Great principals needed to rescue intervention

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First there was probation, then reconstitution, then re-engineering and now intervention. All are minor variations on the Chicago Board of Education’s good-cop, bad-cop approach to reform at the city’s worst-scoring schools. The good cop tells schools “We’re here to help you get better” while the bad cop adds “or else,” meaning principals, teachers and local school council members could be dismissed.

In many ways, the recently announced intervention program shows that schools chief Paul Vallas and the School Board have learned from their mistakes. But it also shows they’ve missed a few key lessons. To overcome its built-in defects and succeed, intervention will need outstanding principal leadership at the five schools swept under its umbrella.

Probation did the trick for many elementary schools. Over half of the 71 elementary schools put on probation in 1996 have cleared the hurdle to get off; at least 20 percent of their students now score at or above national norms in reading. However, only about a sixth of the 38 high schools originally put on probation have met the mark, though many subsequently went through reconstitution or re-engineering, and received principals picked by Vallas.

Of the seven probation high schools hastily reconstituted in the summer of 1997, one is being converted to a college prep school, and two are in for intervention; the other four are still struggling toward the 20 percent mark. Of the 12 probation schools chosen for re-engineering last year, five got off probation, and seven are still struggling toward 20 percent, with two having gained more than 5 percentage points.

However, researchers say that rising scores in high schools are due mainly to the board’s new high school entrance requirements. “Across the board, there is evidence that high school test scores are improving because better students are coming in, not because the schools are becoming more productive,” says Anthony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

The School Board’ new intervention program features a number of improvements over previous get-tough models. Unlike probation, it involves a manageable number of schools, five instead of 109. Unlike reconstitution, it gives the administration time to work with and fairly evaluate staff before giving any the boot, almost a whole year instead of one half-hour interview. Unlike all three predecessors, it brings serious money to the table, $500,000 in the first year instead of about $100,000 under probation.

“With these schools, we need to be more aggressive in our approach, but at the same time we need to bring in more support than we ever have before,” says Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen.

With $500,000, he notes, intervention schools can mount the kind of intensive support for teachers that private foundations are funding at Manley High School in East Garfield Park. At Manley, full-time instructional coaches work not only with teachers but also with students, thus winning the respect of teachers. One year into the effort, Manley posted a gain of 9 percentage points on reading tests.

However, the coaches at Manley have pointedly kept their distance from teacher evaluation so that teachers will feel free to share their problems with them and try new ways of teaching. In contrast, the intervention teams the board has assembled will advise principals on evaluating staff.

Further, most school reform experts say that buy-in from staff is a key element in the success of any initiative. Two nationally recognized whole-school reform programs, High Schools that Work and Success for All, won’t touch a school unless 80 percent of the staff agree to adopt the program. None of the board’s efforts to improve failing schools has solicited any level of internal support in advance.

With yet another slap in the face and yet another new principal — four of the schools are getting new ones — good teachers at intervention schools can be expected to seek calmer waters. That’s what happened with reconstitution. As Catalyst reported in 1997, Robeson High lost a dozen veteran teachers who survived the reconstitution shake-up, and five of those positions remained unfilled throughout the school year.

“I would categorize the morale of most of the people here as being extremely low,” says a Collins teacher.

At Bowen High, there already has been a chilling effect on student enrollment. Central office staff have urged the intervention schools to beef up recruitment of higher-achieving students. Bowen was beginning to have some success at that, according to one Bowen insider. However, when intervention was announced, several parents immediately withdrew their children. Bowen got off probation in 1999, but its test scores dropped this year.

Research repeatedly has shown that the principal is pivotal in school improvement. Vallas has made both good and bad choices in the past. Having good choices this time is critical, says Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board and director of its High Schools that Work program. Bottoms stresses that intervention principals need “collaborating skills of working with teachers.”

Bottoms gives a slew of examples–surveying faculty and students to find out how often they engage in practices that boost student achievement, gathering teachers in grade-level groups to create challenging assignments and prepare common grading standards, then looking at the best examples of student work and talking about how teachers made them happen. And, as is happening at Manley, bringing in outside expertise to help teachers promote reading strategies for sophisticated text in core subjects. “These are the kind of strategies principals use in schools that achieve,” he observes.

“If they’re going to evaluate teachers as opposed to [giving] leadership,” Bottoms warns, “they’re going to be part of the problem.”