Organising Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago
Chicago: powerful instructional systems require shared aims, shared assessment tools, shared instructional strategies and active collaboration.
The south side of Chicago is in many ways a very difficult neighbourhood. But it has been the focus of ground breaking research by the University of Chicago research group. Their studies overwhelmingly concerned children from disadvantaged circumstances; most of the children were African American, all considered to contribute to poor educational achievement. The University of Chicago studies, like some other studies, show these disadvantages can be overcome. Their studies reveal the importance of developing relationships with the community.
Professor Stephen W. Raudenbush, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Committee on Education at the University of Chicago, speaking at a recent American Education Research Association Conference, illustrated an aspect of effective teaching and learning with a story from China. “[The teachers in] MaPing Li’s (1999) study of elementary mathematics instruction in China … did not have 4-year college degrees, but they had a good working knowledge of the mathematics they needed to teach and somewhat beyond. They had a common curriculum, common assessments, common instructional strategies—a shared, systematic instructional system. They collaborated closely, sharing knowledge, expertise, and teaching plans. They tested their students frequently and generated common strategies to overcome student misconceptions and to drive instruction to the next level. Their students displayed uniformly high levels of achievement. Access to expert teachers supported the least expert teachers and developed the leadership capacities of the most expert.” This story again shows that good knowledge is important but not enough and that close collaboration around common goals is also important.
Raudenbush asserts “powerful instructional systems require shared aims, shared assessment tools, shared instructional strategies, active collaboration, routine public inspection of practice, and accountability to peers… In this view, variability in teachers’ expertise is highly visible and widely recognized, and novice teachers have strong incentives to seek out expert teachers’ advice to advance their own expertise. School principals have incentives to increase the leadership responsibilities of the most expert teachers and to encourage growth in teacher expertise. Increased teacher expertise leads to greater responsibilities and higher compensation.” Raudenbush refers to this notion of teaching as “shared, systematic practice”.
“Privatized, idiosyncratic practice”, on the other hand, is the received notion of teachers’ work and teacher professionalism, according to which teachers’ work has a high level of autonomy but is rarely open to public inspection (and may therefore lack rigour, testability or validity). Such a notion stands in the way of reforms which would drive improvement and equity.
The University of Chicago established the Center for Urban School Improvement (USI) to work with a small network of south side Chicago schools to improve literacy instruction. The inner urban kids demonstrated great intellectual energy but dealing with regular public schools was frustrating because of the restrictive bureaucracy. So USI set up a special elementary charter school which was free to shape teacher recruitment, curriculum design and instructional time to “pursue ambitious intellectual goals”.
Literacy instruction, developed through close cooperation with a number of outstanding practitioners and researchers, was built around a schoolwide formative assessment system known as STEP (Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress). Every child was assessed every 10 weeks on a broad array of literacy skills, hierarchically arranged. Associated with each level was one or more required books for children to read, calibrated for difficulty. Associated with each level of STEP was a series of instructional strategies designed to get to the next level… work on word decoding, reading aloud, text comprehension, and lots of writing [combined] to create a coherent instructional system.
Every child’s progress was recorded on a ‘STEP wall’ in the school’s central office. Teachers of children lagging behind had help from the literacy coordinator who got experienced teachers to work with less experienced ones. So instruction was not left to the judgement of one teacher. Teachers whose students progressed gained expertise which was then used to help other teachers.
More expert teachers could contribute to revising the system to promote higher levels of learning. The logging of student achievement meant results were open to inspection. Raudenbush observes, “The system rewards advances in expertise, as it accords more responsibility to the more expert teachers… Teacher expertise is not a generic quality but rather a set of attainable skills and knowledge embedded in a well-defined instructional system. To be expert is to understand that system, to demonstrate skill in enacting it, and to develop the capacity to help other teachers enact the system effectively.”
USI later set up a second charter school – a charter school arrangement overcame bureaucratic problems which would have attended a regular public school – which expanded instruction time and gave attention to extended tutoring for those who needed it and also embarked on an ambitious outreach program aimed at getting parents to understand the STEP system, their child’s progress and understand their role in helping their child reach the next goal. Support staff were provided to help the small number of children whose parents lacked the resources to participate. The “vice principal” became the “director of parent and community engagement”, got to know all the parents and siblings of each student.
Though Raudenbush admitted that evidence was limited he noted that “80% of the first graduating class on their way to a 4-year college—in a system where most African American children don’t even finish high school.”
Longitudinal studies of Chicago public elementary schools were conducted by University of Chicago education researchers as part of the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR). Penny Bender Sebring and colleagues, in their report on the Chicago schools, show how five “community supports” – leadership, parent-community ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, and ambitious instruction – influence a school’s capacity for improvement.
They found “Parent-community ties and professional capacity of the faculty and staff reflect the individual and collective capacities of the adult actors in the school community. Parents who support their children and reinforce learning expectations at home contribute significantly to school improvement. Through volunteer activity and participation in school decision making, parents also are critical partners of the school. Professional capacity depends greatly on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the faculty and staff, and their ongoing learning and professional growth. Equally as important as the skills of individual teachers, though, is the presence of a school-based professional community focused on developing instructional capacity across the school. Partnership and cooperation among teachers, parents, and community members provide the social resources needed for broad-based work on conditions in the school and the challenges involved in improving student learning.”
“Leadership, acting as a catalyst, is the first essential support for school improvement. Leadership is conceptualized broadly as being inclusive, with a focus on instruction and a strategic orientation. Deft leadership, in turn, stimulates and nourishes the development of the four other core organizational supports: parent-community ties, professional capacity of the faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate, and ambitious instruction.
“Professional capacity depends greatly on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the faculty and staff, and their ongoing learning and professional growth. Equally as important as the skills of individual teachers, though, is the presence of a school-based professional community focused on developing instructional capacity across the school. Partnership and cooperation among teachers, parents, and community members provide the social resources needed for broad-based work on conditions in the school and the challenges involved in improving student learning.
“The work of adult actors, in turn, results in the conditions that directly affect student learning—learning climate and ambitious instruction. The most basic requirement is a safe and orderly environment that is conducive to academic work. Schools that are most effective will further create a climate where students feel motivated and pressed to work hard while knowing that adults will provide extensive academic and personal support. Ultimately classroom instruction is the single most direct factor that affects student learning. Ambitious, coherent instruction and a curriculum that is coordinated within and across grades are essential. It is when the other four supports are focused on supporting ambitious instruction that we should see improvements in student learning.”
Professor Bill Mulford and colleagues report a study of the relationship between poverty and schooling in Tasmania which found that in “high-needs” schools which were successful “principals were more independent of the structures within which they worked and were focused on student outcomes rather than the approval of those higher in the hierarchy; taken together, the results suggest that poverty does indeed have a detrimental effect on student outcomes; however, successful principals can do much to neutralise this effect.”Although improving and stagnating schools were found in all communities, those with particularly strong social capital and low crime rates were likely to have schools with strong essential supports, whereas those with weak social capital were likely to have weak essential supports in their schools.”
In a recent examination of reform of two schools in south Chicago, Anthony Bryk, now President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford University, and colleagues at the University of Chicago consider principal leadership style and engagement of parents and school staff in the work of improvement. They note the similarity of the two schools in demographic terms and subtle differences in local history and community: about half the men in each school neighbourhood aged sixteen and older did not work and about half the households receive some kind of aid such as food stamps. The two schools whose students had similar outcomes six years previously have become quite different places. Differences in leadership style, sustained focus on instruction and teacher capacity building suggest themselves as being amongst the factors influencing outcomes.
Whilst recognising that the key issue is how instruction is managed within the classroom, Bryk and colleagues acknowledge that the framework of essential supports focuses attention at the school level. ‘If restructuring school organization matters, its effects must largely accrue through influencing the conditions under which teachers work and engage with students around subject matter in the classroom.’
The Chicago studies do not address the process of individual student learning. However, the findings are critical to understanding best teaching practices. There are important parallels with reforms in New Zealand and in Sweden. And, as in reforms in Illinois and California, it is leadership by the school principal in respect of teaching and learning which is critical, not autonomy in the administrative tasks of managing budgets and hiring staff.
 Penny Bender Sebring et al (2006), ‘The Essential Supports for School Improvement’, Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Research Report, September 2006 http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/content/publications.php?pub_id=86
 There have also been reforms in Boston under Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of the Boston Public Schools 1995 through 2006 (‘Thomas Payzant Named HGSE Senior Lecturer’, http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/features/2006/04/26_payzant.html)