Professional development takes center stage

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When it comes to raising student achievement, school districts are finding that tougher accountability and new programs will carry them only so far. A leader in both arenas, Chicago saw test scores rise in the late 1990s as it imposed sanctions on low-performing schools and provided extra support like summer school. But then scores leveled off.

Now Chicago is joining another national trend as it turns to professional development for teachers as the next step in improving student achievement.

This year, 114 low-performing elementary schools got full-time reading specialists to help teachers improve reading instruction. Next year, the district plans to roll out a similar initiative for high schools.

In this arena, Chicago’s public schools are several steps behind a handful of districts such as Boston, which already has glimpsed the limits of one-on-one coaching and is shifting to a team approach.

Like Boston, Chicago is taking a cold, hard look at how it is spending its professional development money. The idea is to find ways to squeeze more bang out of the buck. Although the final report on this so-called audit will not be completed until later this summer, the administration already has begun to make some changes in professional development.

More than most districts, Chicago leaves decisions about instructional issues to schools themselves. Catalyst identified five—Ward, Chase, Whistler, Tilton and Burley—that came up with innovative ways to upgrade the skills of their faculties. Some don’t cost a dime.

Meanwhile, the city’s most ambitious and expensive effort to improve teaching at a single school—Manley High in East Garfield Park—offers sobering lessons as it heads into its fourth and final year.