Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The State of Chicago School Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The State of Chicago School Reform

Article excerpt

To dwell on the fact that the ultimate aim of reform has not yet been accomplished can be very debilitating, the authors point out. A more prudent and productive approach would focus on evidence that these initiatives are evolving in ways that are likely to lead to major improvements in the school experiences and learning of students.

THE CHICAGO School Reform Act has launched an undertaking of unprecedented scope that is still very much in the process of developing. The findings summarized here stem from a systematic in-depth analysis of what has happened to Chicago's elementary schools in the first four years of this reform.[1] That analysis draws on in-depth case studies in more than 25 school communities and on systemwide analyses of indicators based on administrative records and on original surveys gathered from more than 400 principals and 12,000 teachers.

A Closer Look at the Reform

School reform in Chicago gave principals greater authority over school budgets and over the physical plant. It also empowered principals to recruit and hire new teachers. Having lost their tenure, principals are now accountable to their Local School Councils (LSCs). Together, these changes have encouraged principals to direct their efforts toward meeting the needs and concerns of local constituencies.

The reforms gave parents and community members a real voice in school affairs because each group has representatives on the LSC. These parent-majority councils have the power to hire and fire the principal and to approve the budget and the "school improvement plan."

Teachers were also given an expanded voice. Through their two seats on each LSC, teachers now have direct influence on school affairs, including the choice of principal. They also have advisory responsibility over school curriculum and instruction through the teacher-elected "professional personnel advisory committee."

New resources also became available to support school improvements. Schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students received substantial increases in discretionary dollars and greater freedom regarding how those dollars could be spent.

To guide the local school change process, the Chicago School Reform Act also formulated explicit educational goals for children and an extended set of school objectives. The intent was to use these goals and objectives to focus local efforts on improving school quality and student learning.

In the most general terms, the Chicago School Reform Act focused on reclaiming initiative for parents, community members, teachers, and principals. The new structures and roles established by this law sought to create a political force in school communities that would support school improvement. It was argued that such a political force could help to bring about the organizational changes that would enable schools to be more responsive to the communities, families, and students they serve. At base was the belief that the expanded engagement of local participants in the work of the schools would sustain attention and provide substantial support for improvements in classroom instruction and in student learning.

We organized our investigation to examine rigorously the implied logic here as it has played out in school communities. How are these new governance arrangements actually functioning? Are schools using their newfound autonomy to promote fundamental reorganization? Is there any attention to improving teaching and learning? In the contexts in which expanded local participation has emerged, is there any evidence that this democratic localism is an effective lever for organizational change and instructional improvement?

What Has Happened?

The approximately 500 elementary schools within the Chicago system produce a diverse and varied story. In many school communities, parents, community leaders, teachers, and principals have joined together to use the resources and the opportunities offered by school reform to institute broad and deep changes that aim to revitalize their schools and make them central to their communities. …

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