Rate your school: Here’s how to do it

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To help local school councils (LSC) assess the adequacy of instructional leadership at their schools, Catalyst sought advice from a university professor, classroom teacher, school reform group and central administration. These sources suggested several key questions.

Are your test scores rising at the same rate as the citywide average?

In Chicago, scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills have been rising for a decade. “If I were on an LSC, I would want to know, Are our scores going up as quickly as the citywide average?” says Fred Hess of Northwestern University. “If they are, then we have an average school in the city. If they’re going up more quickly, then we’re an above-average school.”

To make a fair judgment, also consider whether your school population is changing. An influx of low-income students can deflate test scores. Likewise, if more middle-income children enroll, scores may rise without any effort on the school’s part.

Is your academic program well rounded?

Schools are under tremendous pressure to raise scores on standardized math and reading tests. To spend more time on those subjects, some elementary schools are cutting back on science and social studies, says Barbara Radner of DePaul University. According to teachers in her workshops at DePaul, some elementary schools have stopped teaching those subjects altogether.

Skipping science and social studies in elementary school spells trouble for students later on, as Radner has observed in many high school classrooms. “They don’t know how to read a [science or social studies] textbook, and they don’t have the working vocabulary, like ‘molecule,’ ‘chemical.'” As a result, “they fail.”

Radner says that books are the best clue to whether science and social studies are being taught. Ask to see examples of textbooks or trade books teachers use for those subjects, she advises. Also check the school library for nonfiction. If the books are 30 years old, she says, that’s not a good sign.

An even simpler strategy, she notes, is simply to ask kids, “What did you learn in science this week? What did you learn in social studies this week?”

How often does your principal visit classrooms?

Nothing contributes more to test score gains than principals getting into classrooms, according to Philip Hansen, the school system’s chief accountability officer. “That’s always the key in schools that go off probation [and in] schools that see improvement.”

At one high school on probation, a math teacher reports that administrators rarely observe classes. Meanwhile, she sees some teachers handing out worksheets for days on end without teaching any new material. The principal is unlikely to change that, she says. “How can you change things that you don’t know about?”

High school principals can’t cover the whole school on their own and need help from department chairs and assistant principals, Hansen acknowledges. Still, “many of us feel very strongly that principals should spend a good part of each day on visits. They should do announced visits, unannounced visits, quick visits and long visits.”

Long visits “should be an entire period so that you can observe how a teacher begins a lesson and how the teacher ends the lesson,” Hansen says.

On quick visits, “you can check to see if the lesson corresponds to the lesson plan book, you can look at … bulletin boards. Most importantly, these quick visits show the students that you are around and interested in what is going on. It also keeps teachers on their toes.”

Principals also need to meet with teachers after visits, he says. “Teachers need to know what the principal liked, didn’t liked, what strategies they should be following and what help they should get. The follow-up after the visit is just as important as the visit itself.”

Do your teachers have time to plan together?

Teachers who plan lessons together are more likely to conduct challenging ones, according to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. At schools where teachers worked as teams, researchers found, students often were taught math above their grade level. At schools where teachers worked alone, instruction lagged behind. For example, at these schools, 8th-grade math teachers typically taught 5th-grade math.

To keep teachers moving forward through the curriculum, Radner recommends weekly grade-level meetings. Principals can arrange these by scheduling all the children in one grade for gym, art or another “special” at the same time. That leaves the regular classroom teachers free to work together.

In addition, teachers in the same grade “cycle” (primary, intermediate or upper) should meet every five weeks to talk about the curriculum, she says, “so that each grade level is getting kids ready for the next.” Otherwise, “You may have two grades teaching the same thing.”

At one North Side elementary school, a young teacher says she rarely gets time to meet with her colleagues and desperately needs ideas for teaching math and reading. “I feel like I’m in the dark trying to figure things out myself,” she says. “I spent three months on fractions, and my kids still didn’t really get it.”

Does your school help teachers improve?

If many of the students at your school struggle with a certain skill, the only solution is to improve teaching, says Sarah Spurlark of the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement. LSCs must invest money in staff development, she says. “It’s an investment that will pay off in your children.”

Some schools don’t offer any classes or workshops for teachers, leaving them to pursue learning on their own time. But what teachers learn on their own may not match the school’s improvement plan. For instance, if your grade school wants to improve in reading, and teachers take computer courses, you may not reach your goal.

Principals also need to attend any staff development offered to teachers, Spurlark says. If they don’t know what the new teaching methods are, they can’t tell if teachers are using them. Principals may also be critical of approaches that they don’t understand.

To put what they learn in workshops to use, teachers need help in the classroom, Spurlark says. Otherwise, “They go back and they teach exactly the same way they taught before the staff development.”

That help can come from an experienced teacher or an outside consultant who models the new approaches and gives advice.

Without that help, “By the time you go back to the reality of your room, you may forget some of the facts, some of the reasons behind it, even how exactly to get it [to work],” says an award- winning teacher. “And if you don’t know how to integrate it into what you already do, it’s like, ‘Dang, do I have to change everything I do to fit in this [new] approach?'”

Raelynne Toperoff, executive director of the Teachers Task Force, says a teacher questionnaire can be useful in assessing instructional leadership at a school. However, she cautions that it must be done with great sensitivity. “You certainly want to avoid strategies that put the principal on the firing line,” she explains. “That’s the softer side of being an LSC member. It’s a role that a lot of people may not be accustomed to.”

All surveying should be done above board and in collaboration with the principal, she says. “Having LSC members talk to individual teachers either after hours or on the phone or anything surreptitious is going to cause more problems than it solves.”

Toperoff recommends that councils begin by identifying what they think are the characteristics of a good instructional leader. Then they should write questions that deal with these characteristics but that steer clear of personalities. For example: Would you say the climate of the school promotes good work relations? Not: Does your principal promote good work relations? Or: What is the process for selecting new programs? Not: Does the principal give teachers a voice in selecting new programs?

Both the School Board’s Law Department and a majority of LSC members must approve a survey before it is distributed. “We want to make sure that it’s fair to the principal,” says the Law Department’s John Weinberger. “That it’s not, Do you want to keep the current lousy incompetent principal, or do you want a fresh start with a good principal?'”

Diplomacy is needed in handling the results, too, Toperoff continues, saying councils should strive to put principals in “a problem-solving mode,” not on the defensive.

Say 60 percent of teachers respond that the school climate does not promote good work relations, she says. “A good, savvy LSC might say to the principal, ‘We would like you to form a leadership team to explore this. Get a teacher, get a parent and have a couple of meetings as to how you might address this, and come back and let us know.'”

“That’s putting the leadership role where it belongs,” she says, with the principal.