CPS formula for change

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Rollie Jones

photo by Christine Oliva

Rollie Jones

Last spring, while Deloris Jackson was leading a phonics drill for her 1st-graders, the door to her classroom at Altgeld Elementary quietly opened. In slipped the principal, the assistant principal and four strangers holding clipboards. Uneasy, Jackson went back to work, pointing to the “ou” and “ow” sounds on the chalkboard while the visitors watched, whispered questions to students and inspected bulletin boards for the next 10 minutes. Then, as quickly as they came, they left.

Jackson had experienced her first “walkthrough,” the centerpiece of a districtwide initiative launched a year ago to encourage schools to use a team approach to improve teaching. The idea is to break down barriers that isolate teachers and principals from peers and each other, and make use of the best teaching strategies systemwide.

To accomplish this, Chicago Public Schools set its sights on providing more support for principals, specifically training and mentoring them to become instructional leaders for their schools. It hired 24 “area instructional officers” to replace six region officers, who previously had supervised principals, and charged the AIOs with leading school walkthroughs, running monthly professional development workshops and supervising specialists who provide direct support to schools.

But the new AIOs have gotten off to an uneven start. On the plus side, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is increased communication among educators—the first step toward improving instruction, according to research—and changes in classroom practice prompted by walkthroughs.

A Catalyst survey of more than 300 schools found the district’s new instructional teams so far have won widespread support among principals, who say 4 to 1 that walkthroughs are worthwhile. (See related story)

At Altgeld, for instance, teachers began sharing teaching strategies and became more diligent in following the district’s reading framework after a walkthrough. “We have a wealth of information from the walkthroughs,” says Principal Vera Williams-Willis. “And I’m not just saying that.”

However, some principals say AIOs demoralized their staff during school walkthroughs or never visited the school at all. Others question whether AIOs’ efforts will create systemic change or superficial compliance. Teachers at one elementary school adopted “word walls” (posting new vocabulary related to a lesson) at the suggestion of an AIO. “They have an increase in their word walls,” reports the principal. “Not that it’s making any difference.”

Also widely questioned is the cost, particularly in light of this spring’s disappointing test results. (District reading and math scores declined across the board on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, although state scores were up at some grade levels.) CPS says the additional $3.7 million being spent on administrative salaries was offset by staff cuts at central office, but that doesn’t include the cost of hiring additional instruction support staff who work with area offices. (See chart)

Inspiration from New York

Chicago’s instructional initiative was inspired by similar ones that made a difference in San Diego and Boston and New York’s District 2, a pioneer in using walkthroughs to improve teaching.

Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins began considering adopting the practice here soon after she was promoted to the district’s top education post two years ago. After reviewing research on District 2, she contacted Anthony Alvarado, the former District 2 superintendent, who by then had imported his ideas to the San Diego Unified School District as chancellor of instruction.

In January 2002, Eason-Watkins traveled to San Diego and shadowed a district administrator on a walkthrough. She was impressed by how fast administrators could assess the delivery of instruction across classrooms and pinpoint where teachers needed extra support. “I thought it was a very useful and powerful tool.”

To lead walkthroughs at 600 schools, Eason-Watkins knew she would need more than six region officers. In the end, the district settled on 24 area instructional officers—18 for elementary schools and six for high schools.

Adjusting the size of CPS subdistricts was nothing new—the number had ranged from 27 in the 1970s to 11 in the early 1990s to six. This time, however, the top administrator would focus almost exclusively on instruction, Eason-Watkins says. AIOs would be backed by one or two deputies, called management support directors, who would handle day-to-day operations issues. She split elementary and high schools into separate instructional areas to better target the academic concerns of each.

Eason-Watkins and Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan scoured the ranks of well-regarded principals to hire the first crop of AIOs last summer. Some former principals also were recruited from central and region offices. During that summer, the new hires attended training workshops on topics ranging from conducting walkthroughs to analyzing school data to organizational change.

Impressions of year 1

After a year in the field, AIOs are generally getting positive reviews from principals. Most of them report that their AIOs have inspired schools to cross-pollinate ideas and focus more sharply on instruction. “I’m working better with the teachers as a team,” says Carl Woodruff, principal of Harvard Elementary. “Before it was not a team effort; each teacher had his or her own ideas.”

Sharper focus on instruction has been achieved largely via walkthroughs, which AIOs use to provide principals with a snapshot of their schools’ academic strengths and weaknesses. AIOs typically suggest what observers should look for during walkthroughs—student engagement or evidence of higher-order thinking, for instance—but often, they allow the principal to decide.

Walkthroughs have also opened the lines of communication between classrooms and between schools. English teacher Deanna O’Brien says than in her seven years at Byrne Elementary in Garfield Ridge, she had never visited another classroom in her school or elsewhere. When she participated in a walkthrough last year, she saw classrooms where teachers had replaced textbook assignments with small group activities and was amazed by how absorbed students were in their work. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to do more of that.'”

In Area 11, AIO Rebeca de los Reyes took walkthroughs a step farther, organizing teams of teachers and principals to visit other schools. After visiting Pasteur, Principal Ruby Coats of Hurley says she was impressed by the level of teacher collaboration and parent involvement.

Ultimately, the goal is for principals to regularly conduct walkthroughs in their own schools. At the district’s request, a division of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association has trained more than 200 principals over the last year to use the technique.

Besides walkthroughs, AIOs convene principal meetings once a month. The meetings are not new, but the smaller size—anywhere from 12 to 43 principals—is more conducive to discussing school issues.

Often, the lines of communication remain open after monthly meetings have ended. A novice principal in Area 6 calls on her colleagues for advice. A group of Area 7 principals decided to form a monthly support group. Still another group in Area 2 decided to open magnet programs for all students within their collective attendance boundaries. “If we hadn’t been in a smaller group working together all year, I’m not sure it would have happened,” says Principal Karen Carlson of Boone Elementary in West Rogers Park.

Increased access to support staff was another plus cited by principals. One elementary school principal says the former region officer had never set foot in her school, and in six years, region support staffers had visited only twice.

By contrast, the AIO has visited at least four times in the last year, and specialists in reading and technology have worked on-site with teachers five times or more. A special education coach stops by every month. “There’s a difference between assistance and support,” the principal says.

Some AIOs misstep

However, not all principals are satisfied with the performance or frequency of contact with their AIOs.

In the Catalyst survey, principals in Areas 1 and 2, which have the most schools, report having less frequent contact with area instructional staff than their peers elsewhere in the district, and were more than twice as likely to dislike the area structure, according to Catalyst’s survey. With 38 schools to cover, Area 2 AIO Jeannie Gallo explains that she must concentrate on the neediest schools. “The ones that are achieving might get a little less attention, which isn’t fair,” she says. “What can you do?”

(Schools with the highest poverty rates, many on the South and West sides, were organized into the smallest areas. Eason-Watkins says principals at better-off schools in Areas 1 and 2 resisted being broken into smaller groupings “because they were already working together.”)

Some principals cited brusk or ineffective management styles among some AIOs as another cause for distress. One recounted that an AIO told principals that low-performing schools would not get positive feedback after a walkthrough. “If your school is not on level, then we have to ask the hard questions,” the principal recalls her saying.

Eason-Watkins says pointed criticism may be necessary to create a sense of urgency for schools that need it. But Dave Peterson of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association cautions that criticism is often counterproductive. To avoid a defensive response, AIOs should focus on suggesting improvements, Peterson says. “If a school is on probation, you don’t need to beat them over the head,” he argues.

Several teachers complained to their union that AIOs had disrupted lessons with questions or criticism. One AIO interrupted a reading lesson and insisted that a child reread a passage more slowly, reports one teacher. In another case, a high school teacher who was observed for five minutes was told by an AIO, “The next time I’m here I better not see you standing in front of the class lecturing.”

“There was no meeting with the teacher beforehand [to find out] whether group work would follow,” recalls Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Lynch says she and other union representatives brought such complaints to Eason-Watkins, who says she spoke to the AIOs involved. One AIO who provoked the most serious complaints departed mid-year on medical leave. By the end of the school year, most AIO problems had been resolved, according to union officials.

Lynch believes some confusion could have been avoided had the district included teachers in the process from the outset. Walkthroughs were well received by teachers in New York’s District 2, where the union had input, but were problematic in San Diego, where the union was shut out, she notes.

In January, Eason-Watkins agreed to meet with the union and a union officer from New York. “We wanted to prevent a situation here in Chicago where [walkthroughs] were causing too many problems for our members,” Lynch says.

At a follow-up meeting in March, central office staff explained the walkthrough process to union staff. Finding that team members were selected at the discretion of AIOs and principals, the CTU asked the district to include a union representative on every team. Also, AIOs were asked to reassure teachers at their schools that walkthroughs were not intended to evaluate their teaching.

The new practice did not get underway until late winter and, even then, generally involved only a handful of classrooms at each school. Many teachers contacted by Catalyst had not yet experienced a walkthrough. Among those who had been observed, they found walkthrough teams polite and professional, but, in some cases, unnerving. “It was a bit intimidating initially,” says Deloris Jackson at Altgeld. “I wasn’t sure if they were looking at me or looking at the kids.”

Creating lasting change

Some principals and teachers found the walkthrough feedback superficial, however. Walkthrough teams tended to focus on general questions, such as whether students could name the purpose of the lesson, whether teachers provided small-group activities, and whether classrooms had vocabulary and lesson objectives posted. “They’re only looking at the structure of the room,” one principal contends. “They are not looking at whether the children actually understand what is going on.”

Many also questioned how much insight a walkthrough team could provide following a five- or 10-minute visit. “Getting a snapshot can be a good thing, but only if it’s complemented by a longer observation,” says Meg Arbeiter, who recently taught English at Hirsch High. More frequent visits could determine whether the curriculum goes anywhere or the teacher is teaching a random book, she adds.

Victoria Bill, a professional developer for mathematics with the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, says Chicago’s general questions about instruction and classroom environment are fine for a start, however, the observations need to go deeper.

The Institute is now helping 10 large urban school districts, including New York, Los Angeles and Denver, learn how to conduct “learning walks” similar to Chicago’s walkthroughs. Learning walks help schools assess the impact of what teachers learned in their professional development. In a middle school math classroom, says Bill, a learning-walk team might investigate whether students are able to explain why two solutions to the same math problem are the same, or whether they understand the relationship between the same information presented in a chart and in a table.

To ask relevant questions, principals and sub-district supervisors must become familiar with the same teaching strategies that teachers are learning. This is a more manageable goal in districts that have common programs and practices, she observes, than in a decentralized district like Chicago. Although Chicago now has a general framework for reading—lessons must include work with vocabulary, comprehension, fluency and writing—each school selects its own reading programs and professional development.

Given the complexity of school improvement, some observers see a limit to the changes AIOs can bring about first-hand. “I know from experience that there is no way on earth that a willing and competent [area] team would be able to influence instruction at 33 schools,” says one administrator who has mentored principals at schools on probation.

Even a full day of mentoring every week was not enough to turn some principals around, she adds. At best, AIOs can point schools in the right direction, and hold principals accountable for following through, she says. Some of her schools failed to improve until central office removed the principals, the administrator recalls.

Eason-Watkins says that CPS is prepared to remove principals if necessary. In the meantime, the district has a number of new supports for them.

Like the former region officers, AIOs evaluate principals—the first round of evaluations is due on Sept. 30. Unlike the former region officers, AIOs have time to coach struggling principals and may pair them with colleagues who serve as mentors.

In a first for the district, a new Office of Principal Preparation and Development, headed by former Area 6 AIO Nancy Laho, will open this fall to train aspiring, new and experienced principals.

Area staff also will work intensively with 44 schools on a pilot program that, among other goals, will teach schools to analyze students’ class work. That practice will give staff detailed information about student progress and where instruction needs fine tuning, Eason-Watkins explains.

CTU’s Lynch hopes that the district and area officers will also begin to ask for more input from teachers. “The bottom line is, ‘Are the helpers asking the helpees what they need?'”

Some AIOs are already advising principals to create leadership teams that include teachers and parents to guide school improvement efforts. “The principal being the only person in the building making decisions—that is obsolete,” says Area 8 AIO Rollie Jones.

Victoria Bill of the Institute for Learning agrees that administrators need teacher leaders with expertise in their subjects to help them analyze teaching. “The most exciting thing for the teachers is being asked genuine, interesting questions about their content area.”

Principal Melverlene Parker, for one, already conducts walkthroughs with her staff at Hirsch, and is training department chairs to coach the faculty based on the findings in those walkthroughs.

That’s exactly what teachers need—an experienced colleague to observe and coach them to reflect on their teaching strategies, agrees Arbeiter, the Hirsch English teacher.

“Then it could be exciting,” she adds. “Then we could really talk about improving instruction.”