Improving teaching starts with the principal. That’s the idea behind an ambitious initiative the School Board launched a year ago in August to help principals become better instructional leaders.

To support the initiative, the board reorganized the district into “area instructional offices” that were small enough to influence schools’ instructional programs. By contrast, the old region offices handled day-to-day management, such as busing, building operations or emergencies, for 100 or more schools, leaving little or no time for schools’ academic issues.

The new areas are led by area instructional officers (AIOs), who train principals at monthly meetings, coach them individually, and conduct “walkthroughs” of classrooms to provide feedback on instruction.

So, what do principals think of the new structure? Do they believe it will help them change teaching? Catalyst surveyed more than 300 CPS principals to find out.

Area structure works better

Principals most often cited smaller size and the focus on instruction as reasons why they preferred the new area structure. “[Principals] meetings have focused on teaching and learning. The walkthroughs are focused on teaching and learning and it helps the principal to keep an eye on the No. 1 issue.”

A sizable minority said a better investment of district funds would be professional development, reading specialists, and classroom teachers. “There’s no amount of [new] administration that can help a classroom with 40 kids,” one principal complained.

Walkthroughs worthwhile

Most principals agreed that the walkthrough team provided new insights, and some who disagreed said the feedback was on target. “It confirmed what the [school] management team knew,” says Principal Julio Rivera of Hammond. “It wasn’t, ‘These people don’t know what they’re talking about.'”

Principals who said the walkthroughs would significantly improve instruction often praised their AIOs for understanding how to critique without demoralizing school staff. Principal Gary Moriello of Gladstone recalls members of the area 9 instructional team tempered their comments with the phrase, I wonder. For instance, “I wonder if cooperative learning is taking place” and “I wonder why a 5th-grade classroom had 18-year-old encyclopedias.”

Those who thought the walkthroughs would have only a modest impact saw the process as one piece of a much larger puzzle. “You have to have vision, you have to have everyone on the same page, you have to have follow-up, you need materials, you need parent involvement.”

The few who called walkthroughs useless generally found them infrequent, superficial, or too critical. “My teachers were very upset,” says one principal. “I had to calm them down and tell them it was an opinion.”

Principal training mixed

Overall, principals gave the area professional development mixed reviews. Some said the monthly workshops provided useful information; one first-year principal says she immediately shared with teachers the new strategies she learned for teaching reading, such as posting vocabulary to create “word walls.”

Experienced principals, however, often found the “one-size fits all” single-topic sessions didn’t meet their individual needs. Instead, they suggested AIOs offer several workshops—such as budgeting, grant writing or teacher evaluation—and let principals choose. “By this point in your career, you know what kind of help you need and what help you don’t need,” one elementary school principal remarks. “It’s just as hard for teachers to individualize instruction as it is for central office and for the area. But they should be doing it.”

Under the old region structure, principals would meet monthly in an auditorium with 100 or so colleagues and listen to presentations. Now they meet each month with 25 or so colleagues from their area and discuss instruction.

But some say that they already had a network of peers with whom they talked frequently. Some said professional development programs offered through the local principals association gave them more time to interact with colleagues than the highly structured, fast-paced sessions lead by AIOs. “It’s frustrating,” says one elementary school principal. “It’s not the assistance I was looking for.”

Unclear teaching will improve

I expect that the area offices will help improve instruction at my school …

Some principals who thought that the area offices would improve teaching praised walkthroughs and the individualized support they received from AIOs. “I asked for help with my dual language program and the AIO came in with her staff and made priority lists and quick fixes,” reports Principal Suzanne Dunaway of Andersen.

Others who saw a limit to what the AIOs could accomplish, cited factors—from neighborhood violence to overcrowding—that affect schools. “Saying that the AIO is going to significantly impact what happens in the classroom is putting an awful burden on that individual.”

Those who felt the area offices would not improve instruction tended to say walkthroughs and principal training were uninformative and “a waste of time.”

Operations support is status quo

Some principals said that with fewer schools to supervise, area staff responds to management issues more quickly than the former region staff. Most found both the old and new offices equally competent.

Elizabeth Duffrin with reporting contributions from Catalyst interns Thaddeus P. Hartmann and Ann Stratton, Catalyst office assistant Santee Blakey and Chicago Reporter interns Meredith Voegtle, Lisa Balde, Angela Caputo and Hiroko Abe.

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