Successful schools can lead the way

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What do elementary schools like Oriole Park on the Northwest Side, Otis in West Town and Beethoven in Grand Boulevard have in common?

They are among 111 Chicago public elementary schools whose reading scores displayed a trend of substantial, consistent improvement from 1990 to 1997. As a group, these schools’ scores rose from 29 percent of students at or above the national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to 44 percent at or above the national norms. For a school testing 700 students, this means that over the seven-year period, the number of students scoring at or above the norm had risen from about 200 to about 300. In our study of elementary school reading scores, we call these schools Substantially Improved Schools.

Most of Chicago’s Substantially Improved Schools are neighborhood schools, not magnet schools, and they are spread across the city. These schools serve 65,000 students, about the same number as the entire Denver public school system and significantly more than the Catholic elementary schools in Chicago. The average percentage of low-income students at these schools is 78 percent.

The outward differences among Substantially Improved Schools are striking. For example, Kinzie, on the Southwest Side, has made the education of the school’s 120 deaf students a schoolwide focus, so sign language is a second language for all of Kinzie’s students. At Hibbard in Albany Park, a multicultural curriculum binds together students who speak 20 languages.

But there are common patterns underneath such outward differences. Designs for Change analyzed citywide survey responses by teachers and students from all of Chicago’s elementary schools (collected by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in spring 1994). We found that schools that were low-achieving in 1990 but then showed a substantial upward trend in reading achievement tended to use a distinctive set of practices.

Local decision making

In the area of leadership, Substantially Improved Schools had (1) significantly more effective local school councils (as rated by teachers), (2) principals who both involved others in decision making and set high standards for staff performance and (3) more teacher involvement in school decision making. These results indicate that the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which shifted substantial decision making authority to the school level, is paying off in improved student achievement.

Another set of practices that distinguished the Substantially Improved Schools were collaboration, commitment and initiative by all adults at the school. Teachers reached out more to parents. Teachers trusted each other and the principal, collaborated with each other in planning the school’s educational program, felt that they were encouraged to innovate and showed a strong commitment to their school. Teachers strongly agreed with such statements as “I wouldn’t want to work in any other school” and “I feel loyal to this school.”

Another critical difference in Substantially Improved Schools was that teachers focused their collaboration on improving student learning. Teachers in these schools were in strong agreement with such statements as “When making important decisions, the school always focuses on what is best for student learning.” Follow-up observations and interviews in seven of the improved schools further clarified what this strong focus on student learning meant in practice. For example, Principal Gail Szulc at Oriole Park reviewed the progress of each student in the school weekly, as part of a schoolwide reading curriculum in which teachers have been carefully trained. And Beethoven staff taught a 90-minute language arts program each morning, which was tied closely to tutoring and instruction after school.

But of course, most schools still have far to go. While 81 percent of elementary schools scored higher on the Iowa Reading Test in 1997 than in 1990, most schools are still well below national norms, and many have made only small gains.

What can Chicago learn from research results about the 111 Substantially Improved Schools, so we can help the other elementary schools. Since schools with substantially improved student achievement have higher levels of local school council, principal, and teacher involvement in decision making, local decision making must be protected and strengthened in more and more schools.

No quick fixes

Further, raising test scores dramatically requires complex changes in the social fabric of schools—changes that create teamwork, build trust and help teachers become skillful classroom decision makers. Simple remedies like drilling students on practice tests or having teachers follow a script may raise test scores a little in the short run but will not bring the dramatic upward trend that schools like Earhart and Oriole Park have shown. Schools with major sustained achievement gains typically put a modest emphasis on explicitly preparing students for standardized tests. As Earhart Principal Hellen DeBerry observed, “We have confidence that if we carry out a quality instructional program, improved test results will follow.'”

Our research also indicated that the Chicago elementary schools now on probation, as well as most high schools, showed extreme deficits in the very areas of educational practice that distinguished the elementary schools with improved reading test scores. Failing schools, for example, reported very low levels of principal leadership, teacher trust, collaboration, teacher commitment to remain at the school and teacher outreach to parents. The basic social fabric among adults had broken down in these schools. We must find ways to help failing schools carry out the complex changes in their working relationships that will result in major gains in student learning.

Chicago’s most critical resources for helping schools improve are the LSCs, principals and teachers in schools that have already substantially raised student achievement. We must capitalize on this citywide network. The Illinois General Assembly should create a special category of charter schools that would reward the accomplishments of these Stand Out Schools and aid their further progress by giving them freedom from school system and state red tape, along with maximum budget flexibility. In return, however, the Stand Out Schools would have to agree to assist other schools and would receive extra funds to do so. LSC chairs, teacher leaders and principals from Stand Out Schools would coach their peers in schools that need help, and arrange cross-school visits and workshops. The most effective and credible sources of help for turning Chicago schools around are the teachers, LSCs and principals who have already done it.

But while policy implications are being weighed, it would be nice for Chicago just to say “thank you” to the thousands of teachers, principals, LSC members and parents in these improved schools. They have been working tirelessly with virtually no public recognition since 1989, and they are proving that Chicago’s children can achieve in neighborhood public schools where LSCs, parents, principals and teachers take ownership for their children’s education and learn to work together.

Donald R. Moore is the executive director of Designs for Change, a school research and advocacy organization. The organization’s web address is www.dfc1.org.