Chicago's new local school councils: Will the central administration cooperate?
By RICHARD DAY
Few would argue that the Chicago public schools have been in bad shape for some time. Their decline was proclaimed to the nation by then-U.S. Secy. of Education William Bennett when he called them "the worst in the nation." Changes are now taking place, and the most significant is the transfer of power from the very large bureaucracy of the central administration to the new local school councils. It is one thing to tell a central bureaucracy to cooperate with those who are to take over its power, but it's quite another thing to have it relinquish that power.
Legislation passed by the General Assembly says that power must shift. The legislation called for creation of the local school councils, which were elected in October for each school (over 500 in all) in the Chicago system. The first problem encountered by the new councils (each includes six parents, two community representatives, two teachers and the school's principal) was getting training and support from the central administration in order to begin their work on managing their schools on matters ranging from curriculum to budgeting.
The Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (ABCS), the group which backed the legislation and shift of power from the central administration to the local councils, started to get reports from local school councils about obstruction from the central administration. To find out what was happening, ABCS contracted with Richard Day Research to do a random sample survey of local school council members.
The survey, conducted between January 10 and 15 via telephone interviews with a stratified sample of 698 council members (230 parents, 211 teachers, 205 community representatives and 52 principals) documented the problems encountered with the central administration and sought the council members' views on how well their schools were operating under the local council. It is very important to note that the survey was done just prior to Ted Kimbrough taking over as the new Chicago school superintendent and head of the central bureaucracy.
Overall, the study found optimism about the school councils and the prospects of reform (especially among parents), but it also showed that council members rated the
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central administration poorly for helping the councils get underway.
To the first survey question, on how well their school was operating since the council election in October, 51 percent felt their school was operating better, while 46 percent said "the same." Parents were the most likely to say "better" (59 percent); teachers were least likely (31 percent).
To the second question, asking for an evaluation of the central administration in nine specific areas relating to the school councils, the central administration was rated below average. It got its highest overall score for making the school council members feel they were making an impact. Rankings were made on a scale from 0 to 10 (zero for "poor" and 10 for "excellent" with a 5 meaning the central administration was doing an "average" job). (See figure 1.)
That highest overall score was 4.9; the others fell to as low as 2.9. That lowest score was for the council members' evaluation of the job the central administration was doing to provide funds for council meeting notices and for copies of meeting materials. Three other areas at which council members leveled their severest criticism of the central administration were for its help with principal selection (3.2), budgeting (3.3) and keeping the school building open at night for council meetings (3.4). These rankings are abysmally low, and from our experience in other surveys they are usually reserved for controversial public figures like former Aid. Ed Vrdolyak.
The third survey question was about the training that council members had received from the central administration. The central administration was to provide training and information kits describing how the councils were to proceed; 58 percent said they waited one month or more for the kits, and another 39 percent waited from one to three weeks for their kits. Seven of 10 respondents said they received no training nor information beyond the initial information kit.
It is one thing to tell a central bureaucracy to cooperate with those who are to take over its power, but it's quite another thing to have it relinquish that power
The survey found 44 percent of council members received training or information from groups other than the central administration. Each respondent who received training or information from any group was asked how helpful it was, and the training and information from outside groups was consistently rated better than that from the central administration. (See figure 2.) Where would council members go for additional training? More said they would go to an outside group than to the central administration, to their district office or to the school board. One-quarter said they did not know where they would go.
Did the council members know about and use the school reform hotline operated by the central administration? Virtually all of the principals were aware of it; two-thirds of the community representatives were. About half of those who were aware of the hotline said they or someone from their local school council had used it. Of those who used it, two-thirds were satisfied with their response and one-third were not.
Throughout the study, parent members of the councils were generally the most optimistic about the councils and about the programs and services they have received from the central administration. They may be more optimistic because this is the first time many of the parents have been involved civically; they appear to hope they can work with the central administration. The teachers and principals, members of more civically sophisticated groups, are less inclined to believe the central administration will help the councils.
New Supt. Kimbrough has been presented with the findings of this ABCS survey, and he was very sympathetic to the problems it found. The words of the new superintendent were encouraging to those who want the shift in power to go smoothly from the central administration to the local school councils. Also saying the right things are the reform implementation unit field operations specialists, the central staff assigned to help the councils.
But are the words only rhetoric? While there is a new superintendent in charge, the central administration has received very low marks so far. And in order to change, the central administration will have to overcome the basic goal of any bureaucracy — to preserve itself and grow.
If this change of power from the central administration to the local school councils does take place, the fundamental question remains: Will the education of Chicago children be measurably improved?
Richard Day has his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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