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School & District Management

Focus on Instruction Turns Around Chicago Schools

By Dakarai I. Aarons — January 05, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misidentified the head of the Strategic Learning Institute’s shared-leadership team. Her name is Charlotte Blackman.

Talk of “turning around” troubled schools has become synonymous with firing educators, but a nonprofit organization here with a successful track record takes a different approach.

In 2006, Strategic Learning Initiatives signed a contract with the Chicago public schools to help 10 schools serving grades K-8. More than 95 percent of their students were from low-income families. Over a decade, the schools had seen new principals, new teachers, new curricula, and professional-development initiatives. Despite the changes, nine were on a list to be restructured or closed.

What Strategic Learning did with the struggling schools, says its chief executive officer, John Simmons, was “not rocket science.” But it worked, according to an evaluation by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research. And the approach the group took offers some lessons as states and districts confront the need to turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

“The results that SLI has achieved, and that AIR has validated, are very impressive and suggest that well before decisions are made to reconstitute schools under the mandates of [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], school districts would be wise to consider far less drastic, but clearly powerful, interventions such as the Focused Instruction Process,” wrote AIR analysts Steven Leinwand and Sarah Edwards in their July evaluation.

‘Focused Instruction Process’ Yields Gains

The average annual increase in the percent of students meeting or exceeding reading proficiency on state tests was more than five times faster after the schools began using the program.


SOURCE: Strategic Learning Initiatives

The U.S. Department of Education’s four models for turning around low-achieving schools using federal stimulus money all require the principal to be fired; one calls for the school to be closed. But Mr. Simmons argues that it’s less expensive, and often more effective, to invest in the people already working in the schools. With the right tools, he says, school staffers can produce different results.

Mr. Simmons, who has worked as a management consultant for three decades, says the key to success is putting into practice research conducted over 20 years of Chicago school reform that shows what has been effective in changing schools.

“As a result of that research, we know what works,” he said. “That is the heart of our story—the application of research to the work of improving schools. High-performance teams aren’t just born, they are trained and coached.”

Making Gains

In 2007 and 2008, two schools in the network led the city’s 470-some K-8 schools in gains on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. By Strategic Learning’s definition, five of the 10 schools were “turned around,” meaning state test scores were improving at a rate at least six times faster than before, and school-level leaders agreed with the progress.

The seven schools remaining in the network are finishing the last year of their four years of work with Strategic Learning. Two decided to leave the network to do their own professional development and another was turned into a contract school by the district.

A turnaround strategy that supports the needs of teachers and principals is one the Chicago Teachers Union could support, said Rosemaria Genova, a spokeswoman for the affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

This week's "current focus" topic, finding the main idea, is posted on a 7th grade classroom door at Finkl. The previous week's topic is reviewed in the morning's "success time" period of specialized instruction. The focused skill of the week is taught throughout all grade levels at the school.

“We spent all this time and money to attract the best and brightest to Chicago, and then they leave,” Ms. Genova said. “You have to have veteran teachers to support the younger teachers who are hired by the principal, given a key and told ‘Go teach.’ They need mentoring and guidance.”

Before a school could join the network, SLI required 80 percent of its faculty members to vote to accept it. The schools were invited to participate by the nonprofit group and regional administrators after principals were given a presentation on the model and showed interest.

The “Focused Instruction Process” has four main components: shared leadership, targeted professional development, continuous improvement, and parent engagement. It uses an eight-step process designed to make sure that students master skills by providing focused lessons, formative assessments, reteaching after assessing where each student stands, and a reassessment to measure student progress.

Facilitators have been trained in each school to monitor the fidelity of the process and continue it. Teachers and administrators are expected and encouraged to make changes in the implementation in a way that makes sense for their individual schools. Schools have reorganized the day to allow time both for daily mini-lessons on the skill of the week and for “success time,” where teachers use differentiated instruction to help students make up or enrich their knowledge of previous skills. Each school also has a leadership team, made up of teachers from each grade level, that meets regularly with administrators.

Each week, students learn about a new skill from a list of 13 that are tied to the state test students take each spring. Those skills include understanding the main idea, characterization, interpreting instructions, drawing conclusions, and summarization.

Less Expensive

Students learn about a variety of literary terms and how to look for “clue words” on exam questions that will help them figure out which skill should be applied. They take a formative assessment every seven or eight days to help determine their mastery of skills based on state standards.

Strategic Learning’s work costs about $150,000 per school, per year, with the Chicago school district and the individual schools contributing about 80 percent; the rest comes from foundations and private donors. Reconstituting a school can cost much more, Mr. Simmons said, putting the figure at up to $1 million per school over four years.

The initiative goes beyond simply giving schools an improvement model and skills to teach. Staffers from the nonprofit group regularly spend time in schools, demonstrating lessons for individual teachers and for the entire staff, co-designing lesson plans with teachers, and working to find materials needed in the classroom. The facilitators meet the team dedicated to the Focused Instruction Process at each school and talk about successes and challenges.

Jeremy Feiwell, the principal of Lázaro Cárdenas Elementary School, puts it this way: “It’s not a program, it’s a process. You aren’t asking [teachers] to implement new curriculum. You are asking them to take the current curriculum and see what it fits in the process. They have a say in how the calendar and schedule are addressed.”

Kelli Capiak, a teacher at William Finkl Academy in the predominantly Hispanic Little Village neighborhood, said having teacher buy-in from the start made implementing the program easier.

Andrew Tellez, at left, the assistant principal at Finkl, talks with Susan Jensen in the office. Ms. Jensen, a former principal of the school, now works with Strategic Learning Initiatives.

“Historically within [the Chicago Public Schools], it’s ‘Here it is. This is what you are doing now,’ ” she said. But having the staff vote “really set the positive tone” from the beginning.

Kathy Pozniak, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Finkl, said when teachers were first approached about working with Strategic Learning, there was some concern about whether it would mean a curriculum change. Teachers soon discovered the process doesn’t change what they teach.

“It offers good ideas about how to teach [curriculum],” she said. “It’s made me look for new alternatives and look at different strategies.”

The model brings shared leadership to bear through intensive collaboration among teachers through both grade-level teams and the school’s leadership team. Schools make time for that work; at Willa Cather Elementary School, for example, teachers have five preparation periods a week, two of which are set aside for team meetings.

“If we want students to take ownership of their own learning, we have to give them opportunities to reflect on their work,” Charlotte Blackman, a former principal who heads SLI’s shared-leadership team, told the principals at a recent meeting.

Use of Data

Hattie King, the principal of Cather, doesn’t anticipate problems carrying the Focused Instruction Process forward after the end of the four years this spring. The principal knew she would face some skepticism among teachers when trying to get them to sign up for FIP, but said, “I was able to tell them this is something that is going to enhance what we are already doing.”

“The process runs itself once everybody is on board and knows the expectations,” she said.

The school team has learned how to make better use of data to focus instructional decisions, she noted. Cather now has a “data room,” where information from assessments is posted and teachers have their team meetings while surrounded by their students’ performance statistics.

Based on how students do on the formative assessments and other classroom work, teachers make a targeted plan and create goal sheets, on which they show what supports they plan to provide for students who are not making the grade.

Chris Kruger, an 8th grade teacher at Cather and the FIP facilitator, said the model has created much more of a team feeling among the staff than existed before.

“The collaboration has been incredibly helpful,” said the longtime Cather staff member. “If I do poorly on an assessment and another teacher’s class did well, I’ll ask ‘What did you do?’ Since we meet so often, there’s a lot of trust when it comes to lessons.”

Cather Elementary has “clinics,” or short professional-development sessions based on needs seen when administrators walk through the classrooms. Many times, those lessons are led by a teacher who is using a particularly effective strategy.

Tia Martin, a 3rd grade teacher, said the weekly staff meetings have meant more sharing of ideas and activities.

“The teachers talked before that,” she said, “but I don’t think we focused so much on sharing ideas before FIP.”

Schoolwide Effort

As Strategic Learning Initiatives teams walk through the buildings, they look for examples of teachers incorporating the FIP skills into the curriculum. In Janet Johnson’s 5th grade class at Cather, students made posters about animal life cycles that demonstrated mastery of summarization.

The schools have worked to get everyone involved. At Finkl, the physical education teacher does the data processing for the skills test and gets the information back to classroom teachers by the end of the day. The school typically spends seven or eight days on a skill before students are given an assessment.

Ms. Pozniak had a class at Finkl reading about the Wright brothers and the historic first flight at Kitty Hawk. That history lesson was an opportunity to work on students’ ability to use the skill of characterization.

“We focused in on what were the character traits of the Wright brothers that made them successful,” Ms. Pozniak said.

The model has introduced structure the students readily recognize, she said.

“When students go from classroom to classroom, there is continuity. What you learned about in reading is reintroduced in social studies, science and math.”

While the approach Strategic Learning has used with the Chicago network does not seem to be in vogue nationally, its leaders say they prefer it over more drastic changes to staffing, preferring to develop the capacity of those already in place.

Karen Morris, a former Chicago principal and Strategic Learning Initiatives’ director of educational programs, said wholesale staff changes make it harder for districts to hold on to younger, promising teachers.

They are often traumatized by being unceremoniously dumped from a school that is closed or restructured and are fearful of taking another position in a low-performing school, she said.

“You need your strongest teachers in schools and communities that have struggles,” she said. “Some young teachers were looking at lists of schools and saying ‘I’m not going to a school under 60 percent [proficient] again.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Focus on Instruction Turns Schools Around


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