This morning, 25,000 Chicago Public Schools teachers headed to the picket lines, as the Chicago Teachers Union declared a strike after failing to reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement with leaders of the nation’s third-largest public school district.
This morning, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting (in an exclusive, no less) that
Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman has told the city’s mayor that he will resign as schools CEO before the end of the school year. Why, when Huberman has been on the job less than two years? The Sun-Times claims he is quitting the top schools job because Mayor Richard Daley is not running for reelection in 2012, and Huberman has no intention of working for another mayor.
So it begs a big question — is this one of the unintended consequences of mayoral control? Last month, we began the death watch for DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, following the defeat of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty in our nation’s capital’s primary. New mayor, new superintendent. The presumptive mayor of DC, Vincent Gray, has made clear he wants his own person in the chancellor’s chair. Is Huberman simply reading the writing on the wall, assuming that Rahm Emanuel or any of a host of other candidates for mayor in the Windy City will want their own schools CEO?
Urban school superintendent turnover is already a major problem. Our cities chew through school district leaders, with most big-city supes serving in a given job for only two or three years. At the same time, we know that real school improvement takes four, five, or even more years to take hold. With supe tenure and time for turnaround at such odds, is it any wonder that we continue to suffer through persistently low-performing schools, growing drop-out factories, and an embarassing achievement gap?
Don’t get me wrong. Eduflack recognizes the value of mayoral control. We can see the positive impact it has had in cities like New York and Boston. But isn’t an urban supe’s job difficult enough without having to worry about how the political winds are blowing for his boss? Yes, in a mayoral control model, a supe needs to make sure he or she is on the same page as the mayor. But do we really want a cycle where a change in city leadership means a change in school leadership? And do we really want strong supe candidates in cities like DC, Chicago, and Newark to think twice before accepting the job as they wonder if their potential new boss is politically viable beyond the current term (or in Newark’s Booker’s case, moving up to bigger and better things)?
There seems to be little question about it. Charter schools are front and center when it comes to the federal government’s new approach to school improvement and student achievement. EdSec Arne Duncan has been promoting charters as a core part of successful Race to the Top grants and as necessary components to comprehensive district turnarounds. Duncan can even point to his use of the charter tool in Chicago as the justification for his new push.
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.
At yesterday’s EdSec confirmation hearings, senator after senator went out of their way to praise the selection of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and how terrific it will be to have a real urban educator at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education. At the beginning of the year, many folks (Eduflack included) praised the selection of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet for the open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, again applauding the notion that a true-blue educator would be involved in authorizing and appropriating federal education dollars.
Just how bad is the drop-out problem in the United States? For years, we have heard the Manhattan Institute talk about urban drop-out rates of 30 percent, 40 percent, and even 50 percent. At the same time, many superintendents would counter with rates a fraction of that, citing circumstances that Manhattan wasn’t accounting for. Last week, Eduflack heard a tale (still to be verified) that until very recently one state was calculating their graduation rate based on the number of 12th graders who managed to graduate that year. As to be expected, they had a pretty good grad rate.
Today, the CPS Graduation Pathways Strategy is to be released in Chicago. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report cites recent Chicago drop-out rates of nearly 50 percent. The most recent data shows a dropout rate of 44 percent. The full story is here in today’s Chicago Tribune — http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-dropout_25feb25,0,1248671.story. Thanks to www.educationnews.org for flagging it.
Why is this study so important? We all know our large, urban school districts have long had a drop-out problem. Heck, it was only a few months ago that many of their schools were dubbed drop-out factories. While such rates are indeed alarming, they have long been part of the drumbeat of the need for reform. We know kids aren’t graduating from high school, and we’ve known it for decades.
No, the important issue here is that Chicago is standing behind some very ugly numbers. They recognize that the first step to improvement is strong data collection and strong data analysis. Working with BMGF, they now know the true scope and size of the problem. They aren’t trying to hide the numbers. They aren’t trying to develop an alternative approach to convert that 44 percent to 32 percent or 26 percent. They are laying out the cold hard facts, using them as a launching pad for substantive, meaningful reforms.
It isn’t often that we see a large school district go naked like that by choice. Data is often a closely held secret, and one might need dual degrees in statistics and computer science to dig out meaningful information from a district website or state education database. This study, though, seems to lay out a frank and open discussion of seven years worth of graduation data for the Windy City. And it serves as a model for other urban districts who recognize the drop-out crisis is a major education and economic issue.
As communication goes, CPS deserves a gold star here. If the goal is school improvement, one needs to generate a genuine demand for change. You need to demonstrate that is a significant problem, we know what that problem is, and we have the people and resources to fix it. And that’s just what Chicago is doing this week (and hopefully well beyond). They’ve identified the problem, and a 44 percent drop-out rate is definitely a problem, and acknowledge the softer spots such as male drop-outs and a high school population that is older than the norm. They’ve assembled a team of educators, representing the central office and the high schools, to get to work. They’ve partnered with BMGF to both study the issue and implement solutions. Now they just need to convince parents, teachers, and the community at large to back their proposed course of action.
It seems straightforward and common sense. But we don’t always see that in education reform communications, do we? Yes, we have a while to go before we know if CPS’ approach is effective. From the cheap seats, it definitely seems like their thoughts, words, and actions are pointed in the right direction.