How the good schools do it

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Peirce Elementary

Peirce Elementary

The recipe for successful schools is: Mix one strong leader with parent and community support, a strong teaching staff, a school climate that supports learning and high-quality instruction.

These are the “five essential supports” for learning, noted in decades of research on effective urban schools and outlined once again in a September 2006 report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Schools with strong supports were 10 times more likely to make significant math and reading test score gains, the Consortium found. (The new report covers 1990-96, the years following the enactment of the first School Reform Act.)

The report adds a new dimension to the Consortium’s previous research by quantifying the influence of neighborhood characteristics, such as crime rates and religious participation, on school success, as well as the impact of each support on achievement. Progress is still possible under the direst circumstances, researchers found, but is far more difficult to achieve.

Consortium Co-director Penny Sebring notes that the new evidence bolstering the essential supports comes at a time of massive principal retirements that leave the progress of many schools in the hands of untried leaders. “Many have not been principals before,” she notes. “The results of this study provide a useful guide in how to proceed.”

A 2005 report from the reform group Designs for Change that identified elementary schools with substantial reading improvement also noted the importance of the five supports. (An update of the report will analyze achievement in charter and Renaissance schools and is due to be released by January 2007.)

Catalyst Chicago profiled three of the 144 schools in the Designs report—Marsh in South Deering, Peirce in Edgewater and McCorkle in Grand Boulevard—and found that while each school had a different mix of the five supports, the principal was, indeed, the spark that led to dramatic transformation.

Each principal arrived by a different route. Gerald Dugan was selected by the local school council at Marsh. Central office placed Janet House at McCorkle. A subdistrict officer chose Janice Rosales at Peirce from among three candidates submitted by a parent advisory council.

As crucial as a good principal is, other factors are also critical. With the first School Reform Act, “principals got the power to select teachers without regard to seniority,” says Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change. “Schools received flexibility in [selecting] curriculum and substantial discretionary dollars.” All these freedoms helped Marsh, Peirce and McCorkle move ahead.

Racially diverse schools like Peirce and predominantly Latino schools like Marsh were more than twice as likely to show substantial improvement during the early years of school reform, compared to schools like McCorkle that were located in the most disadvantaged communities, according to the Consortium.

Its report points out what it calls a “cruel irony” for schools in the most disadvantaged communities, where large numbers of children are likely to live under stressful conditions that hamper learning, such as in homes where they are abused or neglected: These schools are most likely to need strong supports, yet are less likely to develop them.

Of the schools in the Designs report, only 25 percent are predominantly African-American, while 43 percent are predominantly Latino and 32 percent are integrated or mostly white. Some of the schools had only modest gains, and at least two, Farren and Grant, were closed for poor performance.

The Consortium found that schools in middle-income neighborhoods made academic progress even when their supports were weaker, while schools in the poorest neighborhoods, like McCorkle, needed exceptionally strong supports to move ahead.

In all three schools, progress came gradually and principals remained on board for the long haul. Peirce’s principal hand-picked her successor. Teachers stressed the need for stable leadership. “If the leader is strong, continuity is really important,” agrees Sebring. “If the leader leaves and is not replaced by someone equally strong, then there’s a problem.”

As crucial as the principal is, it would be a mistake to assume that school improvement requires “some superhuman, charismatic, turnaround-by-sheer-force-of-personality person,” cautions Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a national group that works on improving achievement in low-income, minority schools. But, she adds, it does take “somebody who’s very determined, very focused, who can build a sense of shared mission and focus.”

Research by the Trust indicates that parental involvement is less important, Haycock adds. Yet parents are essential for sustaining improvement, especially if the principal changes. “It’s about building an appetite for excellence in the community.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.

Join the discussion! Catalyst wants to know what’s been working for you. What methods have been used to increase test scores at your school? What pitfalls did you encounter along the way? What suggestions do you have for schools that want to improve? Click on the icon below or send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.