The Future of Education is in Transit?

When Eduflack first saw that the incoming CEO of the Chicago Public Schools is the current CTA president, I had two thoughts.  First, I wondered why I had the local Chicago teachers’ union name wrong, thinking they must have changed it to the Chicago Teachers Association.  And second, I thought how refreshing it would be, in this age of innovation, to tap a teacher leader as the new superintendent.

Then, of course, I actually read beyond the headline, seeing that Mayor Daley had selected the head of the Chicago Transit Authority to lead Chicago Public Schools.  How wrong I was on both counts.  The full story can be found here —,huberman-appointed-cps-chief-012709.article  
Now I’m not quite sure what to think.  In recent years, we’ve seen city leaders get creative in selecting superintendents.  The Broad Foundation is training a new generation of urban supes from the ranks of business and not-for-profits.  New York City tapped a lawyer and former U.S. Department of Justice official to head the NYC Department of Education.  Denver picked a former business leader and mayoral chief of staff for its top job (who has now moved on to become Colorado’s junior U.S. senator).  And Washington, DC selected a not-for-profit leader (albeit an education non-profit involved in teacher recruitment) to serve as its schools chancellor.  Such sea changes seemed to have worked for NYC and Denver, and we’ll know for sure in DC in another year or two.  In an age of school improvement, we’re all trying to think outside the box to find the best individuals to lead school transformation and improvement.  Sometimes, those individuals are found outside of the traditional K-12 environment.
We’ll all have to wait and see what Chicago’s Ron Huberman lays out as his platform and his agenda at CPS.  And we’ll need to see how much authority and input he truly provides Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS’ chief education officer (and Duncan’s presumed successor, until the Huberman appointment).  But if the news reports are true, and Huberman’s priority number one is school security and safety procedures for team sports, it really raises an important issue of the role of urban superintendent and the priorities that come with the job.  And it shows just how important it is for non-educators to focus on the core academics when they take the top job.  NYC’s Klein and DC’s Rhee immediately focused on student achievement and taking whatever steps were necessary to boost student gains.  Denver’s Bennet went to work on teacher incentive pay.  Jumping into the educational deep end like Klein, Rhee, and Bennet did defines a superintendency and sets the tone for the school district moving forward.
Yes, it is important for a mayor to trust his superintendent.  Yes, school safety is a concern for just about every school district.  But can we really bring about school improvement and sustain progress on issues such as charter schools and alternative paths for principals and school closings and the like without the support and trust of the classroom teacher?  Will teachers line up behind a superintendent whose last experience in the public schools was likely when he graduated from high school?  Doesn’t a district like Chicago deserve a national search to bring in the best leader — from education or other ranks — available in the United States, whether they bear a Chicago zip code or not?  
As for the future of CPS’  school improvements, only time will tell.  The successes in NYC, Denver, and DC are likely the exceptions to the rule, and not the new norm for urban education.  I’m all for breaking the mold, but sometimes we have a mold because it is the best way to deliver the necessary product.  Yes, we have seen some cities choose non-traditional superintendents and thrive as a result.  No, one doesn’t have to have taught in a classroom to be a strong instructional leader.  Yes, we need to break the cycle of recycling the same school district leaders who seem to move from one city to the next, leaving little student achievement impact to show for it.  
But running an urban district is a complex challenge with little available learning curve.  We’ve heard so much lately about the academic progress being made in Chicago, and the instructional improvements being made across the city.  It just seems, when selecting a leader, that someone with familiarity with school funding, school choice, teacher professional development, instructional programs, student assessment, and such is more of a non-negotiable than merely a value-add.
I guess, at least, we can count on the CPS school buses running on schedule.

231 thoughts on “The Future of Education is in Transit?

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