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New Study Laments Lack of Change in Chicago Classrooms

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While the major elements called for in Chicago's landmark school-reform act have been successfully put into place, the bulk of the city's schools have yet to make changes in basic classroom practices, a report released last week concludes.

The analysis, conducted by the independent Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, examines the progress that has been made in the nation's third-largest school system as a result of the 1988 legislation that created councils to govern each of the city's schools.

Most of its conclusions are drawn from the findings of an intensive, ongoing study of 14 Chicago schools and from other studies the panel has conducted.

Midway through the first five years of school reform, the report concludes, most schools have developed improvement plans that "rely more upon adding on small increments than upon making radical changes.''

The report acknowledges that more "radical'' plans may emerge as the local school councils become more adept at working together.

But, the report warns, without taking steps that will lead to substantive change, there is little prospect that student achievement will significantly improve--the main goal of the legislation.

"The panel believes more schools must turn their attention to changing the ways in which regular students and teachers interact in the majority of the city's classrooms,'' it asserts.

Teachers 'Ignored'

Actively involving Chicago's teachers in the reform movement will be a critical step if dramatic changes are to occur, advocates agree.

But the panel's report, entitled "School Restructuring, Chicago Style,'' notes that teachers have been the most "ignored'' of all the school constituencies.

A survey of more than 13,000 elementary-school teachers conducted by the panel last year casts some light on teachers' attitudes about school reform and their own work.

The survey found that teachers were optimistic about school reform and were more involved in improvement efforts than they had expected to be.

More than 90 percent of the teachers characterized themselves as competent at their jobs.

Instead, they said, it is problems with parents and students themselves that interfere with schools' chance for success.

"The picture once again emerges of teachers who think they are doing fine,'' the report states, "and that the problems in the school system revolve around lack of parental support, the incapacities of their students, and the habits and attitudes students bring to school with them.''

Until all of the school system's constituencies acknowledge that they must contribute to making school reform work, the report concludes, school reform is unlikely to reach its potential.

Jackie Gallagher, a spokesman for the Chicago Teachers Union, noted last week that the union has moved to help the city's 26,000 teachers apply promising teaching practices in their schools by launching the C.T.V. Quest Center. The center will also award grants to 40 schools to put their ideas for improvement into practice. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992)

The teachers' response to the survey does not indicate that they are "immovable or unreformable,'' Ms. Gallagher added. "Teachers do need inspiration, leadership, and guidance, and they do need to know they are being backed up by not only their colleagues, the principal, and the [council], but also the parents of the kids.''

The Principals' Role

On a more positive note, the report concludes that most of the local school councils studied by the panel are functioning successfully.

Councils have drawn up school-improvement plans, adopted budgets, and selected principals, it notes. Since the reform act was enacted, new principals have been hired in 38 percent of Chicago's schools.

The councils spent one-third of their time on organizational matters, one-third talking about the school program, and the rest discussing principal selection, the building, and finance issues.

In making these decisions, however, schools had to chart a new path. There has been "significant disagreement'' in Chicago over what it means to designate schools as the primary site of school governance, the report notes.

The first two years of reform, it says, were a time of "informal negotiations'' about how much authority school councils have and how much has been retained by the central board and administration.

Principals have experienced more change under school reform than any other group, the report notes. The councils now hire the principals under four-year performance contracts, and can remove them if they find their leadership inadequate.

One-sixth of the city's principals chose to retire early when the reform act was signed, the report says.

The day-to-day responsibilities of those who remained or were hired changed "dramatically,'' it notes. Principals in the panel's sample schools were more prone to make negative comments about their changing roles than positive ones, despite their increased decisionmaking authority, control over hiring teachers, and budget flexibility.

Their most common complaint was about the lack of time to do all that was required of them.

The panel's sample study also turned up "little evidence'' that principals were taking advantage of the reform law's relaxed procedures for the remediation and dismissal of unsatisfactory teachers.

More Money for Schools

One of the most noticeable changes under the school-reform legislation has been the amount of discretionary money that flows directly to the schools, the report notes.

Before the legislation was enacted, according to the report, the school system spent $500 less per pupil on elementary schools enrolling 90 percent to 99 percent low-income students than it did with schools enrolling fewer than 30 percent low-income students.

This school year, schools with the most poor students receive $1,000 more per pupil than schools with fewer disadvantaged students.

The legislation also required the Chicago board of education to bring its administrative costs in line with other Illinois school districts. To that end, the report found, 840 positions were eliminated, including administrators, professional and technical staff members, clerks and lunchroom personnel, and maintenance workers and tradespeople.

At the same time, 3,365 positions were added in the schools, including 668 classroom teachers and 1,916 aides. The percentage of the district's staff working in the schools has increased from 88.5 percent in December 1988 to 92.4 percent today.

Most of the increase in school-based positions was paid for with the categorical money that is spent at the schools' discretion. The board of education cut the number of positions paid for out of its general operating funds, the report says, forcing some schools to use their discretionary money to replace people who were part of the school's basic program.

Board Is Faulted

At the systemwide level, the Chicago schools have suffered through a number of traumas recently. The report faults the city's interim board of education for "a process of fiscally irresponsible decisionmaking'' that left the district with a deficit that almost led to a teachers' strike last fall.

The school district is facing another deficit for next year of $278 million.

The interim school board also "micromanaged'' the school system, provided little clear administrative direction, and second-guessed top administrators, the report says. The permanent board, appointed in 1990, has continued the same pattern, it asserts.

The basic functions of the district's administration also have not been redesigned, the report notes. Instead, a "reform implementation unit'' has been created, while other departments are expected to continue providing the same services with fewer people.

Linda Matsumoto, the spokesman for the school system, dismissed the report's criticisms as "negative rhetoric.''

"The constant criticism serves only to undermine the entire system and does not serve to bring disparate groups of people who care about the education of our children together,'' she said.

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