A Quest for Change

By Ann Bradley — June 22, 1994 13 min read

When the Illinois General Assembly passed a law in 1988 radically decentralizing Chicago’s schools, few people were thinking much about empowering teachers. Instead, critics widely regarded the Chicago Teachers Union as part of the problem with the city’s schools, not as part of the solution.

During the 1980’s--when teachers’ unions and school boards across the country began to focus on labor-management cooperation as a key to improving schools--Chicago teachers went on strike five times. The job actions helped the C.T.U. earn its reputation as a hard-line trade union in a city with an entrenched school bureaucracy.

But since the governance changes, which put each school under the control of an elected council with parents in the majority, the Chicago Teachers Union has quietly become a player in reform. The union has done so through its Quest Center, a unique effort established in 1992 with a $1.1 million grant from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Quest Center has two main purposes: to act as a citywide catalyst for restructuring teaching and learning; and to work closely with 46 schools, selected through a competitive process, to implement their own plans for improvement.

Through the Quest Center, the union and the Chicago board of education also embarked last year on their first joint project--the establishment of a set of citywide standards for educating students.

The willingness of a major national foundation to invest such a large amount of money in the C.T.U. signaled the union’s willingness to rethink the way it did business.

“A lot of people said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re funding the enemy, the people who hold everything up,’'' recalls Peter Martinez, the senior program officer for the foundation’s Chicago Education Initiative. “So it took some risk-taking.’'

Now, he says, foundation officials are convinced that the Quest Center is a “serious professional effort being run with a lot of energy.’'

The union is also taking its share of risks in venturing beyond its traditional concerns over salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Thomas H. Reece, the C.T.U.'s newly elected president, says it’s a matter of enlightened self-interest.

Battling for decent salaries and grievance procedures, he says, took up so much time that professional development was something “we didn’t have a lot of time for.’' Now, with younger teachers coming into the system to replace the 3,500 to 4,000 teachers who’ve retired in the past two years, he and other union leaders believe they have to broaden their focus to appeal to new members.

“They don’t have a union background,’' Reece says of the new teachers. “They really think that sick days and pension plans and hospitalization you have because it’s the right thing to do. They want to know first how to do a job. So you’ve got to provide them with professional tools to make them identify with you.’'

Empowering Teachers

If top union leaders view the Quest Center in pragmatic terms, the center’s staff members are clearly animated by their personal interest in developing teacher leadership and in bringing research on new teaching methods and new ways of thinking about schooling to teachers.

Deborah Walsh, the center’s director, began her career as a Chicago teacher with a strong belief that professional issues should be as important to her union as bread-and-butter matters. In 1980, her convictions landed her a part-time position at the C.T.U. working to offer the first professional coursework the union had sponsored for its members. She then spent eight years working for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington as the assistant director of its educational-issues department before returning to Chicago.

Teachers, Walsh says, would have liked more of a voice in reform. They hold just two of the 11 seats on each local school council. Schools also have “professional-personnel advisory committees’’ of teachers that help principals plan for school improvement. But “teachers are very suspicious of advisory bodies,’' she says. “‘Input’ is a code word for being told what to do and how to do it.’'

Walsh works closely with John Kotsakis, the assistant to the C.T.U. president for educational issues, who devotes half his time to the Quest Center. Kotsakis, a prime mover behind the creation of the center, has also worked to develop programs to recruit new teachers to the city.

Part of the challenge, he says, is to change teachers’ mentality while being sensitive to their feelings. “When you have a relationship with the board like we’ve had for such a long time--of animosity--and the entire school system is a command center subject to capricious bureaucrats, the people in schools tend to think of themselves as equipment: ‘I’m not important, I don’t make decisions.’''

Teachers need to understand that they can make decisions, Kotsakis says, and that the failure of many of Chicago’s schools is not their fault. “It’s the way in which you’re working, so redesign it,’' Kotsakis says he tells teachers. “You don’t have to accept it the way it is.’'

Expanding Influence

The Quest Center gets its message out to teachers through citywide conferences, courses offered through its Restructuring Institute, and contact with teachers in schools across the city who want to learn more about changing their practice.

For the past three years, the center has invited teams of teachers in schools, or teachers interested in setting up schools-within-schools, to submit formal proposals. Schools selected to work with the Quest Center receive $3,000 and three years of help from the center’s five-person staff.

Last month, the center’s board of directors chose its last round of schools, bringing the total number of Quest sites to 46. The Quest Center’s schools have become one of the largest, best-organized networks in a city that has attracted the attention of many national reform groups.

Although each school is doing something different, common themes do emerge: developing interdisciplinary or thematic curricula, creating teams of teachers, integrating vocational and academic work, stressing hands-on approaches to teaching and learning, using portfolios and performance assessments, and incorporating projects and real-life experiences to make learning more meaningful to students.

From the start, the Quest Center had planned to reward schools that showed measurable improvement in student achievement at the end of their three years. But two years into the program, Walsh says money for incentives hasn’t been raised yet. Still, she envisions cash awards, sabbaticals, credits toward master’s degrees, allowing schools to control their budgets, waiving standardized tests, or guaranteeing that a school’s faculty won’t be whipsawed by staffing changes.

The union is in the best position to interest the majority of Chicago teachers in reform, argues G. Alfred Hess Jr., the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy and a member of the Quest Center’s board of directors. “The mavericks are easily reachable,’' he says. “But to get to the everyday, grassroots teachers, the union is a superior vehicle.’'

Not everyone in Chicago agrees. John Ayers, the executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, a business-backed school-reform group, says the business community is “of two minds’’ about the center.

“There is an element that is staunchly anti-union and feels that the union is a big part of the problem,’' Ayers explains. “That it’s a protective society for teachers above all else, and they are dismissive of Quest as a P.R. initiative. But those of us close to reform don’t buy that. This is a genuine effort to engage teachers in professional development, and you very seldom see that from a union.’'

Close observers also note that the Quest Center is showing subtle, but important, signs of influencing the union. Martinez of the MacArthur Foundation points out, for example, that the C.T.U. has committed some of its own money to the center’s work.

Quest Center staffers attended the union’s spring delegate retreat last year to brief them on the new instructional strategies the center is encouraging. And the union routinely looks to the center for help on professional problems, C.T.U. President Reece says, while field representatives tend to handle union issues. Last month, a Quest Center staffer testified at the state Capitol about the work under way in Chicago’s schools, in an effort to fend off a charter-school bill.

Still, Reece says, there has been some internal skepticism about “people running around giving lectures and in-services to people who are right in the trenches.’' Some union members are also suspicious of the sponsoring foundations’ “agendas,’' he adds.

“I think we’re pretty much past that,’' he says of such attitudes.

While Martinez says he’s eager to see the C.T.U. begin to press during collective bargaining for measures that would help restructuring schools--such as incentives for improvement--Reece says such talks have not been possible with the continuing budget crisis in Chicago.

“It’s amazing we could develop Quest in this atmosphere,’' he says. “It seems like we’re always in crisis.’'

Unlikely Allies

At Revere Accelerated School, which serves 600 low-income pre-kindergartners through 8th graders on the city’s South Side, the faculty has been energized through its work with the Quest Center. Teachers have organized themselves into “cores’’ and are using whole-language methods. They’ve also developed alternative forms of assessment and student portfolios.

Dean K. Gustafson, Revere’s principal for the past 10 years, rocks back in his chair as he admits that he never would have dreamed of cooperating with the union to restructure his school. “I don’t think a lot of principals view the union and principals working together,’' he explains. “They’ve been pitted against one another.’'

But at Revere, he says, the Quest Center has been “nothing but an aid,’' helping the school get waivers to restructure its day to allow more time for professional development.

The school’s involvement with the Quest Center began when Joaquina Green, the school librarian, read about the effort in the union newspaper. Before writing a proposal to the center, she says, the school had programs for “this and that.’' Working together around common goals, she believes, has turned teachers into a team.

Ileene MacGlashan, who returned to teaching five years ago after eight years at home, takes a moment while her students are in the library to discuss what participating in the Quest Center project has meant to her. Using hands-on science projects and whole-language methods to teach reading, she says, has made a big difference in her classroom.

“The interest of the child is rarely a problem,’' she explains. “They are focused most of the time. I think the school day needs to be extended--at 2:30 the kids say, ‘Was that a half-day today?’''

For Tammy Matthews, who teaches just across the hall, organizing the school into cores of teachers has provided the support she needs as a third-year teacher. “I’ve never felt I had a problem that couldn’t be taken care of by someone in the core,’' she says.

Teachers at William Howard Taft High School, which also received a Quest grant, have had a harder time of it this school year.

Like many Chicago high schools, Taft High, on the city’s far northwest side, was buffeted at the beginning of the school year by budget cuts that meant a loss of teachers, a change in scheduling, and difficulty ordering supplies. The school also lost a third of its faculty to retirements. The turmoil made it impossible for the school’s four “houses,’' which offer combined career and college-prep coursework, to keep themselves intact.

Paul Reibman, a retired business teacher who works at Taft as a consultant to direct the restructuring, notes that the school also had to “get rid of’’ a handful of “reserve teachers’’ assigned there by the board of education. The subject of reserve teachers--who lose their jobs in a school because of declining enrollment or lack of demand for their subjects--is a sore one in Chicago. The union has fiercely protected their jobs, while many principals complain they shouldn’t have to take teachers they don’t want.

And when the business house wanted to switch to an unconventional schedule, Reibman says, staunch union supporters complained it would violate their contract. Despite the problems, “there is no one who has done more for restructuring at Taft than the union,’' he says.

Although it takes more time, Kotsakis firmly believes that schools have to work through teachers’ objections. That’s why each school’s union delegate must agree to its Quest Center proposal. By knowing that they can “do something negative,’' he explains, people also learn they have the power to do something positive.

Systemwide Standards

Through its work developing standards for student learning, now called the Chicago Framework for Transforming Teaching and Learning, the Quest Center has begun to push for systemwide reform.

The union’s partnership with the school board came about when the MacArthur and Joyce foundations--which both the union and board approached separately--encouraged them to work together. Still, the C.T.U. is widely regarded as a more forceful advocate of the standards than are central administrators, many of whom are new to their jobs.

Warren Chapman, a program officer at the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, says the standards work has developed “beyond my expectations,’' taking on “a wonderful life of its own’’ as the Quest Center presses for the standards to be widely used.

The standards focus on the kinds of learning students should engage in, rather than the 4,500 discrete bits of knowledge that make up the system’s current curriculum objectives. While most people take pains to distinguish between the two, Marjorie B. Branch, the deputy superintendent for academic support, insists they complement one another. “It flows very easily,’' she says. “At first, I was a little afraid it would not.’'

For the standards to be meaningful, Walsh and others want to see them linked to systemwide performance assessments and professional development for teachers. A task force in Chicago is currently studying the city’s testing system and may recommend that it back away from its use of standardized tests.

One idea under consideration is for the C.T.U. and a local research consortium to develop an entirely new assessment system to match the learning standards, which focus on the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades.

Teams of teachers in 10 Quest schools are now developing “prototype’’ teaching units that show how teachers can use the standards in the classroom and how individual schools can use performance assessments to measure students’ progress toward meeting those standards. The work is arduous and quite different from the way many teachers have planned lessons, Walsh notes.

“What is most challenging to teachers is thinking about starting with the standards,’' she says, “as opposed to nice activities.’'

The Quest Center first became interested in developing the standards to bring some focus to the varied proposals it received from schools. “There were all these wonderful concepts--cooperative learning and interdisciplinary curriculum--and we’d see that they had no anchor,’' Walsh explains. “There was no common understanding of what the goal was. With the standards as a focus, it forces you to justify using certain strategies.’'

At Taft High, for example, teachers working on the prototypes have proposed that students learn to build a musical instrument, integrating concepts they have learned in music, science, and mathematics.

But teachers have grown a little discouraged, Reibman says, because they’ve had to go back and redo their work to conform to the Quest Center’s formula.

“We’re all trying to figure this out together,’' Walsh says.

A version of this article appeared in the June 22, 1994 edition of Education Week as A Quest for Change