In 1999, Manley High School on the West Side launched one of the most ambitious and expensive efforts to improve teaching in this city’s history. Three years and $1.1 million later, the project can be considered, at best, a partial success; at worst, a qualified failure.
Four lead teachers were hired through a partner university to work full time with the Manley faculty on improving instruction.
A third of Manley’s teachers, mainly newer ones, leapt on board. Some of the novices clung to the project as a lifeline. But the intensive training was intended foremost to upgrade the skills of veterans, according to project evaluator G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University. “And by that definition, the Manley project failed dramatically.”
In its design, the project was state-of-the-art staff development. The focus was on teaching specific content at specific grade levels. The help was ongoing and school-based.
Trouble came when theory hit the ground. First, Manley and its partner, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), had a hard time finding outstanding teachers with experience leading staff development. “It takes a different set of skills to work with adults as opposed to with kids,” explains Victoria Chou, dean of UIC’s school of education.
The dearth of such talent has become a national issue as more districts seek to hire staff developers to work full time at schools. Boston, for example, is trying to pick off talent developed in San Diego and New York City. (See story.)
However, Hess of Northwestern, who studied the project in its second year, cautions against equating resistance with poor performance. On district exams, the classes of some resisters outperformed those taught by their lead teachers, he says. “If you bring in teacher leaders who are less successful with their students than other teachers in the school, why would they be expected to have an impact?”
At the end of the first year, one social studies teacher left, and Degand took another administrative position at Manley. She declines to say why. By the end of the second year, two more social studies teachers quit, and a third went on maternity leave.
That left the department with only first- and second-year teachers as the project entered year three. Soon, they were left without a coach, as UIC did not renew Neal’s contract but was unable to find a qualified replacement. Neal has since filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against UIC over her dismissal, charging racial discrimination.
Hester also left, but for a new opportunity. This winter, she became manager of the School Board’s new high school reading initiative. UIC seemed ready to pull out of Manley, she explains, and the principal’s support was waning.
“I thought administration was going the route of taking advice from the teachers in the building and not the [UIC] team.”
Meanwhile, Gomez, the only coach remaining, accepted a position as instructional leader at a nearby high school beginning next fall.
To sustain the project, two of Manley’s own teachers, Degand, the former social studies chair, and reading chair Susan Wineburner, moved into school-wide lead teacher positions mid-year. Both were trained by Gomez. Next year, Manley will fund those positions with discretionary money.
In late spring, Bridge agreed to return next year to continue the lead teacher training. She will be paid with money left from the unfilled positions.
MacArthur has not renewed its grant, but Steans is considering funding for two more lead teachers next year.
Despite the problems, Bridge has hope that instructional improvements at Manley will become self-sustaining. For example, at a recent school in-service, the faculty, working in groups, selected reading strategies they wanted to use again. Every group compiled a similar and substantial list, Bridge reports. “My heart was warmed, I have to say.”
The lead teachers eventually hired for Manley indeed had only limited experience leading staff development. Of the four, two had the skill to pull it off reasonably well. A third lead teacher had little impact, while the fourth wreaked havoc on a once well-functioning department, some observers say.
Lead teachers likely played the most crucial role in the project’s successes and failures. Other factors, more difficult to pin down, worked against them. For example, planning was intensive but rushed. Many teachers rejected the project outright. Along the way, the relationship between the principal and UIC’s chief consultant grew strained.
Who is responsible for these and other problems—the university, school leadership, the School Board or the faculty—depends on whom you ask. Many of those involved will not provide details for the record, and each knows only a piece of the story.
Also, it could be that three years is simply too little time to transform teaching in a chronically under-performing high school. “I think it’s more an indication that there needs to be a long-term investment in the work that was being done,” says Connie Yowell, program officer with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a major project investor.
One point on which everyone agrees: Changing teaching requires more than a good model. It takes individuals who know how to build teachers’ trust and negotiate a complex web of relationships.
The Manley project boasted a high-powered team of university and foundation leaders.
The Steans Family Foundation set the project in motion. Steans concentrates its giving in the blighted North Lawndale community, from which Manley, in neighboring East Garfield Park, draws many of its students. Steans had been investing in Manley for a while; for example, one grant helped the school subdivide into five “small schools,”
each with a career focus.
Still, by 1998, the school had made little progress on standardized tests. Only 7 percent of its students scored at or above national averages in reading, which had put Manley on the School Board’s academic probation list, and the principal’s job on the line.
That fall, Manley Principal Katherine Flanagan put in a call for help to Steans’ executive director, Greg Darnieder. Darnieder drew on his network of associates, gathering colleague Robin Steans, Peter Martinez of MacArthur, Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago and Chou and her staff for a series of meetings with Flanagan and Assistant Principal Joan Forte.
The group was not new to the pitfalls of teacher training. All had seen well-intentioned efforts fizzle. It had taken Martinez only a year of overseeing grants to notice that “one-shot” workshops didn’t work, and not much longer to see that weekly presentations from a consultant got limited results if teachers lacked follow-up help in the classroom.
With their pool of expertise and foundation dollars, the group believed they had a chance to do it right.
In the spring of 1999, Flanagan agreed to let Chou and her team shadow students for a day to get a clearer idea of what Manley needed.
“There were a lot of worksheets,” recalls Connie Bridge, a nationally known reading expert who would direct the project for UIC. “There was very little interaction amongst students in the classroom. Teachers were doing a lot of lecture. … The level of challenge was low.”
“I thought it’s not just a reading problem,” she says. Content instruction needed work, too.
That spring was a whirlwind of meetings for Bridge and Chou—with the School Board, foundation staff and Manley’s teachers—to lock in funding and hammer out the details of the project.
UIC would hire four lead teachers. In biweekly workshops with all staff, they would introduce reading and writing strategies to help teach any subject—even career classes in construction and culinary arts. Inside their respective departments—English, social studies, math, and science—they would help map a challenging curriculum and design lesson plans. They would observe teachers in the classroom. And each would teach a course to model good instruction.
The in-house demonstration was critical, says Forte, because urban teachers often dismiss what outsiders bring as impractical. “If I’m doing it next door with children from the same community, what can you say?”
The project would run three years, with the option to renew for a fourth. Each year, Manley would put up $100,000 from discretionary funds; Steans and MacArthur, $100,000 apiece; and the School Board, $75,000. At $375,000 a year, the initiative “without a doubt” would be the most expensive effort ever made to improve instruction at a single Chicago school, says Philip Hansen, the board’s chief accountability officer.
If the model worked, the board might adapt it on a smaller, less expensive scale for other high schools, Hansen thought.
The funders felt hopeful, says Steans. Bridge says she was excited; Chou, optimistic. “For something to have a prayer of a chance of success, all the pieces seemed to be in place,” says Chou.
Tensions set in
The project’s first year ended with a bang. Standardized reading test scores more than doubled to 16 percent at or above the national average. A first-year report said it was unclear how much of that rise was due to the project and how much to other factors, like test preparation and a general push to improve achievement. Still, it was Manley’s biggest gain in a decade.
Researchers also observed that faculty who cooperated with the lead teachers progressed on a range of criteria, including attending to vocabulary and asking appropriate questions. “Their instruction changed,” Steans remarks. “And it didn’t change just a little.”
But most of the faculty remained resistant. UIC had sought teacher input but lacked the time to build teams and a common vision for the school. Had those elements been in place, the project might have won more staff buy-in, says Roderick of the University of Chicago. “There was a feeling that [the school was] under deep threat and needed really quick, substantial help. So the pressure was to throw something together, and that, in retrospect, was a huge mistake.”
As UIC wrapped up the planning in the spring of 1999, threat nearly became reality: The School Board sought to oust Flanagan. The principal fought her dismissal during the summer and the following school year. After consulting with foundation staff, Hansen agreed that dismissing her could destabilize the project, so she was allowed to stay.
“When those sort of things happen, initiatives lose energy, and they lose focus,” says Darnieder. “You have to be willing to fight through that stuff and deal with it as best you can. And I think we did that.”
UIC staff rallied around Flanagan in her time of trouble, according to Chou, but at other times, they were at odds. Preparing students for standardized tests was one point of contention noted in the first-year report. Manley administrators felt that lessons in test taking were a necessary evil. UIC staff considered them a waste of valuable instruction time. “I think if you want kids to read, you have to teach them to read, not continue to test them,” one lead teacher argued. It was an argument UIC ultimately would lose.
Some tensions would escalate in years two and three. In particular, the relationship between Bridge and Flanagan grew strained. According to Chou, the issues included, “If things get better, who should be credited? How should it be presented? Who delivers the good news? If there’s a disagreement, how is it mediated?”
Hess says tensions often crop up between principals in probation schools and the universities and non-profits contracted to help them. He believes it’s up to the consultants to ensure that school leaders value them. “If that doesn’t happen, that’s a fundamental shortcoming on the part of the outside group.”
Darnieder thinks partners need to spend extensive time up front getting to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and agreeing on goals. He thinks Bridge and Flanagan did that, but he would devote more time to that in the future. “The key ingredient is this match of personalities and relationships.”
The second year of the Manley project ended in disappointment, as test scores dipped to 12 percent. Scores were down citywide, and some believe the nature of that year’s test may have played a role.
By the middle of the following school year, it looked like the project was coming to an end. Two of UIC’s lead teachers had departed, and one had been dismissed, leaving only one in place. As Catalyst went to press, test results for 2002 had not been released.
Lead teachers’ saga
The initial search for lead teachers in 1999 had gotten off to a late start. UIC could not advertise the positions until the MacArthur board approved its grant in June.
Interviews got underway in July. Bridge, Flanagan and Forte sought stronger credentials than they ultimately found. Two lead teachers had never taught high school-one was a doctoral student in reading, the other a middle school social studies teacher. The lead teacher for science had taught high school but lacked a master’s degree. None had much experience leading staff development. Still, considering the late date, Bridge was pleased and relieved.
However, the recruiters came up empty-handed in their search for a math coach. Only two candidates applied, and neither met basic qualifications. UIC had to contract with local math consultants to work part time that year.
Confusion permeated Manley that fall, according to Bridge. The school was finally up for its share of the board’s capital renovation fund. Dust and debris cluttered the hallways. Classes had to move to accommodate construction. The emotional climate likewise was unsettled, she says, with Flanagan’s job still on the line.
The school was beginning its fourth year of probation with its third university partner. Many teachers already had their backs up about the UIC team, whom they believed had been sent to “fix” them, says the lead English teacher, Jennifer Hester.
Hester, the doctoral student with no high school teaching experience, knew she would have to prove herself.
Faculty response to her training that first year fell three ways, she says. An enthusiastic third of Manley’s 51 teachers made “a good-hearted attempt” to use the new strategies with their students. Another third were politely receptive but made no effort to change. “And the other third—blatant resistance,” she says. Some did paperwork while she talked.
The school had seen initiatives come and go, one teacher explains. “People were like, ‘Another program? Blah.'”
The lead teachers kept classroom visits optional the first semester and hoped faculty would soon grow comfortable with the idea and invite the observers in. But invitations were few, according to Bridge.
Mid-year, Flanagan and Forte decided to lay down the law. “They said, ‘This isn’t voluntary,'” Bridge recalls. “The teacher leaders will be coming into your classroom. You can give us a schedule as to when it would be convenient, or we’ll set the time.”
The resisters complied, but their unspoken message remained, “We’ll be nice to you, you can come into the class, I’ll talk to you, but nothing is going to change,” says Bridge.
Some of the stiffest opposition came from career academies, according to Bridge. They felt their plate was full enough. Bridge reluctantly excused them from the required classroom visits.
Over the course of the project, each department followed a different path.
Science got off to a chaotic start. School opened with substitutes in two unfilled positions. To pick up the slack, the two regular teachers juggled six or seven classes. That didn’t leave them with much energy for staff development, reasoned lead teacher Josephine Gomez, who put her real job on hold to take a full load of classes herself.
By mid-November, staffing was complete. Back in her staff developer role, Gomez found that her baptism by fire had won her the respect of the department’s teachers, who are mainly veterans.
The science department emerged as one of the project’s biggest success stories. By the third year, it had a complete set of lesson plans for every course, with reading and writing strategies woven throughout. Every teacher had invited Gomez to co-teach a class.
Colleagues say the easy-going personalities in the department contributed to the success, but mainly they credit Gomez’s leadership style. “She didn’t come in and dictate, ‘You’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that,'” explains veteran teacher Lois Jackson. “We planned as a team.”
Hester had a harder time in the English department. The chair refused to cooperate. She felt Hester had usurped her role, and friends in the department rallied around her, a colleague explains. “The minute that any of the UIC people were out of earshot everyone would rail about how they didn’t care much for them.” The veteran teachers felt they were viewed as “stupid, ineffective,” he adds, and left out of decision making.
Even so, Hester made inroads that first year. The newly created reading department was firmly behind her. One young English teacher quickly opened her door, and others followed. “She was not at all pushy,” says the teacher, Alicia Duffy. “She was easy to ask. It was easy to say, ‘Hey, Jen.'”
By the middle of the next school year, the English department had emptied out. The chair was moved to another administrative position. Five teachers left for a variety of reasons, and Duffy switched back to social studies, her specialty.
Manley filled the vacancies mainly with first-year teachers. Some newcomers were a cut above those hired in the past, says Martinez, now director of the Center for School Leadership at UIC.
The promise of extra support is what drew them to Manley, says Brad Rossi, one of those teachers. “Struggling high schools are a dime a dozen,” explains Rossi, who has a master’s degree in literature from DePaul University. “This struggling high school is doing something different.”
The math department followed an opposite progression: It got off to a fairly strong start, then slid back. Manley had decided to adopt the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), which requires students to read and write as they apply math to solve real-world problems.
The consultant that UIC hired, Margaret Small, is a veteran teacher and a superior staff developer, teachers say. The second year, she left to start a charter school. Again short on applicants, UIC hired a young lead teacher who had worked under Small with IMP. Flanagan thought she lacked the patience to deal with resistant veterans.
That lead teacher left the following year to join Small’s charter school, and UIC was unable to find a replacement. Now, only one young teacher is still going full force with the program, reports a veteran teacher.
The social studies department has the worst story to tell. Before the UIC team arrived, teachers were a tight-knit group, they say. “We met weekly of our own accord. We shared resources. We shared lessons, project ideas. We wrote curriculum together,” recalls one.
Hester credits the department’s dynamic chair, Cynthia Degand. “She was one of the best teachers in the school. She was incredibly organized.”
On the whole, the department quickly took a dislike to the lead teacher hired by UIC, Margie Neal, who had formerly taught middle school social studies. Two teachers interviewed by Catalyst say she lacked both people skills and a good grasp of the subject matter. “She tried too hard to assert herself instead of collaborating with us,” one remarks, asking not to be identified. “She tried to dictate what would happen.” The two say they worked with other lead teachers instead.
Neal says that resistant teachers had low expectations for students and didn’t want to raise them.
Forte, assistant principal for instruction at the time, backs her up: “People don’t want to change their ideas; that’s all.” Forte left Manley after the first year of the project to become principal of Randolph Magnet School.