Feb. 15, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 11

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    Study of Chicago school reform predicts problems for April vote

    Recent trends in Chicago local school council elections do not bode well for a strong voter turnout in April, reports Kenneth Wong, Associate Professor in Education and the College, who, with colleagues, has completed a two-year study of major governing institutions in the Chicago Public schools.

    Since the reform process began in 1989, voter participation among parents and community members has declined nearly 70 percent, Wong shows in a new study, "System-wide Governance in the Chicago Public Schools: A Report on the Findings and Recommendations for Institutional Redesign."

    The report is the concluding chapter of a new book, Advances in Educational Policy, Volume 2: Rethinking School Reform in Chicago, edited by Wong and scheduled for publication in March. Supported by grants from the Joyce Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, Wong and the chapter's co-authors analyzed a range of issues currently challenging Chicago schools, including declining voter participation.

    Wong's co-authors were Robert Dreeben, Professor and Chairman of Education; Laurence Lynn, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies; Robert Meyer, Assistant Professor in the Harris School; and Gail Sunderman, who recently received her Ph.D. from Chicago in political science.

    One problem the researchers observed is the decline in sheer numbers of voters: In the 1989 elections, 294,213 people voted, but by 1993, the vote total had declined to 131,798. More troubling, according to Wong, is the number of schools that did not have enough candidates on the ballot for available positions -- as the number of candidates falls, voter turnout drops.

    "In 33 percent of the schools, there were not enough candidates to make a complete slate," said Wong. "This helps explain why some schools are having so many problems with their local school councils. If people don't run for positions, those already on the board have the power to appoint other members. In some cases, relatives have been appointed. This would not happen if there were full ballots in the elections."

    According to Wong, this shortage of candidates in a third of the school-board races is the most serious indicator of reduced parental and community interest and is a clear sign that voter and candidate participation will slip again in the upcoming election.

    "I think participation has declined because some of the initial enthusiasm for the reform has waned," Wong said. "School reform and candidate participation went through a social-movement phase at first that encouraged participation, but now, in many school communities, there are not enough people to sustain interest into a new phase of institution-building.

    "What happens is that a cycle of discouragement sets in," he explained. "It takes quite a bit of time to develop a committed group of individuals interested in being on a local school council. It's a volunteer job that requires a lot of work, and if people don't see results, they begin to think that being on the council is not worth the effort."

    Local control and school reform

    Each Chicago public school council is supposed to have 11 members: six parents, two community members who may be parents as well, two teachers and a principal who serves as an ex officio member. The councils have broad powers, including the authority to hire school principals and to set policies for school improvement.

    Local school empowerment was to be the building block of school improvement when the Illinois General Assembly approved school reform legislation in 1988 designed to decentralize control of the Chicago Public Schools.

    "Key reformers in Chicago have endorsed a particular strand of decentralization, namely, that parents are best qualified to decide school issues," Wong and his co-researchers write. Supporters of this approach suggest reducing central-office administration and relocating professional development activities into the jurisdiction of parents and community representatives.

    This shift toward decentralization is consistent with nationwide efforts to downsize bureaucracies and empower local parents. Wong points out that charter schools have been developed in an increasing number of states across the nation to bring authority over schools closer to local communities. These changes are intended to make schools more responsive to local needs and to improve student performance.

    While test scores show mixed results in the Chicago experiment in local control, not all the blame is due to the local school councils. Despite their authority, local school councils constitute only one set of actors among a diverse group of players interested in improving the performance of students. The state legislature, for instance, has great authority over funding, and the recently reorganized school board gives a large amount of power to the mayor. While federal mandates shape the organization of the central office, state policies define the assessment of students.

    Wong argues that decentralized reforms have limited effects on system-wide teaching and learning. Local schools are poorly equipped to train teachers, for instance, and are therefore limited in their ability to improve classroom instruction. Wong points out that decentralization also means that solutions found locally remain local and are not widely shared or copied elsewhere in the system.

    Recommendations for improvement

    Wong and his colleagues suggest several ways to reorganize district programs to improve organizational coherence and student learning. The researchers' recommendations include:

    _ Recruit top-flight central-office personnel to be charged with acquiring better information about testing and curriculum.

    _ Develop ways to relate the results of student testing to teacher performance so that teacher performance can be improved.

    _ Find ways to measure the effectiveness of the work of all those responsible for school improvement, including the mayor, the governor, the state legislature, the school board, the central office and the teachers' union.

    _ Rethink the allocation of school resources to provide greater support to curriculum and instruction.

    Wong points out that effective governance requires careful management of the interplay among various institutions. "Since these institutions are an integral part of the political and administrative apparatus that governs the schools," he said, "we have to incorporate their roles fully into our thinking about school reform."

    -- William Harms