A three-year study commissioned by the Chicago public schools to examine progress under a 1997 high school restructuring plan has found that while high schoolers have posted significant gains on standardized tests of reading and math, “little significant change” has taken place in the city’s most troubled high schools.
The changes made to date are a far cry from the “fundamental restructuring” the district envisioned in its 1997 plan, according to the $1.8 million study conducted by Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy. And while test scores have jumped since 1996, the study attributes the spike to forces outside of high schools: better-prepared students are entering 9th grade, and fewer of the lowest-performing students are enrolling in high school due to efforts to hold them back in the elementary grades.
“The good news is that high school students are scoring higher on standardized tests than were their predecessors, but that is not because schools have dramatically changed what they are doing with their students,” according to the study, which was released in March.
“The reality is kids are coming to high school with better and better reading skills,” says G. Alfred Hess Jr., the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Urban School Policy.
Still, the study’s authors say the goals of the 1997 restructuring plan, which include an increased emphasis on academics and making high schools more personal for students, are solid; they call on the school system to redouble these restructuring efforts.
“The plan never got fully implemented,” Hess says.
While high school restructuring hasn’t lived up to the 1997 blueprint, the study notes that progress has been made as:
The focus has shifted from warehousing students and managing their behavior to student learning.
Accountability sanctions, higher graduation standards and the 1997 restructuring plan have put a new focus on academic performance and have helped schools set higher curriculum standards. The study found classes had “more appropriate subject matter” in 1999-2000 than in prior school years.
Additional resources to support struggling high schools, from expert external partners helping teachers to more money for after-school and Saturday programs, have reinforced the school system’s intent to improve. “For better or worse, high school administrators, faculties and communities are now focused on getting test scores to go up.”
Teacher collaboration has increased, though “true” collaboration remains relatively rare, and administrators are paying more attention to teacher observation. The system has become more open with outside contractors brought in to help struggling schools.
Holding poor and minority schools to the same learning standards as more advantaged schools has sent a powerful message about giving all students the chance to succeed. But resistance to the 1997 restructuring plan from administrators, teachers and staff who do not hold such high expectations for poor and minority students has proven a major stumbling block.
Students and school staff have been asked to work harder, though homework remains a problem. While most students were assigned homework in troubled high schools, there appeared to be little expectation that students would actually do it.
Methodology The study focused on low-performing high schools but tracked achievement and other data citywide, excluding at new charter schools, alternative high schools, special-needs schools not on probation and transition centers. In 1999-2000 the study examined 45 low-performing high schools enrolling roughly 60 percent of the city’s public high school students; the first year of the study examined 54 low-performing high schools. Nine schools were dropped from the study as their scores improved.
Researchers most closely monitored schools undergoing reconstitution and re-engineering, regularly visiting schools, surveying teachers and interviewing principals, individual teachers, external partners, internal assessment team members, local school council chairs and others. For the study’s first two years, ethnographers tracked virtually all core subject teachers and changes in the culture of each reconstituted school.
Schools on probation received similar attention, but had fewer visits and no ethnographers on site.
At “low intervention” schools with fewer than 30 percent of students reading at national norms, researchers surveyed teachers and interviewed principals.
“There is little reason to think that student development has been significantly improved since 1997, given that the major restructuring intended to affect that development has occurred in only very minimal ways and in very few of the city’s high schools. High schools, at the end of the 1999-2000 school year, looked very much as they had in 1997.”
While the school system carried out several policies in the 1997 restructuring plan designed to boost academic performance, including adopting higher graduation standards, requiring students to take credit-bearing courses in core subjects and offering more support to low-performing high schools, those parts of the plan intended to break down massive high schools into smaller units to bolster personal contact between teachers and students have been watered down over time.
Advisories, for example, were designed as a way to strengthen the connection between students and schools and allow students to be well known by at least one adult in the school. The idea was for groups of 15 students or so to explore character education and social and emotional development with a teacher. But instead, at many schools, advisories have become time for reading improvement and test preparation.
Junior Academy, intended to create small learning environments for freshmen and sophomores, has met with resistance in many high schools. In 2000, only seven of the 33 high schools on probation adopted the major elements of Junior Academy, such as dedicating a separate part of the building for 9th- and 10th-graders and assigning teachers who teach only those students.
While the study takes note of other structural changes designed to enhance “personalism” in the city’s high schools, such as the creation of small schools or specialized programs within large high schools, the authors call for greater support from the central office.
“Currently there is more support being provided to the traditional departmental structure and little support is provided to those who want to create and sustain small schools and career clusters that share an affinity with small schools. … Without strong leadership from the central office, many high schools will continue to find it too hard to make these changes.”
“The decision to involve outside contractors to help schools on probation through the institution of probation managers and external partners in both elementary and high schools, was a significant break from the past when outside forces were not welcomed into Chicago’s schools.”
A total of nine external partners, such as universities, served the 33 high schools on some form of probation in 2000. Most high schools on probation have had at least one change in external partner since 1997. In the first year of probation, the school system paid for the expert help; in subsequent years, the district’s support was replaced by local schools’ discretionary funds.
Between 1997 and 2000, partners increasingly focused on reading, and boosting test scores in lieu of offering general staff development and professional development tailored to teachers’ needs in individual schools, the study found.
“Frequently external partners bemoaned this reality, even as they participated in it,” the study’s authors say.
And the payoff of such focus was “minimal,” with seven of the nine external partners in 2000 garnering only slight improvement in the number of students reading at the national norm from the time they were freshmen.
On the whole, teachers in 2000 were positive about the external partners’ help, but probation managers were deemed “valuable” by principals in just over half the schools.
The 1997 Design for High Schools envisioned an overhaul of teacher behavior, in both instruction and relationships with students. But the effort has proven not intensive enough, even after investments of roughly $100,000 per high school per year on probation.
Researchers observed more than 800 classes between 1997 and 2000 in more than 30 schools under probation, re-engineering or reconstitution.
While novice teachers have improved and the worst teachers have been weeded out, veteran teachers’ skills haven’t improved significantly, and most teachers taught at “very shallow” levels, the study found. For example, in 58 percent of classrooms observed in 1999-2000, the teacher never asked a question any deeper than one that requested facts or asked a student to carry out a procedure.
In nearly half the observed classrooms, five or fewer students responded to teacher questioning or participated in class discussion. In about a quarter of the classrooms observed, the content was not at an “appropriate” level.
Among the school system’s weaker high school teachers, the study found that some didn’t know their subject matter well, some didn’t know how to get the subject matter across to students, and some didn’t believe their students were capable of meeting the city’s academic standards.
Despite the fact that achievement levels of entering freshmen improved significantly each year of the study, the researchers’ surveys showed growing proportions of teachers complaining about the lack of student preparation.
And, the study suggests, rising math and reading scores in high schools have had the unintended effect of undermining teacher perceptions of the need for change.
Meanwhile, teacher morale has declined over the last three years of the high school restructuring initiative, with 61 percent of responding teachers saying morale was poor in 1999-2000.
“Regardless of the appropriateness of teachers’ responses, a demoralized teacher workforce is a major challenge to further efforts to improve Chicago’s high schools,” the study’s authors say.
The special education population in the city’s high schools has grown nearly 21 percent since 1996, with the highest concentrations enrolled in the city’s most troubled schools.
Special education students in 2000 were disproportionately enrolled in the city’s lowest-performing schools, making up 26 percent of students in reconstituted high schools, compared with roughly 8 percent in higher performing high schools.
Such statistics, coupled with the growing inclusion of special-education students in regular classrooms, meant that many classroom teachers in troubled high schools had between one quarter to one third of their class made up by special education students, forcing teachers to try to reach a wide range of students. While special “inclusion teachers” worked in some of these classrooms, in many others, regular classroom teachers were left on their own.
Such situations pose a significant challenge for teachers already struggling to improve their teaching, the researchers say.
“This problem has not been widely acknowledged in the school district, nor have many external partners altered their efforts to meet this new challenge.”
“The focus on reading, while necessary to enforce accountability and change the context of valuing student learning, has proved ineffective and is diverting attention from the substance of the core curriculum.”
While better measures of student learning in each subject were being developed, reading became the focus in the effort to turn around the city’s high schools. But the focus has diverted attention from the core curriculum and has, in the aggregate, failed to significantly improve reading skills.
An analysis of freshman classes between 1996 and 1999 illustrates only modest changes in the number of students reading at the national norm after students have entered high school, a net gain of 154 students.
In addition, many high school teachers haven’t bought into the idea of making reading instruction a part of their jobs, and most believe they don’t know how to help students learn to read.
Researchers found the proportion of time per period devoted to reading has increased each year since the 1997 restructuring plan. The increase comes at the same time that the city began to push broader content coverage through its Programs of Study and Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE), leaving core subject teachers frustrated at their inability to cover a range of material that is already too broad and not deep enough.
The report’s authors call for the district to:
Focus more attention on restructuring efforts intended to break down the anonymity of massive urban high schools, such as schools within schools, advisory periods and Junior Academy.
Develop a more intensive form of teacher development in the city’s lowest-performing high schools and dedicate sufficient resources for the effort.
Shift the focus of accountability back to assessing learning in the core subjects rather than reading. The CASE should replace the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) as the basis for determining student achievement and for applying accountability sanctions. But the authors also call on the CASE to be “sharpened” to emphasize more depth and less breadth.
“The  plan was a good plan, but it wasn’t strong enough,” Hess says. “It didn’t get implemented in the restructuring parts; it did get implemented in the staff development parts, but that wasn’t intensive enough. For the large number of weak teachers who just don’t believe these kids can learn this stuff, the kind of intervention we saw isn’t strong enough to change those beliefs.”
School officials say the report confirms what they have known all along: “Reform is a slow process in high schools,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. “Five years ago, many high schools were just warehouses, and now they’re not, so that’s a phenomenal change. We’re moving in the right direction.”
While the board has yet to map out all its initiatives for next year, Hansen says the district plans to expand the number of high school magnet programs and needs to take a hard look at staff development. “Instruction is the key word for next year in our high schools,” Hansen says.
Here is a sampling of what some Chicago educators and researchers had to say about the report’s findings and where the School Board should go from here. Each called for a new, improved form of professional development.
Melissa Roderick, co-director
Consortium on Chicago School Research
“My main reaction is just feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.
“When we went into high schools five or six years ago, the whine was ‘It’s not our fault, you’re just giving us terrible kids.’ This report says that excuse no longer holds and now you’ve got to rise to the kids you have. … It’s going to take a massive investment to fix this, and the question is, Where does that investment come from?”
Teacher buy-in, Roderick says, is key. “Teachers have to get on board, or this will never work. We need to let teachers know they are the major player here. I don’t think that message has been sent. Many things took apart the high school initiative, including teachers who didn’t want to do it and weak school leadership among principals. This was a collective failure.”
Recommendations: Reduce class sizes. Give teachers more planning time. Add dropout rates, course failure rates and attendance to the accountability system. Revamp curriculum in 9th and 10th grades to make it better integrated and more engaging. “We can’t be running 9th grade like it was run 50 years ago.”
Bill Gerstein, assistant principal
South Shore High School
“A lot of this [report] rings true. The advisory program was an excellent idea. But it was an idea that the central office jammed down peoples’ throats with a real top-down approach. There was never any time for people to buy into it. We need real teacher collaboration with each other and with the administration.”
Gerstein says the report also alludes to a problem complicating implementation of any reform: “We often get different messages from different parts of the bureaucracy.”
He agrees that special education is a huge concern. With a shortage of special-ed teachers and the push for inclusion, regular classroom teachers at South Shore have been largely responsible for educating special-ed students, who make up 35 percent of the school’s student body. “That, combined with intervention, pushed a lot of teachers over the edge, and they had an extremely difficult time.”
Recommendations: Address special-ed concerns. Create staff development that “includes teachers” and funnel more money into it. Recruit and train principals who are better equipped to run restructured high schools. “It’s absolutely essential to have a new kind of leader.” Roll out “true small schools and really support them. To be a true small school, you need to have more teacher ownership of it.” Boost pay for teachers who agree to work in the lowest-performing schools.
Michael Klonsky, director
Small Schools Workshop,
an external partner
Klonsky says the 1997 high school restructuring plan was never intended to create “radical” reform, in part because the plan, and the report that tracks its progress, suffers a major omission: School leadership. “I put this whole thing at the door of leadership. This report didn’t really address leadership. And that’s key. There’s no training going on for the next around of leaders to lead change in the system. Teachers and principals aren’t getting the preparation to do the changes that we’re asking them to make.”
He agrees that efforts to create smaller learning environments have yet to be implemented on any large scale and need more support. “The School Board seems to have gone back on its own plan. You can say our plan is to have small schools or professional development, but people know the real key is raising test scores. And that sole reliance on test scores is ill conceived, not something that needs to be better implemented. Test scores should be [just] one indicator of school success.”
Recommendations: Develop a plan with significant resources to restructure every high school into smaller learning communities. Adopt a new approach to professional development. “If you’re not changing the basic relationships between teachers and adolescents in high schools, and you’re not delivering support to teachers, then you’re not changing anything.”
Kathy Daniels, co-lead teacher
Best Practice High School,
a small high school on the West Side
“They talk a lot about the probation schools … and holding them to the same standards as other schools, but nowhere is it mentioned that when you suck out the top students by creating magnet schools throughout the city, you leave the school in a vacuum.”
The report gives several reasons behind a slump in teacher morale. Daniels says one key reason is “teachers don’t have enough of a voice in what goes on. I think when you try to reform something without talking to people who have to do the reforming, you’re dooming it to not succeed. I think that’s part of what’s happening here.” Finding “shallow teaching” should not come as a surprise, Daniels says, since teachers are teaching to “very broad” tests. “If you’re going to ask people to cover 18 chapters in 18 weeks, you’re going to get shallow teaching.”
Recommendations: Provide better, not just more, staff development and resources. Get serious about breaking down big schools. “Small isn’t everything, but when you have a small school a lot of other things come along naturally. The teachers know the same kids so you can work together more; it’s an amazing difference.”
Barbara Sizemore, professor emerita,
former dean of the School of Education,
DePaul University, an external partner
On the whole, Sizemore agrees with the report’s conclusions. “Why should we be surprised that we haven’t seen radical reform if we haven’t seen a longer school day or gotten serious about professional development? Theoretically, I think the 1997 plan was good, but I can’t know for sure because it hasn’t been implemented. I don’t think there’s been an effort to make the plan work.”
But she takes issue with the recommendation that the focus shift away from reading and toward the core subjects. Sizemore says both are needed, especially in individual schools that still have large numbers of children reading at abysmally low levels. “These recommendations don’t reflect the day-to-day reality at some of my schools,” she says. Sizemore works with 17 schools as an external partner, including eight high schools. “One recommendation doesn’t fit all high schools. Not all schools on probation are alike. And I just don’t see a separation here between reading and core curriculum. You’ve got to do one in order to do the other.”
Recommendations: Create a longer school day to accommodate competing demands, from advisory and core subjects to staff development time. “Right now we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Boost teacher pay. Recruit more special-ed teachers to support inclusion.