St. James: Judge me ‘on whether statistics change’

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As principal of Lindblom High School, Lynn St. James was a pioneer in the use of student portfolios to judge achievement. Now, as the school system’s chief educational officer, she will oversee development of a citywide program that includes both performance assessments and standardized tests. Further, she says in an interview with Catalyst Editor Linda Lenz, teachers will be measured by how well their students do. St. James adds that she, too, should be judged “on whether the statistics change.” Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Q What made you take this job?

A With the new legislation, I felt that the time is now for a substantive change to take place in the Chicago public schools. If it could be done, the time is now to do it. And who better but me? I’m one of the harshest critics.

Q What do you want to work on first?

A I first want to work on an organization which will bring all of the people involved in improving Chicago schools together. Both public and private providers along with all the city agencies that have so much to give and offer to our schools. With this unique city and Board of Education partnership, we can do that, and we hope to do it through newly formed regions.

Q Give an example of what this might look like.

A For example, rather than our students being bused to a Park District program after school, the Park District could send their personnel to the schools and relieve us of the cost of transporting students. Another example would be student immunizations. Many of our students can’t start school in the fall because they are not fully immunized and have to be sent home to receive those shots. But we have a city Department of Health who could help us with that prior to schools opening. Universities certainly could join the regions in assisting in many ways.

Q There will be six regions that will cut these horizontal swathes through the city, one stacked on top of the other. Was that your idea?

A It actually came as a recommendation from the Facilities Department. I had asked them to do several models of the best configuration and gave them some criteria. I told them I wanted the best ethnic mix. I felt it was important that all students learn together insofar as it’s possible across this city, so that we would not have gerrymandered, racially isolated regions or districts, which is often the case now. With this lakefront-to-the-western-boundaries configuration, we get the best ethnic mix possible in each region. I wanted to get the schools under 100 for each region—[there are] between 85 and 93 schools in each region.

The other thing is, I want the regions to create communities of learners so that communities, grassroots people, can assist in solving the problems that are facing the schools in their community. I think this is a good way to do it.

Q How would that work?

A They need to come up with dropout prevention programs, student retrieval programs, a homeless education program. [They need to] establish “best practice” sites where teachers and principals and local school councils can go to see best practices.

Q Why do you think this will work under six regions when it didn’t work under 11 subdistricts?

A I think they lacked the resources to do the job. We’ll have about 15 professional personnel—not counting lunchroom managers, janitors, engineers and the like—who can assist each region, which we didn’t have before.

Q Will schools have to go through a regional office to get anything? Is this going to be a conduit that they have to go through?

A No. They do not. The only thing that they are there for, in terms of evaluating, is to ensure that rules, regulations, laws, procedures and contracts are not violated. If there is a contract violation, they’ll have to intercede. If there is a violation of the law, they will have to intervene. But as far as dictating or mandating regional policy, they’re not going to be doing that. . . . There will be a separate evaluative process for individual schools coming from central office—the office of accountability.

Q If there’s some kind of a standoff at the school, either within the LSC or between the principal and LSC, who do you go to?

A I have recommended to every regional officer that they have an LSC mediator right there. In addition, there will be an ombudsman in central office who can come out on immediate complaints. If it’s an emergency, Maribeth [Vander Weele’s] shop will be prepared to respond.

Q To whom are the regional offices accountable? How do you keep them from becoming a layer of dead wood?

A They will be accountable directly to me and to Mr. Vallas for their performance. And if they’re not providing the services that we feel schools need, then we’ll have to look at that very carefully and determine their usefulness.

Q What about high schools, which seem structurally so out of line with what kids seem to need? What do you want to accomplish, and how do you do it?

A They have to completely restructure, and they have to be led down the path of how you restructure a traditional high school that’s been traditional for a hundred years. Parents and grandparents, if they were to stop into a school today, it’s the same as it was when they left school.

They have to learn how to plan an interdisciplinary curriculum. How does team teaching occur? What are some cooperative learning methods? You don’t just put two people together and say we’re a cooperative learning pair. The focus has to be on what students do with what they know, not just on obtaining content knowledge from textbooks.

I was very upset when elementary schools decided they wanted to departmentalize, rather than be generalists in education and teach the interrelatedness of knowledge.

Q Do you know that that works? The approach that you advocate?

A It’s an approach that is advocated by researchers. And, of course, the Coalition of Essential Schools, it is one of their common principles. Otherwise, kids are left to make the connection themselves.

Q How do you make this mesh with local control? What if a school wants to stay traditional?

A That is their option. All we can do is show them a better way. If they don’t reach their goals, they’re going to have to try something new or approach it in a different manner. They cannot continue to do what they’ve always done, because they keep getting the same results. And to keep sticking to their guns, in spite of the fact that student achievement is not improving . . . at some point, it’s got to reach them that we have to change.

Q What about the issue of inclusion of special ed children? [There are] a lot of concerns out in the field. How do you support the schools to make that work?

A Our hands are tied as far as funding is concerned, and that’s where the problem is. We would like maybe three to five special ed kids along with a special ed teacher, to follow them and team-teach with the regular classroom teacher. That would be [the] ideal model.

Even if we had the money right now, there is a shortage of special education teachers. So, how do you get the help? Is it training more people to assist children with special needs? I don’t have any answers to that problem. We don’t have enough young people going into these areas in college.

Q It sounds as though the special kids as well as the regular kids will pay the price for this.

A It’s going to get worse before it gets better. We can’t continue to say what it is we want and then not be willing to pay for it. Either we’re going to provide them with specialized teachers, or we’re going to mainstream them and pay for the support that they’re going to need when they are thrown into the heterogeneous mix of all students. The federal government cannot have it both ways.

Q What does the Chicago school system do?

A The Chicago school system follows the law, in as far as we are able, and provides resources to the extent that we are able.

Q School accountability and testing are big, controversial, related issues. What kind of accountability system would you like to see for schools?

A First of all, I’d like to see it as a help to schools rather than a punishment.

I would like an academic model [for] probation. Tell them the areas we see where they need improvement, ask them how we can help them improve, and give them a specified time to improve. If they are not up to where they should be, then they would be recommended for remediation or reconstitution or some other action.

Q Is this based on test scores?

A No, I think it has to be based on all of the pathways to achievement—on leadership, on fiscal accountability, on learner-centered classrooms, on teaching strategies, on all of those things that we know make schools of excellence.

In testing and assessment, there are several pieces that have to be considered. While America is stuck on standardized testing as the absolute measure of what people know and are able to do, we feel it has to be tied in with performance assessment. So we are going to utilize both methods. The Joyce Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation are going to help us pilot new assessment programs for students.

Q What would you like to see in terms of performance assessment?

A I would like to see students be given a comprehensive examination, pre-test if you will, at the beginning of the year and be tested [again] near the end of each school year, with both standardized [tests] and a performance assessment that is aligned with the curriculum and state goals for learning.

[Then, we need] learning outcomes for Chicago schools, for each grade, that are tied to a teacher’s evaluation . . . so that we can hold teachers accountable for student growth. That’s what parents are interested in—is my child learning? Not children in general—my child. And we ought to be able to show them how much growth a child has made under a particular teacher or teachers from September through June.

Q When do you think this might be in place? Will you still be here to see it?

A I hope to be. It’s going to take a while. They [Director of Research John Easton and Accountability Officer Pat Harvey] are working on it now.

Q I come across a fair number of people who are defeatist about the public schools. They believe either that it’s the parents’ fault the kids aren’t learning and therefore schools can’t do anything about it. Or they believe that the school system is such a mess that you just can’t fix it. What do you say to those folks?

A I think it can be fixed. A number of decisions have been made in the past which may or may not have been in the best interest of students. We have to look at this whole tracking and inclusion issue, where magnet schools and schools of choice skim the cream from other schools. It is our feeling and the feeling of educational researchers that the majority of children learn best together. So we’ll be looking at that entire thing through focus groups.

Q You’re looking at whether you’ll continue magnet schools? Is that under consideration?

A Tracking, not magnet schools as such, but tracking as an issue. So that those students in the third through seventh stanines are generally together in the same student population. And only those at perhaps stanines one and two, the very bottom, and eight and nine, the very top, would be in special programs of remediation or enrichment for gifted students.

There are a number of focus groups that we’re going to be forming. There is some concern about the promotion policy, graduation requirements, the career ladder for teachers and teacher discipline policies. And we’ll be asking for input from a number of people throughout the city.

Q The post of chief educational officer is new. You’re one of four chiefs who report to a superchief. If you want to do something, who do you have to convince?

A I make recommendations to the chief executive officer, and he approves or disapproves recommendations that come from the field through me. What we’re trying to do is create an inverted decision-making model. In the past, many decisions were handed down, which was one of the large criticisms.

Q I would suggest that maybe you’re not off to a good start on that. I didn’t hear any questions put to the field about these regional offices.

A We did have public hearings, at Whitney Young.

Q Did that change anything?

A Well, nobody had any suggestions to make to the contrary.

Q How do you intend to gather opinions from the field in the future?

A Through public forums . . . . We think the regions are the perfect place for those forums to be held and issues to be thrashed out. [Recommendations] would come forward from regional offices to us.

Q You were a school principal. What do you think principals most want out of this new administration?

A They need autonomy, support, resources and the wherewithal to do the tremendously difficult job they’ve been asked to do.

Q A number of people in the reform movement want schools to have more power when it comes to things like purchasing.

A They’re going to get it. It’s going to take a while to get the purchasing on line. But that is our goal.

Q What will be different for individual schools in a year’s time? What can they expect?

A I think they can see students engaged in active learning projects. I think they’ll see students out in the community participating with community organizations and businesses [on] projects connected with their learning. I think they’ll see cleaner and neater schools. I think they’ll see classrooms where the teacher is not [lecturing] at the front of the classroom, [but rather] working with a group of students on projects and issues, actually working to apply what it is that they know. I hope that’s what people will see when they go in schools, so that it won’t look like the school that my mother and my grandmother and great-grandmother attended.

Q And how do you accomplish that?

A By modeling it for schools, which is the purpose of the best-practice sites, where teachers, principals, LSC members can go to view best practices. You have to see it. Then you’ve got to have some professional development in how to do it, and you need somebody to hold your hand while you’re doing it. So, some mentoring and peer assistance is also going to be needed.

Q From the standpoint of the average Chicagoan, a parent of a Chicago school child, a taxpayer, what will be different in a year if everything goes your way?

A More students will be on grade level. The dropout rate will not be quite as high. The attendance rate will certainly be increased. I have some waiver requests that will certainly assist us in increasing our attendance. All of the special programs that will be operated by the regions will solve some of the attendance problems, which result in school failure as you know. There are a lot of problems that have to be solved, but I think it’s doable.

Q Do you think that in just a year’s time those numbers will change in a positive way?

A I’ll be very disappointed if they don’t.

Q How should you be judged?

A On whether the statistics change. Did the dropout rate decrease? Did attendance increase? Did student achievement increase? If not, then you don’t need me. If I’ve not been successful in providing schools with the resources and encouraging them to change to the point that it affects student achievement, then I have not been successful.

Catalyst interviewed Lynn St. James on two occasions: on July 31 for the “City Voices” program on WNUA-FM and again on August 7.