Do it big, do it now and do it in

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Paul Vallas’ approach to school improvement is, Do it big, and do it now. In the process, he’s done in some very good ideas. CASA, short for Comprehensive Approach to Student Achievement, is the latest example. And it’s infuriating. By September, 200 elementary schools are to have new programs up and running, and 15 new monitoring teams are to be in place. Six years into his stewardship of the Chicago Public Schools, Vallas should know better. Like most of his initiatives, CASA no doubt will do some good. But it doesn’t come close to the kind of effort that’s needed to close the achievement gap that afflicts minority children.

Under CASA, elementary schools with below-average test scores are getting extra money to add or expand one of 22 board-sanctioned instructional programs. The board’s list includes many reputable local and national programs that have good track records. That’s a step up from Vallas’ first large-scale effort to improve schools—probation—when external partners were quickly rounded up with little regard to previous accomplishments. The faculty at each CASA school also are to visit one of 26 local demonstration schools the administration has identified as having superior programs. Initially proposed in the administration of former Supt. Argie Johnson, that’s a good idea for a number of reasons: Seeing is believing. Using peers as instructors promotes acceptance. Giving successful educators new challenges keeps them invigorated.

The biggest problem with CASA—and it’s a huge one—comes in the numbers. The 200 participating schools will overwhelm the 22 instructional programs unless schools pick evenly among them. Sara Spurlark, the former principal of Ray Elementary who is now co-director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago, told Catalyst contributor Brett Schaeffer that even eight new schools could be hard to handle. Incredibly, the board initially asked the center to take on 100, she says. The CASA schools also will overwhelm the demonstration schools. Weeks after these CASA details were made public, the administration apparently did the math. It created an opening for non-listed programs already in CASA schools, and it started looking for more demonstration schools, ready or not.

Meanwhile, the CASA schools got only three weeks to pick programs; their lead teachers will get only two days of training this summer—neither of which is enough for anything comprehensive. Then there are the monitoring and assistance teams. They are to be made up of specialists in technology, professional development, and curriculum and instruction. But the administration limited the pool of applicants by requiring that they also have principal certificates, which brings into question what its objectives are.

In stark contrast to the slap-dash nature of CASA—and probation, reconstitution and intervention before it—school-change programs in Boston, Houston, San Diego and District 2 in New York City, for example, recognize that real change requires thoughtful planning, leadership development, time and a good measure of consistency. In Chicago, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation is taking that approach with a handful of high schools, giving them the opportunity to hear from a variety of researchers, think through their options and plot their own courses of improvement. None of these efforts is perfect, but each offers more hope for solid progress. Mayor Daley’s school management team has created enviable conditions for academic advancement but continues to fumble the fundamental challenge of retooling schools.

ABOUT US The entire Catalyst staff is taking a bow for the public service award we won in the 2001 Peter Lisagor Awards competition, sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. The winning entry was our 10th anniversary issue, published February 2000. Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin and Web Site Editor Dan Weissmann also won a Lisagor for in on-line reporting for work that accompanied the April 2000 issue on student retention.