Probation kick-started some of Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools, but left others floundering, and in some cases may have made them worse, a new study has found.

According to author Jennifer O’Day, now with the American Institutes for Research, the findings raise questions about the new federal accountability system known as No Child Left Behind. The federal system has many of the same merits and drawbacks as Chicago’s, she says.

In 1996, the Chicago Board of Education placed 109 schools with low reading test scores on academic probation. Where schools failed to improve, staff faced possible reassignment or dismissal. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act holds a similar threat for schools that fail to meet goals on state tests.

The upside of both accountability programs is that they draw attention to neglected, low-performing schools. “That’s an important plus that shouldn’t be negated,” says O’Day. For schools that simply need to work a little harder and smarter, those policies provide a needed “kick in the rear,” she believes.

The downside is that both rely almost exclusively on the threat of negative sanctions to motivate change and on bureaucratic controls to direct it, while failing to provide the level of support teachers need to improve teaching.

In Chicago, this threat was often enough to spur improvements at better functioning schools, she found. But where staff could not figure out how to raise test scores, probation only demoralized them, she says.

Under stress, teachers and administrators sometimes grasped at ineffective solutions, she continues. Meanwhile, they blamed parents and students for their school’s continued failure. “When you threaten negative sanctions, you often get dysfunctional responses,” she notes.

O’Day’s research team studied Chicago’s elementary schools on probation from spring 1999 through spring 2001. It also examined the work of “external partners,” typically a university or non-profit group, which assisted probation schools.

With a few exceptions, partners did not provide the in-depth training that research shows teachers need to significantly change instruction, explains O’Day. Visiting each school an average of one or two days a week, most partners presented a hodge-podge of teaching strategies that lacked a coherent focus on reading, she says. The district did not closely monitor external partners and may have under-funded them, she adds.

Philip Hansen, the district’s former accountability chief, says that the School Board contracted with area schools of education to serve as external partners because, at the time, the board itself lacked the capacity to provide staff training. “We relied on them to know what they were doing,” he says.

At first, central office paid for most of the extra help—$250,000 to each school during its first two years of probation. The money partners got allowed most to spend three or four days a week in each school. In subsequent years, schools had to pay for their own training.

The federal government, likewise, has created a situation where thousands of schools are identified as failing, but it has not invested enough money to improve them, in O’Day’s opinion. Now states face the daunting challenge of trying to fund the initiative at a time of massive budget shortfalls, she notes.

Providing inadequate support while demanding higher standards is likely to demoralize rather than bolster the teaching corps, she says.

Some Chicago schools, however, were able to compensate for the lack of external help with their internal collegial support. Schools where teachers reported that they trusted and worked well with their colleagues were more likely to get off probation within the first two years, according to her team’s analysis of survey data collected by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The desire to participate in a professional community and make a difference for kids can be powerful motivators, notes O’Day. “That’s why a lot of people go into teaching in the first place.”

In her view, the most promising accountability systems are those that tap into teachers’ intrinsic motivation by building collegiality around improved student learning. In Baltimore City Public Schools, for instance, consultants work with a group of low-performing schools on team building and analyzing student work, among other practices, she says.

By contrast, the Chicago program, which recently was modified, and No Child Left Behind assume that threatening to sanction a school is enough to motivate individuals to improve, she says. At many low-performing schools, probation did prompt teachers to work harder but not always more effectively, she says.

Where staff did not work as a team, expertise inside the school building went untapped, she found. At one school, a teacher with expertise in literacy instruction became so frustrated with the disorganized management in her school that she chose not to collaborate with her colleagues. “She thought it was counterproductive,” says O’Day.

Lacking strategies to improve instruction, staff at some schools grasped instead at quick fixes, such as drilling students on the test format, her study found.

O’Day says other research shows that low-performing organizations in crisis typically fall back on tried methods, however ineffective, rather than new ones. “Test preparation is a prime example of that,” she says.

Such organizations also tend to become compliant rather than reflective, she says. In long-time probation schools, that pattern became evident when schools filled out their corrective action or school improvement plans each year. A team would dutifully brainstorm a list of school weaknesses but then neglect to craft a clear plan for addressing them, she says. “All the boxes were filled in. When you read the plan, you don’t get the sense of a coherent strategy.”

Leaders at organizations under fire also tend to become more controlling, research has found. At some of Chicago’s long-time probation schools, administrators mandated classroom activities with little teacher input and then construed any differing viewpoints as resistance, she says.

Some principals simply lacked the skills to motivate staff, O’Day observes. For instance, at one school a principal told an energetic young teacher that she could not earn an “excellent” rating because if the school had excellent teachers, it would not be on probation. As a result, the teacher became demoralized and considered transferring, she says.

Not surprisingly, O’Day says, principals played the most crucial role in moving their schools off probation. In 10 Chicago elementary schools she selected for a case study, the first two to get off probation had strong instructional leadership. Two more got off soon after a leadership change. The four schools still on probation at the end of the study had the weakest leadership. For instance, one principal bombarded teachers with new programs, while another micromanaged them.

External partners played a marginal role in the 10 case study schools, she says. In the two cases where they did transform instruction, the change seemed to be due in large part to the principal’s support.

In 2001, the School Board took a new direction, providing full-time reading specialists at the 51 schools still on probation and at another 63 with low scores. Now, specialists lead workshops and coach teachers in their classrooms based on a district-wide reading framework. Other cities, including Boston and San Diego, have adopted similar initiatives with encouraging results, O’Day notes.

Hansen agrees that reading specialists likely will have more impact on teaching than did external partners alone. But without that initial threat of sanctions and the resulting test score gains at some schools, fewer teachers would think it possible to raise student achievement, he maintains. “We had a system that was plagued with low expectations. I think what we did was right for the times.”

O’Day thinks that public officials need to consider all the tools low-performing schools need to raise achievement, including incentives to attract the best teachers to those schools. Across the country, she says, schools are asked to meet increasingly higher standards with dwindling resources. “Even with all these accountability systems, I don’t think there’s political will to improve the education that poor kids are getting.”

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