Commitment, reconstitution, accountability

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Many of the 130 some members of Chicago’s high school redesign task forces may be wondering why they bothered. The administration has rejected a goodly number of their recommendations as unrealistic, too costly or contradictory and seems to be sticking with plans it has been talking about since August. Even so, the work of the task forces was not a waste of time. The grand sweep of their ideas reinforces for the School Reform Board and schools themselves a basic lesson about school change: There is more than one way to reform a school and provide quality education. Local commitment is the key.

That’s a standard refrain from the folks who have been working on school reform in Chicago over the past eight years. It’s also a message that comes through in the reviews that writer Elizabeth Duffrin gathered on the draft redesign plan. It pops up again in her articles comparing public and Catholic high schools. And again in Paul Cuadros’ article on the city’s first new Catholic high school in 30 years.

Scott Thomson, retired executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, speaks to the issue when he makes this observation about the task force proposal for block scheduling. Any instructional approach, he says, has to be one that “the teacher believes in and can accomplish.”

Sharon Bender, principal of Schurz High School, speaks to the issue when she explains why she staffed her school’s freshman academy only with teachers who volunteered. “You certainly can’t pull in someone who refuses to work with anyone else,” she says. “Because then you’ve programmed the entire [effort] for failure.”

Assistant Principal Ken Hunter of Amundsen High, a former Catholic school teacher, speaks to the issue when he talks about what he sees as the biggest difference between public and Catholic schools—a sense of community. Most Catholic schools have a mission statement that faculty and staff periodically renew, he says. That process “helps teachers feel valued.”

Tony Bryk, co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, addresses the issue directly. For Bryk, a key finding of Consortium research is that teachers in Chicago’s public high schools generally don’t know each other, don’t trust each other and don’t come together to set a course. What the school system needs, he says, is “a strategy that allows like-minded teachers to come together and decide how they’re going to teach.”

The current administration has opened the door to such efforts by supporting small schools and charter schools and by giving schools options in the design of their freshman academies. When Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas appeared recently before the Academic Accountability Council, he cited another avenue: reconstitution, or school restaffing. (See story.) To be sure, the context was different; at the time, Vallas was focused on dismantling ineffective schools. But reconstitution also could be viewed as a way to give teachers a new lease on their professional lives, and communities a chance to join in. But Vallas and the Reform Board can’t have it both ways—talking tough to the general public, as they did with probation, while assuring schools that they only want to help.

San Francisco’s school system, the nation’s leader in reconstitution, hit a good rhetorical balance last May when it announced reconstitution of another three schools. “Reconstitution is not an indictment of any individual,” explained Supt. Waldemar Rojas. “It demonstrates a problem with the school culture and organization.” But Rojas wasn’t resting on rhetoric alone; he also was backed by a system of accountability that spells out multiple measures of school performance, focusing on progress over time, and operates in full public view.

In his pitch to the Accountability Council, Vallas was candid about wanting “cover” for touchy decisions. The best cover the council can provide is a system of accountability that is fair and open and takes into account variations in school communities. That work can be done none too quickly.