Chicago’s Grassroots School Reform Provides Irresistible Laboratory for Dozens of Scholars

By Robert Rothman — October 30, 1991 6 min read

When Chicagoans went to the polls this month to elect members to their local school councils, Michael Katz, a historian from the University of Pennsylvania, was there.

For two years, ever since he by chance witnessed the first school-council elections, Mr. Katz and two colleagues, a social psychologist and an urban anthropologist, have been studying the landmark school-reform experiment that created the councils.

To Mr. Katz, the district’s dramatic effort at sharing control of the schools with the public is worth studying as a “social movement.”

“It struck me as extraordinary, unprecedented, and, to me, quite unexpected,” Mr. Katz says. “It has the characteristics of an urban social movement, much broader than educational change.”

In conducting research on the Chicago reform, Mr. Katz has plenty of company. The 1988 law, which set in motion a series of changes unheard-of on that scale, has drawn researchers like a magnet to the shores of Lake Michigan. Scholars from the area and from across the nation have been eager to lend their expertise to, and to learn from, the experiment.

“It’s intrinsically interesting to watch something like that going on,” says Chester E. Finn Jr., director of the Educational Excellence Network in Washington, which has been studying the process. “It’s also significant to the country, not just a curiosity.” Mr. Finn and others note that conducting research on the Chicago schools is difficult, if for no other reason than the sheer size of the district, the nation’s third largest.

Their task has been complicated, moreover, because of the district’s budget problems, which, among other things, have led to cutbacks in the central office’s research arm that have set back efforts at developing new indicators of school and student progress.

But some researchers question whether all the analyses can ever come up with definitive explanations for why things succeed or fail.

“A lot of things happen when you make a change,” says Lloyd Bond, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “A lot of things don’t happen. Trying to figure out what change affected what effect is an analytical nightmare in a city that size.”

Pushing Hot Buttons

In many respects, researchers’ interest in the Chicago schools predated the reform.

Advocacy groups based there--particularly Designs for Change and the Chicago Panel on Public-School Policy and Finance--had generated numerous studies that documented the severe problems in the district, which, in 1987, former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett labeled the nation’s worst. The groups also help lay the groundwork for the reform effort by recommending changes.

“If you look at the phase of pushing for change, a lot of research was brought to bear,” says Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University. “They said, ‘Schools are in terrible shape, this kind of change will make a difference.’”

The researchers’ interest intensified after the legislature passed the reform law. That unprecedented statute wrested a substantial amount of control over the schools from the central office on Pershing Road and placed it instead in the hands of lay councils, led by parents, for each of the city’s 540 schools.

According to Mr. Finn, the reform law pushed a number of hot buttons on researchers’ agendas. It combined decentralization with “consumer control,” he said, thereby attracting attention from those studying school-based management as well as those interested in choice and other parental-involvement programs. At the same time, he notes, the reform came at a time when a number of scholars were paying attention to urban education and the problems of disadvantaged youths.

Mr. Finn also points out, like Mr. Katz, that the reform process represented an unusual case study in political dynamics.

“You’ve got an instance of a community that banded together and rose up in revolt against its own education system,” Mr. Finn says.

And, notes Mr. Kirst, the change was on a scale almost unknown among education researchers. “Most of what we study is marginal,” he says.

‘Fertile Ground’

In response to the law, a number of local university researchers banded together and formed a consortium, led by Anthony Bryk, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, to lay out a research agenda for a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the reform.

In addition, the local groups continued to crank out studies. Designs for Change, for example, has conducted numerous surveys to gauge how the reform has been implemented, and the Chicago Panel on Public-School Policy and Finance has selected 12 schools to study in depth.

Researchers outside of Chicago, such as Mr. Katz and Mr. Finn, have also moved in to try to assess the experiment.

Many of the studies have been supported by Chicago-based foundations. The Spencer Foundation, for example, is funding Mr. Katz’s study, and the Joyce Foundation has assisted the excellence network.

Maxey Bacchus, director of the department of research, evaluation, and planning for the Chicago Public Schools, says he welcomes the assistance.

“It’s obviously fertile ground for research,’' Mr. Bacchus says. “It’s much beyond the capacity of the board’s research department to get into in a major way.”

Some studies, particularly those that confound experts’predictions about what the reform law might do, are beginning to capture the ear of policymakers, says Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change.

For example, he says, one of that group’s studies found that, contrary to predictions, white principals in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods were no less likely to be retained than minority principals in those areas.

“One of the things people have paid a lot of attention to is research that bears on allegations of what was likely to happen,” Mr. Moore says.

Budget Problems

While the researchers are eager to study the Chicago reform, many concede that it is difficult.

After a dozen visits of two to three days [each] talking to people from different perspectives, I feel a little like talking to the blind men about the elephant,” Mr. Finn says. “But if you talk to enough blind men, at least you get a hazy view of the elephant.”

The law has also posed a challenge to scholars by forcing them to secure permission for a study from each school council, rather than from the central office. But this change has been a blessing as well, since the central office had a reputation as being unhelpful, says John Q. Easton, director of research for the Chicago policy and finance panel.

“Chicago had been notoriously difficult for researchers to work in,” he says. “People stayed away.”

By contrast, he says, although securing permission from the 12 schools the panel is studying took months, the effort will produce a better study.

“Once we covered all the bases,” Mr. Easton says, “We have a more solid relationship than if the superintendent had granted us permission to get in the schools.”

The district’s budget cuts, which this month led the teachers’ union to the brink of a strike, have made their job more difficult, Mr. Easton says.

For example, he notes, the central office lacked the paper to distribute to schools the results of a teachers’ survey the panel conducted. The budget cuts have also led to staff reductions, which have slowed the district’s ability to generate and analyze data. The board this summer cut the research staff by half, but then hired most professionals back as consultants.

“Cutting research was not a very coherent response to the current budget crisis,” Mr. Moore says. “But merely beefing up the staff would not in and of itself be helpful.”

“What is needed is a coherent plan to develop indicators,” he says.

Mr. Bacchus acknowledges that, as a result of the budget cuts, the district’s central office is unable to provide much of the data researchers want. But, he says, at this point in the reform effort, it is too early to make judgments about its effects.

But Mr. Katz says that, despite the limitations, the research is beginning to bear fruit.

“I can now find examples of good schools there,” he says. “I can find examples of schools that have improved in the last two years, schools poised to improve, as well as schools that have not gotten off the ground yet.” .

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Chicago’s Grassroots School Reform Provides Irresistible Laboratory for Dozens of Scholars