Unanticipated outcomes, good and bad

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While the theme of this month’s issue is External Partners, it could just as easily be Unanticipated Outcomes. When school reformers downsized central office and put state Chapter 1 money into the hands of schools, they probably didn’t think they were creating a principal preparation program. But they did just that, as Associate Editor Debra Williams discovered in her extensive reporting on external partners. Over the past two years, one external partner, DePaul University’s School Achievement Structure (SAS), has lost seven of its facilitators to schools in need of assistant principals. Most likely, these assistants will grow up to become principals some day.

By working for a university-based program in a variety of schools, these fledgling administrators acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience that wasn’t available 10 years ago, when outsiders could barely get a foot in the door of Chicago schools. “I learned about curriculum, management, assessments, discipline, working with teachers and personalities, you name it,” says Valetta Rodgers, who left SAS to become an assistant principal at Carver Elementary.

In the old days, aspiring principals learned about those issues by working in district, regional and central offices and as assistant principals. However, in each arena, they were accountable up the line to a boss. In the modest free market that has developed among external partners, program facilitators must demonstrate that they can work effectively with principals and teachers to improve student learning. If they can’t, their programs risk losing contracts. Of the 100-plus schools that have been put on probation sometime over the past three years, about a third have switched partners.

In another unanticipated outcome, groups that are competing for contracts have begun working together to improve their partnering skills and the services they provide schools. And they’ve begun talking about an annual journal and a national network. If they get really ambitious, they may even get their own institutions to incorporate lessons from the field into their own teacher- and administrator-preparation programs. (A college of education administrator once confided that it was easier to change a dysfunctional Chicago school than his own institution.)

If Reform Phase I got the ball rolling, Reform Phase II gave it a big shove. The Reform Board’s accountability program, for all its serious flaws, upped the ante for everyone. These days, partnerships must show results. Having changed that part of the school culture in Chicago, the Reform Board should not fear re-examining the specific results it is demanding of both schools and students. Just about every school story we do these days uncovers a negative, unintended consequence. In this issue, for example, we hear a principal say she is spending most of her staff development dollars in 3rd through 8th grades because that’s where the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills are administered and kids can be held back. Yet, a 2nd-grade teacher rightly points out: “The primary teachers feel the foundation begins in 1st and 2nd grade, so you have to start there.” With limited resources, principals face awful choices. Citywide policies should encourage them to make the ones that will yield the most widespread benefits.

ABOUT US I am pleased to report that Catalyst has received a 1998 Award of Excellence from the Chicago Association of Black Journalists for its eight-part What Matters Most, which focused on the essentials of elementary school improvement. The series is online in both English and Spanish at www.catalyst-chicago. … I also am pleased to report that Beverly Cross, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has joined the Catalyst Editorial Board. Her work with Milwaukee schools will broaden our perspective.

Catalyst ON THE AIR We will continue our discussion of external partners on the Dec. 13 edition of “City Voices” on WNUA-FM, 95.5. The program will be broadcast from 6 to 6:30 a.m.