Keeping sights set on excellence

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Whew. For a moment, it appeared as though the new school administration was going to write a prescription for the entire school system. Invented spelling would be out. Diagramming sentences would be in. Arts would be at-your-own-risk. That was the message of School Reform Board President Gery Chico, as reported in the Chicago Tribune. As it turned out, Chico was simply venting, not laying down educational policy. If the board had enacted his personal preferences—or anyone’s personal preferences, for that matter—it would have committed educational malpractice. Different children have different needs, and different faculties have different capabilities. Further, one of the worst things that can be done with even a successful program is mandate it, because success depends in large part on principals’ and teachers’ embracing a program as their own and, therefore, working hard at it. Besides, mandates simply let schools off the hook. If there’s no progress, they can blame central office, not themselves.

While Chicago schools have been spared mandates, they are being pushed strongly in one direction. So far, the School Board has invested only in programs that focus on the discrete skills measured by standardized achievement tests. These include Barbara Sizemore’s School Achievement Structure, the direct instruction program of Malcolm X College, and Sylvan Learning Systems. Schools that accept these programs—at the moment, they have little choice—likely will do better than they have in the past. For one, there’s no doubt that phonics should be taught. They may be taught too much; they may not be taught in a way that is most meaningful to youngsters; but at least they are taught—which is what the bulk of research says has to happen for kids to become proficient readers. Second, these programs— especially direct instruction, with its drills and scripted lessons—make efficient use of class time. Take a look at Joplin Elementary School, profiled on page 8, and you get the sense that there’s a lot of teaching going on.

But now take a look at Murphy Elementary School, profiled on page 10. In the primary grades, Murphy takes a more experiential approach to teaching, using whole language techniques for language arts. It’s hard to imagine that any parent wouldn’t want that kind of intellectually stimulating education for his or her child. But it’s not easy or cheap. To pull it off, Murphy has used its state Chapter 1 money to reduce class size, and recruited a goodly supply of volunteers, who complement a host of student teachers. Further, it has teachers who are willing and able to make big changes. Direct instruction may well have a place in many schools, but direct instruction is not going to cure what ails our school system. If this administration and this city and this state truly want Chicago’s children to become responsible citizens and productive workers, their sights must be set on producing the conditions and resources that make excellent schooling possible.

ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB For months we’ve been kicking around ideas about how Catalyst could use the Internet and its subset, the World Wide Web, to serve our readers better. Finally, we decided simply to take the plunge. Timothy Prentiss, our layout production artist and advertising manager, has produced an experimental version of an electronic Catalyst on his own Web site. Features include an interactive table of contents, an extensive electronic index of the past year’s Catalyst stories, an e-mail connection for reader comments, and point-and-click links to other school-oriented sites on the Web.

As advertising manager, Tim is interested in offering visitors to our Web site information on relevant courses, seminars, organizations or publications. If you have a product or service that would interest our readership of teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers and activists, we’d like to provide cyberspace at our site for a nominal fee. Call the Advertising Office at (773) 202-5435, and leave your name and number; Tim will get back to you with all the details.