Strong leadership is No. 1

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There is much to celebrate in the improvement in student achievement in the elementary schools of Chicago. Since 1990, the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading has increased by 11.2 percentage points, while the percentage in math has increased by 12.5 points. After some small decreases from 1990 to 1992, as newly empowered schools were getting organized under school-based management reforms, progress was fairly steady in both reading and math. But there is still more to do. At the end of 1998, just over a third of Chicago 3rd- through 8th-graders read at the national norms, and two in five achieved at that level in math. The target in the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act was that 50 percent would be at national norms in both subjects in five years. After 10 years of effort, we still have a way to go to reach that initial target.

Unfortunately, and somewhat contrary to the expectations of reformers, the improvements among elementary students did not carry forward into the city’s high schools, which saw a precipitous drop in reading scores (from 30 percent at norms to 20 percent in 1996), but some significant recovery has occurred in the last two years, abetted in part by retaining some low-performing students in elementary schools.

What are some of the important elements in continuing the progress in elementary schools—which may also have some impact on the city’s struggling high schools? The Chicago Panel on School Policy, while I was its executive director, tracked 14 schools during the initial five years of school reform. During the past year, I have worked more closely with the city’s 77 high schools. My comments come from these two sets of contacts with Chicago schools.

First, in studying the 14 schools, I and my colleagues discovered that the most distinguishing feature of improving (as compared to stable or declining) schools was that they were led continuously by strong principals who had a vision of improvement for their school. All but one of the schools that did not show significant achievement gains found it necessary to change leadership; that may have positioned them for later improvement, but it kept them from progressing during the transition period. The one school that retained an ineffective principal also had one of the sharpest declines in student achievement.

The importance of continuing strong leadership is well recognized in the school reform literature, but the time lag during periods of transition to an effective leader is often overlooked. It takes time to understand a school well, to build a consensus among the faculty for change in a particular direction, and for teacher capacity to be developed to implement that change, all elements we documented in the schools that eventually showed the greatest achievement gains.

A second key element is that teachers have to recognize that, although the children they teach may be more disadvantaged than those they encountered earlier in their careers, it is the teachers themselves who must change what they have been doing to be effective with today’s students. This change in teachers’ beliefs about themselves is the most difficult change required by urban school improvement. Even in many of the probation schools we have studied this past year, teachers continue to blame their students for being different (or blame the Board of Education for giving them different students), rather than examining what they have to do differently to be successful with today’s kids. If Chicago’s schools are going to continue to get better, it is critical that teachers who continue to resist change face consequences.

Third, it is crucial that local school councils and the public understand how difficult these kinds of changes are for teachers. Teachers who try to change their practices find it terribly hard to master new ways of doing things; at first, frustration is high. Teachers attempting such changes need tremendous support in terms of coaching and mentoring, resources to try new things, and cheerleading from those in charge and from those whose children will benefit from the changes.

It is for this reason that the school system’s investments in external school partners have been so important.

Fourth, students must recognize that, whatever is happening with their teachers, they are ultimately responsible for their own learning. For too long, it has been assumed that it is the teachers’ job to tell kids what they should know and the students’ job to remember it. This has led to a culture of student passivity that dampens a child’s natural curiosity and that leads to dull and boring instruction. Teachers, who are themselves changing, are finding it hard to change this student culture, so instituting consequences for students who do not apply themselves to learning is also an important, if controversial, part of the effort to keep improving Chicago’s schools.

Finally, in studying the 14 sample schools implementing reform, we at the Chicago Panel discovered that many of the stable or declining schools were investing their sizeable discretionary funds in programs that were not producing higher achievement. However, it is difficult for schools to recognize their mistakes and redirect the funds because the money is now supporting individuals who have become friends and colleagues. Moving the money to programs more directly linked to improving teaching and learning means discharging those friends and colleagues. However, if schools are to improve student achievement and, thereby, the life chances of our students, friendship must take a back seat.

Fred Hess is the director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University.