It’s a new millennium. It’s been almost six years since Mayor Richard M. Daley’s school leadership team unveiled its plan to improve Chicago’s public schools. And Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, seen by some pundits as a candidate-in-waiting for governor, isn’t saying how long he will stay around.

Under those circumstances, the time seemed ripe to re-examine the school system’s priorities. Catalyst staff interviewed 52 education leaders inside and outside the system, from parents to state legislators to School Board President Gery Chico. There was one point of unanimity: No one wants another revolution.

Twelve years ago, the Illinois Legislature enacted one by shifting significant power to local school communities. Six years later, lawmakers modified the revolution’s terms by beefing up certain central administration powers and putting the mayor in charge. And Vallas and Chico weighed in with dramatic accountability measures.

Six more years down the road, there’s no appetite for another major shift in the way the school system runs. Several of our sources went out of their way to say that sweeping change right now would be a bad idea. (None is coming, Chico reassures them. “I don’t look for anything crazy and radical going forward,” he says. Vallas, too, says that what’s ahead is essentially more of the same.)

But the broader leadership community believes some changes are in order. One member even suggested a slogan, an adaptation of President Bill Clinton’s watch word in his 1992 campaign: “It’s about instruction, stupid.”

An overwhelming majority said that in order to improve instruction, the system’s top priority should be investing in human capital: Recruiting teachers, administrators and other school leaders, including local school council members, and supporting them with intensive training and staff development.

The School Board has put lots of energy and money into these areas the last several years, as have local non-profits, universities and professional associations, to the point where the city has received national recognition for its staff development efforts. But our sources say it’s time to put those efforts front and center as the heart of the system’s strategy for improvement.

“I think the district has made a very large-scale effort in staff development over the last four years, and it has had some effect in the elementary schools,” says G. Alfred Hess Jr. , director of Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy. “That effort has to continue and intensify.”

Investing in people was listed as a top priority by school principals; by leaders from local universities, foundations, business associations, school reform policy groups, the teachers union, and the principals association; and by politicians as diverse as Illinois senators Barack Obama (D-Chicago) and Dan Cronin (R-Elmhurst).

Recent research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research highlights the importance of intensive staff development.

First, a test-score analysis last year showed that gains in student learning had tapered off sharply in recent years, a trend that has been masked by Chicago’s traditional way of counting test scores. “It’s clear that student learning gains peaked in ’96 and ’97,” says Consortium Director Anthony Bryk. “We got a burst when the accountability measures first came in, but we’ve been flat ever since.”

Now, in a series of reports commissioned by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and due out this month, Consortium researchers find that:

Students do markedly better on basic-skills tests when they get interactive, complex and intellectually challenging curricula and instruction rather than solely skill-based drills and exercises.

The teachers whose classes are the most content-rich and interactive tend to have gone through intensive training.

“What the findings document is, The kids can do it,” says Bryk. “There’s this idea that, ‘Maybe Chicago has hit a plateau because this is all the kids can do.’ But what this research is showing is, The kids can do this. The issue becomes, How do you get more teachers to teach in ways that get the kids to do this?”

A growing teacher shortage also heightens the need for an increased emphasis on staff development.

“It’s one of those moments of opportunity, because we’re about to lose so many teachers,” observes Melissa Roderick, one of the Consortium’s lead researchers. “We can either address this systematically, or we can scramble and offer signing bonuses and run around all over the place.”

Carolyn Nordstrom, executive director of Chicago United, a non-profit civic group representing some of the city’s largest businesses, notes that providing training early in a teacher’s career can boost its effectiveness. “It’s different when you have someone coming in from the get-go, rather than having to change your mind set,” she explains.

While none of our sources sketched a complete plan for staff development, their comments, taken together, suggest an approach: Identify and cultivate a large corps of the city’s best teachers and administrators and use them as teachers-of-teachers in an intensive, systemwide training program.

Doing it right would mean paying not only for the trainers but also for substitutes to spell those going through the training.

Bryk adds that money alone won’t buy enough time. “If you’re going to make a commitment to professional development, you’re going to have to scale back some of the other demands on teachers’ time,” he says, such as before-and after-school programs and summer school. He acknowledges that summer school, for one, has been shown to improve student achievement; however, he believes that high-quality staff development could yield a bigger payoff.

So far, the board’s most intensive efforts to provide schoolwide staff development have been limited to schools put on probation for low test scores, notes Bryk. “It hasn’t been done systemwide.” And the professional development at probation schools often doesn’t go far enough, says Hess. To be effective, he says, future efforts have “got to be more intensive than what we’ve done to date.”

Hess says Manley High School in East Garfield Park offers one example of a more effective strategy. There, four teaching coaches, each an expert in a major curriculum area, is working full time with the school’s 65-person faculty for three years. Now in its second year, the program has drawn good reviews from Manley teachers, and test scores have started rising. The cost: $375,000 a year, more than six times the average amount the School Board’s Office of Accountability spent last year on schools on probation. Two philanthropic foundations help foot the bill at Manley, picking up more than half the tab. (See CATALYST, May 2000.)

Roderick says that developing a large cadre of master teachers would help the School Board kill two birds with one stone: Bringing the coming wave of new teachers up to speed and giving expert veterans a reason to stick around.

“Right now, if you’re a fabulous teacher in this system, there is very little opportunity you have to make the whole system better, unless you leave the classroom,” she notes. “Let’s develop this into a career path for folks. Otherwise people get bored.”

Developing a master teacher corps also would help the board and local school communities meet the challenges of an aging corps of administrators who face ever-growing work loads. It would give them a head start on successors, and it would provide expertise to share the leadership load.

“We have to re-invent the urban principalship,” says Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The job has gotten far more complex and large. … The principal can’t do it all, so we have to figure out a way to distribute leadership.”

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