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Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago

reviewed by Anne Galletta - August 30, 2010

coverTitle: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago
Author(s): Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, and John Q. Easton
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226078000, Pages: 317, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Striking in its attention to the influence of community and educator participation in school reform, and sobering in its assessment of some of the neighborhoods where reform was most difficult to attain, the book Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago is an essential read.  Authors Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton complicate democratic localism in their study of school improvement following the 1988 School Reform Act.  While Bryk et al. argue that the reform engaged critical resources central to school improvement through parent involvement and community empowerment, they also link stagnant student outcomes with inequities evident in concentrated neighborhood poverty and racial isolation within a subset of Chicago schools.  As a result, the authors raise important questions about the rationale of democratic participation absent material and social resources in racially and economically isolated communities.

The book provides an in-depth analysis of school improvement within Chicago’s historic period of parent and community participation in school governance.  Public Act 84-1418 led to the decentralization of Chicago Public Schools in 1988 at which time local school councils (LSC’s) were established.  Through multiple data sources on academic performance calculated into an academic productivity profile, the authors report that Chicago elementary schools improved productivity in reading by 5 percent and in mathematics by 12 percent between 1990 and 1996, with over 80 percent showing at least some improvement in math and close to 70 percent exhibiting improvement in reading.  Referencing the time period of study as “an extraordinary natural experiment in school change” (p. 12), Bryk et al. underscore early in the book how the Chicago decentralization led to “a broad base of academic improvements in many, but not all, elementary schools” (p. 40).  

A sequel to Charting Chicago School Reform: Democratic Localism as a Lever for Change (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow, Rollow, & Easton, 1998), the book offers considerable insight into the strength of longitudinal studies using multiple methods and involving partnerships among researchers, system officials, and school building educators to allow for ongoing access to sources of data.   In the current text (2010), the authors refer to the 1988-1993 period in the district as reflecting “creative chaos” (p. 16), and they note that within buildings active in democratic decision making and instructional reform, meaningful change was occurring toward improved teaching and learning.  The authors indicate that their work on the framework of essential supports for school improvement “came to life in this unusual context of institutional change” (p. 44).  Elements of this historical period of time are provided in the Prologue and Introduction.  

Focusing on the 1994-1997period of reform, Organizing Schools for Improvement raises the question as to how the improvement evident early on in Chicago’s decentralization was or was not sustained.  Chapter 1 details the outcome indicators on which the full study relies.  These outcome indicators include trends in student attendance and trends associated with students’ reading and math scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS).  In Chapter 2, the authors effectively unpack their framework of essential supports, giving considerable attention to the context of the classroom and the nature of resources and supports that allow for instructional improvement.  They describe a dynamic and inter-related system of five supports, driven by the first of the five, leadership.  The remaining four include instructional guidance, professional capacity, parent-community-school ties, and student-centered learning environment.  Finally, the authors situate the framework in a broader context of structural factors (school size and student mobility), degree of relational trust across the school community, and local school community context.

The authors’ conceptualization of this system of essential supports as dynamic and multi-directional is refreshingly comprehensive.  It provides an understanding of schools and the nature of what happens within school buildings as fluid, complicated, relational, and interactive.   It also creates a tremendous challenge in designing data analysis sophisticated enough to capture the depth and texture of this framework.  The book offers the reader four exceedingly detailed and very informative chapters outlining the analysis of data.  

Chapter 3 covers key findings from the first study, with indicators measured until 1994.  Here, the authors further discuss the extent to which the findings provide support for their framework of a system of essential supports.  The framework is validated in the first study.  Schools with strong indicators “were ten times more likely to improve students’ reading and mathematics learning” (p. 198) than schools in which three or more indicators were weak.   As a result, the data supported not only the formulation of the five supports but their essential nature as a complete system of interrelated ingredients.  The authors’ metaphor of baking a cake (p. 66), due to its essential and mutually supporting ingredients, assumes greater meaning as this intricate and comprehensive framework is put to the test in the analysis of data from the more recent study (1994-1997) discussed in the book’s subsequent chapters.

Chapter 4 offers a fine-grained consideration of dimensions of school improvement.  Breathtaking in its interpretive use of study findings, the discussion stands in sharp relief when compared to current conceptualizations of school reform most evident in federal school reform initiatives.  Chapter 5 attends to key structural factors, such as school size and enrollment stability, and it engages the reader in a substantive discussion of relational trust as a social resource for school improvement.  While Bryk et al. concede that relational trust does not directly impact student learning, they nonetheless stress its role in facilitating key change processes integral to improving student performance.  In extending the metaphor of school improvement as “baking a cake,” the authors equate relational trust with the oven’s heat in that it provides the “social energy” necessary for the five essential supports to produce transformative change (p. 157).

Chapter 6 is exceptional in its analysis of the broader community context.  It is this section of the book that is particularly singular and important to read.  In these chapters the authors analyze data from diverse sources offering immense detail.  The authors examine the conditions of neighborhoods where students live under “extraordinary circumstances” and the schools in which there is a concentration of these students.  In doing so, they draw an important link between inequities evident in the most disadvantaged communities and the absence of sufficient material resources and social capital, particularly bridging social capital, to contribute to effective school governance and subsequent school improvement.  

Through the authors’ persistence in taking the analysis on race and socioeconomic status to a fine-grained level, they effectively explore the conditions that facilitate and impede the ability of parents and community leaders to act as a critical resource in school improvement.   The significance of this work is in its probing two basic statistics – percentage minority and percentage low income – through data offering greater nuance with regard to poverty and racial isolation.  From these data sources on the community context, the authors created an analytical continuum by degree of poverty and racial isolation, enhancing their ability to differentiate among schools that ordinarily might be more generally characterized as “low income” and “predominantly minority.”  As a result, these chapters identify a core group of 46 elementary schools with students living in extreme poverty conditions.  Within this group, the authors found four areas of greatest concern: (1) impeding structural factors, such as a high number of students and/or high degree of student mobility; (2) absence of relational trust; (3) student needs well beyond those to which the school and community could respond; and (4) complex interaction of factors within poor communities that are racially isolated.  

In sum, while current trends in school reform have emphasized turning around failing schools, there has been little to no attention among federal initiatives to reducing the economic and racial isolation.  Additionally, the philanthropic community has remained silent as it relates to this glaring oversight.  Bryk et al. provide a rigorous and compelling empirical study of the possibility for school reform and the degrees of compromise, particularly in contexts where extreme poverty and racial and ethnic isolation prevail.  Their final chapter provides an instructive summary and set of conclusions as it relates to their findings.

Through its use of a comprehensive and intricate analytical framework, the book provides a twist in the recent reform discourse, highlighting how the Chicago School Reform Act played a role not in reconstituting schools and school staffing, but in reconstituting relationships.  Through school governance mechanisms, such as shifting the authority to the school level in partnership with parents and adults in the community, the nature of engagement, communication, and change processes was shifted.  Indeed, the authors refer to the reform as creating “a new force field” that worked horizontally in improving schools as opposed to vertically (p. 216).  As such, the book is an important read for those dissatisfied with current school reform efforts that tout parental and community involvement but offer few mechanisms for realizing the potential of this key essential support to school improvement.


Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Kerbow, D., Rollow, S., & Easton, J. Q.  (1998).  Charting Chicago school reform: Democratic localism as a lever for change.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16124, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:17:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Anne Galletta
    Cleveland State University
    ANNE GALLETTA is assistant professor at the College of Education and Human Services at Cleveland State University. As a social psychologist, her research interests involve the nature of social relations and considerations of equity within schools and communities. Her work includes book chapters and journal articles examining the complexity of social identity development among youth and its influence on the nature and extent of their educational participation. Additionally, her research focus is on the engagement of community, youth, and educators with educational change efforts. In particular, she attends to the role of institutional conflict in creating the potential for transformative change in schools and school systems. She has also examined the ways in which educators and community groups have restructured schools toward improved student opportunities and outcomes, while responding to the broader press for demonstrating accountability. As the tradition of action research is central to her work, Dr. Galletta is currently involved with projects at several urban and inner-ring suburban schools, theorizing complex societal problems along with those most deeply impacted and frequently least likely to be engaged in the deliberation of solutions.
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