Academic journal article Chicago Fed Letter

Reform of Midwest Urban Schools-Conference Summary

Academic journal article Chicago Fed Letter

Reform of Midwest Urban Schools-Conference Summary

Article excerpt

On November 18-19, 1999, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago held the final in a series of three conferences dedicated to education reform. Cosponsored with the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the conference focused on reform in large urban school districts. In his opening remarks, William C. (Curt) Hunter, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said that the quality of urban school systems matters greatly because so many of the nation's future citizens and workers attend these schools. Efforts to improve public school quality are key in reviving city economies by attracting families back to the center.

Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, Hartford, Cleveland, Boston, and Detroit have experimented with mayoral assumption of school responsibilities in recent years, with mixed results. Paul Hill, University of Washington, argued that improvements cannot be realized by simply exchanging one group of decisionmakers for another. He suggested three strategies for reform: strong performance incentives for staff and institutions, substantial investment in both school and teacher capacity, and giving schools freedom to experiment with new models for teaching and organization. With regard to governance, it is essential to reward good schools, while closing poorly performing ones. Hill envisions a CEO-style superintendent managing a portfolio of strong, distinctive schools. In such a system, a superintendent and school board would enter into performance contracts with independent organizations--groups of teachers and parents, teacher cooperatives and unions, nonprofit human service organizations, colleges and universities, civic groups, and for-profit contractors. Such an approach develops the educational resources of an entire urban community, including new and existing independently operated schools, and makes them available to all the city's children. Lessons from the many political and managerial failures to date do not lead Hill to believe that fundamental reform will be quick or easy. He concluded that civic and business leaders must drive education reform by creating new public-private institutions to raise the quality of school systems.

Chicago reforms

Anthony Bryk, Consortium on Chicago School Research, discussed the beginnings of Chicago's school reforms in 1988 with its move to decentralize decisionmaking to the local school level. Principals were granted autonomy to better manage their schools through more control of personnel decisions. Councils of parents and teachers gained partial control of the school budget and improvement plans along with the power to hire and fire school principals. Such decentralization was intended to spur incentives and initiative while also providing greater accountability to the primary customers of school services. One-third of the schools have benefited from effective leadership and strong community involvement. Another one-third have made some progress. The remaining one-third have not benefited. Reform efforts in Chicago expanded in 1995 with mayoral assumption of responsibility for the school system. A CEO was appointed along with a five-member school board. Then, noticeable changes began to take root. Mandated exams and performance standards imposed higher accountability on principals, students, and schools and led to the expansion of instructional time and greater resources for pre-kindergarten and summer school. Some schools were put on probation with close evaluation and assistance. Some were reconstituted. Formalized instructional techniques and curricula were encouraged. At the same time, the Chicago public schools (CPS) system has expanded the availability of magnet schools with a specialized curriculum. Fiscal stability continues to be an important ingredient to success. Fiscal balance has generally been achieved due to better financial management and to the healthy economy of the 1990s. As part of the 1990s reforms, stable labor agreements have been struck. …

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