Take heed of the problems with Manley

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Everyone knew this was going to be tough, retooling teaching so poor children don’t get shortchanged. The recent experience of Manley High School in East Garfield Park, expertly reconstructed by Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin, confirms the enormity of the challenge. Three years ago, Manley and the University of Illinois at Chicago launched a well-designed, well-funded effort that centered around four full-time teaching coaches, one each in English, math, science and social studies. As the program heads into its fourth and final year, none of the original coaches remains, the English and social studies faculties have had nearly 100 percent turnover, the innovative math program has been all but abandoned, and student test scores have risen and then fallen. G. Alfred Hess Jr., a Northwestern University professor retained to evaluate the program, says the project “failed dramatically” to achieve its primary goal, upgrading the skills of veteran teachers.

Even so, it can be argued that Manley is a better school for having brought coaches on board. The program clicked in the science department, which now has a complete set of lesson plans for every course, with reading and writing strategies woven throughout. The English department hired an above-average crop of first-year teachers, who say they were attracted by the extra help they would get. Two of Manley’s own teachers stepped up to the leadership plate, getting training to serve as school-wide coaches.

The project’s failure to accomplish more is due to a mix of avoidable problems and others over which it had no control. For future Manleys to succeed—as they must— both kinds need to be fixed. The biggest avoidable problem was that the project’s architects rushed the planning with the Manley staff and coach recruitment. “There was a feeling that [the school was] under deep threat and needed really quick, substantial help,” recalls Melissa Roderick, a University of Chicago faculty member who now heads up strategic planning for the School Board. “So the pressure was to throw something together, and that, in retrospect, was a huge mistake.” By moving too fast, the project did not get the necessary buy-in from Manley teachers, who have been subjected to a revolving door of external partners, nor the opportunity to recruit the best coaches. In contrast, a high school-improvement initiative sponsored by the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation gave school leadership teams six months of training and then six months to craft their plans.

For Manley, the biggest unavoidable problem was a dearth of coaching talent, good teachers who also know how to work with adults. There has been some movement on this front since Manley first put out a call for coaches—most of it by the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU is opening a school to develop teacher leaders and is pushing for a career ladder for teachers, which could turn the tide against a culture where no one wants to stand out. Chicago’s school children need for both of these efforts to succeed. Also, the School Board has planned several summer training sessions in instructional leadership.

Manley’s potential also was sapped by relationship problems involving ego, fear, race, rank, age and all the other thorny issues that make work-place improvement so difficult. While such problems are inevitable, they might have been mitigated had all the leaders involved in the project had more training in nurturing change, which requires mutual trust.

ABOUT US The “Chicago Matters” team from Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter did it again, winning another award for public service—this time in the Peter Lisagor Awards contest sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club. Hats off, again, to Dan Weissmann, Elizabeth Duffrin and Maureen Kelleher of Catalyst and Mick Dumke, Sarah Karp and Brian Rogal of the Reporter. Catalystpublisher Linda Lenz won a Lisagor award for her February 2001 editorial, “Been there, done that, Mr. President.”