Fear jump-starts school improvement

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Last January, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas added 21 schools to the academic remediation list that began under the administration of his predecessor, Argie Johnson.

At the same time, Vallas also removed the principals from several of those schools, adding a new factor to the school improvement equation in Chicago: Fear.

Taking remediation seriously

“Beforehand, they didn’t take remediation seriously,” Calhoun North Principal Henry Thompson says of his staff. “The attitude was, this too shall pass.”

But once principals started losing jobs, staff at Calhoun North and other schools on remediation snapped to attention, a number of principals say.

“There is pressure to improve scores, so some people may be working out of fear,” says Frank Horton, principal of South Shore High, adding that remediation has been good for his school.

While some principals contacted by Catalyst did not directly attribute staff responsiveness to fear, none would discount it either.

“We have teachers who work hard here, and I can’t say how much is because of fear or pride in their work,” says Connie Thomas, whom Vallas sent to Brown Elementary on the Near West Side after removing former Principal Shayle Gerstein. “I’d like to think it’s because people are professionals. And if some are operating based on fear, as long as they are operating, I’m not sure I care what the motivator is.”

One principal initially complained bitterly to Catalyst about the remediation process, saying his school already had been working with an outside education organization to bring up the school’s test scores. The principal also complained that his school got less money for remediation because it had been paying for outside help on its own. “You knock yourself out to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you get punished,” the principal said. (For an explanation of how schools go on and off remediation, see story.)

The next day, the principal spoke with Catalyst again and asked that his name not be used. “If they [the central administration] want to get you, they can,” he said. “Since we’re on remediation, principals are very vulnerable. You will find that many of my colleagues will be guarded. They are afraid of losing their jobs.”

Catalyst called the principals at all 28 schools on remediation, but only 13 returned the calls. Of the 13, nine agreed to be quoted by name, and four of those were principals installed by Vallas.

Fear as a motivator

While it’s clear that fear has given some schools a jump-start, some educators and activists who work with schools question its value for generating and sustaining improved instruction.

“The real challenge is creative teaching,” asserts Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), “and people are not creative when they are afraid. Teachers can’t do that when they are looking over their shoulders, and principals will not encourage it when they are responsible for test scores. And everyone is so fearful of test scores, I’m just waiting for the next test-cheating scandal to emerge.”

Woestehoff was the only individual among several who expressed reservations about the remediation process who agreed to speak on the record. The others, which included both critics and supporters of the current administration, declined to be namedùsome out of fear of retaliation, others out of concern over their relationship with school system bosses.

Vallas does not see fear as a negative. “My first reaction is that we went for decades of no fear, and where was the creativity then?” he asks, irritation rising in his voice. “Fear is a consequence of poor performance.

“People who are afraid may not have the makeup to move schools forward,” he adds. “A majority of teachers and principals have a lot of confidence in what we are doing and are delighted that we are focusing on raising student achievement.”

However, Penny Sebring, a director from the Consortium on School Research, says it’s not fair to say schools were not creative before remediation. In the Consortium’s 1993 report, A View from the Elementary Schools: The State of Reform in Chicago, researchers report that about a third of elementary schools were engaging in focused and creative activities to boost student achievement.

Citing examples, she says schools were developing schools within schools, forming design teams to look at specific areas like curriculum, using hands-on math and science, and forging long-term relationships with outside partners like the Illinois Writing Project, Northwestern University’s Total Quality Management program and the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science.

Remediation or probation?

As Catalyst went to press, principals and teachers at scores of low-achieving schools were nervously awaiting Vallas’ announcement of probation status for 122 schools—40 high schools and 82 elementary schools. Probation carries stiffer penalties than remediation does: Principals and teachers can be dismissed, and the schools themselves can be “reconstituted,” which means they can be shut down and reopened with new staff and programs.

Former Supt. Johnson had wanted to reconstitute Austin High School but was advised by school lawyers to go to remediation first. Vallas started out with remediation. However, one principal he dismissed, Debrona Banks of Tilton Elementary in West Garfield Park, challenged her firing in court and won. She pointed out that the Reform Act provides for principal firing only at schools on probation or in “educational crisis,” not those on remediation. (Banks was reinstated, but the School Reform Board issued a dismissal warning at its August meeting.)

As a result, Vallas now is taking low-scoring schools directly to probation, though he says his intentions are not to fire personnel.

“I hope to get through probation without removing a single principal,” says Vallas. However, he concedes that that is unlikely.

Contemplating the possibility of being placed on probation, one principal said, “We have been working so hard since we’ve been on remediation, being placed on probation would be like a slap in the face to the staff.”

“Too early to see effect”

One of the pro-Vallas educators who asked not to be named says teachers should be trained and then challenged to do better before being put on the hot seat. High school teachers in particular need to learn new ways of teaching, the educator maintains. “They teach the way they were taught in the ’40s and ’50s. Why not try intensive staff development before placing schools on remediation?”

Others contend that remediation, which includes help from an outside educational agency, has not been given a chance to work.

“I’m impressed by our partner, but we have not had the SAS program long enough to see results,” says Calhoun North’s Thompson of the School Achievement Structure, a program created by Barbara Sizemore, dean of the School of Education at DePaul University.

Principal Rickey Dorsey of Smyth Elementary on the Near West Side, which adopted Direct Instruction as a result of the school’s pairing with Malcolm X College, agrees: “It’s still too early to see the effect.”

Schools placed on remediation were paired with university faculty and other outside education partners beginning last February. Standardized tests, which play a large role in determining which schools go on remediation and probation, were administered a couple months later, in March and April. And a few schools didn’t start working with their partners until after that. For example, Jenner Elementary on the Near North Side did not begin working with National-Louis University until September, due to a delay in funding from central office.

One educator who is in touch with many schools says some schools have complained about not getting much help from central office; she asks how much staff and support will be available for the far greater number of schools placed on probation.

“There will be enough support for all the schools,” says Chief Accountability Officer Patricia Harvey. She notes, for example, that all but 25 of the 122 schools already have outside education partners. (For details of the probation program, see related story.)

“Initially, people will be shocked,” she acknowledges, “but they will see that probation is a tool for improvement.”

Remediation at four schools

In the meantime, changes being made at remediation schools run the gamut—from simple procedures like requiring visitors to sign in, to adoption of new teaching methods such as Direct Instruction.

At Curtis Elementary in Roseland, Interim Principal Lester Gaines first tackled security, school cleanliness and building organization. (Former principal Carolyn McGee was among those forced out; Gaines was working in the Guidance Department in central office at the time.)

“When I arrived at this school … outsiders were going in and out of the buildings at random,” reports Gaines. “Now, parents must sign in at the door and use passes.”

The school also was filthy, he says, with “roaches, mice droppings and dust everywhere. But you can come in right now, and our floors are sparkling,” he says proudly.

Gaines also reorganized the school, designating one of its two buildings for preschool through 3rd grade and the other for 4th grade through 8th grade. In addition, staff have been divided into instructional teams that have staff development each week, and Barbara Sizemore’s SAS program regularly sends a team to work on curriculum.

In addition, Gaines says central office is constructing an additional lunchroom it desperately needs for its 1,000 students, and is installing security cameras and a communications system. “I can’t believe some of the stuff the central office has done for us that this school had been asking the last administration to do for years,” he says.

At Libby Elementary in New City, Interim Principal Beverly Blake says remediation helped give her staff the structure it needed. (Former principal Ruby Ford was dismissed.)

“We have a good staff and a supportive local school council, but they were looking for direction, which they didn’t have,” says Blake, formerly principal of Jesse Owens Elementary in West Pullman. “We now know where we’re going. We have grade-level chairs who look at the curriculum based on what kids should be learning when.”

Blake says the school also has gotten a financial advisor and specialists that are helping her iron the kinks out of her special education and bilingual programs.

At Von Humboldt Elementary in West Town, Principal Christ Kalamatas says remediation helped him muster support for an approach he had envisioned for some time: “When I was an assistant principal here, I always thought I’d like to try the schools-within-schools approach if I ever became a principal. When we went on remediation, the staff knew we had to make changes and were very receptive to the idea, and they may not have been before. So we’ve tested the waters; our third floor is now our middle school.”

And at South Shore, Principal Frank Horton got students in on the act. “I meet with our students once a month, and I’ve told them what’s going on,” he explains. “I tell them ‘It’s up to you if we move off remediation, and you can do it.’ And how have they responded? I’ve had them stop me in the hall and say, ‘Don’t worry, brother, we won’t let you down.’ “