At the Top of a ‘Bottom Up’ Experiment in Chicago

April 18, 1990 11 min read

When Theodore D. Kimbrough became general superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools three months ago, he joined a school system in the midst of an unusually innovative and widely watched reform effort.

The 1988 state law governing the reforms was crafted largely by community activists and business leaders, with relatively little input from district officials or other professional educators.

At its heart, the law reflects a belief that is radical and unproven in a large urban school system: that parents will make better decisions for the schools than a central bureaucracy widely perceived to be too large and remote to stimulate needed improvements.

The law leaves Mr. Kimbrough with far less authority than his predecessor had. But he must nevertheless find ways to lead the reform effort, which has been described as stopping just outside the classroom door, toward its ultimate aim: improving education for the city’s 600,000 students.

That Mr. Kimbrough will be held to high expectations is evident: Both he and the reform-minded interim board have already been criticized for providing too little support to newly empowered local school councils and for failing to eradicate opposition to the reforms among mid-level bureaucrats.

Mr. Kimbrough came to Chicago after seven years as superintendent of a 26,000-student school district in Compton, Calif., where his efforts to improve the district were recognized by the American Association of School Administrators, which named him California Superintendent of the Year in 1988.

Before assuming the post in Compton, he worked for 26 years as a teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was born in Chicago, and educated in the public schools of Evanston, Ill.

Senior Writer William Snider asked Mr. Kimbrough to outline his views on the reform law and his initial experiences with it at the Council of the Great City School’s annual legislative conference last month in Washington.

You now preside over a district undergoing one of the most rapid and far-reaching attempts to decentralize decisionmaking in a modern public institution. A lot of your colleagues are skeptical that it will work. How do you rate the plan’s chance of sparking dramatic improvements in your district?

First of all, we need to look at this as a reform in governance before it gets to the question of education. I think that the governance transfer will take place and be meaningful, very, very positive. Once that has been clearly defined and we get through some amendments to make it better, to improve it, then the awesome responsibility for reforming education will take place. It will take some time.

William Bennett said during his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education that Chicago has the worst school system in the nation. How bad are the problems there?

People in Chicago should be grateful that Mr. Bennett stopped by one day and made the statement that he did, because what it caused them to do was to look internally and to recognize that there was a problem. It is not the worst school district in America. However, that does not detract from the importance of what we must do and how rapidly we must change education if, in fact, we are to save the urban areas in this country.

The reform law gives local school councils the power to hire and fire principals as well as significant control over the purse strings. Even the primary monitoring mechanisms, district councils and superintendents, will be selected by the local councils, rather than by you and the school board. Does the law hinder your ability to make improvements in the system?

No, I think that that’s a very key and basic element that has been given to the local school councils. And the first test of that has come with the selection of principals. There’s been a lot of controversy, and I hasten to say [that the] controversy has been exacerbated by the reporting of those incidents where we had problems, as opposed to the almost 270 of the 276 [schools making decisions about principals] where we didn’t have problems. So to put things in perspective, the transfer is taking place and being done very well.

It is very critical that we all understand that to be a council member means more than just empowerment, it also means responsibility. It’s going to take some time for people to understand that. But the legislature was very wise in putting the selection of principals with the council. It truly validates that they are in power. We are not going to solve the problems unless people have ownership, and that is a significant element of ownership.

Does the law make your job more difficult? How will your role differ from that of a superintendent in a more traditional school system?

It does make it more difficult, and the analogy should be that it’s more like a state superintendency with all the responsibilities of a district superintendent. The immediate ability to intervene at early stages is something that is lacking; it is more of an advisory capacity than it has been in the past, where it was directive. It’s more in setting standards and goals and in transmitting them for, hopefully, adoption by the local school councils.

Not until we get to the point where the schools are failing will the superintendent and central board play a role similar to what they have played in the past, and that is to go to the receivership model, where the superintendent has the responsibility to make those kinds of corrections and improvement plans and make sure that takes place.

So it is different. The role of both the central board and the general superintendent is evolving, and as we go along we will more clearly define those roles.

What is your sense of what the board of education expects you to accomplish during your first year?

I think the board is interested in making sure that my priority is--as theirs is--to galvanize the local school councils into reforming. I think that they recognize that reform cannot work without the council members’ fully understanding what their responsibilities are. I have to help them to begin the process of internalizing it, along with making sure the staff internalizes that we are going to have reform. It is not going to be repealed.

The reform law creates what is really an unprecedented role for parents in an urban school system by mandating they hold 6 of the 11 seats on the school councils. What do you see as the promises and the pitfalls of having parents play such a pivotal role?

Well, we must recognize that parents are the first teachers and that the children really belong to them, and that they do have a legitimate role in participating--as historically they have since the beginning of our public education system in this country. And third, but not least of all, it’s not going to work without them.

I would say that we probably need to have one or two more teachers involved in the process. We need to work on the role of the “professional advisory councils,” which basically are made up of professional staff. They need to have a very, very prominent role, in that the local school councils should look to them for professional guidance and not get off into some of the areas that obviously require professionals and their expertise.

But it’s a good starting model. I think that parents are welcome, and that they need to define what their roles are going to be. As long as we are able to function with the eye of the storm always being the classroom, then it’s going to work well.

There were charges leveled during the first round of the prin4cipal-selection process that some school councils were dismissing principals because they were not of the desired race or ethnicity. Do you have any reason to believe that this has actually occurred in any of the schools?

I have no evidence to support those charges, and I think that each one of the principals involved is controversial in nature. Those who make the charges don’t seem to want to put it on paper. Until someone presents a complaint and we do the investigation and find that in truth that is what the case is, I think it’s a specious argument.

The law creates changes in virtually every aspect of the district’s governance. What are the greatest strengths?

The greatest strength is that it changes the cultural attitudes. People are accustomed to, in our culture, having direction come from the top down. The most significant thing is that it goes from the bottom up now. And our systemwide plan has to reflect that, it has to be built upon the improvement model that comes from the schools.

Many of your colleagues believe the reform law swings the pendulum of decentralization too far in the direction of local control. What are your thoughts on that debate?

Well, it’s too early to judge that. That’s like various leaders of the country saying, “Throwing money at the problem is not the solution,” even though it’s obvious that we have never thrown enough money at the problem. I don’t think that we can prejudge that it has gone too far. If we participate in making sure that it works, then it will not have swung too far.

Have you identified what you believe to be the weaknesses in the law? Are there any changes that you will suggest be made by the legislature?

At this time, that is something that I would rather not comment on. Obviously, we’ve looked at the appeals process [from school-council decisions], for the law is silent on that and it is something we need to address. The elections, how to go about filling vacancies [on school councils]--those are some of the technical kinds of things we need to look at. But philosophically, I have not been able to come to a judgment as to those things that maybe we need to change. I think we will learn from our experiences.

The law seemed to come down hardest on the system’s bureaucrats and administrators, stripping many of their traditional powers and implicitly criticizing their past performance. Has this created morale problems among the district’s staff? Do you believe any employees are actually working to undermine the reform process?

The law did come down very, very hard by simply putting into place a reform act which changes the emphasis from top-down to bottom-up. The staff became involved in the legislation itself late, late, late in the game, believing that in fact that it would not occur. If the staff could have been in the leadership role, in the avant-garde of what was taking place, they may have come up with a better reform act.

I do think we need to change the culture, and one way of doing that is to change what appears to be a top-heavy administration, keeping in mind that when you have a $2.7-billion budget it does take a corporate structure to administer that. So, you know, its not a Mom-and-Pop corner grocery store anymore. There has to be an adequacy in administration, and I think we will be able to confront that issue and do well.

New York City’s decentralized school system has been plagued by corruption, and some predict the same fate will befall the Chicago reforms, particularly given the city’s checkered political history. One of your main tasks will be to ensure this doesn’t happen. Do you have any ideas how you might be able to accomplish that?

Well, there are a couple of differences between New York and some of the other places that have tried this model--none to the extent that we have. Number one [in Chicago] is that the press has a voracious appetite, and they examine things on a daily basis, item by item, and that [scrutiny] will help.

Secondly, people are beginning to understand that they have the responsibility and that responsibility is going to be looked at just as it is with professionals. We do have an oversight commission, and it’s going to be looking at all of this, not only programmatically, but fiscally. And third, we do have budgetary controls, and I have a past history of acting on abuses. I will act quickly and swiftly where there is an abuse.

But, as a whole, I think the community is at such a high level of wanting to do what’s right; they all want it to work so much that they are going to be looking at each other. They are not going to permit the kinds of things that have happened in the past.

The ultimate success of the reforms will depend on parents and educators’ being willing to take risks in pursuit of improvements. How will you work to promote risk-taking and a willingness to experiment in schools?

Well, obviously, you’ve got to do that through a series of incentives. We’re not going to punish people who take risks on behalf of children, we’re going to encourage them. If they make a mistake, we’re going to say, “O.K., you made a mistake, where’s your corrective plan, let’s see if we can help you.” That is a different cultural approach than saying, “Wow, you made a mistake, it cost $3 million, we’re going to cut your budget for the next three years in order to recoup that.”

How long do you believe it will take before the reforms to begin to show results in terms of improved student performance? Are you concerned that the public will demand results more quickly than the new system is able to provide them?

I think you’re looking at four to six years before you see anything significant. I think in a 10-year period you will see that the reform act with its modifications was the right thing to do. Education will be more individualized, and we will probably have different ways of looking at the indicators of what the results are.

After a reform act, there’s always an overpromising and expectations are always much higher. Unfortunately we’ve become accustomed to immediate gratification in our society. We’re going to have to understand that [improvements are] just not going to happen quickly.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 1990 edition of Education Week as At the Top of a ‘Bottom Up’ Experiment in Chicago