What matters most, by the numbers
One of the things that matters most in school reform is the opportunity for parents to get more involved in their children’s school and education. My children’s school, Darwin Elementary, along with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and three other elementary schools formed an Annenberg Challenge Network where one of our main goals was more meaningful parent involvement with students and teachers. It’s the basis for our Parent-Teacher Mentor Program, where parents receive training and then work a minimum of 100 hours a semester in a classroom. At the end of the semester, there’s a graduation for the Parent Mentors and we receive a stipend. It’s been a life-changing experience for me and my kids.
In the more than 10 years that I’ve been working in Chicago public elementary schools, I’ve watched quite a few education reform groups and initiatives come and go. In some instances, I was one of the “reformers”; in others, only an interested observer; in still others, I had to help settle the dust after the (so-called) reformers lost interest (i.e., funding).
Over the past 22 years, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge has committed almost $28 million in grants to more than 40 school networks. The Challenge funds networks—at least three schools and an external partner such as a community group, university or reform organization—because schools cannot achieve whole-school change alone.
Ten years ago, during the debate over the historic Chicago School Reform Law, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and other parent groups fought for and won a parent majority on local school councils. PURE took this position because we believed that parents, who have the most at stake in schools, should have the greatest voice in governing them. Because of their unique commitment to their children’s education, parents are less likely than either community members or teachers to be compromised and more likely to demand and work to achieve high academic standards.
Middle-school students from 11 neighborhood schools across the city work their way through a professional art gallery that has on display 400 works of outstanding quality. The show includes installations, sculpture, masks, paintings and remarkable writing about personal and social issues. All were created by the students who fill the gallery today, alternating between articulate docent and respectful listener and observer. The teachers, parents and guests who accompany them are amazed at the depth and scope of the students’ insight and understanding.
One of the most important contributing factors to a successful school experience is the quality of early literacy instruction. Students who have had good early literacy instruction are more likely be able to read and write without difficulty. The recent increase in the number of preschool and Reading Recovery programs, and the addition of early-intervention summer school programs have been a plus for Chicago youngsters.
When School Reform first began in 1988, I participated wholeheartedly in the reform activities, committees and training. As a 12-year teacher, I’d had my share of bad experiences with a bloated central bureaucracy, dictatorial principals, poorly designed curriculum and inadequate teaching materials, and I hoped to be part of the solution for improving schools. From my perspective as classroom teacher, improving schools meant improving instruction and student learning. Ten years later, these two things are still what matter most to me.
At the end of 1998, just over a third of Chicago 3rd- through 8th-graders read at the national norms, and two in five achieved at that level in math. The target in the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act was that 50 percent would be at national norms in both subjects in five years. After 10 years of effort, we still have a way to go to reach that initial target.
DESIGNS FOR CHANGE CHANGES Executive Director Donald Moore has received a Chicago Community Trust fellowship (up to $100,000) to develop credit and degree-granting programs for parent and community activists who focus on schools. The goal is to create a supply of people for community service jobs and long-term commitments to education issues. Associate Director Joan Slay has retired and is now a consultant to the organization. Lowry Taylor, formerly with ACORN and the Rogers Park Community Action Network, has joined the staff as an organizer with its Schools First program.
At Hubbard High School, Mayor Richard M. Daley congratulates one of the 4,171 8th-graders who graduated from the summer Bridge Program, which is part of the Reform Board’s effort to end social promotion. That effort will get close scrutiny in a study to be conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in cooperation with the school system. The study will examine the impact on students, their families and their schools, with preliminary results due in a year. Chicago’s policy of retaining low-scoring students has been held up as a model, so the study likely will get national attention.
A rule the School Board adopted in July provides that if a local school council (LSC) does not select a new principal within 90 days of a vacancy, an interim principal can be appointed “to serve up to one year at the pleasure of the general superintendent.”
While the Chicago School Reform Act gives councils 90 days to submit three names to the superintendent if it cannot agree on a candidate, it is silent on what happens if the council does not act at all within 90 days.
The 1998-99 budget provides for 904 central office staffers at an average salary of $55,966—37 percent higher than four years ago, when central office employed 1,200 workers at an average salary of $40,785. The increase is due in part to higher salaries for specific jobs and in part to a reduction in the lowest paying jobs.
Among the city’s seven reconstituted high schools, DuSable registered:
The biggest improvement in the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading, 7.6 percentage points.
The highest percentage of students scoring at or above national norms, 12.5 percent.
The largest drop in the percentage of students scoring in the bottom quarter, or quartile, nationwide, 19 percentage points.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the dominant teacher union in urban districts, took umbrage with the blame-the-teacher aspect of reconstitution, but it concedes that drastic reform is sometimes necessary. “If a school is so bad that you wouldn’t send your own kids there, it needs to be shut down and redesigned,” says Janet Bass, in public relations for AFT. “San Francisco and Chicago started badly because they blamed teachers and didn’t use them for input.”
Subsequently, PURE took a dig at Deanes in its own newsletter, juxtaposing his $80,000 salary and a comment he made to the Chicago Tribune in a February 1995 article: “When you bring in new people to the central office who make more money than principals and district superintendents, it sends the wrong message. … give some of those resources to the administrators who are on the front lines.” PURE also warned its readers that much of the information they receive from CPS and the Office of School and Community Relations “is wrong, is calculated to control LSCs.”
Eighth-grade math teacher Deborah Wade of McCosh Elementary School in Woodlawn laughs about it now, but at the time she was devastated. A university consultant had dropped by to observe her carefully prepared pre-algebra lesson. “I thought I did a really good lesson,” Wade recalls. But in a discussion afterward, the consultant “just ripped it to shreds,” she says with a chuckle.
The differences between NSF-funded programs and traditional texts “are many, profound and subtle,” notes Prof. Eric Robinson of Ithaca College, who is reviewing the programs.To understand the content and teaching strategies, teachers will need professional development, he says. “You don’t just buy the book.”
The most troubled spot for American mathematics education is in the middle-school years, researchers say, drawing on data collected in more than 40 countries in 1994 and 1995. Where American students scored just above the international average in 4th-grade math, they had slipped below the average by 8th grade; by 12th grade, the U.S. was among the lowest-scoring countries.
Twelve Chicago public school teachers with expertise in different areas directed the project, working full time during last school year. Another 100 teachers worked outside regular school hours from January to July. They were selected from 400 applicants recommended by their principals; each had to submit sample lesson plans. By using full-time teachers as writers, Kerr notes, plans could be field tested as they were developed.
At each CSI school, a group of teachers forms a design team. Team leaders attend monthly training in the fundamentals of staff development, such as how to use state and district academic standards and how to work effectively as a team. Design teams meet weekly while drafting their schools’ plans, and CSI staff drop by regularly to assist.
Improving math instruction should be thought of as a long-term project, contends Prof. James Stigler of the University of California at Los Angeles. Stigler is a TIMSS researcher who studied teaching styles in Japan, Germany and the United States. “If you think that just handing out lesson plans is going to work, you’re wrong.”
In the second installment of our “What Matters Most” series, we profiled such a leader, Barbara Eason-Watkins of McCosh Elementary School in Woodlawn. So it was no surprise when McCosh emerged as a model of effective math instruction. Most schools with its kind of student body—large, poor, highly mobile—cover little ground in math and have the test scores to prove it. Under the leadership of Watkins, reports Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin, McCosh’s 8th-graders are being taught 8th-grade math, and the school has the test scores to prove it. As with most success stories in education, it boils down principally to leadership.