Reform groups deserve credit

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Your March 2007 article (“National funders spur grassroots reform”) on the demise of two school advocacy groups—Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform and Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG)—fails to acknowledge their many accomplishments and unfairly paints them (and surviving groups such as PURE) as negatively “stuck on governance,” and not “results-oriented.” It seems to embrace a limited vision for school improvement which has little objective support.

Moreover, Cross City and NCBG were nationally recognized organizations that nurtured civic engagement in Chicago by supporting local school councils (LSCs) and helping communities become more involved in the work of school improvement.

Cross City was the first national group that defined what a decentralized school district should look like and described the new role for the central office in improving instruction. They built a diverse national network of people inside and outside school districts, and used site visits and national conferences on issues affecting urban schools to learn best practices. NCBG partnered with LSCs and community groups to get new schools built and needed repairs for others. Both groups helped LSCs, parents and the community to understand how public money—their money—is used.

Current local research demonstrates that parent and community involvement is critical to improved student performance. In a recent report, “The Essential Supports for School Improvement,” the Consortium on Chicago School Research describes a comprehensive approach to reform that includes parents and the community. Their study showed this approach yields more significant student gains than narrower efforts: “Schools strong in most of the essential supports were at least 10 times more likely than schools weak in most of the supports to show substantial progress in both reading and mathematics. These schools also were very unlikely to stagnate.”

A recent RAND Corporation study of comprehensive school reform showed that few schools adopt all aspects of these plans. Schools generally adopted curriculum changes and, to a lesser extent, teacher training programs. Practices designed to increase parental involvement were the aspect least likely to be adopted, due in part to budget constraints. The report noted that failure to implement all key elements caused such reforms to yield “only modest or no effect on student achievement.”

Programs that seek to engage parents and community members in Chicago without reference to LSCs are likely to reinvent a less effective wheel. Why start over when Chicago’s LSCs provide a powerful voice for parents and the community that others would have to organize for years to gain?

Unfortunately, a lot of folks with money in Chicago seem to be stuck on Renaissance 2010, but is this supposedly results-oriented approach working? What are the data showing about this school-reform strategy?

Well, this year-three years after its much-lauded opening as Renaissance 2010’s first “crown jewel”—Williams Elementary had a 16.5 percentage point drop in its scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests. We remember when everyone was asked to look at Williams to forget the failures of the mayor’s previous favorite, the National Teachers’ Academy. Now we are asked to look to the new “crown jewel,” Sherman School of Excellence. CPS is already replicating this school without having even one year of data on whether this model is effective.

There is no independent research showing an edge for Renaissance 2010 schools. Catalyst’s recent study found that fewer than 2 percent of the students displaced by closings were enrolled in new schools. Those results are deeply disturbing. Clearly, outspoken advocates for children, families and communities remain critical here.

Cross City and NCBG challenged ineffective, damaging reforms and supported inclusive, proven strategies. Attempts by city leaders to marginalize and shut down such programs are self-serving and short-sighted and will ultimately shortchange our children, our schools and our communities.

Julie Woestehoff

Executive Director,

Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE)