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Despite reforms, city's high schools flailing, study says

By Michael Martinez<BR>and Ray Quintanilla

Chicago's ailing public high schools have shown "little significant
change" despite almost six years of intensive reform, a new study said

The study, which school officials had paid for but previously refused
to release, said that more than half the city's 75 high schools still
had problems with weak teachers and that reform hadn't bolstered
prospects for better learning.

Despite $8 million in training, most teachers in most city high
schools teach "very shallowly," the report said.

The teaching is so poor that few students really learn. Researchers
found that 48 percent of teachers have such poor skills that they
reach just five or fewer students per class, leaving perhaps 20 or
more students to struggle on their own.

The study also suggests that some increases in high school test scores
don't reflect better high school teaching but are the result of true
improvements that reformers have achieved in elementary grades.

In response, schools chief Paul Vallas highlighted that the study said
high schools have better test scores overall and focus more on
learning. Vallas did acknowledge some shortcomings but blamed them
largely on teachers who resist reform. 

The $1.8 million study was commissioned by the Chicago Board of
Education and completed by Northwestern University researchers led by
professor G. Alfred Hess Jr. It examined 800 classrooms in 39 high
schools on academic probation from 1997 to 2000 and evaluated the
effectiveness of Chicago's efforts to overhaul its beleaguered high

The study was released Friday during a Consortium on Chicago School
Research conference on the city's high school reform efforts.
Previously, Vallas had refused to release contents of the study, parts
of which were privately circulated among educators.

The study comes on the heels of Mayor Richard Daley's criticism that
his schools team needs to devise more aggressive and unconventional
initiatives to improve students' reading scores, which are beginning
to flatten after several years of improvement.

The report also indicated the public schools had made improvement.
Reading and math scores have increased among the 95,000 high school

But Hess cited important shortcomings in the city's
multimillion-dollar effort to restructure high schools and train
teachers in the worst schools. Currently, only about a third of the
city's high school students can read at grade level. Further, about 41
percent of high school students drop out by their senior year.

"The district has made a huge effort. The problem isn't because the
district hasn't tried," Hess said. "The issue is that the problem is
tougher than we thought it was, and we have to find more intense ways
of improving what we've been doing."

Vallas said he felt the study was "generally pretty positive." He
noted the study found that high schools now focus more on student
learning and less on warehousing students and managing their

"Sure there are areas of concern," Vallas said. "But if you look at it
overall, it's pretty good. Academic achievement has improved
significantly in reading and math since 1996."

He added, "It points out that we have come a long way, but we still
have a long way to go. There is still a lot of resistance to high
school restructuring &#91;from teachers&#93;. I'd say that there are
about a third of teachers who need a bigger push." 

Researchers found three major problems among the system's weaker high
school teachers.

Some teachers didn't know their subject matter very well. Some didn't
know how to get the material across to their students. 

And others didn't believe their students were capable of learning the

"That's the bigger problem from my perspective," Hess said. "These
teachers typically have 20 years of teaching kids ... and they have
support for this belief."

Hess said that even though each of the 39 probation high schools spent
$100,000 a year on teacher training for two or more years, the support
"wasn't enough to really challenge the beliefs of these teachers." The
$100,000 a year bought "an external partner," or consultant, who
typically sent one graduate student or retired principal to work full
time at training up to 100 or more teachers in a school, Hess said.

"The &#91;school board's initiative&#93; Design for High Schools
envisioned a significant effort to change teacher behaviors, both
pedagogically and in their relationships with their students. However,
as large as the effort was, it did not prove to be intensive enough,"
the study said.

The mayor and Vallas have touted several programs to restructure high
schools from chaotic, monolithic institutions into smaller schools.
But the study painted a different picture.

Vallas promised to create "junior academies" for freshmen and
sophomores so freshmen could better know their teachers and
counselors. But the study said only seven of the 39 high schools
created them.

School officials said they would impose a special 40-minute advisory
period once a week so teachers could counsel students on social
development and any personal or family problems&#151;regarded as a
critical service in a big, urban district.

But those advisory periods were "diluted" into a division, which is
typically a period in which students socialize and attendance is
taken. Hess blamed the central office for neglecting the initiative.
"It hasn't gotten much attention in the central office," he said.

Moreover, only 10 high schools ever implemented a true "small school,"
with low enrollment and small class sizes, Hess said.

"The plan called for a radical restructuring of the schools, and what
we have to report is that there was only a very modest restructuring
in a third to half of the schools," Hess said. 

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