Chicago Study: Leadership, Collaboration Are Keys to Transforming Schools
As educators and policy-makers struggle to find solutions to the persistent problems in low-performing priority schools, there’s a new book that lights the way to school reform that works.
Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a recent release from the University of Chicago Press, looks at student achievement data from the early 1990s in Chicago, a brief period when school governance was decentralized and returned to local school councils. This was a time of great experimentation, as these different local councils approached reform and student achievement in varying ways.
For researchers, in retrospect, it “afforded an extraordinary opportunity” to get large amounts of data to “examine and test empirically key propositions about how schools work and how their operations might be improved to enhance student learning.”
The authors found five “essential elements” for school improvement, common to the Chicago schools that orchestrated epic turnarounds – from among the very worst to the most improved.
1. School Leadership. Principals and other leaders created environments that engaged teachers, parents, and community members in school improvement. They focused on improving teaching and wrote meaningful improvement plans.
2. Professional Capacity. Successful schools had teachers who were eager to learn new skills and approaches, and were supported in their efforts to get high-quality professional development. They were collaborators, and shared a collective sense of responsibility.
3. Instruction. Curriculum was aligned across grades and students were regularly assessed. Classroom work went beyond lectures and basic skills worksheets and included active student engagement and the application of knowledge.
4. Learning Climate. Schools were safe and orderly.
5. Parent and Community Ties. Teachers reached out to parents and parents grew more involved. Community resources were used in instruction.
The study found that the successful schools had all of these elements.
The schools that didn’t improve offer their own lessons as well. They were more likely, the authors found, to be located in the very poorest, most racially isolated neighborhoods. Their students might have been homeless or living with violence or drug abuse, and their communities offered fewer supports, like churches or civic groups.
If you just considered school lunch data, all these schools looked the same – really poor – but the author’s found that multiple measures of data showed a more nuanced picture of poverty. And, in the worst circumstances, it’s necessary to address both school and community factors. “What is really going on in these school communities, and why are the important tasks of improving schools so difficult to advance? Asking these questions… is a vital role,” they conclude.