What Makes Chicago Principals Distinct?

At The Fund, we believe school leadership matters, whether in Chicago or anywhere else. Our joint report with the Illinois Principals Association, The Illinois Principal: Their Work, Their Challenges, Their Impact, shows that this maxim holds true in widely differing school districts across the state. In many ways, principals across Illinois have similar duties, face similar obstacles, and need similar support. For example, all the school leaders we spoke to found value in working closely with their communities, and they all shared ways in which inadequate funding and educator workforce shortages affect their day-to-day work. Yet, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) principals experience unique challenges and have more autonomy than their peers across the state. We developed a fact sheet, “The Chicago Principal in Comparison,” to better show these distinctions.

Much of this difference is due to the city CPS serves: Chicago is by far the largest city in Illinois, and its school district, with a student population of over 322,500, is nearly eight times larger than the next largest one in the state. Though this student population is dispersed across schools varying widely in size, the average CPS principal impacts 519 students, about 10% more than the statewide average of 475. Furthermore, this size brings diversity in student backgrounds and needs that principals must address.

Given the diversity in the schools they lead, CPS principals need the flexibility to meet the resulting needs in ways that make sense within their communities. Consequently, one of the most important distinctions is Chicago principals’ significant autonomy in managing their schools. State law grants CPS principals the authority to hire teachers, set school budgets and goals, and develop specific curricula. These statutes, which cover only CPS, reflect a recognition of the need for local decision-making among the varied school communities within Chicago.

The state legislature encoded these elements of local control of schools in 1988 by passing a law that also created Local School Councils (LSCs). Policymakers and researchers agreed that highly centralized management of the district was limiting effective school practices and ultimately not supporting student achievement. As a result, CPS-operated schools have an LSC comprising parents, community members, school staff, and students, who partner with the principal to develop school goals that reflect local needs, and then align resources to meet them.

Data and experience across the country have long shown the value of principal quality: Chicago principals, who have more control over their schools than many others, show what is possible. In CPS, with its longstanding local decision-making and school leader autonomy protected by state law, this has proven to be the case. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, CPS students in third through eighth grades improved their standardized test scores much more than the average student in the U.S., according to Stanford researchers.

Chicago’s education landscape will experience significant changes over the coming years. However, we believe that strong school leadership will remain important. Research shows that students in a school with an effective principal learn nearly three months more in reading and math than their peers in schools without such leadership. We also believe that no one is better positioned to make the decisions that matter for Chicago’s schools than principals informed by their local school community. We plan to continue highlighting the significant investment Chicago makes in its principals so they can cultivate excellent learning environments for all of Chicago’s public school students.

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