April 13, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 15

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    Wong: School reform reduces effectiveness of administration

    Although school reform in Chicago has been praised by some community leaders for boosting parental involvement in education, reform has had a negative impact on the effectiveness of central administration, say University researchers.

    A research team led by Kenneth Wong, Associate Professor in Education, contends that the reorganization of the central office of the Chicago Public Schools brought on by reform has undermined the system's ability to help teachers and improve learning in the classroom.

    Instituted in 1988, school reform has resulted in each of the system's 530 schools having increased responsibility for managing its own affairs. But this decentralized reform has not been accompanied by a coherent effort to overcome organizational and policy fragmentation within the school system, Wong said.

    The report, which includes several solutions recommended by the researchers, is the first to come from a yearlong study supported by the Joyce Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. The research team includes faculty members and students in Education and in the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies. Joining Wong are co-investigators Robert Dreeben, Professor and Chairman of Education; Laurence Lynn, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and the Harris School; and Robert Meyer, Assistant Professor in the Harris School.

    The researchers report several findings to date, in particular the finding that cuts in spending for central administration have been at the expense of support for teaching and learning. The total staff in areas of curriculum, instruction and professional development has been reduced 50 percent since the 1988 reform, Wong said, and cost savings have devastated the technical-support capacities of the central-office staff.

    "Many have found the central bureaucracy an easy target for poor student performance," Wong said.

    Dreeben added, "What the system needs to do to improve is to examine its curricular needs and instructional procedures instead of assuming that teaching will improve if local school councils control the hiring and firing of principals and if local school improvement plans are put into effect."

    The research team found several other problems with school reform, including a failure to address fragmentation in the school system, Wong said. The School Finance Authority, an agency that approves the school budget, and the Public Building Commission, which oversees school construction, compete with the Board of Education for influence, he said. And major departments in the central office, such as the Special Education Division, operate independently of the general superintendent's office in response to state and federal mandates. Partisan and racial contention between Chicago, suburban and downstate communities undermines state funding for Chicago schools.

    Further, reform has not taken into account social and economic conditions that are not easily altered but have direct bearing on teaching and learning, according to the research team. These factors include residential segregation, poor employment opportunities and poverty.

    "These conditions complicate the tasks of classroom instruction, but successful means of dealing with them are not a matter of common knowledge," Dreeben said.

    The research team recommends several solutions to improve the system:

    _ Re-establish a connection between central-office administrators and the classroom so that teaching, learning and curricular preparation are treated as core functions of the school system.

    _ Establish performance indicators to measure the work of teachers and administrators. "Indicators of institutional effectiveness will be developed in the second year of the project," Wong said. "They will address how teaching is performed and how well the bureaucratic functions of the system are being accomplished. Our goal is that they will be used to hold political leaders as well as teachers accountable for the success of public schools."

    _ Create a nonpartisan, state-level educational policy board to help Chicago overcome its school problems. The policy board could suggest long-term solutions to school problems and help the rest of the state understand its stake in helping Chicago overcome its public-school problems.

    "School governance involves a variety of institutions, including local school councils, district-wide bodies, the state legislature and the Illinois State Board of Education," wrote Wong in a report with graduate student Gail Sunderman. "If their work is not coordinated, fragmentation in the governance of public schools will increase."

    -- William Harms