Getting Its House in Order
The Chicago board of education's Pershing Road headquarters --three massive red-brick former warehouses not far from the city's stockyards--are a powerful symbol of the command-and-control bureaucracy that once ruled the city's schools.
Within the labyrinthine complex, office location counted. And by that standard, the department of research, evaluation, and planning ranked low. Its offices--on the fourth floor of the west building--are far removed from the general superintendent's quarters on the sixth floor of the east building.
For 13 years, the department lacked a permanently appointed director with a background in research. Notoriously difficult about releasing data on the schools, it had little capacity to do its own research and suffered from a poor reputation.
Such a backwater isn't a likely place to find an internationally recognized researcher. But this is Chicago, where councils of parents, teachers, and principals are now running the city's 540 schools. And Anthony S. Bryk, a leading authority on education statistics and a professor at the University of Chicago, has taken on the job of figuring out how to help them.
For the radical decentralization of the city's schools to work, members of local school councils need better information with which to make judgments. And, to replace top-down control by administrators, the city needs a new way of holding schools accountable.
Bryk, who has taken a half-time leave from the university to work on a pro-bono basis on the project, is working closely with John Q. Easton, the research department's interim director. Easton is a leading Chicago researcher whose work documenting the problems of the system helped pave the way for reform. The two also are co-directors of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a federation of research organizations that study the schools.
In inviting the pair last summer to spend a year overhauling the department, General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson cracked open what had been a closed and insular world. It was an opportunity to put research into practice for the scholar of organizational change.
"It was a great opportunity to serve," Bryk says. "I do think we're at a real critical juncture in this school system. If there is significant restructuring of the central office, it could really substantially increase the chance for productive reform out in the schools."
"The odds are long," he says, "but we have a chance to do some good here."
In the past, the research department evaluated programs funded by the state and federal governments, ran the standardized-testing program, and collected and stored data about the system. What good research it did tended not to be used, Easton says. "There is a nice unit on early childhood that has done some methodologically sound studies with some real findings," he says. "But it gets buried."
In the future, the department will play a critical role, providing the analysis, assessments, and accountability mechanisms that are expected to drive school improvement.
The task in Chicago, says Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington who serves on a national panel advising Bryk, is to "maintain a core of standards and yet respond to the desired differences in schools' educational approaches."
The Chicago work, he says, is significant to any district experimenting with decentralization through school-based management or charter schools.
"Through solving these problems," he says, "we can help other districts understand that you can't have decentralization unless you totally change the school-evaluation and -assistance mechanisms."
When Bryk arrived at the University of Chicago in 1984 from Harvard University, notes Valerie E. Lee, who wrote an award-winning book with him on Catholic high schools, "nobody knew school reform was coming down the pike."
When it did, she adds, Bryk was skeptical but had the clout to caution against evaluating it immediately on the basis of test scores.
"He has moved from being a high-level statistician over his time in Chicago to really become deeply involved in the Chicago schools," she says. "For him to spend about half of every week sitting down in the central office of the Chicago public schools is pretty amazing."
A Dramatic Shift
The system's plan for helping schools builds on studies conducted by Bryk and the consortium. Their research found that Chicago's schools fall into three categories. Some schools are actively restructuring with the help of well-functioning councils, some are making progress but need help, and some haven't changed.
In this decentralized system, the role of the central office is to recognize and reward good schools and help them make their practices available to other educators, give struggling schools better access to outside experts for advice, and intervene in troubled schools.
"That ought to be what the center does, but historically it has never worked out that way," Bryk says. "It was always giving orders and telling people what to do. This is quite a dramatic shift."
Under the 1988 reform law, schools were given the responsibility to develop an annual improvement plan, draw up a budget, and hire and fire principals.
To help schools know where they stand, the research department produced a "self-analysis guide" for schools to use in developing their improvement plans. The guide explains the core elements of successful schools and gives examples so schools can judge themselves.
Easton has run dozens of training sessions to help school teams use the guides. Some schools are pairing up with people from reform networks, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools and the School Development Program, for help in learning how to analyze themselves.
In the past, Bryk notes, the central office would have hired people or identified insiders to do such work. Seeking outside help, he says, "is part of a larger strategy of opening up, particularly at the central office, what has traditionally been a closed entity."
"We see ourselves as advocates for the schools," he explains. "There is more school-based authority in this system than in any other urban system. The action is at the school level."
But there's a lot of hard work to be done before schools, and the central office, have all the tools they need.
There is the matter of assessments, for example. Chicago has used the same standardized test for the past 15 years. Students are tested every year. Instead, Bryk says, they should be given citywide assessments in grades 4, 8, and 11 that would require portfolios and on-demand performances. In between, schools should use their own assessments to guide them in planning instruction, aligned with the same standards that undergird the citywide assessments.
Committees of teachers and principals are working on the new assessments, advised by technical experts. By relying heavily on the city's best teachers and principals, Bryk says, the work builds professional leadership.
The accountability system Bryk is developing also would involve expert teachers and principals. Teams would conduct in-depth "quality reviews" of schools once every four years, ideally during the third year of a principal's four-year contract.
The reviews would examine not just student performance, but whether the school was on the right track toward improvement. Just documenting the low achievement of many of Chicago's schools, Bryk believes, won't help them get better. Information from the reviews would be fed back to the school for planning purposes and used by the central office for recognition and remediation efforts.
In the meantime, the research department plans to get its house in order. Easton wants to develop software to help principals access student data, create a high-quality research group that can quickly answer questions, conduct surveys to enrich the data about schools, and negotiate an enduring, formal relationship with the Consortium on Chicago School Research to conduct the policy studies the department can't do.
The department should stop evaluating programs, Easton says, and concentrate on evaluating schools. Information on bilingual or special-education programs, for example, could then be pulled out of the information on the entire school.
Easton and Bryk believe that by reorganizing, the research department could reallocate some of its $4 million budget to carry out its new tasks.
But the new system will cost more, perhaps $10 million a year, Bryk estimates. It's a small investment in a $3 billion enterprise.
"The flip side of much more autonomy," he says, "is a commitment to genuine external accountability."