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Volume 19, Number 1
January/February 2003

The Power—and Limits—of 'Civic Capacity'

Outside organizations bring more than resources to Chicago schools


Chicago Public Schools (CPS) recently rolled out a new principal assessment program aimed at giving principals detailed and ongoing feedback on their performance. The program, called EXCEL, replaces the traditional one-shot annual evaluation form that has been used for years. It is just one of several major new programs unveiled in Chicago for the 2002-2003 school year, and far from the largest.

But what makes EXCEL notable is that—like many efforts here—it was developed with the help of one of Chicago's many education groups that serve as partners in the education reform effort. EXCEL was an initiative of Leaders for Quality Education (LQE), a group organized by the city's business community, and the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation and others provided funding.

Chicago may not have as many charter schools or big-name education leaders as other major cities, but perhaps no other school system in the nation is as influenced by such a vast array of businesses, philanthropies, universities, and community groups. These groups come in all shapes and sizes, and get involved in schools in nearly every way imaginable. Some are brought in by interested teachers and parents, some through district initiatives, and others through local school leaders, principals, and policymakers.

These groups aren't just business-supported organizations like LQE. Some, like the Golden Apple Foundation, provide important support to teachers to acquire books and supplies. Community groups such as West Town United work mostly with parents on education and governance issues. Others, like the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education (CAPE), help teachers improve classroom instruction. Advocacy and research groups such as Designs for Change work on a panoply of different fronts.

Of course, Chicago schools weren't always this open to outside influences. After a long history of being seen as a closed fortress to parents and outside organizations, with little university involvement, the Chicago schools were dramatically opened up in 1988 with the creation of elected local school councils (LSCs) at every school. These relationships have transformed the way education policy is made and carried out.

The creation of LSCs gave schools control over discretionary dollars, which allowed them to seek (or refuse) services from any number of different types of groups and contract directly with them rather than go through the district office. After 1995, the accountability system under Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas began requiring that low-performing schools have "external partners" and intervention specialists, who often came from nearby university schools of education.

According to some experts, these changes and activities are the result of as much as the cause of a tremendous amount of "civic capacity" in Chicago, which in turn has helped drive the school system toward academic reform. "The local community has to come together around what they want their schools to be," says Dorothy Shipps of Columbia University's Teachers College. "Chicago has this incredibly well-organized business community [and] a very strong community-based set of organizations." In her research, Shipps argues that legislative and educational reforms follow civic capacity. She holds that the 1988 decentralization and the 1995 mayoral takeover of Chicago schools were largely prompted by these outside groups rather than the school system itself and that reform has been fundamentally shaped by Chicago's civic organizations.

Such influence was demonstrated between 1995 and 2000, when the Chicago Annenberg Challenge spent $50 million to develop numerous networks providing support to schools, and had an especially strong impact on 16 "breakthrough" schools. Business and other groups have been involved in creating PENCIL, a principal recruitment initiative that helps local schools screen candidates, and the district-supported Principal Assessment Center where principal candidates can go through real-world simulations of a "typical" day's decisions and emergencies. Similarly, the corporate-civic group Chicago United worked to ignite interest among teachers in applying for National Board Certification. Results from last year's efforts showed a positive impact on several schools where teachers were encouraged and supported in the process.

A Mixed Blessing

Not every collaboration goes smoothly or successfully, of course, nor is there always agreement about how much credit—or blame—the groups are due for their efforts. Some schools have resisted the "intrusion" of outside groups into decisionmaking and building politics. In many situations, especially during the early years, some principals felt that groups were actively working to get a principal or a program dismissed. Staffing problems and personal dynamics undermined a massive collaborative effort to improve professional development for teachers at troubled Manley High School, despite substantial planning and funding among several groups, according to the school-reform magazine Catalyst.

The multitude of initiatives can itself create problems, according to education researcher John Easton of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. "It's a good thing as long as the market works and the bad [programs] are filtered to the bottom and the good ones to the top," says Easton. "I don't think it's as efficient a market as it could be, however. Some of the losers are still on the market." A 1994 Consortium report warned of schools becoming "Christmas trees," with as many as 20 different initiatives taking place at the same time.

Confusion among multiple reform efforts has been a widespread problem since early on during the reform era, says Don Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy organization Designs for Change. The problem got worse after 1995, he says, when "the central office initiated too many programs" and created an additional layer of probation managers, external partners, and literacy specialists whose efforts were not always integrated. "There's a real need to help principals and local school councils understand that they need to develop a coherent instructional strategy," says Moore.

According to John Easton, the most successful schools are those that figure out how to adapt a district- or group-sponsored initiative into something that makes sense of the individual school. These schools, Easton says, are able to garner additional resources for their schools and implement new efforts effectively. "It's not that they subvert the policy, but they somehow make it work. They sort of implement it their way to everyone's benefit and get extra resources on it." Many of these schools "already know what they want," says Easton, and are simply trying to find ways to get help implementing their vision. "They're not looking to an outside organization to tell them what kind of reading program they should have."
The Politics of Partnership

The increasingly close interactions with the school system have created special challenges for outside groups, too, especially their ability to function as independent external critics. For example, several researchers involved in the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which bills itself as "an independent federation of Chicago area organizations that conducts research on ways to improve Chicago's public schools," have gone to work for CPS in recent years or have worked simultaneously for both organizations.

For Chicago, where the outside groups and the inside officials have long kept their distance, the changed relationships are noteworthy. While few criticize the new leadership for bringing in as much talent as it can, the new allegiances and the increased funding from central budgets raises questions about how much careful scrutiny the groups can provide, especially when they are working with CPS under contract.

Some insiders speculate that the external-partner program has been maintained for political reasons despite long-standing questions about its effectiveness. The program provides more than $5 million to roughly 20 outside groups each year. Others question whether local universities and the Consortium can provide objective research on reform effects while having close financial relationships to the district. John Easton, who just ended a stint in which he split time between the Consortium and the district, says, "We continue to be vigilant as we can," adding that he viewed his job at CPS as that of a "technical advisor" without the political interests or risks of a CPS insider.

Related or not, one surprising problem is that, for all of the research capacity in the city, conclusive information on the impact of specific initiatives remains surprisingly hard to come by. School- and program-specific results are more likely to come from a news outlet or a mandated disclosure of information by the state. Research published by the Consortium and others, in contrast, often masks the names of individual schools and outside groups that are involved. District-sponsored collaborations such as the external partner program have also gone unmeasured in terms of comparing results, despite millions of dollars spent.

Overall, however, most in Chicago agree that having such a broad array of groups creates more benefits than drawbacks. For example, Kinzie Elementary School principal Mary Palermo cites her school's long and successful track record working with universities, community groups, and nonprofits, including coordinating staff development programs with nearby St. Xavier University and a character education curriculum through Chicago Communities in Schools. "The question I always ask is, 'What can we get out of this?'" she says. "I'm involved with all sorts of partnerships, and they have been very successful here," she says about her school, located on the southwest side near Midway Airport. These include efforts to eliminate "fringe content" in the curriculum, arts education, music programs, and technology.

When partnerships work well, they can give schools more than the obvious material benefits: they can be morale-building as schools share responsibility with community, business, and research groups for improvement. "Any time you get these groups working with teachers, [teachers] don't feel as alone and isolated," says principal Jim Cosme of Otis Elementary School. At a time when school practitioners are saddled with much blame and little credit for how reforms fare, that is a generous gift indeed.

Alexander Russo is a contributing editor for Catalyst magazine in Chicago and The Title I Report in Washington, DC.

For Further Information

For Further Information

L. Duffrin. "Seen as a Model, Manley Plan Falls Short." Catalyst (June 2002).

P.A. Sebring, A.S. Bryk, J.Q. Easton et al. Charting Reform: Chicago Teachers Take Stock (Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research, 1995).

D. Shipps. "The Businessman's Educator: Mayoral Takeover and Non-traditional Leadership in Chicago," in L. Cuban and M. Usdan, eds., Powerful Reforms with Shallow Roots: Improving America's Urban Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).