Back to basics on academic improvement

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When Mayor Richard M. Daley gave his annual speech on education last month before the City Club of Chicago, he acknowledged that the school system had hit a plateau. “There are still many children who have not progressed at a pace with other children for whatever reason–whether it’s personal, family-related, or because of failures in the school system itself,” he said. “For them, we must work harder. For them, we must be even more creative.”

Actually, for them, we must go back to the basics of running a good school. Over the past five years, there has been almost a surfeit of creativity surging from School Board headquarters, with one new, innovative program after another grabbing headlines. Most have done some good for some children; some have done a lot of good. However, the only way to do the most good for the most children is to focus on developing and supporting good principals and good teachers and giving them the time and resources to do a good job during the regular school day. Without that, all else is window dressing.

Developing good school leadership, the first basic, is a challenge that is vexing school boards across the country. The increasing demands being placed on principals have made it a lot harder to find qualified people to take the job. Some who have declined say it doesn’t pay enough; others say there’s no amount of money that would persuade them to endure the headaches.

Chicago is unusual in this regard; many educators are vying for principalships, perhaps because this system boasts a few advantages. For one, principals are paid relatively well, on average more than $90,000 a year. Credit goes to schools chief Paul Vallas and the School Board, who bumped principals up two notches on the administrative salary scale as soon as they got into office. Considering the knowledge and skills required to upgrade instruction schoolwide, however, even $90,000 seems insufficient for someone who succeeds. Chicago principals also have a freer hand in building their teams. Thanks to the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, they get to select their own assistant principals and to fill teacher vacancies without regard to seniority.

In the view of one researcher who specializes in school leadership, Chicago also has the country’s best approach to staff development, offering a variety of help for aspiring principals, brand-new principals and veterans. Here the credit goes largely to Chicago’s active non-profit community, especially the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club and the Golden Apple Foundation. However, as the mayor said, “While there is certainly much to be proud of, there is still much more to be done, and the last thing we can do is sit back and rest on our laurels.”

Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin’s reporting for this issue on instructional leadership suggests a few places to start:

Reduce paperwork. When Paul Vallas arrived on the scene, principals enjoyed paperwork relief. That’s changed, dramatically. In a CATALYST survey, 70 percent of principals identified paperwork as the major obstacle to their spending more time on instruction. Several said different downtown departments ask for the same information, some of which already is in the system’s computer. CPS has solid partnerships with the business community and the principals association; this issue is ripe for their attention.

Add helping hands. It won’t grab a headline, but buying more time for principals–in the form of business managers, assistant principals and additional freed periods for department chairs–is a prerequisite for academic progress. Like teachers presented with smaller classes, principals may not know how best to use this extra time. So training needs to be built in.

Strengthen principal development. The principals association has a number of good ideas, including making the current, voluntary programs mandatory. This agenda also should include recruitment from outside the system and work with local school councils to select and support good leaders.