Systemic Nature of Reform in Chicago

How Systemic?

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The district did an enormous amount of work between 2002 and 2008 to improve mathematics and science education for students in the more than 600 Chicago Public Schools. This study does not provide accounts of all of these efforts. Rather, it frames the work of multiple efforts interacting as systemic reform, focusing primarily on district-level policies and activities, and how these were enacted at other levels of the organization (e.g., area, school, and classroom). These activities were analyzed in the context of this unique school district, the CPS vision for systemic reform, and the sustainability of effective processes and positive outcomes over time.

Study authors used the concepts and frameworks described here to craft this document. Authors also brought other theoretical perspectives into their analyses.

Key concepts for framing the system

Public school districts and their educational reform initiatives interact within a broader context of governmental units, postsecondary institutions, cultural organizations, philanthropic foundations, other partner organizations, the business community, community groups, and the public at large. Understanding reform efforts thus requires understanding how the reform initiative is shaped by, and impacts upon, people and organizations outside of the formal organization of the district. This perspective acknowledges that districts are not closed systems and face multiple influences and pressures from a variety of external stakeholders, including the federal and state policies.

Analyzing educational reforms also requires a district-level perspective that focuses on, and takes into account, the unique attributes and contexts of an individual school district. CPS has a unique history and relationship to different stakeholders that informs its reform efforts. Studying efforts and their impacts at the school level is also critical. Children, their parents, and their communities are influenced by educational reforms and the changes in math and science teaching. Ultimately, all reform efforts come down to what happens in the classroom. Systemic alignment of policies, practices, and resources in education reform has one goal: to improve the achievement of all students.

When individual teachers are asked to use new instructional materials and practices, their prior experience and context in which they are working influence their implementation of the new tools. New material and practices will not necessarily be implemented as intended. The process of teacher implementation is one of “adaptation” not “adoption.” A number of studies have worked at “unraveling this dilemma” by “exploring in detail the types of adaptations teachers tend to make, the reasons behind those adaptations, and when in the planning and instructional process such adaptations occur” (Drake & Sherin, 2006), (Spillane, 2000). This exploration is at the heart of understanding whether the systemic reform effort will work. These adaptations are too seldom studied beyond the individual teacher or connected to their organizational context (Stein & Coburn, 2006).

There is a need to understand how the adaptations move to scale (Elmore, 1996) and to discern more precisely what “scale” means. Coburn makes the point that if “scale” is to be sustained, it needs to be understood as more than just a numeric count of who is “implementing;” the depth, sustainability, spread, and ownership of the reform efforts must also be considered (Coburn, 2003). Coburn’s scholarship emphasizes sustainability as an important facet of reform. The work of educational reform moves forward through variable conditions, with successive years promising to bring even more changes in personnel, policies, funds, and politics. Given these dynamics of change, the long-term viability of a reform effort requires consistency and flexibility, an emphasis on collaboration and coherence among partners, and a focus on sustainability.

Comprehensive systems diagram

The diagram below shows how CPS, with its partner organizations, shaped and implemented systemic reform activities. It provides a simplified visual guide to the many types of organizations whose resources and policies influenced the district’s reform of mathematics and science education.

These organizations are displayed as ovals in the top portion of the figure. Arrows show how funding, laws, policies, and materials flow toward the district. Implementation is represented in the middle of the figure. Chicago’s core reform vision shaped, and was shaped by, strategic activities, shown as diamonds. Although these strategic activities were not designed or enacted separately, this study examines them discretely to simplify their analysis and to clarify this complex reform system.

Reform activities happen at all levels—in district offices, sub-district or “area” offices, school buildings, and ultimately, within classrooms. In the “open-system” framework, information about teachers and students moves between the district and the different external organizations that provide the context for the work, while other information moves among and between the different layers within the district itself, shown as red arrows. Feedback comes from both formal and informal communication channels, program evaluations, and student assessments.

A graphic of the classroom completes the representation of this complex and multi-level system, where students interact with an instructional environment that includes teachers and curricula (shown inside of a rectangle at the bottom of the figure). Finally, this system is dynamic over time.

Figure 1:
Systems Diagram of Systemic Reform of Math and Science Education in Chicago

Move your mouse over the purple circles for more information about each area of focus. To fully experience this diagram, you will need to install the free Adobe Flash Player.

The Chicago Math & Science Initiative’s Goals

The Implementation Lens (Figures 1) provides the general boundaries of what is covered in this report. The Contextual and Classroom Lens are included to a lesser extent, as they relate to the definition and enactment of reforms.

The ultimate goal of Chicago’s systemic reform of K-12 math and science education was to improve student performance in mathematics and science as measured by standardized test scores, grades, graduation rates, and college-going rates. This goal drove all reform efforts. The three long-term outcomes stated in 2003 at the launch of the Chicago Math and Science Initiative (CMSI) were:

Long Term Outcome 1:
Improved instruction
High quality classroom instruction in math and science
Long Term Outcome 2:
Workforce development
Increased workforce capacity and competency in mathematics and science content knowledge and pedagogy
Long Term Outcome 3:
Consistent policies
Sustainable infrastructure (at school, instructional area, and district levels) and coherent policies regarding mathematics and science instruction

The Chicago Math & Science Initiative created and enacted five strategic initiatives in relation to these outcomes. They were to provide:

  • Standards-based instructional materials,
  • Professional development on use of instructional materials,
  • In-school instructional supports around use of instructional materials and practices,
  • University coursework to improve teachers’ mathematics and science content knowledge, and
  • Student assessment systems and program evaluation.
  • Analytic research questions used in this study

    This study analyzes each of these strategic initiatives by considering, for each, the following questions regarding context, vision, and sustainability:


    What contextual factors did the reform strategy take into account in its design, and/or directly address, and how? These included educational reform experience outside CPS.

    As the reform strategy was enacted, what contextual factors impinged and/or facilitated the enactment of the reform?


    For each reform strategy, what aims, actions, and adaptations addressed the key reform goals of improved instruction, workforce development, and consistent policies?

    How did the implementation of the reform strategy affect the above key reform goals?


    Initially, how was the reform strategy expected to contribute to long-lasting reform?

    How did the desire for sustainability influence the strategy’s guiding assumptions? Its programmatic efforts? Its use of resources?

    As it was implemented, how did the strategy contribute to sustainability of the reform?

    What challenges did the strategy face in its efforts to institutionalize change?

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