Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement

Book cover. Retrieved Dec 16, 2014 from

One book I’m reading during the “recess” from classes is Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (2010), by Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton. As I’ve done for other independent readings, I’ll try to summarize the chapters and add my own reflections at the end. I’ve found that writing these blog posts improves my comprehension and memory of the research. It’s like all that research on learning actually works!


Policy context: The research presented in this book is based on the reform initiatives in the Chicago Public School (CPS) District beginning with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. Essentially, Local School Councils (LSCs) were given the authority to determine how to education their children, including hiring the school principal. Eight years later, some schools had shown marked improvements while others languished; this research effort tried to understand why.

Demographic context: CPS were some of “the worst in the nation” (William Bennett, quoted on p. 13): high dropout rates, low student achievement, labor strife, unstable leadership, and lack of political and public support. Middle class and white-flight plus the loss of manufacturing jobs left the communities with high concentrations of poor and minority students. More than 80% of elementary school students were enrolled in schools where more than 80% of the population was African-American. “In 1994, more than 200 Chicago elementary schools had more than 90 percent of their students receiving a free or discounted lunch” (p.14).

The data collected and used here is from a cumulative body of research produced by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. It includes data from the Charting Reform survey series, from 1991 (teachers), 1992 (principals), 1994 (teachers & students), and 1997 (principals, teachers, & students), as well as school reports on attendance and math and reading scores from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills from 1990-1996.

In a previous book, three of the authors here described the process of structural change that these schools underwent, and found that there was generally an initiative phase and a sustaining phase. Conclusions from that work found that the policy did effect institutional change (and a lot of chaos) and a “story of three thirds” (p.16): One-third self-initiated, actively engaged in change; one-third engaged but struggled, and one-third showed no signs of change.

The primary outcome for all reform is improving student learning, but this is not an easy story to tell. It took until 1996 for student scores in math and reading to show progress, because when you blow up all the systems that are in place, it takes time to adjust.

Chapter 1: Developing Appropriate Outcome Indicators

Attendance: rarely questioned. Kids have to be in school to learn! An interesting point about this, though, is that there is what seems to be an upper limit at 95% for attendance, which makes sense in thinking about occasional illnesses, family events, etc. Also, when using attendance data, you need to control for changes in the composition of the student body. Community factors such as gentrification or immigration can have an effect that has nothing to do with the school.

Reading and Mathematics: nothing divides opinions as much as standardized test scores. This research uses value-added indicators with a content-referenced scale (p.34, if you are interested in the full explanation) that shows improvement per grade in student learning.

I know, I know. It’s still standardized tests, but if the scores are actually improving, it does mean that students are doing better on the tests, and you have to know some math and reading to do better, right? For the top quartile of increased scores, it’s hard to think that they got that just by training kids to fill in the right bubbles. It’s never the full story, but it is a story nonetheless.

Next time: Chapters 2, 3, and 4

2 thoughts on “Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s