin (Area 4), the other in Englewood (Area 14)—are examples of how such differences can play out. At first, the two were similar in some respects.
Both were comprised of schools that served predominantly poor student populations who were mostly African-American or Latino. Both areas were led by former principals who had earned their chops in the trenches, and who had made names for themselves as educators. And, on average, about a third of students in each area were meeting state standards in reading.
But similarities in performance had diverged by 2006. By then, Area 4 posted some of the highest test score gains of any area in the district. Gains for Area 14, by contrast, were among the lowest.
Reasons behind the areas opposite fates range from differences in student mobility (36 percent in Area 14 compared to 25 percent in Area 4) to family situations (Census data shows Area 14 has more single-parent households, more children living in abject poverty and more who are homeless or in foster care).
Differences in AIO management styles are a likely factor, as well. And therein lies a dilemma for the district.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” explains Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education and Assessment. “[AIOs] need to know how to assess and adapt curricula to each school’s needs. But they are also guiding principals, so they need to know management theories and interpersonal skills.”
“A teacher can’t teach science, if she doesn’t know science, but she also can’t teach it if she doesn’t know how to teach,” Radner adds.
Next up: picking principals
The district’s big-picture strategy for improving schools is wrapped around three core initiatives. One of them is to refashion area instructional offices to ensure more targeted support to local schools.
Last year, with principal feedback as a guide, the district recast AIOs’ job responsibilities to focus more of their time (70 percent) on instruction and none on operations. It also required AIOs to get involved in principal selection, even at schools where local school councils have hiring authority. The latter has raised concerns about local control among some school reform activists.
Some AIOs “assume that they run everything at a school whether the school is on probation or not,” says Valencia Rias of Designs for Change. “They dictate to local school councils what they are supposed to do, especially with principal selection.”
This year, the district is raising the accountability bar for AIOs and will evaluate them based on improvements in student performance and other measurable factors such as attendance rates. The district will also be looking at how the areas are stacking up against each other.
“The district is shifting the role of the AIO because they are constantly learning,” says Allen Grossman, a professor at Harvard Business School who has worked with the district for the last four years. “We are always looking at how you introduce continuous improvement into schools, and Chicago is embracing that.”
Sarah Karp contributed to this report
To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.