Major Overhaul Required

While I often refer to the school district I work for as "overly large", it’s relatively small compared to the Chicago city school system with more than half a million students. But Chicago has many more problems with their schools than we do and, like many other large city districts, is in dire need of radical change. And changing the organization and structure of the school system is what administrators in that city have now proposed.

Over the next six years the Renaissance 2010 plan is to close some older schools and transform the remaining 60 under performing schools into small learning communities of 500 students or less. In addition, two thirds of them will be operated as charter or contract schools by independent organizations while the remainder will be run by the city. All schools will be subject to five year reviews with those that fail to show adequate student progress subject to further reform.

As you might expect with such major changes, some people are less than enthusiastic.

It’s a bold and risky plan that is creating a fair amount of controversy here in the city and has been called by turns visionary or foolhardy.

Parents worry their kids will be guinea pigs, facing a different school and educational philosophy every few years, and some experts question the advisability of putting so much faith in structures – like small schools or charters – for which little long-term data are available.

Others say that given the dire straits of public education in big cities like Chicago, a plan like this is the only thing that could work – a large-scale project that doesn’t just shuffle people around but drastically reenvisions the landscape of urban education.

While you have to give the school administrators in Chicago credit for recognizing the need for major change, there are several questionable concepts being included in this plan. For one thing, just making a school smaller doesn’t automatically make it better, any more than turning it into a charter does. What also needs to change are the teachers and administrators in the schools themselves. Just altering the structure of a school isn’t going to improve teaching and learning. It has to go much deeper than that and I hope that’s also part of the changes being planned for Chicago students.