In March 1985, the principal of Dumas Elementary School, in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago, recruited 120 parents for a breakfast to kick off a campaign to encourage children to read books on their own. Rather than being congratulated by the school district for such a successful outreach effort, she was reprimanded, because the large gathering of parents indicated to some school system bureaucrat that she had “lost control of her school.”
Stories like this convinced many in Chicago that trying to reform individual schools would be difficult, if not impossible, in the Windy City. A military-style bureaucracy issued directives that principals and teachers had to carry out – right down to a scripted reading and math curriculum called “Chicago Mastery Learning” that was supposed to be “teacher-proof.” Parents were often unwelcome in schools, particularly if they asked questions. School system leaders took a dim view of principals and teachers who worked collaboratively with parent and community groups.
The same problems continue to plague school reformers across the country: inspired principals, teachers, and community leaders can have only a sporadic and unsustainable impact in a system that rewards conformity and punishes creativity. But reformers in Chicago found a way to change the system at its core, establishing genuine local control and accountability that, while not solving every problem in every school, has made a significant difference across the city.
In 1981, Chicago United, a business group concerned about social issues in the city, carried out a massive study of the city’s school system and made 253 recommendations for change, addressing everything from audio-visual repairs to student absenteeism. Although the Chicago Board of Education agreed to carry out the recommended changes, six years later a consultant reported to business leaders that all of the group’s major recommendations for improving student learning had been ignored. The consultant recommended a radical decentralization of the school system, an idea that resonated with the business community at a time when many large Chicago corporations were moving more authority in their own firms to the local store or plant.
Decentralization was also on the minds of a small coalition of school reform groups and educators who met in the summer of 1986 to draft a plan to restructure the Chicago schools. Some advocated breaking the school system into 20 subdistricts with elected school boards, following the example of New York City. Designs for Change, an educational research and advocacy group, argued for an even more dramatic approach: bringing decision making and the focus for improvement all the way down to the individual school. The coalition swung around to support this idea.
Calling themselves Chicagoans United to Reform Education (or CURE), the group drafted and circulated a manifesto, “Needed: A New School System for Chicago,” spelling out the key elements of their proposal. The plan garnered little serious attention at first, but the opportunity for action soon arose: A bitter month-long school strike disrupted the opening of school in fall 1987, spurring parent and community groups to demand not only an end to the school strike, but also radical change in how the school system operated. After the strike was settled, Mayor Harold Washington convened an Education Summit that included many CURE supporters, along with business leaders sympathetic to radical decentralization.
The Education Summit spawned the broader Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (known as the ABC’S Coalition) and brought together parent, community, and business leaders around a common reform agenda. The reform movement now comprised Chicago grassroots activists from every racial and ethnic background and virtually every Chicago neighborhood, including both multi-issue community organizations and groups that focused solely on school reform. The coalition also included Chicago’s two most influential business organizations: Chicago United and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. “Reformers in the city had created an unprecedented multiracial, cross-class coalition dedicated to school improvement through democracy,” education historian Michael Katz observed.
This broad-based coalition was able to mount large-scale demonstrations highlighting parent and community support, while at the same time deploying professional lobbyists and public relations specialists to make the case for reform in Chicago and Springfield. And in July 1988, the work paid off: The state legislature adopted the Chicago School Reform Act, a hundred-page state law that Katz later called “the most complete restructuring of an urban school system in the twentieth century.”
The Reform Act created elected Local School Councils (LSCs) at each Chicago school, with the authority to hire and fire their principal, develop and approve a binding plan to set priorities for the school’s improvement, and decide how school funds were spent. These parent-majority LSCs include six elected parents, two elected community residents, two elected teachers, and the school’s principal.
The law made principals accountable to these LSCs under four-year performance contracts, abolishing life-time principal tenure. It also ended teachers’ rights to use their seniority to occupy new or vacant teaching positions. This allowed each principal to shape a school staff that supported the school’s vision for improvement. Finally, the measure gave each school a sizable new discretionary fund (which now averages almost $500,000 per school each year) to spend in support of its improvement priorities.
For the first time, the Chicago school system had a framework in which innovation would be supported and rewarded, rather than punished. The Reform Act put strong faith in the ability of parents and educators at each school to improve the quality of their children’s education. It also created almost 6,000 new elected public officials in Chicago – the LSC members – who could be counted on to defend the new system against future attacks. And the fact that the reform was embodied in state law meant that interest groups that wanted to undermine the initiative would have to win over the state legislature rather than City Hall.
Reform Takes Effect
Twelve years after the Reform Act took effect, the basic school-level decision-making framework established in 1988 is still in place. About 6,000 elected parents, community residents, and teachers now serve on the LSCs. A detailed 1997 study of LSCs by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that 50 to 60 percent are “highly functioning,” about 30 percent are “performing well but need support,” and 10 to 15 percent have serious problems, ranging from inactivity to sustained conflict. The average LSC meets at least once a month, has a quorum 90 percent of the time, and has at least two active committees.
The transformation of Washington Irving Elementary School (K-8) on Chicago’s West Side shows what the reform is capable of at its best. When the reform law passed, Irving was one of Chicago’s lowest-achieving schools, not surprising given that it serves a neighborhood where 87 percent of the residents are low-income. Today, the average Irving eighth grader is performing at the national average in reading and far above the national average in math. The school is packed with computers and well-stocked classroom libraries purchased with the school’s discretionary funds. Students read books everywhere, sometimes as they walk down the hall. Irving students use computers primarily for writing and for research projects, not for drill.
Madeleine Maraldi became Irving’s principal shortly before the Reform Act was passed, and she immediately challenged her staff to stop talking about the problems that students brought to school and to focus instead on how to unlock their learning potential. Many teachers were offended at first, but Maraldi gradually won them over by showing them how to use in-depth hands-on learning experiences to improve their teaching. She also involved her staff in designing grade-by-grade educational strategies as part of a long-term effort to build teacher teams and leadership.
Irving’s first Local School Council decided to keep Maraldi as principal, impressed by her creativity and commitment, as well as her willingness to defend her ideas. When she proposed a change at the school, such as keeping each class with the same teacher for two years, the Irving LSC analyzed and debated the change thoroughly. The LSC also insisted that Irving employ a parent coordinator with its discretionary funds, and the school holds regular workshops at which parents participate in many of the same learning experiences that their children do and learn how they can help their children learn at home.
The Irving LSC has typically been about evenly split between Latino and African-American members – reflective of the school’s student population. LSC members have deep respect for Maraldi, whose four-year contract they renewed twice. When Maraldi announced her retirement, the LSC reviewed resumés from 20 applicants, interviewed three in depth, and chose a new principal whom they feel confident will continue the school’s successful educational thrust.
Almost all Chicago schools have improved their standardized test scores over the past decade – some by a little, some by a lot. Research by Designs for Change indicates that those low-income Chicago elementary schools (like Irving) that have shown sustained multi-year improvements in reading have more effective LSCs, as rated by their teachers; principals who focus on instructional improvement; teachers with high levels of teamwork, morale, and creativity; and strong outreach to parents. One of the strongest predictors of improved test scores is something that wasn’t possible before the Reform Act: a high level of collaboration among all the adults who have a stake in the children’s success – including parents, teachers, the principal, the LSC, and local organizations. Put in political science terms, these successful Chicago schools have developed high levels of “social capital.”
The restructuring has not been a silver bullet, however. About 30 percent of elementary schools and the majority of high schools have not improved significantly since the Reform Act was passed, and the original law did not spell out a process for intervening in schools that failed to make progress under the new system. This lack of progress in some schools, coupled with annual financial crises, led the Illinois legislature to amend the Reform Act in 1995.
Chicago’s mayor was given the power to appoint the school system’s Central Board, direct the central administration, use funds more flexibly, and intervene in non-performing schools. None of the school-level decision-making authority of LSCs and principals was withdrawn, however, and Chicago remains the most decentralized big city school system in the nation.
The 1995 amendments have been a mixed bag. Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed an aggressive leadership team that has brought financial stability and substantial new school construction and repair over the last six years. The mayor’s team has also imposed a test-based accountability system that determines whether or not students will be promoted to the next grade, and whether low-performing schools will be placed on several varieties of probation. Probation brings a loss of school autonomy, coupled with top-down directives and on-site monitoring.
While everyone agrees that these failing schools and students are the school system’s number one problem, initial research has found that flunking massive numbers of students, combined with heavy-handed intervention in failing schools by the Central Board, has done little for the lowest-performing students and schools. What these top-down pressures have done is to encourage a fixation in many low-achieving schools on drilling students for the standardized test on which interventions are based.
Chicago is still looking for the right next step. Recently, Chicago’s teachers threw out union leaders who deferred to Daley’s leadership team, replacing them with activists who are demanding a greater voice for teachers in improving instruction and reduced emphasis on prepping students for tests. The mayor, too, has appointed a new chief executive officer and a new board president who have pledged to work more closely with teachers and LSCs.
Chicago’s schools still have far to go. The challenge now is to nurture the ingredients of success – ingredients that are so evident at schools like Washington Irving – in the schools that neither improved on their own nor benefited from the heavy-handed accountability campaign of the past six years. But Chicago’s progress has much to teach other urban school reformers. First, the sizable number of Chicago schools that have shown significant improvement embody a common set of principles focused around building cooperation among all the adults who are important in a child’s life. Second, the Chicago reform experience demonstrates that if real authority is shifted to the school level, parent and community leaders in a wide variety of urban neighborhoods will devote sustained effort to collaboration with educators in improving their children’s schools.
And finally, rewriting the basic state laws that define how urban school systems function is powerful and necessary for systemic reform. Most states have special sections of state law that apply only to their state’s largest school districts. Reform campaigns that begin by changing these basic ground rules can catalyze improvements in hundreds of schools at once; without that catalyst, excellent urban schools will remain exceptions.