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Chicago Plan Seeks To Improve Achievement, Bolster Accountability

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The Chicago public schools last week unveiled a far-reaching plan designed to improve student achievement and bolster accountability throughout the 413,000-student district.

Though the management team appointed last year by Mayor Richard M. Daley has made extensive changes in the district's management, the plan marked the new team's first major foray into academics.

"We can do our best to balance budgets, fix buildings, and cut out bureaucratic waste, but the most important measure of our success is our impact on student achievement," Gery J. Chico, the president of the Chicago school board, said in a statement.

Among its many changes, the plan calls for the development of a core curriculum framework and a comprehensive student-assessment plan.

The curriculum plan, although short on details, recommends a modified version of the "direct instruction" model to be used districtwide.

Direct instruction is a traditional but controversial teaching method that relies on scripting lessons and seeking frequent responses from students.

In unveiling the plan, parts of which could take effect as early as September, Mr. Chico asked for the participation and suggestions of educators, community leaders, parents, and local school councils.

Goals for Achievement

Among the plan's highlights is the modified version of the direct-instruction model that will include a phonetic approach to teaching reading in the early years. The assessment part of the plan includes a national core-skills test as well as citywide assessments in all content areas in certain "benchmark" grades.

The plan also would require summer "bridge" programs for students in 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades who have fallen behind in reading or math.

"What you're seeing here is an activist central office saying they're not going to stand by and allow schools not to reach achievement goals," said G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

"It's a serious plan to say, 'We're going to work with schools to change the way schools are working,"' Mr. Hess added. "That's a very important posture for schools to take on."

The head of another local advocacy group, however, was skeptical of the plan and of the administration's intentions.

Donald Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, said that although he supported the move toward strengthening systemwide standards, he felt that the district's leaders went too far in trying to devise a core curriculum.

State law says that the content and method of curriculum should be developed at the level of individual schools, he said, while the board's role is to craft standards and assessments.

Mr. Moore said the district appeared to be trying to minimize the success of earlier, localized school-reform efforts, "so they can set the stage for a more centralized approach such as this core curriculum."

Blondean Davis, the district's deputy chief education officer, responded that the district did not intend to supplant the authority of schools.

"It will be a common curriculum, and how it is implemented will be a local decision," she said.

Model Questioned

Much of the early reaction to the plan centered around its call for the district to implement the direct-instruction model, which Ms. Davis said would be "strongly recommended" for schools in academic trouble.

Mr. Moore argued that even direct instruction's proponents say it is only effective when schools use it voluntarily. "Our question is, why mandate this particular model when there is no clear evidence that it's a superior approach?" he asked.

Barbara A. Sizemore, the dean of education at Chicago's DePaul University, who is working in Chicago schools to elevate minority student achievement, responded that direct-instruction techniques can work well, especially in low-achieving schools.

"It writes a script for the teachers and tries to control the details," she said.

"You've got to have a fast-moving curriculum in schools, because you've got to catch and keep [struggling students'] attention," added Ms. Sizemore. "These kids don't have time to waste--they've already lost time."

Other Elements

Other highlights of the district's plan include:

  • A proposal for every elementary school to increase its instructional time from 300 to 360 minutes a day.
  • Adding 300 new preschool centers to serve an additional 12,000 children ages 3 to 4.
  • "Freshman academies" to assist 9th graders in the transition to high school.
  • Learning safety nets for students, including a "10,000 Tutors" program to supply instructional support to at-risk elementary and high school students.

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