Improving teaching is a low priority at small high schools

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Creating small public high schools was supposed to cure much of what ailed Chicago’s large, failing ones. Breaking through the isolation and anonymity common in large buildings, small schools staff would band together around an essential mission: improving classroom instruction. National and local foundations pledged $26 million toward Chicago’s small high school initiative.

But reality fell short of expectations, a new study finds. Despite the collegial atmosphere, efforts to improve teaching are minimal, according to a report released in January by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Most professional development in these new schools is aimed at solving immediate problems with a particular lesson or student rather than long-term professional growth. Small school size creates extra responsibilities for staffers, who are too focused on day-to-day survival to plan together for ongoing improvements. Instructional leadership is also lacking, researchers find.

Just as in large high schools, many small school principals don’t understand what good classroom instruction looks like or how to advance it, says John Easton, executive director of the Consortium. “The leadership’s not there and the vision’s not there.”

Small high schools do have advantages, according to earlier Consortium research. Teachers report more trusting relationships and a stronger commitment to school improvement than do those at larger Chicago high schools.

But their size also creates obstacles to improving instruction, the researchers found. A smaller staff means a heavier workload, which reduces time and energy available for organizing teacher training.

Small school teachers must often teach a wider variety of courses, which requires more preparation.

There are also fewer of them available to divvy up tasks such as supervising detention, running after-school clubs and serving on school committees. Principals are also stretched thin with a bare-bones support staff. Most have no assistant principal and many share a clerk with other small schools.

District and foundation officials say they have taken new steps to support staff development at small schools, which they agree is lacking. In March, they hired coaches to provide more leadership training for small school principals and their lead teachers. Creating quality staff development is one of the topics, and Allen Bearden, who formerly ran the Quest Center at the Chicago Teachers Union, is one of the coaches.

Michael Klonsky, director of the non-profit Small Schools Workshop, thinks the last thing that principals need is more coaches, especially with all the mentoring already provided to rookie principals. “Some of these new principals have more coaches than a pro athlete does,” he says. “They’re going to so many coaches meetings that there’s no time left to be an instructional leader.” He advocates a stronger role for teachers in directing instruction.

But the study authors see training for principals as part of the solution, along with identifying teachers with the skills needed to lead professional development. Overwhelmed small school staff also need help to better manage their time, they say.

Leadership needed

The Consortium interviewed principals and teachers and observed professional development at seven of the small high schools during 2004-05. Those schools were among the 23 opened since 2001 by the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI), a partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, local funders and CPS.

Most schools scheduled adequate time for professional development, the researchers found—with regular grade-level, departmental, and whole-staff meetings, as well as planning periods. But these meetings were often spent on administrative concerns such as book orders and standardized testing. Discussions about teaching were spontaneous, unstructured, and not usually followed up.

Only one school in the study engaged teachers in ongoing, in-depth discussions about their own classroom strategies in a way that might lead to improved student achievement, the researchers found.

At that school, which they declined to identify, the principal would organize a series of workshops on a given topic, such as how to better align the curriculum with state standards. Teachers debated, for instance, whether certain standards were too broad or narrow and how to best use them to plan lessons. They also analyzed each other’s classroom assessments on whether they tested only literal knowledge or the higher level thinking skills required on state exams.

Despite the demands on their time, teachers will devote the extra work needed to improve instruction, researchers concluded, but only if someone leads them in a sustained effort.

Leadership appears to be the key to the sustained efforts observed at Al Raby High, a new small school in East Garfield Park. Raby builds a 90-minute block of staff development time into its schedule each week, when students leave early for internships. The lead teacher and the principal structure the discussions, but also draw on others to lead them. Administrative concerns are given lower priority and left until the meeting’s end.

A recent workshop led by one of the school’s teachers included a steady mix of ideas, conversation and small-group sharing on how to evaluate your own teaching and adjust it to better engage students.

Absent was the interminable PowerPoint monologue that often passes for professional development elsewhere. Even better, no one graded papers or read the newspaper, a sight not uncommon in many Chicago high schools.

But Raby has advantages over more established schools in finding time to plan worthwhile sessions. So far, the school has the old Lucy Flower building to itself. Most small schools share a building, forcing principals to spend time coordinating logistics. Raby only has two grade levels enrolled at the moment, which leaves the principal and lead teacher with fewer staff and students to supervise.

When it’s time to meet, the entire faculty can fit around a library table.

Principals, teachers ‘swamped’

Staff at other small schools, however, say the report’s critique rang a few bells.

At Chicago Discovery Academy on the Bowen Campus, English teacher Ira Abrams says that the professional development he’s experienced has often been ill-planned and of little long-term benefit.

It was the same story at his previous small high school, Abrams adds. Given the administrative demands placed on small school staff, planning quality professional development is “an almost impossible task” for a principal, he says. “They’re swamped.”

But this year he convinced his principal to let him lead some of the sessions himself, he says. Now teachers are beginning to examine examples of student work to identify which skills students have mastered, and whether the assignments are clear and rigorous enough.

At the School of Entrepreneurship on the South Shore campus, teachers often share ideas informally, but are still reluctant to discuss classroom practices in front of the whole faculty, says Principal Bill Gerstein. Staff meetings tend to get eaten up with administrative matters instead, he says. “We haven’t used our time to improve instruction as much as I [had hoped].”

Cynthia Barron, who became area instructional officer for some of the district’s small high schools last August also agrees with the report’s main findings. “The majority of our schools have not been focused on building strong courses and doing the hard work of examining their own practice.”

Barron says that as AIO she wants to avoid mandating specific professional development practices, such as Raby’s 90-minute weekly workshops, that might result in superficial compliance rather than a real commitment to learning.

Instead, she is running an intensive summer program for her teachers on how to plan more rigorous coursework. She hopes that working in structured teams will influence how they approach professional development at their own schools. “I would hope it would look much better next year.”

Alexander Russo is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.