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Survey of Chicago Teachers Paints Uneven Portrait of Reform

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A new survey of Chicago teachers paints a troubling portrait of the city's high schools, many of which have been virtually untouched by the reforms put in place five years ago when the governance of the school system was overhauled.

"Many high school teachers appear alienated from their colleagues and only weakly tied to the school and its improvement," concludes the report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. "Absent strong ties among the adults, it is a daunting task ahead for the system to create more effective high schools."

In contrast, teachers in Chicago elementary schools were considerably more positive about many aspects of their work and their schools, the survey found.

"An uneven track record of reform tells us that many schools have not had the external support and assistance they need in order to get the reform process under way," said Penny Sebring, the co-director of the consortium, an independent federation of Chicago organizations that research school improvement and the progress of reform in Chicago. "There is some unfinished business here."

The report, "Charting Reform: Chicago Teachers Take Stock," surveyed 6,200 elementary and 2,600 high school teachers in 266 elementary and 46 high schools.

Teachers were asked about changes in their schools since the Chicago school-reform law took effect, the effectiveness of various types of leadership, the development of a professional community among the staff, the progress of reform in different elementary communities, and coherence in introducing new programs.

Satisfaction With Principals

Nearly half of the teachers surveyed reported some positive change in their schools since 1988, when the Illinois legislature passed a law shifting control of the schools to local school councils made up of parents, community members, principals, teachers, and high school students.

Teachers were most positive about their own effectiveness, professional opportunities, and commitment. More than 70 percent of teachers said their effectiveness in the classroom had improved in the past three years; 57 percent said they enjoyed better opportunities for professional growth.

Far less optimistic were teachers' assessments of student behavior and performance. More than 40 percent of the teachers surveyed said students' behavior had deteriorated, while 23 percent believed it had improved, since the reform law took effect. Only a third of the teachers reported seeing improvements in the quality of students' academic work.

Under the law, the local school councils hire and fire principals and draw up school-improvement plans and budgets. Legislators believed that engaging more people in the city's schools would lead to improvement.

Teachers reported being more SATisfied with their principals' leadership abilities than with their own or those of the school councils. Three-quarters of the respondents held their principals in high or moderately high regard. But only half said that teachers had extensive or moderate influence over affairs in their schools.

Teachers in Isolation

The survey also asked teachers about the features that make up a "professional community" for teaching: talking regularly with other teachers, sharing their teaching and observing other teachers' work, collaborating with other teachers, sharing a common vision for students, and focusing on student learning.

The reports from high school teachers were substantially more negative than those of elementary teachers on all aspects of professional community.

Virtually all high school teachers reported that they were working in isolation. Even in high schools where faculty members were most positive about reform, fewer than half of the teachers described their schools as strongly focused on the academic and social advancement of students.

But in elementary schools where teachers were most optimistic about reform, more than 80 percent of teachers reported such an intense focus.

High school teachers were also much more negative about their willingness to innovate, their commitment to the school, and their feelings of collective responsibility for its improvement.

"The overall pattern of high school teacher reports certainly provides reason to pause and ponder," the report says. "If these data are even close to being an accurate reflection of daily life in these schools, they imply very poor work environments with large numbers of demoralized staff in many high schools."

In contrast, elementary schools judged to be moving ahead with reform were found to be small, with fewer than 350 students, racially integrated, serving a slightly more advantaged population, and more stable than other schools.

Schools where teachers said that they trusted their colleagues were far more likely to be positive about reform than those hampered by poor relationships, the report says.

The consortium plans to release another survey this fall looking at problems in the high schools, including high rates of absenteeism and disengagement of students from schools.

Copies of the report are available for $6 each from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, 5835 S. Kimbark Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637.

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