Model Chicago Schools To Get Cash Rewards

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Chicago school officials are betting that the best way for troubled schools to improve is to learn from successful ones.

After nearly two years of work, the school system has launched a program to identify and reward schools where student achievement has increased and the number of dropouts has decreased.

Schools will also be recognized for putting together the key ingredients of an effective program, even if they have not yet shown gains in student achievement.

The Exemplary Schools Program this year will recognize 25 schools that will receive extra money to become learning sites for other Chicago schools.

The system, which has an annual budget of nearly $3 billion, will spend $2 million for the program over the next two years.

"Schools that are successful should be teaching other people how to do better," said Donald R. Moore, the co-chairman of the broad-based committee that devised the recognition program. "That's where the real skill resides."

The bottom-up approach to school improvement "is very much consistent with the thrust of Chicago reform," said Mr. Moore, who is also the executive director of Designs for Change, a local research and advocacy group.

Under a 1988 state law, the authority of the central office in the nation's third-largest school system was sharply curtailed and individual schools were given more decisionmaking power. Each of the city's 550 public schools is governed by a council made up of the principal, community members, and parents, teachers, and students (in the case of high schools).

Since that law was passed, dozens of reform networks and colleges and universities have signed on to work with schools in Chicago.

Uneven Pace

But policymakers have been frustrated by the uneven pace of reform. Studies have found that some of the city's K-8 elementary schools have made great strides but that others have languished. And Chicago's high schools have remained virtually untouched by the governance reforms. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

Olivia L. Watkins, the professional-development officer for the Chicago schools, said schools that are not getting results likely will be urged to learn from exemplary sites working with similar types of students. "They need the energy and examples from other schools," she said. "This gives us the opportunity to match them up."

But Allen Bearden, the director of the Chicago teachers' union's Quest Center, which works with restructuring schools, said he hopes that collaboration between schools remains mandatory.

"It can't be mandated," he said. "It has to be a joint decision that the teachers and administrators want to use a program."

By making clear the connection between existing top-notch practices and better results for students, proponents hope that the Exemplary Schools Program can provide what Mr. Moore calls a "consistent framework for good practice."

"We want to stimulate open dialogue throughout the school system about what an excellent urban school should be doing to educate our students and what steps we should take to move the improvement process forward," Paul Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 411,000-student school system, said last month in a statement announcing the program.

'Best Practices'

The recognition program grew out of an effort two years ago by then-Superintendent Argie K. Johnson to identify and assist failing schools. The superintendent's initial proposal--to group schools into three tiers according to standardized-test scores--was sharply criticized as punitive by many education activists. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

Instead, with the help of Designs for Change and other reform groups, the board of education came up with a guide to "best practices" that schools could use to diagnose their own strengths and weaknesses. The crucial parts of that framework, now called Children First, undergird the recognition effort.

The new program will recognize schools that exemplify best practices in involving parents and forming community partnerships, providing opportunities for professional development and collaboration for their staffs, creating learning environments that are focused on students, and exhibiting school leadership.

The program also will recognize schools that can show "exemplary results" in student learning, as measured by standardized achievement tests and dropout rates.

The school system's research department will notify schools of their eligibility to participate, based either on their students' scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program. Schools also may apply using other evidence to show progress.

Schools will be judged on the progress of students who have attended them for two or more years.

They can demonstrate that by meeting or surpassing national norms on the Iowa test between the 1987-88 school year, the benchmark year when the reform law was passed, and the 1994-95 school year.

Schools that compete for recognition on the Illinois test must show that their students' scores substantially exceed those in schools serving similar types of students.

High schools will be judged on how many students take and pass challenging math and science courses and on their progress in cutting the dropout rate.

To win recognition and money under the program, schools must be able to clearly explain how they have achieved gains in student achievement or how they put together a high-quality professional-development program, for example.

Judges will visit the schools before announcing the awards this spring. Schools will receive between $11,000 and $23,000 each this school year and between $35,000 and $75,000 next year to cover release time for teachers and pay for workshops, materials, and various dissemination activities.

Vol. 15, Issue 17

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