Chicago Study Sheds Light on Reform Methods That Work

By Mary Ellen Flannery

As the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law gets underway, and as educators and policy-makers struggle to find solutions to the persistent problems in low-performing schools, there’s a new book that lights the way to school reform that works.

Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a recent release from the University of Chicago Press, looks at student achievement data from the early 1990s in Chicago, a brief period when school governance was decentralized and returned to local school councils. This was years before Arne Duncan, current U.S. Secretary of Education, worked as Chicago superintendent (2001-2008). It was a time of great experimentation, as these different local councils approached reform and student achievement in varying ways.

For researchers, in retrospect, it “afforded an extraordinary opportunity” to get large amounts of data to “examine and test empirically key propositions about how schools work and how their operations might be improved to enhance student learning.”

And guess what? Merit pay isn’t the solution.

Charter conversion isn’t the solution.

Firing all the teachers isn’t it either.

Instead, the authors found five “essential elements” for school improvement, common to the Chicago schools that orchestrated epic turnarounds – from among the very worst to the most improved.

1.   School Leadership. Principals and other leaders created environments that engaged teachers, parents, and community members in school improvement. They focused on improving teaching and wrote meaningful improvement plans.

2.    Professional Capacity. Successful schools had teachers who were eager to learn new skills and approaches, and were supported in their efforts to get high-quality professional development. They were collaborators, and shared a collective sense of responsibility.

3.    Instruction. Curriculum was aligned across grades and students were regularly assessed. Classroom work went beyond lectures and basic skills worksheets and included active student engagement and the application of knowledge.

4.    Learning Climate. Schools were safe and orderly.

5.    Parent and Community Ties. Teachers reached out to parents and parents grew more involved. Community resources were used in instruction.

The study found that the successful schools had all of these elements. They are part of NEA’s Positive Agenda for ESEA Reauthorization – and you can lend your support to it here.

The schools that didn’t improve offer their own lessons as well. They were more likely the authors found, to be located in the very poorest, most racially isolated neighborhoods. Their students might have been homeless or living with violence or drug abuse, and their communities offered fewer supports, like churches or civic groups.

If you just considered school lunch data, all these schools looked the same – really poor – but the author’s found that multiple measures of data showed a more nuanced picture of poverty. And, in the worst circumstances, it’s necessary to address both school and community factors. “What is really going on in these school communities, and why are the important tasks of improving schools so difficult to advance? Asking these questions… is a vital role,” they conclude.

What else are you reading? Visit the NEA discussion board to recommend the books that you think will illuminate the teaching life or help your colleagues to do their jobs. Also, take a look at NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign to read more about how union educators are collaborating to transform lower-performing schools nationwide.