What it takes to make a school sing—and why CPS comes up short

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Christ Kalamatas, Von Humboldt Elementary, West Town

Christ Kalamatas, Von Humboldt Elementary, West Town

In most neighborhoods of this city, there are two or more schools with nearly identical student bodies that, nonetheless, produce markedly different results.

A year ago in North Lawndale, for example, one school saw nearly half its 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders fall short of the test scores required for promotion to the next grade. Around the corner, a similar school failed just one in seven students.

In the Robert Taylor Homes area, two schools a block apart that draw students from the same towering, gang-infested high rises also were miles apart in student achievement: A child attending the school on the north end of the block was more than four times as likely to repeat a grade as a child attending the school on the south end.

The disparities in students’ failure rates cannot be explained by their race, poverty level, English fluency, prior achievement, how often they switch schools or any other individual characteristic, according to researcher Melissa Roderick, who analyzed Chicago’s promotion policy results from 1997 to 1999 for the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Rather, she says, the varying failure rates reflect uneven work by the adults inside the school buildings, particularly the principal. “It’s instructional leadership,” she says.

The skill of the principal in driving an instructional program varies enormously across the system, according to university professors who work with Chicago principals and teachers or who study their schools.

Where instructional leadership is lacking, they observe, students suffer. “You have inconsistent instruction across your grades, possibly directionless classes and an education with holes in it,” says Barbara Radner of DePaul University.

The role of the instructional leader is a complex one, she and others acknowledge.

It begins with the principal analyzing student work and test scores to target a specific area for improvement.

Next, teachers need workshops to learn better methods of teaching in that area, followed by coaching from an expert teacher as they try out the new strategies with their students. The principal and other school leaders need to monitor classrooms and provide teachers with useful feedback.

Teachers also need time to plan together so that those at the same grade level cover the same material and don’t repeat what’s been taught before. At every grade level, teachers need to make sure they aren’t skipping important concepts children will need as they move up.

Finally, at the end of the year, staff needs to examine the results of their efforts and work as a team to modify the curriculum or teaching strategies.

“The ability to plan and execute that kind of results-oriented [change] is very demanding,” notes Al Bertani of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

The good news is that, under school reform, instructional leadership has improved in Chicago, most observers agree, while continuing to debate whether the decentralization of the early years or the accountability of the latter years is more responsible for the gain.

Researcher Fred Hess of Northwestern University finds high school principals in classrooms more often today than he did during a study in the mid-80’s when “we saw some principals who never left their office.” Even so, many current principals “thought that 10 minutes in a classroom was enough,” he adds.

On a recent survey, teachers gave their principals higher marks on instructional leadership than they did in 1997 or 1994, reports Penny Sebring of the Consortium, which conducted the surveys. “The average school in 1999 is similar to the top school in 1994,” she says. “The whole system is shifted up.”

Like Hess, Sebring says the improvement is modest. “It’s not huge. It’s gradual and real.”

The bad news is that the overall rise in Chicago’s standardized test scores tends to mask the continuing shortfalls in instructional leadership.

High schools have seen a substantial increase in test scores since 1996, Hess notes, “and that makes it look like the high schools are doing better.” However, Hess attributes the increase mainly to higher scores for 8th-grade graduates and partly to the School Board’s policy requiring minimum test scores for high school entrance.

Roderick suspects that elementary schools are doing better in part because of after-school and summer programs, not necessarily improved instruction.

Noting that Chicago’s annual rise in test scores is now tapering off, Roderick speculates that the school system has wrung as much progress as it can out of these add-on programs. “To get increasing gains,” she says, “we need to be more productive during the school day.”

Three obstacles

Three obstacles stand in the way, local experts say: Many principals don’t understand good instruction. Those who do don’t always know how to lead change. And those who have a grasp of both are deterred by other, pressing challenges.

Nearly all Chicago principals began as teachers in the city’s schools, “most of which are low performing,” notes one university professor who works with principals and asked not to be named. “They haven’t seen an effective instructional program. How can you supervise a good instructional program if you don’t know what good instruction is?”

“The problems range from buying the wrong [programs] to grading teachers down for doing the right job in a way the principal doesn’t understand,” says Radner. “They’re not understanding that there is more than one way to teach reading effectively. They’re not understanding what [standardized tests] actually test, and so they frequently buy these [test preparation] programs instead of understanding that the answer is systematic professional development over three to five years.”

Even with know-how, principals can’t improve instruction on their own. But many “don’t understand how to get a team at their school to support them,” says Morris Williamson of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, who has worked with principals in Chicago. “They feel that they have to be the sole decision maker.”

Real leaders know that they can motivate staff by sharing power with them, he explains. “People, when you dictate stuff to them, it turns them off. But if you give them a goal to achieve, and they have to work as a group to achieve it, they are really gun-ho. They go at it.”

“My sense is that principals, through no fault of their own, have not been trained to be an instructional leader,” he continues. “They’ve been trained to be a manager. And it starts at the university level.”

Many education professors agree that university programs that lead to state certification for principals are woefully inadequate. Locally and nationally, the push for higher student achievement has radically changed the role of the principal in the past 10 years. University programs have yet to catch up, observes Albert Bennett of Roosevelt University.

In the old days, principals had a managerial role: “You balance the books, you make sure the lesson plans are turned in,” he says. Now as instructional leaders, principals need to understand everything from test data analysis to staff development.

Raise the bar

In an attempt to help fill the gap, the Chicago School Board in 1997 imposed several additional requirements for becoming a principal, including 70 hours of additional course work. So far, those hours have been narrowly focused on teacher evaluation and supervision. Now the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association is pushing to strengthen the required training by adding hours on topics such as teacher hiring and “interpersonal effectiveness.” (See story, “Training gets thumbs up from principals.”)

Even with good training, though, principals are hard pressed to find the time to put that training to use.

“If you’re sitting in meetings all day, dealing with budgetary problems, dealing with the reams of faxes you get from central office everyday, hiring and firing, where are you going to find the time to lead a faculty of 80 teachers and get them to be better teachers?” asks Michael Klonsky of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When the hell are you going to find time to do anything, even eat dinner?”

“It’s an impossible job, when you look at what a person has to do,” agrees Kymara Chase of DePaul University. “The more that I work with these principals, the more that I see, ‘You are suffering here.'”

Nearly half of Chicago principals agree that they are too busy to give curricular issues the attention they deserve, according to a 1999 Consortium survey. About 70 percent said they don’t have enough time to evaluate teachers.

“When we talk to principals from big cities about being the instructional leader, they either laugh uncontrollably or they get angry or they stare at us blankly,” says Marc Tucker, president of the National Association on Education and the Economy. “The reality of principals at big-city schools is they run from one emergency to another—drug busts, angry parents, students who are going to kill each other.”

Chicago principals are especially overloaded, says Kent Peterson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Chicago School Reform Act handed them responsibilities that principals elsewhere don’t have, such as hiring teachers, managing a portion of their budgets and negotiating with their local school councils. “They’re almost like mini-superintendents,” he says.

The burden on Chicago principals appears to be growing. In the 1999 Consortium survey, more than 70 percent of principals reported an increase in administrative demands over the past two years; only 4 percent reported a decrease.

Reorder priorities

To ease the burden, both schools and the School Board need to reorder their spending priorities to give principals more helping hands, observers say.

Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen urges elementary schools to consider using some of their discretionary money to add assistant principals to help with management chores or classroom observations and coaching. He urges high schools to budget an extra free period for department chairs so they can help with instructional leadership.

Elementary schools get only one board-funded, part-time assistant principal. High schools get one to four full-time assistant principals, depending on enrollment and other factors. This year, the board stopped paying for an extra free period for high school department chairs in the four core subjects.

Hansen also notes that using discretionary money to hire a business manager can be a sound investment. In addition to relieving the principal of certain tasks, a business manager can improve operations. “If you get a financial expert in your building you’d be amazed at how much money you can find,” he says.

Radner of DePaul agrees with Hansen, but also would like to see the School Board invest in training in so-called clinical supervision, which is an in-depth method of observing and coaching teachers. “Many principals don’t know how to do it, and many don’t take the time to do it.”

She suggests the board target that training at “level 2” administrators such as assistant principals, curriculum coordinators, resource teachers and so forth, “which would be a good investment because those are going to be their future principals.”

Klonsky of UIC wants to see money spent on time for teachers to engage in professional development, “at least an hour a week where they can get real instructional leadership, and it doesn’t have to be from the principal; they can do it themselves or get outside help.”

Principals themselves see the paucity of professional development time as one of the top roadblocks to school improvement, the 1999 Consortium survey found.

Foster trust

Once the building blocks for improved instruction are in place, the principal needs to cement them with people skills that foster trust and the expectation of continual improvement.

An award-winning teacher at a North Side elementary school offers a case in point. The school’s previous principal encouraged innovation, prompting teachers to swap ideas in and out of formal meetings, “over the lunch table, standing in the hallway for bathroom break,” the teacher relates.

Under a new principal seen as dictatorial, even punitive, she says, teacher communication shut down even though formal planning time remained the same. “They were afraid of the principal, and so they did not want to align themselves with anyone whom they perceived to be on the principals ‘hit list.’ People stopped talking.”

Telkia Rutherford, who oversees math department chairs in the district’s high schools, also stresses the need for trust. Giving department chairs more time to work with teachers won’t produce much change unless teachers feel comfortable sharing their problems, he says. That means the principal must make clear that chairs are helpers, not evaluators or informants. “Once [the chair] is seen as the person who does the judging and the rating, his credibility is lost,” he says.

In a Consortium study aimed at teasing out factors related to gains in student achievement, trust emerged as a strong predictor. In schools with rising test scores between 1990 and 1996, teachers were more likely to report that they trusted their colleagues.

Spirit and soul

Beyond trust, the principal’s personality also can turn teachers on or off, notes Peterson of UW Madison. “You have to bring some spirit and soul to the school; otherwise, it’s just a factory,” he says. “That’s as important as just getting things done.”

Reid Sechan, a 6th-grade teacher at Irving Park Middle School, attests to that. Carmen Sanchez, the school’s principal, “treats the teachers so well, and on such a personal basis, that people want to do things to please her. We’re like a family.”

In the view of both Peterson and Sechan, the principal needs to be seen as front and center on instruction.

“Part of what leadership is, is role modeling,” says Peterson. “It’s a matter of what you pay attention to, what you get passionate about. The messages that [principals] send symbolically are really powerful in schools.”

For instance, if a principal delegates the responsibility for improved instruction to others “then the symbolic message is that it’s not important,” he says.

“Everyone wants to be recognized by the top,” adds Sechan, a 27-year veteran of both middle and high schools. “It means more somehow; it’s psychological.”