Beyond the Books

Published in the Spring 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

These five strategies improve urban education by focusing on the people in the school

By Ed Finkel and Carl Vogel


The federal government released a bombshell 25 years ago in the form of "A Nation at Risk," a report that made headlines throughout the country with its blunt assessment of the shortcomings of public education in America, everything from student achievement to how schools recruit new teachers. In many ways, the report was the launching pad for a generation of reform. In 2003, for the first time, philanthropic funding to K-12 education outpaced the amount given to higher education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone has poured well over a billion dollars into high school reform.

Urban schools have been reshaped and reformatted from efforts as varied as the charter school movement, small schools, and the rise of high-stakes testing and standards, epitomized by the monumental federal No Child Left Behind law. Plans have focused on professional development for teachers, new curriculum, school governance, and teaching styles. Chicago has been at the forefront of many of these reforms and has been a national model first for giving more control of schools to local residents, then for moving toward stronger mayoral control.

Nobody is claiming, however, that the work to improve schools—especially schools that serve low-income and minority children—is done. Charles Payne, SSA's Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor, says that urban school systems perform "marginally better" than they did 10 or 15 years ago, and he can rattle off key cities where change can be found: Boston's improvement in elementary literacy scores, Cincinnati's lowering of drop-out rates, Philadelphia's string of success in test-score growth.

However, the title of Payne's new book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, pretty much tells the story on his take on how much farther school reform still has to go. "Urban school districts have the same problems they've always had, including low levels of professional capacity and climates of low expectations," he says (for more on the book, see -page 28).

Clearly, there is no one strategy to improve urban education. But add to the menu of promising results another aspect of school reform, call it the human side of education. School culture, leadership, and guidance can have an enormous impact on effective instruction and students' ability to navigate through difficult circumstances.

"Educating our children is the most important public policy department we have in cities," says Melissa Roderick, SSA's Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor and the co-director at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. "We need effective, on-the-ground systems at the district level and in individual schools to support teachers and students and ensure that they have the best chance possible to learn and succeed." These five lessons from research and practice can be added to any school reform agenda.

1. Pay attention to the relationships between adults.

There is a "major disconnect " between the way policymakers think about changing schools and the way schools operate on a day-to-day basis, according to Payne. Much of So Much Reform, So Little Change focuses on this gap, which he says stems to a significant degree from poisonous interpersonal relationships that breed mistrust and undermine high-quality instruction and leadership shared throughout the school.

"Part of the reason it's difficult to implement, with any fidelity, the ideas that come down from on high is the fundamental incapacity of people in schools to cooperate with one another, which is not taken into account in much of the policy discussion. It arises from a range of things, including the lack of trust between teachers, principals, and parents. It means that schools have a very weak capacity for learning from their own mistakes, and they have a very limited capacity to implement solutions," Payne says.

Vivian Loseth, executive director of the Chicago social service agency Youth Guidance and an alum and lecturer at SSA, agrees that in the past, the Chicago Public Schools had a very "closed" system in which teachers operated almost in complete isolation from one another. "There was a lot of mistrust between teachers, principals, administrators, and parents" she says. "Parents were viewed as a liability instead of an asset."

But Loseth argues that significant structural and systemic improvements began with the arrival of former schools CEO Paul Vallas in the mid-1990s and that the current CPS administration has become much more intentional about developing the kinds of interpersonal relationships that Payne finds so critical. "We must continue to develop the existing human capital, improve communication, and create positive social exchanges," she says.

Youth Guidance, for example, works with faculty on a reform initiative called the Comer School Development Program, which focuses on improving the school climate. The process encourages principals to examine their leadership style and engage faculty in creating a collegial environment. "Every adult in the building has a role in making the school successful. Once the principals in our program developed trusting relationships, they were able to go back to their schools and began promoting a climate of openness and accountability. Teachers began to trust each other, parents began to trust teachers, and there was more of a sense of 'we,' as opposed to an 'us and them' feeling," says Loseth.

In So Much Reform, So Little Change, Payne cites programs like the Comer model and structural shifts, such as smaller schools, as existing tools that can improve interpersonal relationships. "High quality professional development, for example, can improve the capacity of teachers to work with their colleagues," he says, "and so can reducing the degree to which the teaching force feels vulnerable."

2. Help teachers understand the impact of how they work with students.

Michael Woolley, an assistant profess or at SSA whose research focuses on social factors at home, in the neighborhood, and at school that have an impact on school success, is one of a number of researchers who are finding that the teacher-student relationship is particularly influential in affecting not only grades and test scores, but students' attitudes and behavior at school. Woolley has measured two aspects of that relationship: support ("My teachers really care about me. My teachers listen to what I have to say.") and press ("My teachers expect me to do my best all the time. My teachers care about the grades I make.").

"Press and support are complementary," Woolley explains. "Press is like a push. It's a specific motivation to a kid in the here and now to work hard to achieve at a school task. Support is verbal and non-verbal communications to students that teachers truly care about them."

Increased press when support is low can be detrimental, while high press combined with high support is even more important for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, Woolley has found that differences in such social relationship factors at home, in the neighborhood, and at school can explain long standing achievement gaps for African-American, Latino, and poor students. He also notes that high support and low press can apparently lead to a nurturing environment with no expectations. "We see that in some inner-city schools," he says. "It's almost like you have this agreement between teachers and kids: If you behave well, we'll all get along, and I won't push you to do your algebra."

For many students, Woolley believes teachers need to show support first, then ratchet up the pressure to achieve. In a current analysis, he's finding the effect of press and support varies as a function of a student's current behavior at school. That dynamic is also influenced by a student's race and gender. For example, for African- American girls with behavior problems at school, increased press can have a negative effect, predicting grades of Ds and Fs. But for girls with no behavior problems, higher press is associated with better school performance, with the highest levels of press predicting As and Bs.

"I'm trying to figure out the nuances, mediated, subtle effects of aggregate outcomes," he says. "I hope to turn this into teacher training programs, so they can become more conscious of the impact and can in turn manage the messages—verbal and non-verbal—that they send to students." Throughout his research, Woolley says he's taking care to watch intermediate outcomes, such as attitudes toward school, not just the endgame of grades and test scores. That work corroborates the research of SSA Associate Professor Dexter Voisin, who has found a similar impact in a positive teacher-student relationship on negative behaviors, which he published in "Teacher Connectedness and Health-related Outcomes among Detained Adolescents" in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Perceptions that teachers cared about them, understood them, treated them fairly, and invested in them mattered to students.

Compared to a comparison group, students that reported feeling connected to teachers were 1.3 times less likely to belong to a gang, nearly two times less likely to report having used drugs in the past few months, more than two times less likely to report having had sex, and 1.5 times less likely to report having had sex while high on drugs. "The relationships with teachers made a significant difference," Voisin says, a conclusion that was consistent for students across various socioeconomic, ethnic, and household compositions. "The significance of relationships with teachers was associated with a number of adolescent wellness outcomes."

3. Give principals the help they need to succeed.

Research has shown that sustainable educational reform is linked to a strong, capable school principal who can lead a culture of change, especially in today's educational climate. "School leaders are now required to ensure all the students they serve meet much tougher academic goals. You can no longer have one AP calculus class at a high school and send 5 percent of your kids to college, and declare success," says Tim Knowles, the executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago. "It requires deep leadership in instruction, a deep understanding of change, and the ability to manage and respond to increasingly complex social issues."

School reformers are starting to emphasize the principal's role, in part because of these demands and in part simply because of the number of fresh principals. Chicago Public Schools alone hired 170 new principals last year, due to retirements and the opening of new facilities. To ensure a pipeline of ready leaders, a number of programs that provide leadership training for principal candidates have been launched: New Leaders for New Schools, the Boston Leadership Institute, New York Leadership, and others.

A two-year-old program housed at SSA goes one step further, providing crucial aid to principals who are already on the job. The Network for College Success is a professional learning community of the principals at 11 CPS high schools—ranging from small charters to large neighborhood high schools like Kenwood Academy and selective enrollment high schools like Jones College Prep. The group meets monthly to work collaboratively on specific issues at each school.

The network was started after principals began asking for help assessing and responding to a wealth of data coming from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, which conducts research to inform policy in the Chicago Public Schools. Now, the consortium provides the network's schools with district-wide and school-specific information on factors such as how many 9th graders are on track to graduate, broken down by achievement level, attendance record, race, and gender.

"We're able to distribute significant findings, examine the data together, and the principals can move on the data in a real-time way. They can make decisions about what the school needs based on what we're finding," says Mary Ann Pitcher, the project director and the founder and former co-director of the Young Women's Leadership Charter School. Pitcher and the principals also discuss the schools' needs around issues such as instructional vision, school culture, management for improvement, and increased leadership capacity throughout the staff. "In the past, we've identified specific practice problems at a school and worked on them one by one. This year, we're focusing on the instructional leadership team," she says. "By January, we were seeing teams in place, where at the beginning of the year there wasn't one. Now the teams are targeting instructional areas that can improve student learning. To me, it's huge."

4. Support students' postsecondary planning.

In today's economy, being a high school graduate is only the first step to success. In 1980, only 40 percent of all tenth-graders and only 20 percent of low-income tenth-graders hoped to complete at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education. By 2005, however, 83 percent of Chicago Public School seniors indicated that they hoped to earn a bachelor's degree or higher and another 13 percent hoped to earn a two-year or vocational degree.

Despite these goals, though, only a small percentage of CPS students end up in post-secondary education. In a major report released in March, From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that only 41 percent of CPS seniors took the necessary steps to apply to and enroll in a four-year college and that many sold themselves short—only about a third enrolled in a college that matched or exceeded their qualifications. The report also found that the most consistent predictor of whether a student took steps toward college enrollment was whether the high school had a "strong college- going culture" and if faculty worked to ensure students completed their college applications.

"We have to help these kids get ready to apply for and be accepted to college. You don't come out of the womb knowing the difference between Northwestern and Northeastern. Urban kids are encountering problems all along the line in getting into the best schools—from picking the right school to getting the forms in to having a great essay and consequently, they're falling through the cracks," says Roderick, the lead author of the three-year longitudinal study, which analyzed data on 5,100 CPS high school graduates and interviewed 105 students in three high schools.

Roderick says that the report's most surprising finding is how many students are waylaid by the process of filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form required for most financial aid. "Students who reported completing a FAFSA by May of their application year and were accepted into a four-year college were almost 50 percent more likely to enroll than students who had not completed a FAFSA," the report noted. Yet each year, according to CPS, more than 20 percent of the students who've indicated that they're in compliance actually haven't turned in the appropriate paperwork.

The FAFSA factor is an example of how the Consortium's work is directly connected to CPS's department of post-secondary education and student development, a four-year-old program that is unique in major urban districts in its mission to support student education plans after high school graduation. Programs include post secondary coaches at 27 CPS high schools and Advanced Placement and AVID programming, which helps students who are not high-performers envision and prepare for a college career. Roderick was responsible for the creation of the department, and her ongoing relationship with its director, Greg Darnieder, and its work allows the information she gathers to have an almost immediate impact on CPS policy. Roderick says that Darnieder's need to discover exactly what is keeping qualified kids out of college was the genesis for the Potholes report, and, in turn, her findings about FAFSA inspired a new system within CPS that gives each high school intensely detailed information about every senior's FAFSA status on a weekly basis.

"Six months ago, Melissa told me about the report's potential findings about FAFSA," Darnieder says. "Since then, we've started a campaign on the issue, created workshops, and put this new reporting system into place. Now, principals and counselors can stay on top of every single kid with data about whether the application has all been completed."

5. Build on the community school model.

Many urban schools are benefiting from an increasingly tight coordination between the typical academic day and programs available for children, families, and other residents of the neighborhood. These community schools are usually open in the late afternoon, evenings, and on weekends to provide services like enrichment classes for students, health clinics, and classes for parents, often provided by local social service agencies. Community schools try to work with students in the context of their family and community rather than as individuals and work to leverage research that shows when parents are involved and when students feel safe in school, student achievement rises.

"We are working towards seamless coordination between the school day and afternoon and weekend programming," says Sarah Duncan, coordinator of SSA's Community Schools Program, which offers masters students coursework and field placements tied to connecting community resources with the needs of schools. The program has also been instrumental in creating the Federation for Community Schools. But she stresses that doesn't mean another two hours of the same exact material: "Community schools bring in arts and cultural programming that schools do not have time for."

Community schools have been a priority for CPS—the district has opened or converted 110 to date, with another 40 to be added by the beginning of next school year, according to Colleen Coyle, a representative for the CPS Office of Extended Learning Opportunities and an SSA alum. "Schools are being asked to do a lot," she says. "The community schools strategy attempts to put resources into schools to help them bear that responsibility."

The early evaluations of the community schools initiatives in Chicago have been positive. Achievement improves among students enrolled in the after-school programs operated by community schools, according to a recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Of the students identified as needing extra help, 70 percent improved their completion of homework, 72 percent improved their participation in classes, and 66 percent improved their classroom behavior.

Some schools are taking note of the broad expertise required to operate community school programming or provide counseling and are adding social workers to the school's instructional leadership team. SSA alumna Lo Patrick, for example, has been the social worker at Chicago's Donoghue Charter School, an elementary school operated by the University of Chicago, since it opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 2005. Her role includes much more than simply providing counseling for students in need, as important as that job is.

Patrick is a part of the team at the school's weekly leadership meetings and responsible for tasks like training after-school staff on the school's cooperative learning philosophy, for example. She helped the director of family and community engagement at Donoghue think through the child developmental perspective of how the school's kindergarten program was structured. "It was helpful for him to consult with me about whether it makes sense for all of the students to stay that long—we're open until 6 o'clock," she explains.

For Roderick, the kind of input Patrick is able to provide is a perfect case study of how social workers can have a deeper impact on education. "Graduates of our program are able to attack a problem from multiple dimensions. They have perspectives on the whole school that are informed by the community school model but don't have to be limited to it," she says. "Social workers know how to figure out discipline problems, think about health issues in the school, create after-school programming. These are valuable people to have on staff for any school."