Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Leadership and the Bottom Line in Chicago

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Leadership and the Bottom Line in Chicago

Article excerpt

In their study of Chicago school reform, the authors discovered that the principals of productive elementary schools skillfully use a number of strategies to promote the efforts of both parents and teachers who work directly with children.

EIGHT YEARS of research on Chicago school reform show that local control has facilitated significant improvements in student achievement in a large proportion of elementary schools. It is also clear that, under Chicago's decentralization plan, the quality of the principal's leadership is a critical factor in determining whether a school moves forward to improve learning opportunities for students.

Evidence comes from investigations carried out by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, including surveys of teachers, principals, local leaders, and students, as well as in-depth case studies of dozens of schools.1 Previous longitudinal analyses of standardized test scores had produced an estimate of the value added to student learning by each elementary school and whether this measure had been improving.2 We have linked our data to these analyses and are now in a position to share what we have learned about successful principal leadership aimed at improving academic achievement.

During the 1990s, Chicago witnessed gradual but consistent improvement in student test scores. In 1990, about a quarter of the students in grades 3 through 8 reached national norms in reading and mathematics. By 1999, this proportion had grown to 35% in reading and 43% in math. One-third of the elementary schools (most include eighth grade) raised the percentage of students reaching national norms in reading by at least 15%. Almost half of the schools showed an increase of between 5% and 14%.3 While far too many students still fail to reach national norms, this steady upward trend is encouraging.

This same period saw the establishment of local control under the framework of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act. The law created parent-dominated Local School Councils (LSCs) for each school and gave them the power to hire and fire their principals. Principals gained greater autonomy in selecting their staff, and they received new resources relative to the number of low-income students their school served. Eventually, elementary schools received an average of $500,000 a year, which could be used to finance improvements.4

In 1995, the state legislature handed control of the school system to the mayor, giving him the right to name a five-member school board and the chief executive officer of the system. With the extensive news coverage of the mayor's new team, most outsiders failed to realize that the 1995 reform left local control intact: LSCs were not affected, and neither were their formal authority or their resources.5

Key Elements of Principal

Leadership in Productive Schools

The underlying assumption behind the Chicago reform is that local actors, if given adequate authority and resources, will be able to solve local problems effectively. Along with granting this autonomy, the 1988 reform law dramatically reshaped the sanctions and incentives for principals. Instead of reporting to their central administration superiors, principals became locally accountable. They now work under four-year performance contracts subject to LSC review. Most important, when they successfully introduce improvements, local leaders recognize and appreciate their efforts.

We found three common elements among principals of productive schools: their leadership style, their strategies, and the issues on which they focus. A central theme emerging from our research is that principals of improving Chicago elementary schools skillfully use a combination of support and pressure to promote the efforts of adults who work directly with children.

Leadership Style

Several features characterize the leadership style of principals of productive schools: an inclusive, facilitative orientation; an institutional focus on student learning; efficient management; and a reliance on a combination of pressure and support to motivate others. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.