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'Strong Democracy' Yields Improvement In Chicago Reforms

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The idea that increasing public involvement in Chicago's schools could lead to substantial improvements in the classroom--the driving force behind the city's four-year-old reform effort--has been borne out by experience, a major report to be released this week concludes.

The low-achieving elementary schools most likely to have made fundamental changes since reform began, the study found, were those governed by a "strong democracy'' in which the principal, teachers, and members of the local school council come together to question established practices and seek better ones.

Less progress was made by schools where principals hold most of the power, by schools with sustained conflicts, and by schools where people are not strongly motivated to change, the report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research says.

Noting that observers frequently ask whether the Chicago reforms will lead to major improvements in student learning, the report says: "We answer yes.''

Roughly 40 percent of the elementary schools studied are pursuing "systemic'' reforms dealing with core instructional issues.

"In a large number of schools, enhanced local democratic participation can be an effective lever for catalyzing restructuring that deals with instructional change, and not just simply with who makes decisions,'' said Anthony S. Bryk, a director of the research consortium, which is based at the University of Chicago and includes 16 institutions and organizations.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change and a member of the research consortium, said the report vindicated his group's analysis of the ingredients necessary to bring about major change in an urban school system in a way that would benefit students.

"For four years, we have had to contend with the claim that no instructional change is going on in Chicago,'' said Mr. Moore, whose group has been a force in devising the reform law and pressing for its implementation. "We have also constantly heard the refrain that Chicago reform was a governance change and not an educational change.''

The results of the study, he said, disprove both assertions.

Still, the study also makes clear that the process of change is far from complete. More than 83,000 Chicago children "still attend elementary schools left behind by reform,'' it asserts.

Forging 'Strong Democracy'

The study assesses the progress of reform in the Chicago elementary schools where average achievement levels were substantially below national norms in 1989, the year the reforms began. The schools made up 86 percent of Chicago's roughly 500 elementary schools.

The reform law sought to weaken the power of the central administration by giving more power to individual schools. Parent-majority local school councils now hire and fire principals and draw up improvement plans for each school.

The study drew on three sets of data: a synthesis of field research in elementary schools over the past three years, surveys of principals and teachers throughout the system, and field studies conducted this spring in six elementary schools that have initiated "fundamental organizational change.''

The reform law made it possible for the three key forces at a school--the principal, faculty, and local school council--to develop their own leadership, the report notes.

The interplay among the three forces, it found, has created four general types of local politics that characterize activity in Chicago's elementary schools.

When neither parent and community members nor the faculty is able to sustain active involvement in decisionmaking, the study found, power consolidates in the principal. Between 39 and 46 percent of the schools studied, it estimates, have this type of political climate.

Schools that are dominated by "adversarial politics,'' in which the groups vie for power, represent up to 9 percent of the total, the study indicates.

Another category is made up of schools in which all three groups are relatively satisfied with the status quo and are not strongly motivated to change, it says. These schools fall into a "mixed'' group that represents 14 to 24 percent of the schools.

Finally, schools where principals spark discussions about educational issues, teachers are actively involved in planning, and local school councils meet regularly are characterized as "strong democracy'' schools. This political climate is present in 23 to 32 percent of the schools, the report says.

Building New Organizations

Turning to the improvements the schools have sought to make, the report found five types of initiatives.

During the first two years of reform, many focused on restoring order, purchasing basic materials and supplies with new discretionary money, fixing buildings and grounds, and improving social relations in their community. But now, the report maintains, "virtually all'' schools have turned to academic issues.

Some are making "peripheral academic changes'' by adding programs and personnel haphazardly. Schools that have made many such changes are "Christmas-tree schools,'' the report suggests, because they have added many worthwhile people and programs but have not fundamentally changed their core operations.

Another set of schools is classified as "emergent restructuring schools.'' These have new teacher leadership and have begun connecting with outside resources to improve their academic expertise.

A fifth group of schools has moved to sustained systemic activity. These schools are "new organizations,'' the report contends, where teachers share the responsibility with principals for instructional leadership.

"Faculty work together to coordinate their teaching and instructional programs, maintain quality control, and expand both their influence and responsibility as decisionmakers in the school,'' the report says.

Unfocused or Systemic Reform

Researchers classified the types of reforms pursued by schools as either "unfocused'' or "systemic.''

Between 26 percent and 35 percent of the schools studied were found to be pursuing unfocused initiatives--adding on programs, engaging in limited discussion of educational issues, and having little teacher activity or collective sense of responsibility.

In contrast, between 36 percent and 45 percent of the schools show signs of systemic improvements. These schools, the report says, are developing "well-integrated educational programs specifically designed for their own students and circumstances.''

Such schools have developed strong ties with parents and the community, it adds, and teachers are involved and share responsibility for what happens.

The rest of the schools either show characteristics of both approaches or provided inconsistent information and could not be classified.

The information about the instructional practices came from the principals' survey, which asked about such approaches as cooperative learning, writing across the curriculum, and "hands on'' mathematics and science.

Change, Democracy Linked

In analyzing the link between schools' political climates and their reform focuses, researchers found that schools with strong democratic climates were, by far, the most likely to be pursuing systemic change.

Sixty-six percent of strongly democratic schools were making such improvements, the report indicates, and another 16 percent showed "at least some features'' of it.

In contrast, more than 80 percent of the schools with adversarial politics were judged to be taking "unfocused'' approaches to reform. Schools where principals "run the show'' were mixed, with 43 percent showing unfocused reforms and 26 percent reporting systemic efforts.

The strong-democracy schools are broadly distributed throughout the city, the study says. But schools with predominantly Hispanic populations exhibited a marked tendency toward strong democracy, with 52 percent of Hispanic schools falling into that category.

Although many of the heavily Hispanic schools serve very low-income children, they have strong "social resources,'' such as established churches and strong families, to draw on, Mr. Bryk speculated.

Reforms Seen Fragile

The most important factor in the progress of the six restructuring schools that were chosen for the in-depth study has been the leadership of the principal, the study says. Three of the schools that have turned around, it notes, were "among the most troubled schools in the system'' before reform began.

The principals in the six schools put a high priority on providing teachers with intensive professional development, recruiting high-quality teachers, and removing poor teachers.

But even in these schools, which have forged strong community bonds and a sense of their own efficacy and distinctiveness, the reforms are fragile, the study warns.

The new state compensatory-education aid that flowed to the schools as a result of the reform law has been a key factor in their success, the report says. The loss of such resources or a change in school leadership could be a serious blow, it warns.

The report recommends developing teachers' knowledge, creating career paths for accomplished principals, and developing a mechanism for helping schools that have not responded to the reform movement.

Copies of the report are available for $3 from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, 5835 South Kimbark Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637; (312) 702-3364.

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