Lessons for Chicago: It takes a cake, and the truly disadvantaged need extra frosting

As the Chicago public schools  teachers strike continues, with no resolution of the  conflict in sight, the mayor and CEO might do well to reflect on two key lessons imparted by a scholar whose research on Chicago school reforms is universally hailed as in-depth, groundbreaking, and unimpeachable. Anthony Bryk is the creator of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and current president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Bryk and his CCSR colleagues’ 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, has become a bible for evidence-based education policymakers across the country. While their data and methods are so complex that the authors advise many readers to skip the long chapter explaining them, two key findings jump out as relevant to the battle being waged now in Chicago over the current round of attempted reforms.

First, Bryk says, contrary to current popular reform policies, which advocate relatively quick-fix single-shot changes like replacing teachers or principals, turning over schools to new management, or closing them altogether, improving a school and sustaining those improvements is a complex, long-term process. Indeed, after much mulling, he and his colleagues liken the process most closely to that of baking a cake. It requires five ingredients: leadership as the driver for change; parent-community ties; professional capacity; a student-centered learning climate; and instructional guidance. While this may sound a lot like some of the reforms being touted, Bryk issues the critical caveat that, like baking a cake, improving a school requires all of them. They all have to be present, and they interact, changing the influence of others. As such, he says, weakening just one substantially decreases the odds that a low-performing school will turn around, or that any gains will be sustained beyond the first year or two. The data back this up.

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Second, even in a district like Chicago that is heavily low-income and minority, there are substantial differences across schools that influence their odds of success. The authors note in the book their surprise that, in contrast to their initial assumptions that poverty and associated problems would play relatively similar roles across schools, a subset of “truly disadvantaged” schools looked, and acted very differently from the others. In these most troubled schools, virtually every student was poor, there was no racial integration at all, the community was isolated and dysfunctional, and the problems that students brought with them every morning when they walked into the school building appeared truly insurmountable.

As Bryk and his co-authors say in their book:

“In the average Chicago public school, about 15 percent of students had been substantiated by the Department of Children and Family Services as being abused or neglected, either currently or during some earlier point in their elementary career. In truly disadvantaged schools, this number swells to almost 25 percent of the students enrolled. This means that in a typical classroom of 30 of these schools, a teacher might be expected to engage seven or eight such students every year. Moreover, as we factor in the presence of additional students who might be homeless or living in foster care, or in households with chronic domestic violence, one begins to develop a sobering picture of the magnitude of the overall personal and social needs facing some schools.”

No matter how hard the school tried to turn itself around, Bryk and his colleagues found, without an influx of major help from the community in the form of counseling, medical care, and other support services, it was literally impossible to budge anything. As we know from a wealth of evidence, shutting down schools and replacing them with charters will not lead to better results, especially when the evidence is that charters do not perform better than comparable public schools.

Before the district goes any further in insisting that test-based evaluations and weaker teacher tenure will solve the problems plaguing many of Chicago’s schools, it might want to listen harder to the striking teachers. The teachers are demanding that the city enable schools to bake the whole cake, rather than just employ the ‘testing’ batter they know to be raw. They are asking not only that the extra time the city has promised students and parents be compensated in a fair manner, but for a holistic curriculum, extra enrichment, and wraparound services that they know, all too well, are critical if their students are to succeed. The evidence is on their side.

MORE: It takes a cake, and the truly disadvantaged need extra frosting