High achievement can become ‘routine’

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In 1992, the School Achievement Structure (SAS) was formed at DePaul University to help low-achieving schools in Chicago adopt 10 routines that, research had shown, could turn them into high achievers.The research was conducted in Pittsburgh and Dallas while I was on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. The schools we studied had predominantly African-American student bodies, were located in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, and were not magnet schools. Yet, all produced high student achievement.

The routines that made a difference for them deal with assessment, student placement, curriculum pacing and acceleration, monitoring, measuring, discipline, instruction, evaluation, professional development and decision making. In the assessment routine, for example, test scores are examined at the individual, class and grade levels, and then growth goals are set. Next, the placement routine groups students on the basis of the test score analysis, subject/grade assignment and age. 

While all the routines are important, those involving decision making and professional development are pivotal. If they are not done right, the others may be impossible to achieve.

Many schools with depressed standardized test scores have constituencies that are fighting each other or resisting change. This constant struggle for power creates instability and destroys morale. Decisions are made by majority rule, and the defeated minority spends its energy and time making sure that the decisions of the majority are thwarted. School improvement will not happen until the school employees make student achievement their highest priority and agree to cooperate and collaborate in changing their educational routines to attain it.

Consensus and commitment are facilitated by group problem solving and planning. However, it is hard for schools to find time for teachers to meet together in grade-level and subject-matter teams. One hour should be added to the school day for this necessary professional activity. Further, parents, local school council members, teachers and administrators should devise a process that allows all segments of the school community to participate in identifying problems, devising solutions and making assignments. After that, the principal must oversee the completion of the assignments.

Much professional development is being conducted in the Chicago public schools. But there’s been little effort to determine whether teachers have changed how they teach. This needs to be altered; there must be monitoring. If teachers aren’t developing and using new skills, they should receive extra help (especially modeling from an expert teacher) until they do. Employees who refuse to improve should face a lowered job rating and be mandated to participate in professional development.

Here, too, time is a problem. One of the ways schools provide time for professional development is restructuring their day. For example, a school might start classes 10 minutes early for three weeks to generate 22 hours for professional development. Under the teachers union contract, teachers must vote on such a change. However, at some schools where there are large numbers of temporary teachers (e.g. teachers with provisional certificates or those teaching off certificate), the faculty has vetoed the restructured day. At other schools, professionals consider themselves to be hourly workers and want to be paid for their development at their regular salary rates. In some cases, schools couldn’t afford to do that and had to make the training optional; as a result, teachers who need help the most were free to refuse. Another problem is that central office often alters its published professional development schedules on short notice, upsetting plans of individual schools. Future reform actions should correct these tendencies.

Chicago principals are now required to attend professional development classes; 70 hours are required for appointment, and 32 hours are required each year to keep the job. Principals also are subject to removal if their schools’ standardized tests scores decline significantly or repeatedly. Such rules may need to apply to teachers as well.

Chicago schools that have committed to high achievement and reached a consensus about change are reaping the rewards we observed in Pittsburgh and Dallas. For example, Spencer Elementary School, a 1,400-student school led by Principal Sandra Givens, has greatly improved achievement in reading and mathematics—reading scores went from 10 percent at or above the national average in 1992 to 22 percent in 1998; math scores, from 11 percent to 29 percent. Between 1995 and 1998, the Kellman Corporate Community School, led by Principal Rollie Jones, went from 40 percent to 50 percent at or above average in reading and from 25 percent to 51 percent in math. Both schools are SAS alumni.

Inspired by Principal Pierce Vaughn, Overton Elementary School saw an increase of 13 percentage points in math over the last two years and an increase of 10 percentage points in reading.

Region 3, headed by Hazel Steward, adopted an augmented version of SAS and has made significant gains. Of 145 Chicago public schools put on the state academic watch list in 1995, 41, or 28 percent, were from Region 3. Within two years, 19 of the 41 schools worked their way off the list, and no new Region 3 schools were added.

These leaders show it can be done.

Barbara Sizemore is professor emerita in the School of Education at DePaul University. She recently retired as dean.