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Lessons on school reform from Chicago: Like baking a cake

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Penny Bender Sebring and her colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research have been studying school reform in the Windy City since the 1980s. Last month at a symposium sponsored by the Public Interest Law Center she drew out some of the lessons of decades of exhaustive research, aided by panelists Deborah Meier and Torch Lytle.

The lessons from Chicago raise serious questions about the reforms currently underway in Philadelphia and other cities, buoyed by federal and corporate dollars.

Teacher performance is at the center of the current discussion of school improvement. The Rhee and Klein view of school reform targets poor teacher quality and calls for applying market principles to bring about improvement by firing teachers whose students fail to perform on standardized tests and rewarding those whose students show test gains.

The Chicago researchers challenge the idea that teacher quality can be separated from all the other factors that influence student outcomes. The findings also suggest that teacher motivation is much more complicated than the carrot and stick market model of our corporate reformers.

Bender Sebring borrows a metaphor from Chicago Teacher Union leader John Kotsakis who compared school improvement to baking a cake. Minor alterations in the recipe might not doom the cake, but leave out the flour or the eggs and the result is a disaster. The researchers identify “a framework of essential supports:”

  1. strong leadership,
  2. professional capacity,
  3. school learning climate,
  4. parent-school ties,
  5. community relationships, and
  6. instructional guidance.

Their data shows that school improvement correlates closely with the development of these supports.

The authors cite relational trust, that is relationships based on mutual respect, as a critical element of school improvement. Using the cake metaphor, trust is the oven’s heat that bakes the cake.

Teacher quality is improved by establishing strong professional communities in which teachers feel valued. Establishing the necessary supports so that teachers can learn, grow, and effectively meet the needs of their students is the other key element. Without these things teachers will experience frustration and learning outcomes will lag.

Creating this framework is difficult and poses real challenges for teachers who are called upon to open their practice to collective scrutiny, take on many new tasks, and accept responsibility for improving school performance. Bender Sebring speaks of a “work to rule” culture that is an obstacle in school transformation and suggests that teachers who cannot adapt need to move on, or, if necessary, be moved out.

The analysis of the consortium does not lend itself to sound bites and slogans. The authors know, having reviewed two generations of reform in Chicago, that it is complicated. But they have identified the critical ingredients and this offers a metric to look at what we are doing here. What sort of cake is being baked here and where is the heat for the oven going to come from?