Looking for a Chicago Education Miracle?

Eight years ago, the education community was all abuzz about the “Houston Miracle” and how then EdSec Rod Paige was going to take the magic that transformed the Houston Independent School District into a Broad Prize winner, federalize it into No Child Left Behind, and leave a path of school improvement and student achievement in its wake.

Nearly a decade later, we’re still waiting for some of that magic.  Chalk it up to poor implementation, increased criticism, a lack of faith, or even programs that didn’t work.  But those Texas improvements, carried out in theory with even more zeal by EdSec Margaret Spellings, are still a work in progress.  We still haven’t bottled what made HISD the success story it was in 2000-2001, and we likely never will.
Interestingly, we are not hearing the same claims about Chicago Public Schools and the real impact EdSec in-waiting Arne Duncan can have on our nation’s schools — until now.  Maria Glod’s piece in today’s Washington Post paints a picture of an urban school district of reform, innovation, and improvement.  Test scores up, achievement gaps closing, performance pay awarded.  The full story can be found here — www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/29/AR2008122902672.html?hpid=topnews  
Eduwonkette (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/eduwonkette/) has been telling a different story on Chicago and its data.  So have others on the blogsphere who look at the third-largest school district in the nation and wonder if it has come far enough and if it has accomplished enough to be sold as a success story.
Leading an urban school district is hard work.  The life expectancy for a schools superintendent is about three years.  Duncan has been there more than twice as long.  He’s worked with a strong union (the AFT affiliate in Chicago) and he’s managed to expand charter schools and implement a performance pay plan that seems to be working, at least according to WaPo.  And he’s mostly done it without drawing headlines for himself.
This past fall, Eduflack learned how strongly folks feel about NYC Public Schools and the alleged turnaround led by Chancellor Joel Klein.  I’ve remarked that the NYCDOE has demonstrated improvement.  Test scores are up.  Achievement gap is closing.  NYC kids are doing better against students upstate than they used to.  Such remarks brought a hail storm of attacks from those on the front lines in New York, those who believed that such statements were merely the PR work of a zealous schools chancellor.  Folks just didn’t want to believe that NYC schools and NYC schoolteachers had begun to turn the corner on student achievement.
The same could be said about Chicago.  Demonstrating eye-popping results in a school district of 400,000 is near impossible.  Incremental gains are the proof.  The case studies and stories offered by Glod and WaPo give us insight into the sorts of improvements Duncan and his team have brought to Chicago.  We know there is a lot more we need to learn about Duncan and Chicago.  But the data demonstrates an uptick.  And we all know that upward movement is better than downward.
But there is a larger issue here, one not raised during the Paige era and one that should be raised during the Duncan era.  The EdSec is not intended to be a superintendent in chief, the top supe in a nation of chief school officers.  He is meant to lead federal investment, policymaking, and thought leadership on education.  Yes, being a supe brings a unique perspective to that job, allowing very real experiences in boosting student achievement, closing the achievement gap, and negotiating collective bargaining agreements with teachers to educate and color one’s world view on education policy.  It demonstrates one understands the challenges facing today’s educators and today’s school leaders.  And it shows appreciation for practice and impact, and not just theory.
It is silly to think that Duncan is going to transform the nation into one larger version of Chicago Pubic Schools.  The CPS experience is helpful in showing us what Duncan thinks of issues like charter schools and performance pay.  It is useful in showing how well the incoming EdSec works with teachers, how much respect he shows them, and how much power he grants them in school improvement efforts.  And it helps determine whether he is an improver or a status quoer, whether he will go along with what has always been done or whether he will bring about real change for a real goal.
We shouldn’t be looking at Chicago test scores and ask how we replicate the experience nationwide.  Instead, we need to look at the innovations implemented by Duncan, the team he’s built, and the relationships he’s established with Chicago teachers, families, and community and business leaders and use all that information as a map for what is possible and where ED may head.  We look at the Chicago experience to measure Duncan’s character and set our expectations for the next four years.  

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