Once upon a time, there was a very large school district called Chicago Public Schools. It had hundreds of thousands of children to educate, thousands of teachers to teach them and hundreds of principals to lead schools.
Some elementary schools were at the top, admitting only the smartest students, those who arrive at kindergarten or 1st grade ready to read or already reading, having a couple years of preschool under their belts.
Classrooms were safe and orderly. Teachers were experts in their subjects. Parents had enough time and money to get involved. There were only a few schools like this, but they performed well, posting high test scores.
Some schools were in the middle. They admitted any child, some smart, some needing to catch up. These children came from a variety of ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds, and in schools where they were together, they were able to learn from each other. Test scores at these schools were not as high as those at top schools, but they weren’t bad either.
Then there was a large bunch of schools at the bottom. These schools admitted any child who lived in the community, but unlike students at schools in the middle, nearly all of the children at these schools needed extra help in school or at home. Sometimes they were unruly. Classrooms were in disrepair. Teachers were not experts in their subjects and often didn’t stick around for much more than a year. Test scores were dismal.
Leaders of the school district were not happy. They wanted every child to pass reading and math tests, so they figured out a way to try to get every school to be like the top schools. They organized schools into groups based on where they were located and created area instructional offices to provide academic support.
Area instructional officers would coach principals; subject area coaches would work with teachers. Everyone would do a better job, and lots more students would learn and do better on tests.
Two of the area offices—known as Area 4 and Area 14—started out about the same, each with a lot of schools at the bottom and led by an area instructional officer who had proven him or herself as a principal. Three years later, Area 4 was gaining more ground on achievement tests than any other area, but Area 14 was not much farther along than where it had started.
What happened with these two groups of schools is a cautionary tale about leadership styles and the complexity of overcoming entrenched poverty in public education.
In Area 4, area instructional officer Olga La Luz found a way to finesse the dueling mandate she had to support schools and evaluate principals’ job performance. Principals whose schools needed the most help welcomed her input.
Area 14 was led by Jim L. Murray, whose reliance on tough accountability measures fueled resistance and, finally, a principal revolt. Schools in his area were filled with poor children, too, but more of them came from the most impoverished homes, or didn’t have homes at all.
Experts in business and education from Harvard University are working with top district administrators here to map and implement strategies that will result in higher student performance districtwide. The extra layer of management support provided by area instructional offices has been deemed promising and researchers are keeping tabs on how it develops.
CPS took the first step toward remedying ills of Area 14 schools by replacing Murray with a newcomer. The next step will be to address the social and familial needs of students, perhaps through partnerships with other pubic or private agenies. Only then will real progress have a chance to take hold.
ABOUT US: Catalyst reporter returns
John Myers has returned to Catalyst Chicago after a year traveling and writing in India. As the new Data & Research Editor, Myers will follow up his previous work covering school budgets, construction and district-level initiatives.
Myers was one of three Catalyst staffers who worked on a series of stories on the Chicago Public Schools budget, a project that won a national Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications.
Prior to joining Catalyst, Myers worked in online publishing. He graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism from Michigan State University and earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia College Chicago.