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Chicago Board Approves Plan To Help Schools Improve

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After months of heated debate, the Chicago board of education has approved a plan aimed at helping the city's schools improve.

Because Chicago's school system is decentralized, with local councils governing each school, the issue of how the central administration should assist low-performing schools has been a sensitive one.

Earlier this year, General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson presented a school-improvement plan that called for dividing the city's 551 schools into three tiers, based primarily on test scores. But it ran into heavy criticism from supporters of school autonomy. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

The plan approved by the school board last month, for implementation in the fall, was put together with the help of a working group of accomplished principals, leading researchers, and active members of local school councils.

The plan is based not only on test scores, but also on an analysis of the quality of each school's educational program. Schools will be recognized for improving, and those that have been most successful will serve as models for schools that need assistance.

"Our students and schools are much more than mere test scores,'' Ms. Johnson said in a statement. "Scores do not adequately reflect the quality of learning occurring within a classroom and school.''

In a related development, the general superintendent announced last month that two leading Chicago researchers will spend the next year restructuring the board's department of research, evaluation, and planning.

The department, which generates the data used to evaluate students and schools, has been under fire for years for producing low-quality work that has made it difficult to gauge progress in schools.

Focus on Improvement

The data that the newly configured research department produces about schools will be heavily used in the school-improvement process. The goal is to help schools review and assess their progress, receive recognition for their successes, and get the assistance they need to improve.

Schools will analyze themselves, based on key areas of educational practice and student outcomes that are spelled out in the plan. The areas include a student-centered learning climate, leadership, professional development and collaboration, and such indicators as academic achievement, attendance, promotion and graduation, and students' social development.

The school system is expected to develop new formats for presenting the results of its annual standardized testing that will focus on the amount of gain that students have achieved in a given period of time.

A study guide will help schools in their analyses. To evaluate school climate, for example, the guide will include survey questions that schools could use to examine discipline and safety, and systemwide information on suspensions and disciplinary incidents to allow schools to see how they measure up.

The guide also will describe how other Chicago schools have increased safety and discipline and list people at the schools who can provide more information.

Peer-Visitation Teams

After determining their strengths and weaknesses, the plan says, schools will be able to get help from networks working on particular reforms; universities, reform groups, or community organizations; administrators in the system; and "peer-visitation teams'' trained to aid schools.

Schools that are recognized as exemplary will serve as resources for other schools and models for the system. The process for identifying such schools, the plan says, will be "carried out in a way that will make recognition credible in the eyes of key decisionmakers outside the school system.''

Finally, schools that need intervention will be able to work with peer-intervention teams. Those that choose not to cooperate will face sanctions under provisions of the 1988 state law that established the decentralized system.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago research and advocacy group, praised the new school-improvement plan as "thoughtful and promising.''

"This moves from a highly centralized approach to one in which exemplary schools will be recognized and become learning sites for schools that are having trouble,'' he said.

Research Overhaul

Anthony S. Bryk, a professor of education and the director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago, will work on a half-time, pro bono basis to guide the overhaul of the research department.

John Q. Easton, the director of monitoring and research at the Chicago Panel on School Policy, will be the interim director of research, evaluation, and planning for a year.

The two researchers are also the co-directors of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a federation of area organizations that assesses the progress of school reform and tries to advance school improvement. Most of the research on the district's reform efforts has been done either by the consortium or its members, rather than by the school board's department.

Superintendent Johnson said the team was named to respond to "new demands for information and intensified concerns about school accountability.''

During the next year, Mr. Bryk plans to seek foundation support to bring together a team of local and national advisers in testing, evaluation, assessment, and school system research and analysis. They will consider the technical and logistical issues related to developing a new research and accountability system for the Chicago schools.

The reform law requires the local councils each year to draw up plans for improving their schools. The restructuring of the research department will focus on providing the kinds of information members of the councils need to evaluate their improvement plans and to determine whether their schools have made progress.

To insure that the restructured department meets city residents' needs, Mr. Bryk and Mr. Easton plan to consult principals, teachers, students, parents, and civic and business leaders.

The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally funded regional laboratory, will provide technical and logistical support for the project, which is part of a restructuring of the district's school administration.

A draft of the plan for the research restructuring is expected early in 1995, with the overhaul completed in a year.

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