Rachel Levenstein: A real world impact with the Five Essentials

By Susan Rosegrant
November 21, 2013

Rachel Levenstein

Rachel Levenstein. Photo courtesy of UChicago CCSR

When Rachel Levenstein was completing her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan Program in Survey Methodology (PSM) in 2010, most of her classmates were headed to faculty positions or large social science research organizations.

Levenstein took a different route. For the last three years she has been senior manager for survey research at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR). Her main charge is to oversee the annual census of about 225,000 students, teachers, and principals in the almost 700 Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—a census that is meant to uncover trends and information that schools can use to improve.

Like many large urban school districts, CPS is trying a range of strategies to improve student outcomes. One of those approaches is the Five Essentials.

CCSR researchers developed the Five Essentials after analyzing 15 years of census data—the same census that Levenstein runs. In examining why students at 100 schools made real progress in reading and math over a seven-year period while students at 100 schools did not, the researchers found five key practices and conditions that fostered improvement.

The actual Five Essentials—effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction—aren’t particularly surprising, Levenstein acknowledges.

“We need more people from places like PSM. There are so many projects going on here and so many places where they could fit.” 
Rachel Levenstein

But while the characteristics might seem self-evident, their presence is critical for schools hoping to improve. “Schools that are strong on most of those essentials are a lot more likely to improve than schools that are weak,” Levenstein says. “It’s a way of helping schools set goals, instead of just giving them a bunch of measures.”

Just a few years ago, only principals and CPS administrators received the individual school Five Essentials reports generated from the census. Perhaps for that reason, the reports had limited impact. But those days are over.

Since 2011, CCSR has made the reports publicly available online. Principals and district administrators get several days to read and think about how to react to the reports before the public sees them.

“At first we were worried that it was going to affect data quality,” Levenstein says. For example, principals of schools ranked low in effective leadership might be hostile to facilitating the survey in the future. But Levenstein says that hasn’t been the case. “What’s happened is more principals are using it and more people are talking about it,” she says. “And that’s what we want at the end of the day.”

Schools generally have embraced the Five Essentials. Moreover, school districts in Detroit, Baltimore, and the entire state of Illinois have adopted the survey. One reason may be that the report information is both specific and relatively easy to apply. “The reports give schools actionable results,” Levenstein explains.

Photo by Thinkstock

For instance, principals can make their schools feel safer and more supportive through relatively simple acts, such as putting monitors in bathrooms or recruiting volunteers to stand on busy streets and make sure kids get to school safely and on time. “If you walk into a school that has a supportive environment it feels very different from a school with a weak supportive environment,” Levenstein says. “That appeals to a lot of people, from principals to parents.”

In addition to overseeing the census, Levenstein conducts her own education research in areas including school discipline and school safety. She looks back at her experiences at PSM as ideal preparation. “I worked on so many different kinds of projects, and learned so much from each one of them,” she says. “It was a very collegial atmosphere among students and between students and faculty.”

Now she’d like to encourage PSM students approaching graduation to consider the work she’s been able to do, and the ability to make a difference with real people, when evaluating the job market. “I still get a kick out of it when I talk to a principal who says, ‘Oh yes, I use the 5 Essentials Survey, and it’s helped me in all of these ways,’” Levenstein says. She adds, with a laugh: “We need more people from places like PSM. There are so many projects going on here and so many places where they could fit.”

For more information about the Five Essentials, visit http://uchicagoimpact.org/5essentials.

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