District 2 mistakenly gets credit for walkthroughs

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I read with interest your September issue of CATALYST. Thanks again for your commitment and dedication to school reform and school improvement. With great surprise I noted that credit for the idea of the walkthrough was given to District 2 in New York (see story). This continues a long line of false credits to this district.

In November 1992, the Atlantic Monthly published an article by David L. Kirp that said District 2 schools in East Harlem (then called District 4) had become famous among educators for their quality relative to that of other inner city schools. Then he notes the following:

“Comparisons with other districts do show that from 1978 … to 1989, District 4’s reading scores rose by 14.2 percent, as compared with 2.3 percent for the city as a whole. That was the second biggest improvement recorded in all of the city’s districts.

(The biggest improvement, 14.5 percent, occurred in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn district that is 98 percent black and Hispanic, whose school system combines choice at the junior high level with a strong emphasis on scholastic drills and testing.)”

The emphasis on the word “second” is mine. The first-place district was District 13 where J. Jerome Harris was community district superintendent and Argie Johnson, former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, was his deputy. It was in this district where the walkthrough started as a strategy developed by those using research on high-performing, high-poverty schools conducted by Ronald R. Edmonds in the late 1970s.

J. Jerome Harris taught the walkthrough strategy to me, and we adopted the technique as one of 10 daily routines for principals used by the School Achievement Structure (SAS), a comprehensive school reform model that I developed.

You will find the most sophisticated practice of SAS’s walkthroughs described in a report on CPS external partners published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in July 2003.

Lois Weiner of New Jersey City University takes on this myth in her study, “Research or Cheerleading? Scholarship on Community School District 2, New York City.” She argues that District 2 schools do not appear to be superior when compared with schools which are demographically similar in District 25 in Queens, and criticizes the researchers for their close relationships with school and district leaders

Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh responded that the cooperative work between researchers and District 2 officials was by design and intended from the start to link scholars and practitioners in a then-new form of research and development. Resnick had a harder time disparaging the findings about achievement.

Only research done in schools that are 90 percent African-American, 90 percent poor and 10 percent high-achieving will yield strategies which gain maximum academic achievement in those schools. Researchers get funded for exploring universals; therefore, they seek schools which are integrated, but the experience of African-Americans is particularistic. When high poverty, low achieving schools become high achieving, they are classified as outliers and eliminated from studies.

In her editorial in the September issue of CATALYST, Editor Veronica Anderson says, “Chicago is following in the footsteps of New York’s widely heralded Community School District 2, which has inspired urban districts around the country to act on the belief that whole groups of low-achieving schools can be turned around” (see story). Anderson only had to ask Rollie Jones or Audrey Cooper-Stanton, both of whom appear in this issue. As principals, they used walkthroughs and were exceptional instructional leaders.

Lastly, one of the tragedies of present day research is the inclination of researchers to set up experiments as either/or situations when practitioners in high poverty, low-achieving schools need to do both. For example, didactic methods may be necessary for teaching some skills, but interactive methods will facilitate the learning of others. Phonics and whole language provide another example. Teachers must cope with discipline problems, irate parents and sometimes with superiors who actually know less about what to do than teachers. Conditions set the stage for strategies. If researchers do not experiment under those conditions, their research may not be as useful.

Barbara A. Sizemore, Ph.D.

Professor Emerita

School of Education, DePaul University