Public schools that overcome the colossal odds that go hand in hand with extreme poverty must have a number of things working in their favor. Five things, to be exact, as has been proven time and time again by research and experience. Among them are parent and community partners that rally around efforts to improve the school and a faculty of qualified teachers who have a can-do attitude.
They also need a safe and orderly environment where children can learn in peace and a challenging curriculum that builds on skills students learn each year.
Yet, individually and collectively, these "essential supports" would be aimless and ineffective if it were not for the most crucial factor of all: a principal whose leadership sets high standards and provides the charge that motivates others to get on board, improve themselves and move in the right direction.
A recent report on public school reform in Chicago underscores the importance of these key ingredients. Published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the report notes that students enrolled at schools with such supports are 10 times more likely to post significant gains in math and reading. Researchers also measured the effects of outside factors—such as crime, homelessness and whether children are in foster care—on public school improvement. They found instances of improvement even in the worst communities, but noted that improvement is much more difficult.
A number of public elementary schools in Chicago—all with above average poverty rates—have undergone dramatic transformations under the leadership of a dynamic principal. Contrary to ongoing debate about local versus central control, it didn’t seem to matter who hired the principal. What mattered was what the principals did once they got the job.
One example is Janice Rosales, who tackled student discipline first and made connections with the growing immigrant population in Edgewater whose children attended Peirce School. She spoke Spanish; her predecessors did not. On this foundation, she built a team of teachers, many of them nationally certified, and extended the school day an extra hour to spend more time on reading and math instruction. Since 1990, pass rates on reading tests have doubled.
Discipline also was key for Gerald Dugan at Marsh School, where firecrackers and gang graffiti were commonplace when he arrived in 1990. He partnered with parents to help him crack the whip on unruly students. Dugan also persuaded teachers to raise their expectations about students’ capabilities. Pass rates more than doubled.
Janet House arrived at McCorkle School with the perfect skills to turn the school around. Her first move was to spruce up hallways and classrooms with plants and student art, then she moved on to raising standards in behavior and providing more teacher training. Again, scores went up and mobility went down.
While Chicago Public Schools has made principal development a priority, it’s hard to see where those efforts have paid off.
Accountability requires the district to assess its own progress and share the results.
It’s difficult to get good teachers at low-performing schools. Why doesn’t CPS offer bonuses to teachers who take jobs at low-performing schools and raise test scores?
Tony Wilkins, community representative
Canter Middle School
CPS recently applied for a $29 million federal grant to give bonuses to staff at struggling schools that improve test scores. The program would start in 10 schools next year and expand to 40 by 2011. Bonuses for teachers would average about $4,000 and would be based on a performance evaluation, test score growth in the classroom and schoolwide score gains. Seventy-five percent of the faculty would have to agree to participate.
Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart opposes merit pay in general, saying too many factors out of teachers’ control, such as parental support, impact student achievement. Better working conditions, such as lower class sizes, would do more than bonuses to attract and keep good teachers in underperforming schools, she insists.
Paying teachers based on student performance is a growing trend. Florida, Texas and Alaska recently adopted cash bonuses for teachers based on student test scores.
Catalyst Chicago is a monthly newsmagazine published by the Community Renewal Society that covers the progress, problems and politics of school reform in Chicago Public Schools. Editor Veronica Anderson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit online at www.catalyst-chicago.org.