Scholars Identify 5 Keys to Urban School Success


This month, University of Chicago Press releases a new book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago, based on 15 years of data from this city’s 409,000-student school system. The research identifies five keys to urban school success:

1) Strong leadership, in the sense that principals are “strategic, focused on instruction, and inclusive of others in their work”;

2) A welcoming attitude toward parents, and formation of connections with the community;

3) Development of professional capacity, which refers to the quality of the teaching staff, teachers’ belief that schools can change, and participation in good professional development and collaborative work;

4) A learning climate that is safe, welcoming, stimulating, and nurturing to all students; and

5) Strong instructional guidance and materials.

The authors liken these “essential supports” to a recipe for baking a cake: Without the right ingredients, the whole enterprise just falls flat. In the interview below for Education Week, lead author Anthony S. Bryk said: “Often what happens in school reform is that we pick just one strand out, and very often that becomes the silver bullet.”

Here is an excerpt from the article’s summary of the findings:

“Schools that were rated strong in all five areas were at least 10 times more likely than schools with strengths in just one or two areas to achieve substantial gains in reading and math. Likewise, a weakness in one area exacerbated other weaknesses. For instance, 33 percent of schools with weak teacher educational backgrounds and 30 percent of schools with weak professional communities stagnated, compared with 47 percent of the schools lacking on both measures.”

LifeBound’s stair-step programs, for grades 5-12, have designed a similar approach to student success at each of these grade levels. Here are the components of the LifeBound programs:

* Quality instructional materials consisting of student books and curricula;
* Faculty training that promotes leadership development;
* Parent sessions to enlist support from home; and
* Data assessments to measure results, all work together to realize desired outcomes for success in school, career and life. When schools don’t adopt a comprehensive plan for student success and transition programs, the quality of the results suffer.

How can we help ensure that districts adopt district-wide comprehensive plans for improvement at all grades levels?

What accountability systems can we put in place at the district level that help promote and support student success for all learners?

How can we encourage district leaders and school Boards to implement sustainable change across grade levels?

Education Week
by Debra Viadero

Offering a counter-narrative to the school improvement prescriptions that dominate national education debates, a new book based on 15 years of data on public elementary schools in Chicago identifies five tried-and-true ingredients that work, in combination with one another, to spur success in urban schools.

The authors liken their “essential supports” to a recipe for baking a cake: Without the right ingredients, the whole enterprise just falls flat.

“A material weakness in any one ingredient means that a school is very unlikely to improve,” said Anthony S. Bryk, the lead author of Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago, which was published this month by the University of Chicago Press.

To view the entire article, visit

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