Leaders looking for ways to improve learning in urban schools can depend on five key factors which, when working together, have proven to boost student achievement, according to a landmark study that led to a new book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, Lessons from Chicago.
The results emerged from a study of 390 Chicago public elementary schools over a seven-year period following the implementation of a 1988 law that increased decision-making at the local school level.
The authors of the study, current and former researchers with the Consortium on Chicago School Research, part of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, said those five essential supports are school leadership, parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty, a student-centered learning climate and a coherent instructional plan. They were effective in a wide variety of schools, including especially troubled ones. By looking closely at the social context in which schools are embedded, the book provides new insight into why schools in communities with high rates of crime and poverty struggle with improving student outcomes.
These findings are helpful as states vie for billions in federal "Race to the Top" funds designed to spur school reform. They are drawn from the kinds of robust data that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has encouraged states to use in developing their reform plans.
The authors suggest that when looking for ways to improve learning in urban schools, leaders should resist the temptation to look for "silver bullets" and think instead about "baking a cake." Just as several ingredients are needed in the right proportions to bake a cake, so too are several ingredients - the "five essential supports" - required to boost student achievement.
The research team will present their findings to educators on Thursday, Jan. 14 at a symposium at the University's Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Drive.
The study team found some improvements since Chicago decentralized its public school system in 1988. More than 80 percent of the system's elementary schools showed at least some gains in mathematics, and close to 70 percent gained in reading. More importantly, schools that were strong in all five essential supports were at least 10 times more likely to show substantial improvement in reading and mathematics than schools that were strong in only one or two of the essential supports. Follow-up studies conducted from 1997 to 2005 validated the findings of the first round of research.
The book, published by the University of Chicago Press, was written by Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and founding senior director of CCSR; Penny Bender Sebring and Elaine Allensworth, interim co-executive directors at CCSR; Stuart Luppescu, chief psychometrician at CCSR; and John Q. Easton, Director of the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, and former executive director of CCSR.
For nearly 20 years, CCSR has built a massive, one-of-a-kind longitudinal data archive on Chicago public schools, and that archive made the research possible. The CCSR team visited schools, interviewed principals and did extensive surveys of principals, teachers and students to get behind what was leading some schools to progress and others to remain stagnant.
In addition to measuring local demographic characteristics, CCSR investigated community characteristics like community cohesiveness and crime rates to uncover reasons for success or failure. In taking this approach, which looks at neighborhood effects and the influence of parents, the book draws heavily on the work of other scholars currently or formerly at the University of Chicago. Sociologist William Julius Wilson, now at Harvard University, did seminal work on poverty at the University of Chicago and coined the expression "the truly disadvantaged" in a book by the same name. James Colemen contributed definitive thinking on the role of social capital in schools to show the value of parents working with teachers to improve learning. Sociologist Robert Sampson, now at Harvard, and Steven Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Sociology and chair of the University of Chicago's Committee on Education, studied the dynamics of Chicago neighborhood interactions to identify differences in dealing with crime and other issues.
In assessing student performance, the team devised a "value-added" approach. Rather than simply looking at the percentage of students in each class who met or failed to meet state standards, the team looked at the progress of each student.
The authors also identified 46 very low-performing schools, serving more than 40,000 students, which they labeled "truly disadvantaged schools." Even in a school district where disadvantage is the norm, these schools stood apart, serving neighborhoods characterized by extreme poverty and extreme racial segregation. On average, 70 percent of residents living in these neighborhoods had incomes below the poverty line. The schools had virtually no racial integration.
But demographics tell just part of the story. Moving beyond an analysis of racial and economic descriptors, the authors examined these communities against other social indicators. They found the communities of truly disadvantaged schools had the highest crime rates and the highest percentages of children who were abused, neglected or living in foster care. Residents of these communities were the most likely to live in public housing and the least likely to attend church regularly or believe they could bring about positive change in their community.
A small number of these schools improved in reading and math, primarily because they were strong in the essential supports. But nearly half of them proved nearly impervious to systemic reform and had a lack of progress that contrasted sharply with many other schools. These schools were seven times more likely than racially integrated schools, for instance, to stagnate in math and two times more likely to stagnate in reading.