An excerpt from
Lessons from Chicago
Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, and John Q. Easton
A Tale of Two Schools
I am from streets with buildings
that used to look pretty.
From safe walking trips to
Mr. Ivan’s family grocery store,
where now stands a criminal sanctuary.
I am from a home and garage
illustrated with crowns, diamonds,
upside-down pitchforks, squiggly
names and death threats.
I am from a once busy, prosperous
and productive community;
where the fathers and mothers
earned a living at the steel mills,
and the children played
Kick the Can and Hide and Go Seek
until they could play no more.
I am from here.
—Ms. Sparks, Sixth-Grade Teacher, Hancock Elementary School
Like many teachers, Ms. Sparks grew up in the neighborhood where she
now works. Neither she, nor her parents, nor any members of her extended
family, however, live there any longer—some time ago all escaped the violence
and general decay for safer and more prosperous communities. The housing stock in Oak Meadows is now worn and dilapidated; many buildings were burned out in the late 1960s and ’70s and subsequently torn down. Neighborhood fixtures like dry cleaners, retail stores, and gas
stations are long gone.
The main building for the Herbie Hancock Elementary School2 was
built around 1900. Although over one hundred years old, it retains the
architectural flourishes that were common in public buildings of the time.
A “new building” was added in the early 1960s to accommodate the growing
student population in Oak Meadows. It is a low, nondescript structure
that could have been commissioned by most any bureaucracy. It would
have fi t just as comfortably in a cold-war-era Eastern European city as on
the South Side of Chicago.
As Bonnie Whitmore took up the principalship at the Hancock School
in 1989, she inherited a very troubled school community. Gangs roamed
freely in the neighborhood, and the crime rate there was among the highest
in the city. Maintaining order at Hancock had been a high priority. On
more than one occasion, neighborhood conflicts had spilled right through
the front doors of the school itself. Although the Local School Council
had appointed Bonnie with enthusiasm, some worried aloud that what
the school really needed was “a man who could wear the pants and show
everyone who was in charge.”
Whitmore’s predecessor, Mr. Martin, sequestered himself most of the
time in his office, where he dealt with the school’s myriad day-to-day operational
problems. Up through the late 1980s, little beyond this was expected
of administrators at schools like Hancock. Keeping things under control
and avoiding major crises were their main priorities. District administrators
generally gave positive evaluations to principals like Mr. Martin, who
kept order in their schools. In truth, however, Martin had basically “retired
on the job.”
The accumulated organizational neglect was quite obvious as one moved
out into classrooms and around the school. Teacher quality was highly
variable. Some teachers were quite good, but many others were deeply
entrenched in their old ways of doing things, even though their students
were obviously not learning. In general, teachers were left to “do their own
thing” in their classrooms regardless of the ultimate results. As a group, the
faculty was cantankerous and divided. Middle- and upper-grade teachers
in the old building looked down on the primary-grade teachers in the new
building whom they judged as not having to work very hard. Little interest
in or support for meaningful change could be found anywhere. Not surprisingly,
in 1990 Hancock’s standardized test results placed it among the one
hundred worst elementary schools in Chicago in both reading and math.
Six Years Later: Hancock on the Move
It is an unusually nice late spring afternoon in Chicago as Hancock’s teachers
gather in the cafeteria after school for a regularly scheduled professional development session. After welcoming remarks from the principal, a teacher leader offers a brief overview of the day’s activity, and teachers quickly move around the room to form small work groups. As they systematically review stacks of student papers, teachers begin to outline a
set of observations about the strengths and weaknesses of their students’
written work. They focus on identifying shared problems that students
appeared to be having in understanding and writing about the key ideas
in some common instructional units that they are attempting to teach. As
a group, they begin to brainstorm about how their instructional efforts
might be improved and draw up some preliminary recommendations to
be forwarded to a schoolwide curriculum committee. At the end of the
meeting, the principal announces that eleven of their colleagues have been
accepted into a special citywide program that will prepare them for the
arduous journey toward possible certification from the National Board for
Professional Teaching Standards. Clearly, profound changes have occurred
at Hancock, and even more appear on the horizon.
After a period of steady decline, enrollment at Hancock began to increase
during the early 1990s. By 1996, the school served more than one
thousand students, from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Grades 6
through 8 formed a middle school that served students graduating from
Hancock’s lower grades as well as those coming from other elementary
schools in the area. Some sixty-five teachers now formed the faculty.
Renewing this faculty had been a chief concern for Bonnie Whitmore.
Before her tenure at Hancock, Bonnie had developed a reputation in her
previous principalship as a no-nonsense educator. She held high standards
and expected the same from the entire school staff. Several teachers who
had been at Hancock for a number of years chose to leave early on in Bonnie’s
tenure, feeling they would be more comfortable at a school where
their instructional practice might receive less critical scrutiny. In turn,
Bonnie invested heavily in the professional development of those who
chose to stay on as well as the new teachers whom she hired.
One of these new teachers was Patricia Sparks. Although she came to
Hancock with limited professional experience, Patricia threw herself into
the various professional development opportunities at her new school.
She worked hard to incorporate into her lessons both the subject matter
content and the new pedagogy that she learned about in school-based
workshops. Over time, she joined an emerging cadre of strong teacher
leaders within the school.
At the same time that Bonnie was advancing the professional development
of her staff, she also worked hard to nurture a collegial spirit among the faculty and camaraderie around their collective efforts toward school improvement. Using her own personal funds, she organized monthly staff breakfasts that created opportunities for relationship building and professional development.
The end result of this concerted focus on professional capacity building
was a very different faculty. Gradually, teachers deepened their subject
matter and pedagogical knowledge, and felt increasingly comfortable talking
about their practice and their efforts to improve it. They were encouraged
to take courses and attend conferences and professional meetings,
and then develop workshop sessions at Hancock where they might share
with colleagues what they had just learned. Eventually, the expertise of several
teachers, who had been quite active in these professional development
activities, became widely recognized. These individuals now took on significant leadership roles within the faculty and larger school community.
A number of important structural changes, introduced in the early
1990s, were key in supporting these developments. Working with her faculty,
Bonnie introduced common planning periods for each grade level.
To create more time for professional development, Hancock added a few
minutes to each school day, and once a month released students early to
allow teachers to participate in ongoing professional development and to
continue their improvement planning. Bonnie also allocated substantial
discretionary resources for securing extra teacher substitutes to free up
her regular staff, so that they could observe other teachers’ classrooms and
work with outside staff developers.
Instructional improvement efforts focused initially on literacy. Developing
students’ reading and writing skills is the single most important
goal of elementary education. This work engages a substantial amount of
time and effort from almost all members of an elementary school’s faculty,
and was a strategic choice for where best to begin.
After extended opportunities for discussing their own instructional
practices, teachers came to recognize the incoherence in instruction
across Hancock’s classrooms and grades. Subsequently, the faculty agreed
to adopt a common literacy framework, Pat Cunningham’s Four Blocks.
Grade by grade, teachers sought to systematically build skills in phonics,
word study, vocabulary development, and writing while offering students
a rich exposure to literature, and to meaningful discussions about the
ideas encountered there. Moreover, teachers nurtured a “love of reading”
through a supplemental Links to Literacy program that recognized each
book read by a student with a colorful paper link posted on hallway bulletin
Instructionally embedded assessments represented another central reform
element. Teachers at Hancock agreed to conduct assessments every five
weeks that provided common data on each student’s progress as a reader
and a writer. The content of these assessments evolved, based on teachers’
analyses of their students’ annual standardized test scores and more general
discussions about student learning at the school. For example, when
the results from a new state assessment showed weaknesses in students’
narrative writing skills, teachers went to work. Professional development
time was set aside to study the new narrative writing rubric developed by
the Illinois Department of Education, and then teachers used this rubric
to analyze their own students’ work. As the faculty reviewed these results
with the school literacy program coordinator, they planned additional
workshops to further hone their skills in this instructional domain.
Along the way, Hancock also made good use of a wide array of external
resources available through various universities, cultural organizations,
and social agencies in the Chicago area. A couple of years into their instructional
reform efforts, teachers became concerned about weaknesses
in their students’ mathematics learning. Two faculty members from a local
university spent over two years helping Hancock’s teachers to diagnose
gaps in mathematics instruction at the school and improve the alignment
in the mathematics curriculum across the grades. Although it took some
time, math test scores eventually did rise. For the teachers at Hancock, initiatives
like this gave real meaning to the phrase “all students can learn.” With time, effort, and the right support, they learned that much more was really possible. Increasingly, they saw the efficacy of their efforts in action. As one teacher noted, “We don’t feel we’re any different from any other
school anyplace else. Our kids, given the opportunity, can do it.”
Outside resources also proved especially helpful as the school sought
to address the numerous academic, personal, social, and health-related
needs of the students and families that Hancock served. While instructional
improvement was the school’s primary concern, staff quickly realized
that these other problems, left unattended, could seriously impede
their students’ learning. Assembling a first-rate social services support
team and accessing external program services that extended well beyond
the meager ones offered by the school system itself was another key piece
in the school’s reform agenda. In general, social and academic supports
for student learning form one of the most fragmented and incoherent programmatic
areas in large urban school systems. Locating, accessing, and
coordinating the contributed services from various universities, hospitals,
and neighborhood and citywide social service agencies—and making all of
this actually work for the students at Hancock—took considerable ingenuity
Reconnecting to families and supporting them in the education of their
children was still another reform strand that emerged. The school initiated
Even Start, a state-funded program that brings parents and children in
pre-kindergarten through second grade together for a variety of activities,
including reading and computer use. Hancock became a site for a parental
GED program and offered job search classes. To capitalize on the presence
of many grandparents in the community, it started the Grandparents Club. A Real Men Read program was also launched to enlist adult male role models from the neighborhood to come into the school to read stories to children. The staff was constantly looking for new and more effective ways to reach out to parents and strengthen their ties to the local community.
Even though some of these activities felt frustrating to teachers, as parents
did not always reciprocate their efforts, they nonetheless knew they had
to keep trying.
In short, principal Bonnie Whitmore catalyzed an impressive array of
changes at Hancock Elementary School. She took the lead in articulating
a coherent vision of reform for her school community. She pushed for
curriculum alignment and greater pedagogical coherence, classroom by
classroom and grade by grade. She envisioned Hancock as a community of
professional practice, where school improvement was everyone’s job. She
introduced the idea of continuous assessment of students’ performance, and maintained focus on the key issues affecting individual students’ learning and studying evidence about whether learning was actually occurring. Finally, Bonnie opened the school to outside expertise as a resource for improvement, and she championed the difficult work of strengthening
ties to parents and the local community.
Despite having been a principal for many years, Bonnie never lost touch
with her identity as a teacher. As she stated, “I knew the times [as a teacher]
when I was not supported and allowed to do the things that I felt would really
benefit children. As an instructional leader, as a principal, I’m always
a teacher, too.” She also knew that while she might be able to envision
reform, it would take the engagement of many individuals throughout
her school community to make it happen. She explained:
I can’t be the leader of everything, and there are leaders within school,
people with strengths and talents. As the overall leader, I have to allow
these other leaders to emerge … I look at myself more as a facilitator than
someone who’s in charge of something, because we’re all part of this.
However, when the situation demanded it, Bonnie could also be quite
authoritative. Those who resisted reforms at Hancock became an increasing
focus of her attention. As the chairperson of the first Local School Council
(LSC) noted, “The older regime doesn’t much care for Mrs. Whitmore.”
Although encouraging teachers’ instructional improvement efforts, facilitating
teachers’ work, and supporting it with resources were key elements
in Bonnie’s leadership style, those who did not come on board with the
emerging reforms knew that they had to leave. Eventually, most did, of
their own accord.
In 1997, Bonnie Whitmore was among twenty-two school principals
who won a School Leadership Award from the Chicago Principals and Administrators
Association. Her choice came with considerable justification.
Hancock ranked as one of the most improved schools in both reading and
mathematics in the city of Chicago.
Alexander Stands Still
Less than two miles away in a neighborhood directly adjacent to Oak Meadows
stands Alexander Elementary School. It is a pale-yellow, concrete-block
building that serves about five hundred students from pre-kindergarten
through eighth grade. Like Hancock, the neighborhood surrounding Alexander
is very poor. Directly across the street from the school is an abandoned
building, which students must pass every day on their way to school.
In clear view of the school are broken windows, partially burned buildings,
garbage, and debris. Not far away, one can occasionally see clusters of older
men who gather during the day to socialize and drink.
As school reform began in 1989, most of Alexander’s faculty had been
at the school for a very long time, many teachers for more than twenty
years. They wistfully recalled the halcyon days when the community was
different, students seemed to care about school, families were stronger,
and teaching was a respected and enjoyable profession. All of these things
had changed, and none for the better, during their tenure at this school.
Like Hancock, Alexander began the decade among the worst one hundred
schools in Chicago in terms of its students’ reading and math achievement. Unlike Hancock, however, it remained so six years later.
Issues of order and safety were chronic concerns in this school community.
The sounds of gunfire were not uncommon, and much local crime
stemmed from the use and sale of illegal drugs. Parents often kept their
children from playing outdoors unless they could be present. Fear of victimization
also meant a real reluctance to attend evening meetings at Alexander. One parent told of the time she was on her way home from a meeting when bullets whizzed by her. She ran back to the school as if it were a “foxhole.” Another, who was a candidate for the LSC, refused to attend an
evening candidates’ forum unless provided with a bulletproof vest. Yet if
meetings were held during the day, working parents could rarely attend.
Given the dangers of the streets, the school was always locked, and a
security guard was on full-time duty. Several years earlier, Alexander had
opted for a “closed campus” and a shortened day. This meant that teachers
had no lunch hour and left early with the students at 2:30 p.m. This
constrained schedule limited teachers’ interactions with one another, and
helped maintain their isolation as the norm. As one teacher explained:
I go in my classroom, teach my children, bring them to lunch, take them
to gym and the library and go home. I don’t get involved. I’ve learned not
to get involved in situations where I have no control. I don’t know how
long before I’ll be retiring. I mean I care, but I prefer going home … I feel
I have given my time.
Betty Green, the principal of Alexander, grew up in Chicago, attended
Chicago public elementary and high schools, graduated from a local teachers’
college, and received her master’s degree from a local university. In
her early twenties, she had begun working as a teacher at Alexander. She
became a counselor and finally the principal there in the mid-1980s. When
LSCs were formed in 1989, each council had to choose the principal for
their school. The Alexander council refused to consider anyone else. Betty
Green was their choice to lead reform in their school community.
Under her leadership, Alexander became a safer and more orderly
place. She courageously confronted and chased gang members away from
the school grounds several times and eventually got them to agree to stay
away. She was able to get a play lot built so the preschool children would
have a place to romp around. Inside the building, arguments, cursing, and
occasional fistfights among parents and teachers had ceased. Norms of civil
conduct had been established, and for the most part, folks now got along
with one another. Betty had become “mom to the school community,” and
this meant a lot to parents and teachers alike.
Betty worked actively with her first LSC, encouraging parents and teachers
to initiate change. She also sought to expand teacher participation in
instructional improvement. Toward that end, she initiated a professional
personnel committee, called the first meeting, and recommended possible
projects. But like the LSC, this committee never jelled as a functional work
group. Teachers, as was also true of the parents, felt uneasy about their
new leadership roles, having grown accustomed over the years to just doing
what Betty asked of them. They worried that taking a more active role
might reignite conflict across the school community and, more important,
jeopardize their personal relationship with Mrs. Green. All of this posed a
major dilemma for Betty. Without her direct personal involvement, reform
objectives were unlikely to be accomplished; but with it, teachers and parents
would remain dependent on her—and there was far too much work
for just one person to shoulder.
Like the Hancock School, Alexander launched a wide array of initiatives
to connect to parents, strengthen ties to the local community, and improve
instruction. The school began workshops and GED classes for parents, offered
after-school tutoring, created smaller classes for primary students
funded by Title 1, and launched a program for gifted students. Although
each of these initiatives began with considerable enthusiasm, few took
root, and virtually all were moribund within a couple of years.
Even more troublesome, there was little evidence of an overall plan
toward which all these initiatives and people were working. The idea of
a comprehensive improvement strategy seemed highly foreign to Alexander’s
leaders. As the assistant principal responded when asked to characterize
a good school: “Off the top of my head, that’s hard for me to say . . . I
haven’t graduated to that level of thinking yet . . . I’m used to having not. It’s
hard for me to think of a good school when I’ve been here for so long.”
Alexander did initiate a partnership with a local university to focus on
comprehensive school change, which included a major effort to strengthen
instructional practice in both literacy and math. This work got off to a very
promising start the first year, with active faculty participation and some
genuine instructional leadership emerging from the school’s literacy coordinator
and a few other teachers. Their growing expertise, and the changing
school community relationships which ensued, however, threatened
Betty’s traditional role as the “school mom.” Tensions arose with the university
partner, as its efforts were challenging established norms at Alexander.
While the partnership persisted for several years, the initial promising
developments were stunted, and little of value emerged from this work.
Alexander’s efforts to engage parents in the school community also
proved difficult. There was a small core of reliable volunteers, but most
parents appeared largely apathetic. Many were very young, in their early
twenties, having had their children when they were just in their mid- to
late teens. Extreme poverty pressed down hard on these young parents,
sapping their energy and dashing most shreds of hope. Betty Green understood
that many simply could not respond in a sustained, effective fashion.
The enduring problems that they confronted fostered widespread malaise
and depression. When she asked parents why they did not come to the
school, they often talked about “the stress and how they weren’t coping
very well, just living day to day. And they weren’t sure how to help their
children at home.”
For those who were able to get involved at Alexander, the school sometimes
operated as an agent of adult social mobility. Perhaps through a job
at the school or some adult training activity, or by securing a GED, these
parents now had opportunities to better themselves, and many moved up
and out of the Alexander community as soon as they could. As the LSC
chair explained, “The area is so transitory that sometimes you get your
hands on some [parents] that you find are really interested . . . and by the
time you have them where you want them . . . then, they’re gone.”
In sum, a complex community dynamic of disorder, concerns about human
safety, and high transience among neighborhood residents combined
to exacerbate the problems of reform at Alexander Elementary School.
Building and sustaining a collective capability to support comprehensive
change just seemed overwhelming. In many ways, the sense of isolation,
resignation, and hopelessness found in the community infused the school
itself. Although some individuals tried very hard to improve opportunities
for the children at Alexander, doubt remained widespread that this school
could actually be fundamentally different.
How did Hancock beat the odds? Why did Alexander fail to do so? These
two schools appeared quite similar and like dozens of other Chicago
schools. The per-pupil fiscal resources supplied by the central administration
were virtually identical. In terms of student test scores, the two
schools started out in 1990 about the same. Less than two miles apart,
the two schools serve adjoining neighborhoods that appeared similar on
most sociodemographic characteristics. Both schools serve only African-
American children, virtually all of whom were considered low income by
federal standards. Many parents were unemployed. Census data from 1990
tells us that in both neighborhoods, about half the men aged sixteen and
older did not work. Similarly, about half the households in each neighborhood
received public aid of some kind, such as food stamps or Aid to
Families with Dependent Children (later replaced by Temporary Assistance
to Needy Families), and each school had more than a few children whose
family was homeless.
But over time, these two schools did become quite different places. And,
change processes like this occurred literally hundreds of times during the
early and mid-1990s across the city of Chicago. What, then, accounts for
the varied educational outcomes that emerged among these schools?
The cases themselves offer some intriguing suggestions. Differences in
principal leadership style and the engagement of both parents and school
staff in the work of improvement are obvious. The sustained focus on instruction
and professional capacity building at Hancock also stands out
as notable. While on the surface the two school communities look demographically
similar, more subtle differences in local history and community
may have also played a role here. Student mobility, for example, was
somewhat higher at Alexander than Hancock.
Ideas such as these represent interesting conjectures, largely grounded
in a post-hoc and somewhat anecdotal comparison of the developments in
two specific schools. In the pages that follow, we seek a more systematic
analysis. We strive to understand the internal workings and external conditions
that distinguish improving elementary schools from those that
fail to do so. In so doing, we aim to establish a comprehensive, empirically
grounded theory of practice—in this instance, the practice of organizing
schools for improvement—that teachers, parents, principals, superintendents,
and civic leaders can draw on as they work to improve children’s
learning in thousands of other schools all across this land.