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The Pulse

Chicago local school
councils optimistic



In October 1989, amid much fanfare, elections were held to fill the seats of the newly created Chicago local school councils. Each school in the Chicago Public School District (over 500 in all) chose six parents, two community representatives and two teachers to join the school's principal in forming an 11-member local school council. The mandate to these councils was to manage their schools on matters ranging from curriculum to budgeting.

In January 1990, Richard Day Research surveyed a sample of council members in the early stages of their tenure. We found that council members were optimistic about the prospects of reform but were very disappointed by the actions of the central administration in supporting the reform efforts. (See Illinois Issues, March 1990, pp. 32-33.)

Now the question is: After a year of dealing with the responsibilities and frustrations of their positions, what do council members think of their own effectiveness and the job the central administration is doing?

One could fairly ask, "Wouldn't you expect that those charged with the task of reform would think things are getting better?" However, based on media reports throughout the local school councils' first year, we expected to encounter a dispirited and disillusioned lot, beaten down by bureaucratic delays and unrealistic expectations.

We found the opposite. We found people

Figure 1 and 2

32/January 1991/Illinois Issues

Figure 3

who have decided to make a stand to improve their schools.

Last October, nine months after the first poll, we conducted another sample survey of 700 council members, under the auspices of the Leadership for Quality Education, a leading education reform group in Chicago. The survey was conducted via telephone interviews with a stratified sample of council members (100 principals, 253 teachers, 175 parents and 172 community representatives).

The latest findings provide grounds for optimism, especially when compared to the results of the January 1990 study.

Council members are more positive about their schools' operation than they we last January. In the latest survey, 74 percent said their school is operating better since the council elections, a marked improvement over the 51 percent who felt that way last January. The increase in optimism occurred among every council group, especially teachers (31 percent gain). This enthusiasm was even expressed by school principals. (See figure 1.)

When asked to evaluate specific areas of improvement, members were happiest with planning the learning program (76 percent), budget development (72 percent) and parent/staff relations (71 percent). Areas where fewer saw improvement were drugs (48 percent) and gangs (45 percent). (See figure 2.)

Generally, black parents were the most optimistic and gave higher ratings than any other respondents to all aspects of the reform process.

Council members were divided as to the extent of the central administration's support, which represents some progress for the administration since January 1990. Ratings of the central administration's role in handling its responsibilities in implementing reform have gone from decidedly negative in the first survey to slightly negative or neutral. The administration now receives a positive score for keeping buildings open at night (6.7 out of 10). It received the lowest scores for its performance in providing funds for notices and copies (3.4) and providing reasonable deadlines (3.7). (See figure 3.)

Overall, 44 percent said in October that the administration has been an obstacle to local control, compared to 31 percent who said it has been supportive. Parents and community representatives were somewhat more likely than principals and teachers to say the administration has been supportive, but no more than a third of any group agreed with this assessment.

It is important to note that the shift in power from the central administration to the local councils is not nearly complete. While the second survey indicates that council members see some improvement in the distribution of power, the survey also shows that the administration still has a long way to go.

What could the administration do to help the councils the most? Council members' responses to this open-ended question indicate that the central administration could best help them by allowing them more control over budget and staff decisions. At any point where the questionnaire gave the choice between more administration personnel or more funds, the council members overall (and teachers particularly) preferred the funding.

In our analysis of the initial survey of local school councils we concluded with this question: "Even if school councils gain a measure of autonomy, will the education of Chicago children be measurably improved?" While we do not know how parents, teachers and community members who are not involved in the local school councils feel about the effects of school reform, we do know that those charged with implementing it are generally optimistic and enthusiastic. All elements of the councils like the authority that they now have and appear to be handling the responsibility that goes with it. Especially heartening is the reported improvement in the relationship between the parents and their children's school. If parental involvement in the children's education is increasing, can test score improvement be far behind?

Richard Day has his own survey research firm, Richard Day Research, in Evanston. John Ross is an associate in the firm.

January 1991/Illinois Issues/33

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