Sensing growing interest among researchers and school districts in partnering to solve the vexing real-world problems of schools in their communities, the Consortium on Chicago School Research sent invitations to a dozen or so districts to attend a two-day meeting on how to go about doing it.
To the surprise of consortium leaders, virtually everyone accepted, and some even named others to invite as well. In the end, representatives from 19 districts showed up for the May 19-20 meeting here, suggesting that interest in the kind of nitty-gritty collaborative work that the Chicago consortium is known for may be on the rise.
The attendees of the meeting, which was sponsored by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Spencer Foundation of Chicago, and other donors, included representatives from Baltimore, Newark, N.J., and New York City, where formalized collaborations between school systems and researchers are already under way. Also in attendance were researchers and district officials from California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, where similar efforts are testing the waters, in the early stage, or aiming to network and expand their reach.
“I think there’s a greater understanding of the value of data to help you figure out what you should do and how you should value your resources,” said Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, one of the groups that attended last month’s meeting. “Now the feds are telling states, ‘We’re going to invest in data systems for you,’ so districts are saying to themselves, ‘Maybe we do need better relationships with universities.’ ”
• Founded: 1990
• Founder: Anthony S. Bryk
• Size of Research Staff: 20 full-time employees
• Reports produced each year: Eight, on average
• Presentations made last year: 69 for Chicago Public Schools and 30-40 more around the country
Current leaders: Penny Bender Sebring and Elaine Allensworth are interim leaders
SOURCE: Consortium on Chicago School Research
With a track record that stretches back almost 20 years, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago, is a logical place to offer advice on that score. Considered a nuisance at one time by Chicago school officials, the research group’s work has come to have a significant impact on the way the 408,000-student district does business.
“Having the consortium in our backyard actually helps keep us honest,” Michael C. Lach, the officer of high school teaching and learning for the Chicago public schools, told conference-goers. “These are pretty intractable problems we’re dealing with that don’t have easy solutions so, a lot of times, the consortium tells us things we don’t know.”
A New Model?
Launched in 1990 by Anthony S. Bryk, then a scholar at the University of Chicago, the consortium had as its original mission evaluating the city’s landmark effort to decentralize the school system by setting up local school councils to hire and fire principals and set budgets and school improvement plans.
Now grown to a research staff of 20, the consortium studies a range of issues, including the transition students make to high school, what happens when students are retained, and the rigor of the curriculum. According to John Q. Easton, the consortium’s former longtime director, the group produces up to eight major reports a year. Last year, consortium researchers made 69 presentations on their work for local educators and 30 to 40 more at national conferences.
Perhaps as illustrative of the group’s growing influence, Mr. Easton himself was confirmed by the U.S. Senate late last month as the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s key research agency, the Institute of Education Sciences.
Whether other districts will be able to replicate the consortium model in their own communities remains an open question, and one that many participants hoped to get answered to at the conference.
“I keep thinking that this is a wonderfully fruitful and productive relationship, but I wonder in how many districts it could actually happen, because it’s profoundly influenced by governance structure,” said Ms. Guiney. Because Chicago’s school system is mayor-controlled, she said, school leaders don’t have to worry as much about a school board that might overreact “when the first bad report comes out.”
One big hurdle for such partnerships, indeed, is striking the right political balance. While district officials might welcome extra support for their underresourced research and evaluation departments, they might not want that help to come from university researchers they cannot control, and whose studies might produce unwanted negative publicity.
Mr. Lach noted that “there’s always the worry that ... [consortium researchers] are going to show once again how terrible we are.”
A Kansas Collaboration
Maintaining good relations becomes even more complicated as district administrations turn over, and consortia expand their reach to include more districts and universities.
An evolving research collaboration in the metropolitan Kansas City area offers a case in point. Jacqueline D. Spears, an associate professor of secondary education at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, said that the effort seeks to link at least 15 districts with researchers at five universities. In addition to ksu, they are the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, in Columbia, the University of Missouri Kansas City, and Washington University in St. Louis. Financed with startup funding of more than $830,000 from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the project is scheduled to hold its first formal meeting with school districts this month. (The Kauffman Foundation also provides grant support for Education Week, as does the Gates Foundation.)
Besides maintaining relationships with an ever-changing array of school officials, partners in that collaboration will have to work with different data-collection processes, and different stores of data in all the systems involved.
“That does look daunting to us, as I’m sure it does to other consortia,” said Ms. Spears.
An analogy to describe the relationship between researchers and district research operations in these kinds of partnerships, Melissa J. Roderick, a co-director of the consortium, told the group, might be emergency room physicians and surgeons. The emergency room staff the broader, quick-turnaround work, while the surgeons do slower, more-detailed work.
To navigate sensitive political waters in its own community, the consortium has developed a “no surprises” policy, which means studies are not released before the school system has had time to digest the results. The consortium also has a 23-member steering committee made up of representatives from the school system, the Illinois state board of education, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, the Chicago Teachers Union, researchers, civic leaders, and advocates for school reform. The board offers ideas for the research agenda, reviews research designs, shapes the interpretation of preliminary findings, gives feedback on reports, and helps with dissemination.
Once a report is completed, researchers spend months sharing the findings with educators throughout the school system and with national audiences.
“There are times in this research-dissemination business when you need face-to-face contact and, if you get researchers who can talk to people, you get a lot more credibility,” said Mr. Easton
Even so, researcher-practitioner relationships haven’t always been smooth, said Elaine M. Allensworth, interim leader of the consortium. One superintendent, whom she did not name, temporarily withheld data from the researchers after he became angered by the findings of one report.
Recruiting scholars to join in such efforts can also be difficult because university tenure systems reward academics more for their publications in professional journals than for any data-crunching they do in the service of school districts. By the same token, school districts don’t have a year or more to wait for results to be published in scholarly journals, even if the journals are there to provide a measure of quality control.
Quality control was a concern for several participants at the meeting. Consortium researchers said they try to keep a check on that by requiring researchers to attend weekly “data group” sessions, where they can review their statistical calculations and research methods with other researchers. Studies are also sent out, from time to time, for review by independent scholars working in the same topic area.
Experts said some of the new interest in the type of work the consortium does has been generated from the popularity of one of its most recent products, an indicator that allows educators to identify which students are most likely to graduate on time, and which are most likely to fail as early as 9th grade and then intervene accordingly. In Chicago, school officials have already begun providing that information to schools in the form of a “freshman watch list” that principals get by August and a “freshman success report,” published after the first quarter, that provides data on students’ academic performance and attendance.
In Chicago, school officials have already begun providing that information to schools in the form of a “freshman watch list” that principals get by August and a “freshman success report,” published after the first quarter, that provides data on students’ academic performance and attendance. (“9th Grade, By the Numbers” March 11, 2009.) Principals must include progress on those indicators in their reports to the district administration.
“That’s something practical that promises to put some resources in the hands of schools that can be useful to them,” said Ms. Spears. “When I heard about that, I got excited.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as Chicago Group Promotes Links Between Districts, Researchers