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School Reform in Chicago: Lessons in Policy and Practice

reviewed by Amy Wilson - 2004

coverTitle: School Reform in Chicago: Lessons in Policy and Practice
Author(s): Alexander Russo (Editor)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1891792180, Pages: 169, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

School Reform in Chicago is a compelling compilation of perspectives on the wave of transformations that have occurred in the

Chicago Public school system from 1988 to the present. While the effort is a work in progress, through the combined labors of educators, community activists, parents, and even politicians, the focus remains on continuing to improve schools so that all children have an opportunity to attain excellent educations. The primary purpose of the book does seem to be, “…highlighting key issues and dynamics that have influenced school reform in Chicago …” (p. 2); nevertheless, the scope of the lessons learned in each of the 17 chapters extends well beyond this one urban, center and they can be used as a roadmap for other city systems continuing to struggle with the challenges of providing the highest quality education for all of their children.

Large-scale reform of an urban system is an intricately complex endeavor, and while there are never simple answers, there are pitfalls to be avoided and bright spots to be shared. Alexander Russo, the book’s editor, has found a way to capture the voices of many, if not all, of the constituencies involved in this process by gathering together short (none more than 8 pages) accounts of reform efforts in Chicago, both past and on-going from stakeholders ranging from school system personnel to college professors to community activists. The book is divided into two main sections, one focusing on schools and community, which includes chapters on the role of parents in reform (Chapter 6) and the history of decentralized local school councils (Chapter 3); and the other on policy and politics, which includes an insider’s view of the massive reorganization of Chicago school headquarters (Chapter 13) as well as the union’s role in reform (Chapter 14). This organizational structure allows readers to pick and choose essays related to their interests. For the most part, the essays stand alone, although each adds a different piece of the larger puzzle when taken all together.

One lesson that weaves its way through several chapters in the first section, “Schools and Communities,” relates to the sheer number of initiatives that were being implemented during this period of reform in

Chicago . In Chapter 1, “The Power – and Limits – of Civic Capacity,” Russo examines the influence of business, philanthropies, universities, and community organizations and concludes that while quality partnerships have many benefits, too many outside initiatives can cause disorder and negate any potential positive outcomes. In Chapter 2, Ken Rolling describes the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an initiative to provide over $50 million in private funding to the Chicago schools, and reaches a similar conclusion about an overabundance of individual reform efforts not necessarily tied into systemic reform. With the best intentions and for a variety of reasons, some beyond their control, schools often shift from one initiative to the next from year to year, never allowing time to see concrete results. Chapter 8, “School Improvement at Benito Juarez High School,” (Gelb) chronicles four years of the school’s experience with four different external partners all attempting to improve instruction in different ways.

While this first lesson seems to be a warning about doing too much in a disjointed fashion, one of the other lessons of this section speaks to how to create lasting change. David Gordon, the editor of the Harvard Education Letter, is the author of three chapters in this section (4, 5, and 7), each of which presents powerful insights into what is truly necessary for school reform. In Chapters 4 and 5, Gordon explores the concept of social trust as a cornerstone of successful school reform and applies this framework to the transformation that occurred at one school. Building on Bryk and Schneider’s (2002) research on “relational trust” in schools, Gordon asserts that this trust is the foundation that makes it possible for reform to occur, but that it takes time and energy to develop. The concrete example he provides is of

Burley Elementary School in Chicago , where, over the course of 10 years, the principal made a conscious effort to build a culture of trust among her faculty and between the school and community. Standardized test scores in reading and math went from the 25th percentile to the 74th percentile, showing that positive change is possible, while not always instantaneous.

In Chapter 7, Gordon outlines findings from work done by the Consortium on Chicago Area Research examining schools in

Chicago that have been improving. The main conclusion of this research is that schools need a coherent and challenging instructional program that is supported by effective professional development for teachers. Gordon contrasts the years of school reform in Chicago under controversial school chief Paul Vallas (See Chapter 15 for one account of a political battle to appoint principals that may have been his downfall.), in which much of the emphasis was on structural change, with the more recent years under new school chief Arne Duncan, whose first initiative was to target reading instruction in K-8 schools. He says that it is too soon to tell if this is a permanent shift in focus, but he believes that it is an encouraging sign.

Skepticism about school restructuring alone as a mechanism for school reform and the importance of higher quality profession development are both echoed in chapters found in the second section of the book, “Policy and Practice.” In Chapter 12, entitled “Forget Governance: Build Capacity,” Richard Elmore acknowledges that large urban bureaucracies need to be streamlined, but asserts that “…organizational and governance changes do not, by themselves, cause people to get smarter and more effective in their work” (pp. 109-110). He urges reformers not to get caught up in battles related to organizational structures, but to focus on developing people who will ultimately make reform happen. In Chapter 16, Russo takes this a step further by focusing on the issue of upgrading professional development as the next major measure in moving

Chicago schools forward.

For those interested in one of the more contentious reform efforts, Chapters 10 and 11 explore ending social promotion. They offer the

Chicago perspective on this national trend fueled by the accountability movement. The positive and negative consequences of retention are presented judiciously in these chapters; whereas, Chapter 9, written by former Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen, paints a largely positive picture of holding schools accountable for student achievement through test scores. While Hansen acknowledges that “…it would have been good to take a more comprehensive and detailed picture of school improvement” (p. 90), he staunchly defends the process of low-performing schools being put on probation and visited by accountability teams to provide concrete suggestions for improvement.

The final chapter of this compilation (Chapter 17) is oddly narrow in its subject – school construction in

Chicago . While an interesting description of the steps taken to shore up the physical facilities in Chicago , it seems tacked on at the end, only related to the chapters that precede it by its analysis of the politics involved in school construction. A broader summary is provided, however, through the inclusion of a “Final Word” after this last chapter. In a closing interview with Cozette Buckney, Chief Academic Officer under Vallas, potential reformers are left with the lesson that “…no matter how bad a school system, if you have good people you can do anything” (p. 161). This sentiment resonates in most all of the essays in School Reform in Chicago and makes it a worthwhile read for would-be reformers. By presenting both positives and negatives, it reaffirms that school reform is hard work, highly political and often controversial, but that it is ultimately achieved by dedicated people who are willing to take risks and learn from mistakes to make it happen.


Bryk, A.S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2345-2348
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11351, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:48:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Amy Wilson
    Johns Hopkins University
    E-mail Author
    Amy Wilson is an instructor in the Department of Teacher Preparation in the Graduate Division of Education at Johns Hopkins University where she works with cohorts of urban teachers in a Master of Arts in Teaching program. Her research interests include using assessment to inform instruction and developing support mechanisms to meet the needs of novice urban educators.
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