NOVEMBER 1997–It was 10 years ago this month that then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett proclaimed Chicago’s schools “the worst in the nation.”

According to the numbers, Bennett was wrong. Detroit had lower test scores, and Boston had a higher dropout rate. But the essence of Bennett’s remarks, that the city was failing to educate its children, was on target and no surprise to anyone in Chicago. Coming on the heels of the city’s longest teacher strike and a massive school reform rally convened by then-Mayor Harold Washington, Bennett’s proclamation added fuel to a fire that already was blazing.

Within a year, the fire forged a sweeping reform plan, adopted by the Illinois Legislature, that shifted significant powers and responsibilities from a recalcitrant central administration to local school communities. Parent-dominated local school councils were created and given authority to select principals and approve school spending and improvement plans. The idea was to allow schools to craft programs to meet the needs of their particular children and to put accountability in the hands of the people who have the greatest stake in children’s education, their parents.

To be fully effective, however, the plan needed freedom from fiscal crisis and a strong administration that would help schools find their way. It also needed some repairs of its own, most notably an effective way to intervene at schools in decline. Reform got none of these things until 1995, when Mayor Richard M. Daley covertly joined forces with the state’s Republican leaders to revise the School Reform Act of 1988.

Legislators gave the mayor unfettered power to name a School Reform Board and chief executive officer. Legislators gave the new school leadership team an escape hatch from many of the financial and union constraints that had bound previous boards and superintendents. For his part, Daley gave the school system his hard-charging, politically savvy budget director, Paul Vallas. Blessed with the mayor’s backing, labor peace and some spare change, Vallas quickly launched dozens of programs and cracked the whip at schools and students with the lowest test scores. A full-fledged accountability system, one that challenges all schools to improve, is on the agenda.

However, still missing is a well-thought-out plan to help schools improve teaching. Preschool classes, tutoring and after-school programs–all expanded by the current administration–can make a difference. But they can’t compensate for teachers who lack the knowledge and skills to develop in children from disadvantaged homes the knowledge and skills they will need to work their way out of poverty. For example, in a 1992 survey, a third of Chicago principals said that no more than half their teachers had a good grasp of language arts instruction, which includes reading and writing. Indeed, according to the lead researcher in a major national study, most teachers have not been taught how to teach reading to children who have a hard time learning the skill.

School Reform Phase II can take credit for shaking things up, but it was School Reform Phase I that opened things up. As one university professor said at the time, you no longer needed a central office “sponsor” to work with schools. As important, the Reform Act gradually gave schools money to carry out their school improvement plans–$261 million in state Chapter 1 funds that previously were controlled by the central office. It also gave principals an important tool for building a team: They could select teachers to fill vacancies rather than have them delivered by seniority. Subsequent negotiations between the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union strengthened local teams by giving principals power to select their own assistant principals–a grandfather clause protecting those then in office was tossed out by the Vallas administration.

With no training, support or pressure from central office, however, school improvement was hit or miss. The independent Consortium on Chicago School Research found that, three years into reform, 40 percent of elementary schools were carrying out systemic educational changes that held promise for improving the core process of instruction. Many others had become so-called Christmas tree schools, adding programs here and there without a clear focus.

During the first five years of reform, math achievement in elementary schools rose significantly while reading achievement either held steady or declined, depending on which test is used as the measure. In high schools, math achievement rose slightly while reading achievement declined, especially in 9th grade.

Forerunner to probation

Supt. Argie Johnson, appointed in 1993, sought to turn on the heat, proposing a plan to send central- and district-office workers to help schools with the lowest tests scores. Fearing a return of central control, school reform leaders protested; they called instead for a number of measures to help local school councils do a better job, including training, clearer data on schools and the identification of schools making progress so that they could serve as models.

Reform leaders also objected to the plan’s reliance on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) and their high school counterparts, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP). These tests, the reformers argued, were poor measures of the new, beyond-the- basics learning standards that had been developed in a joint project of the Board of Education and Chicago Teachers Union. Johnson and the reformers were working on a revised plan when the General Assembly and Mayor Daley stepped in.

Within a year, Paul Vallas pretty much put Johnson’s plan into effect. The 109 schools that had less than 15 percent of their students scoring at or above national norms on the ITBS and TAP were put on probation. A corps of probation managers was quickly recruited, largely from the ranks of current and former public school administrators and principals. And some $23 million was paid to “outside partners,” primarily university professors, to help schools correct their problems. Reports on the helpfulness of the managers and partners run the gamut. However, the effort was probably the best that could be mustered, given the large number of schools (a fifth of the city’s total) and breakneck pace.

In contrast, the state of Kentucky put applicants for its version of probation managers, called distinguished educators, through a thorough evaluation that included portfolio assessments, interviews and visits to their schools. Those selected, mainly teachers, were trained to work collaboratively with schools and follow a common assessment procedure. After two years of full-time service, distinguished educators return to their home schools, presumably with new insights and ideas. All in all, it’s a staff development package with broad impact. But it took time that Mayor Daley’s team, whose term expires in 1999, has not been willing to invest.

Instead of shooting for quality intervention, Vallas went for shock value. The gamble seems to have paid off, at least in the short run. Principals and teachers at schools throughout the city, including ones not on probation, were jolted into action. As with Reform Phase I, the quality of the response varied widely. In a highly critical report on the administration’s handling of probation, Northwestern University Prof. Charles Payne cites several schools that put off comprehensive staff development plans to concentrate on testing. But some schools, most notably Amundsen High School, came up with new, effective ways to increase student achievement. Amundsen was one of nine schools that worked their way off probation.

Ten months after announcing probation and only six months after outside partners arrived at most schools, the Reform Board added an exclamation point to the process by voting to reconstitute seven high schools. Principals were removed from three of those schools, and 188 teachers were given walking papers and 10 months to find another job inside the system. At least one of the schools saw some of its best teachers leave for jobs in new educational programs. The board also removed principals from another 11 probation schools that were spared reconstitution.

Probation was the second part of a one-two punch. The first punch was a new promotion policy that requires students in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th grades to hit test-score targets in reading and math to advance to the next grade. While the measure is aimed at ensuring that children are prepared to do grade-level work, holding kids back historically has produced more dropouts instead. That’s been true even when school districts created special programs for retained students. Therefore, it’s imperative that the board and local school councils closely track the some 12,900 students who were held back this year. If these students don’t pick up their learning pace, the board should mount a rescue effort and craft an alternative to retention.

Other parts of the promotion policy are clear pluses: sending failure warning notices to parents, requiring summer school for low-achieving students and, beginning next summer, requiring summer school for 1st-graders who lag behind.

After consequences were attached to the ITBS and TAP for both faculties and students, scores on those tests rose sharply in most grades, especially in high schools, where teachers had complained that students didn’t take the tests seriously.

The advocacy and research group Designs for Change argues that increases in elementary schools, especially the 1996 jump in reading, are due mainly to change efforts begun in the early years of reform. An odd twist in this year’s scores supports this view: 1997 reading scores dropped in 3rd, 6th and 8th grades, where children faced mandatory summer school and the risk of repeating the grade. One possibility is that schools paid too much attention to test-taking and not enough to instruction. As is often the case with test scores, however, it’s impossible to say what they mean without additional research.

Even if the board’s new focus on the ITBS and TAP did propel schools forward, maintaining that focus threatens to narrow children’s education in the long run. If done well, the new standards-based “finals” the board is developing for high school courses can begin to lead Chicago out of this trick bag.

Fallen short

In only two years, Paul Vallas and the Reform Board have done an enormous amount of good for Chicago schools and the children who attend them. They’ve raised expectations and marshaled new resources and support for the school system.

However, they’ve fallen short on helping schools make good choices. Which of the scores of educational “vendors” retained by central office and schools can show some success? Which can’t? Which facilitators know how to work with schools? Which don’t? Which textbooks best serve the system’s academic standards? Which schools are worth visiting? Where are the best articles on educational research and issues? Gathering the data and feedback to answer those questions is a job made for a central office. Indeed, in a system that has shrunk its bureaucracy in favor of outside contractors, creating an educational Better Business Bureau is essential for accountability.

Distributing information is the easy part of improving performance. Developing skills is much more challenging. Through a contract with the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the Reform Board has begun to sharpen the skills of principals, who are pivotal in school change. However, its training of local school council members was spotty, with the quality of instructors varying widely. Its primary work with teachers–developing daily lesson plans–may provide a prop for the weakest teachers but also could backfire.

Among universities, the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, reform groups, foundations and others, Chicago has a wealth of information and experience in building human capacity. Other cities have models too. In this, the 10th anniversary of the first Mayor’s Education Summit, it would be fitting for Mayor Daley to bring together all these groups to brainstorm ways to do the work that promises to make the most difference for kids: improving the knowledge and skills of the adults who work with them

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