Poll Highlights Positive Response to Chicago Reforms

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Chicago principals, teachers, parents, and community members are significantly more positive about their schools now than they were before the governance of the school system was overhauled in 1989, according to a survey.

The poll of 705 members of the city's local school councils was conducted for Leadership for Quality Education, a nonprofit coalition of business and community groups supporting school reform.

It was the third survey of council members conducted for the organization since 1989, when the councils were elected to run Chicago's 540 schools.

Every group represented on the local school councils reported seeing school improvement.

Eighty-two percent of the principals who responded to the survey, for example, reported that their schools had improved--an increase of 31 percentage points in favorable responses since the first poll, conducted in January 1990.

Teachers' attitudes about their schools also have markedly improved, the survey found. In 1990, just 31 percent of the teachers surveyed thought their schools had improved since the councils were elected, while 68 percent responded favorably in the latest survey.

The enthusiasm for school reform among parents also has grown, from 59 percent of parents in 1990 believing that their schools had improved to 87 percent reporting positive change today.

Similarly, 80 percent of the community representatives on the local school councils said their schools had shown progress, compared with 47 percent in 1990.

When asked how long they thought it would take to show "measurable improvements in the Chicago public school system as a whole,'' the majority of respondents in all categories of council membership said from three to five years.

Different Views of Reform

There were divergent opinions about the meaning of school reform, however, between council members who work in schools and outsiders.

When asked in an open-ended question to define what school reform meant to them, educators most often cited the shift in power from the central administration to the schools, with 63 percent of principals and 44 percent of teachers emphasizing that aspect. In contrast, 47 percent of parents and 36 percent of community members cited their own involvement in the schools.

The goal of improving education was given priority by 39 percent of parents and 33 percent of community members, but by only 17 percent of principals and 23 percent of teachers.

But when respondents were asked the open-ended question of how they would know when they had reformed their schools, an improvement in test scores ranked first or second among all groups. Parents were the most likely to name test scores, which were mentioned by 39 percent of those surveyed.

Decreases in the dropout rate and increases in student attendance and enrollment in college also were mentioned by 30 percent of both parents and community members.

In explaining how they would know their schools had met the reform goals, principals placed slightly more emphasis on gaining power for the school or local school council than they did on improving test scores, with 30 percent citing achieving more power for the school or local school council and with 27 percent citing higher scores.

Teachers gave equal emphasis to test scores and achieving school autonomy, which were both cited by 29 percent of those responding.

Diana Nelson, the president of the L.Q.E., said the survey results are heartening because they indicate that school council members have a pragmatic view of reform.

"They appear to be as focused as we are on the bottom line,'' she said. "They show a deep awareness of what it takes to make an effective school and how they will know when they achieved it.''

Role of Tests

Despite the attention to test scores, though, the survey respondents did not cite them as their school's major concern.

When asked in another open-ended question to name the biggest problem facing their schools, lack of money for supplies and building maintenance topped the list, followed closely by lack of money to pay for new staff members, training, and salaries.

Attendance, gang problems, and lack of discipline also were frequently mentioned. Low test scores were cited by just 10 percent of principals, 14 percent of teachers, 9 percent of parents, and 6 percent of community members.

Ms. Nelson said it was "hard to interpret wisely'' the gap between council members' expressed interest in raising test scores and that goal's ranking on the list of school issues.

Slightly more than half of the parents and community representatives surveyed said they planned to run in next fall's elections. About a quarter of the members of each group said they would not run because they were no longer eligible, the work took too much time, or they were frustrated by their lack of accomplishment.

Only 40 percent of teachers said they would run again, citing the excessive time commitment and a desire to let colleagues have a chance to serve.

Vol. 12, Issue 20

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