It doesn’t take rocket scientists

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At its core, the new report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on the snail’s pace of math instruction at the city’s poorest schools is good news. Amid the depressing data about endless repetition from one grade to the next is a strong beacon of hope: Schools where classroom teachers talk to one another seriously about what their kids need and then work together to deliver it, get far better results. In other words, it doesn’t take rocket scientists to teach poor kids to high standards. However, faculty teamwork isn’t a simple solution. For one, teachers need time to get together, and time costs money. As important, effective collaboration takes a principal who understands not only curriculum and instruction but also how to break down the emotional barriers that divide teachers.

In the second installment of our “What Matters Most” series, we profiled such a leader, Barbara Eason-Watkins of McCosh Elementary School in Woodlawn. So it was no surprise when McCosh emerged as a model of effective math instruction. Most schools with its kind of student body—large, poor, highly mobile—cover little ground in math and have the test scores to prove it. Under the leadership of Watkins, reports Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin, McCosh’s 8th-graders are being taught 8th-grade math, and the school has the test scores to prove it. As with most success stories in education, it boils down principally to leadership.

RECOMMENDED READING It says a lot for a book when it holds its own with rolling surf on an isolated, pink-sand beach. During my summer vacation, “Making Change: Three educators join the battle for better schools,” did just that. Written by veteran education writer and editor Holly Holland, “Making Change” chronicles Kentucky’s brand of radical school reform through the lives of three people who gave their all to make it work: A first-rate teacher who agonized over her responsibility for getting colleagues to improve. A hot-shot principal who confronts his alcoholism as he tackles school change. And a workaholic superintendent. Their stories are a compelling reminder that school improvement is as much about people as it is about programs.

ABOUT US Catalyst begins the school year with one new employee, and two old employees in new places. Maureen Kelleher (left), a frequent free-lance contributor and a former high school English teacher, has been hired to fill a new associate editor position. Associate Editor Dan Weissmann has switched to the new post of Web site editor, and Contributing Editor Elizabeth Duffrin has been promoted into his former job. In addition, Diane Ross, who covers news in Springfield for a number of publications, will keep tabs for Catalyst as well. Breaking news from the state capitol will be posted to our Web site, with notices sent to our e-mail subscribers. To become an e-mail subscriber, fill out the card that’s inside our “What Matters Most” supplement in the middle of this issue. (It’s free.)

Catalyst also welcomes two new editorial board members: Nelson Sosa, a community organizer with ACORN who had a leading role in the development of ACORN’s charter school, and Richard Kaplan, who was chair of the math department at Lake View High School when we invited him to join but has since switched to Evanston Township High School. ETHS has a new focus on minority students, whose test scores trail those of its white students, so having an ETHS teacher with a CPS background will add a valuable new perspective to our discussions.

We’re also losing several board members to expired terms and other commitments. Our sincere thanks go to Anne Hallett of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Betty Miller of Lindblom High School, Charmayne Posey of Hubbard High School and Joyce Rumsfeld of the Chicago Foundation for Education. They all have helped Catalyst staff get a better grasp on the issues of school reform.