No small plans for high schools

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Phillips High

Phillips High

On a sunny late-September morning, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan stood in front of a large crowd of the city’s business, civic and educational elite and laid out his plan to jump-start low-achieving neighborhood high schools.

Duncan promised to help schools raise their expectations for student performance. He promised to help elementary schools do a better job of preparing students for high school, and to help high schools support students better once they arrive. He vowed to continue opening new high schools and searching for the best teachers and principals.

To make these goals reality, Duncan envisioned a series of projects over the next decade. Two are already under way: a school score card and new model curricula for teaching math, science and English. He also noted plans for projects down the road, including new schooling options for underachievers and improved middle-school curricula.

“We’re not out for a quick fix here,” Duncan told the capacity crowd at Chase Tower on South Clark Street. “What we need is a fundamental re-examination of what our high schools are doing and how they can serve our students better.”

If history is any indication, Duncan’s plan—however well-conceived—probably won’t exist in 10 years. The last grand plan to reform high schools, in the late 1990s, produced one change that stuck: increased graduation requirements.

But this time around, the board took a different approach, fueled by a $2.3 million planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which this year began giving grants to help districts develop comprehensive strategies to raise graduation rates and increase college readiness.

For one, top officials acknowledged that improving high schools is a monumental task that they can’t do on their own. So the administration brought in two high-powered consultants to help craft a strategy: Boston Consulting Group, which specializes in large-scale overhauls of organizations; and American Institutes for Research, a veteran social science research group that recently began educational consulting.

Second, the district sought input from those in the trenches. In focus groups, the district forced teachers and principals to take a hard look at data, such as the discrepancy between course grades and the results of college entrance and placement tests, then asked for suggestions on strategies. CPS officials say over 300 teachers and administrators attended the “visioning sessions” as part of data-gathering to create the high school plan.

CPS also held focus groups with parents and students to get their views on what’s wrong with high schools and what needs to happen to make them work.

Third, schools are being given the choice of whether or not to take part. (The district expects a total of 45 schools will participate.) Previously, CPS tried a top-down approach to standardizing curriculum by forcing schools to use the now-defunct CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Exams) tests as course finals. But when teachers rebelled, saying the exam was poorly constructed, the district had to scrap the effort.

‘No one has done it’

At its Dec. 21 meeting, the district will award the contracts for the curriculum revamp. Twenty organizations submitted proposals.

The district won’t know how much the project will cost until early next year, but Melissa Megliola, a special assistant to Arne Duncan, says it’s “safe to say that CPS will be spending millions over several years” on intensive classroom coaching for teachers, development of curricula and model lessons, textbooks and other materials, assessments and professional development and networking.

District officials also say they will protect the project from budget cuts, but history contradicts them. “We’ll get money,” says Peter Cunningham, CPS director of communications. “If we have to cut something to do it, we will. This is what’s important.”

Yet last year, textbook money wasn’t that important. The Office of Math and Science offered dollar-for-dollar matching funds to help schools that decided to adopt its recommended curriculum (the basis for the models the district is now promoting). But budget cuts forced them to drop the match. As a result, “we didn’t get that many schools on board,” says Martin Gartzman, director of math and science.

Beyond money, success this time around also depends on whether the district sticks with the plan. That’s what worries Martin McGreal, curriculum coordinator at Gage Park High, who helped evaluate the curriculum proposals. “On paper, this is put together extremely well,” he says. “But I’m still not convinced the commitment will be there all the way through.”

Like Chicago, districts from San Diego to Boston have begun trying to change and improve their high schools, with little significant success.

“Let’s be clear, no one has done it,” warns Joseph Olchefske of the American Institutes for Research, one of three groups that submitted a proposal to assist the district with supervising the curriculum project. “It’s not like you come in with a magic bullet.”

A recent report on the Gates high school initiative points out the difficulty of transforming high schools. In examining some of the new and redesigned high schools supported by Gates grants, evaluators found mixed results. While schools were making some progress raising achievement, classroom assignments were often not rigorous enough, especially in mathematics, and the quality of student work was often low. (The report was co-authored by the American Institutes for Research and SRI International, a research group based in Menlo Park, Calif.)

No scripted curriculum, but pre-packaged tests

Some high school principals balked at the district’s initial plan for the new high school score card (see story on page 8). And they’re also wary about the curriculum overhaul, which will include hiring outside managers and, possibly, outside coaches for teachers.

Most administrators Catalyst spoke with in late October and early November said they did not know enough about the curriculum project to say whether they would opt to participate. Those few who were more familiar with the plan approved of the idea in principle, but wonder whether schools will be given enough leeway to adapt the curriculum to their own schools’ needs.

“Having a scripted curriculum won’t work,” warns Principal Al Pretkelis of Kelly High in Brighton Park.

Principal John Butterfield of Mather High in West Ridge. says he is “big on creativity in the classroom. You want to be able to tell teachers [to] add to it.”

The new curricula will also come with pre-packaged assessments, although the district decided against creating graduation exit exams, as some districts and states have done. “You shouldn’t hold the students accountable for learning before you hold the adults accountable for teaching,” explains Megliola.

Gage Park’s McGreal, a former teacher at Curie High in Archer Heights and one of a dozen Curie faculty members who refused to give the controversial CASE test, is already worried about the quality of the assessments. He wonders why the district does not just rely on the Prairie State and the ACT sequence of college-readiness tests.

“I just don’t trust what it will be turned into through a bureaucracy,” McGreal says.

However, if done well, McGreal admits pre-packaged tests could save teachers from reinventing the wheel. His teachers are currently struggling to write tests specifically aimed at helping to better gauge student progress, he says. “We’re not experts at this.”

Who will coach teachers?

Recognizing the need for high-quality training to assist teachers with improving their instruction, CPS is asking prospective curriculum developers to provide “intensive, low-ratio, classroom-based coaching.” The goal: one coach for 15 teachers. In contrast, the district’s area coaches are asked to work with teachers at up to a dozen schools.

“This coaching piece is really tough stuff. Everybody is struggling with this,” says Cynthia Barron, area instructional officer for small schools, who has been closely involved with the high school reform plan. “We want to do it right.”

But one of the district’s area coaches questions the wisdom of handing coaching over to non-district staff. “I would say it would become one more layer of red tape,” says Victor Simon, science coach for Area 22. Teachers would be less likely to trust or listen to outside coaches.

“I’d rather have my department chairs,” says Principal James Breashears of Robeson High in Englewood. Though he wouldn’t mind access to outside expertise, it’s more important to win the trust of faculty, who are likely to be skeptical that the plan is just another passing trend. “You know teachers are going to say, ‘Oh, no, here we go again.’ But coming from department chairs it’s going to take a whole new meaning. They know what we’re up against.”

However, literacy consultant Jennifer McDermott, formerly with the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, says coaching can work well either way and that working with an outsider can be a better catalyst for change. “When you’re in town for five days, sometimes priorities become clearer,” she observes.

Districts should also set ground rules for principals to work with consultants, such as participating in meetings with coaches and teachers and sitting in on the coaching itself, McDermott adds. “Set up expectations—’Here’s the consultant, if you want them, this is how you have to play,’ “she says. “It gives the principal permission to make attention to instruction a priority.”

Cathleen Kral, director of literacy coaching for the Boston Public Schools, says coaching “works better” with insiders. And she doubts that educational publishers can provide high-quality training.

Coaches, she says, “need to have relationships within the schools, as people who build relationships around teaching and learning, not coming in to coach around a program.”

Publishers have become more responsive to districts’ demands for better professional development in the last few years, says Zalman Usiskin, director of the University of Chicago’s School Mathematics Project. And the chance to win a contract in a large market like Chicago could be a strong incentive to design an effective coaching program, he adds.

“They will do what they need to do, if the school system puts the screws on them,” Usiskin says.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.