Fun? Striking is Supposed to Be Fun?

“Y’all continue to have fun.”
– Chicago Teachers Union President President Karen Lewis addressing striking teachers in the Windy City.  Approximately 400,000 students are unable to enter the classroom in Chicago, as Lewis encourages those on the picket lines to “have fun” and then complains that having to go back to the negotiating table to reach a deal on salary and benefits for more than 25,000 educators and get those 400,000 kids back to learning is “the silly part of my day.”
A 16-percent raise already secured, day three of a strike that is disrupting the lives and learning of hundreds of thousands of Chicago families, and out-of-work teachers should have “fun” and negotiating a settlement is the “silly part” of all of this?
Priorities, Ms. Lewis, priorities …

Chicago on Strike!

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.

According to media reports, CPS negotiators have offered 20 proposals to union officials.  Agreement seemed to be reached on a 16-percent pay raise for teachers, while disagreement remained over teachers’ share of health care costs and an evaluation system that would include measures of teacher effectiveness.
CPS is now enacting contingency plans for district operations.  The city’s 118 public charter schools, though, will remain open, with teachers and students continuing the learning process that only began a week or so ago.
Today’s actions has dear ol’ Eduflack reflecting on March of 1990, when public school teachers in the State of West Virginia went on a statewide strike (80 percent of counties participated).  For two weeks, edu-Mom walked the picket lines with virtually all of her fellow teachers.  Then, the strike was over pay, with Mountaineer teachers being paid among the lowest salaries in the nation for public school educators.  Following legislative and legal interventions, the strike ended after two weeks.  Then-Gov. Gaston Caperton agreed to boost teacher pay, moving West Virginia into the center of the pack for teacher salaries.  The move transformed Caperton into the “education governor” and moved West Virginia away from competing with Mississippi for the worst teacher pay in the nation.
What was particularly interesting about that West Virginia strike was the enormous support that teachers had from citizens across the state, particularly in that first week.  Visiting my mother and her colleagues on the picket lines, I saw parents and non-parents honk in support, drop off food and drinks for the picketing teachers, and generally check in to see how the teachers were doing.  It energized the teachers on the lines, and showed the media and the politicians that there was strong public will for this exercise of their labor rights.
As the West Virginia strike headed in double-digit days, though, that public support started to wane.  Parents didn’t know what to do with their kids, and couldn’t afford to continue to take days off of work or pay for babysitters.  Public will started to shift, as local school districts filed lawsuits to get teachers back in the classroom.  After 12 days,  teachers returned to work with a pledge from the governor and legislature for better pay and better respect.
Then, it was a simple narrative.  West Virginia teachers wanted to be paid fairly.  In a state with a strong union history and a respect for public education, the strike made sense.  Pay our teachers better than 48th or 49th in the country.  After all, we all understand what it means to be underpaid and under-respected.
The Chicago experience, though, is a little more complicated.  Currently, Chicago has an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent.  According to CBS Chicago and other sources, the average Chicago school teacher is making more than $70,000 per year, while the average Chicago worker is making slightly more than $30,000 per annum.  So a 16-percent raise seems more than reasonable, and seems to be a pay increase both sides have already agreed to.
If the strike is over a teacher’s share of health care benefits, most American workers are seeing their personal health insurance costs increase.  Gone are the days when healthcare is covered 100-percent by the employer.  As costs rise, workers across the nation fortunate enough to have coverage are paying more for it.
And if the strike is over evaluation, it becomes more and more challenging to secure a 16-percent raise in tough economic times, and then say one doesn’t believe in greater accountability for those educators serving in the system and demanding those raises.
Yes, it is a complicated narrative that CTU is trying to sell.  If the media reports are correct, this is no longer about salaries and paying teachers fairly.  Instead, it is whether teachers should be treated like other professionals, bearing additional healthcare costs and being held to a greater level of accountability than in years past.  That is a narrative that is going to be very difficult to sell to Chicago families, many of whom are experiencing unemployment, reduced benefits, frozen pay, and other financial challenges.
Of course, the strike isn’t just about the salaries and benefits being negotiated as part of the a new CBA.  No, the CTU is using this strike to speak out against the needed reforms being pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration.  Since becoming mayor, Emanuel has embarked on a bold reform agenda.  He extended the school day (ridiculously, Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the nation).  He established specific efforts to drive improvement in schools across the city.  He sought to reward teachers willing to hold themselves to greater levels of accountability than the CBA called for.  And he did all that facing a sizable budget deficit in a district with needs growing by the day.
Last night, Mayor Emanuel said, “The kids of Chicago belong in the classroom.”  He is absolutely correct.  While some defenders of the status quo may take issue with the sentiment or see it as some sort of punchline to a reformer joke, the ones most hurt by this strike are the kids.  The kids are losing out on instructional days.  The kids are now being shuttled around as part of “contingency plans.”  After just returning to school, the kids are being denied their rights to a public education.
As Emanuel continued, “This is totally unnecessary.  It’s avoidable and our kids don’t deserve this … This is a strike of choice.”
The mayor is correct.  Here’s hoping that both sides figure out how to choose to end this strike quickly, and get our kids back in the classroom.
UPDATE: To further complicate the narrative here, CTU has now released a one-pager articulating what they are looking for from Chicago Public Schools.  The challenge?  Can one really address “educate the whole child,” “address inequities in our system,” “teach all children,” “partner with parents,” and “fully fund education” as part of a collective bargaining agreement intended to focus on salary, benefits, and working conditions of the adults in the system?

Mayors, Supes, and Turnover

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)?


Charter-ing the Race

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.

The Gates Foundation has announced its plans to go in and do a “deep dive” in four school districts across the nation, focusing $125 million per district on improved professional development.  On the short list for the final four, an unnamed charter school district in the Los Angeles area.  Only the village idiot doesn’t realize that Green Dot is the intended target for these funds.
We’ve seen greater interest and appreciation for what KIPP has done, due in large part to Jay Mathews’ recent book on that charter system.  And the number of ED employees with ties to the NewSchool Venture Fund, one of the top thinkers on the effective development of high-quality charter schools (and part of New Leaders for New Schools’ model for teacher incentives under their TIF-funded EPIC program) continues to grow by the day.
So for those who thought charters may take a back seat under a new Democratic administration, they have been sadly mistaken.  The economic stimulus package called for states to raise their charter caps.  Other states are being pushed to actually maximize their current laws (like my home state of Virginia, which has a decent charter law, but just doesn’t allow any charters to actually get started under it, thus failing to live up to the promise).  And others still are being asked to establish flexible, growth-oriented charter laws that demonstrate the value-add charters can play to a school district on the rise or a school district in need of improvement.
But who is doing it well?  A decade ago, charters were tagged with a reputation of low quality and low results.  We had images of individuals running schools out of their homes and their basements, trying to take advantage of available funding or looking to thrust a particular political or religious point of view on a select group of students.  Many still subscribe to that stereotype, despite the hard work undertaken by groups like NACSA to ensure that states have strong charter establishment and accountability laws and by organizations like the Center for Education Reform for continually providing new data on how well our charter systems are doing.
CER actually has a new report out, this one called Race to the Top for Charter Schools: Which States Have What It Takes to Win, Rankings and Scorecard 2009.  In the study, CER provides some interesting data, grading our states on issues such as the number of charter operators, number of schools allowed, operations, and equity.  We see that three states earn As from CER — the District of Columbia, Minnesota, and California.  Four states earn Fs — Kansas, Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi.  D seems to be the most popular grade when it comes to charter scores.
When you couple this data with recent CER data on charter school achievement and the costs involved (showing that charters are putting up equal or better performance when compared to their traditional public school peers for nearly half the per-pupil dollars), it gives you a strong sense for why Duncan and company are emphasizing the opportunity available under charters … and how much work we really have to do before we effectively integrate charters into the public school network.
Most states want to get their Race to the Top dollars and the chances that come with it.  In the process, hopefully they will recognize that good, effective charter networks are designed to supplement, not supplant, our traditional public school systems.  They aren’t the magic bullet for struggling schools, but they sure are a useful tool.  And that like most in school improvement, charters only work when we focus on quality, proven research, assessment, and accountability.

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.

The Future of Urban School District Leaders

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.

As a friend pointed out this afternoon, though, all this talk about our top urban superintendents moving up to new, more powerful political jobs raises one large unanswered (and often unasked) question.  What is the impact on our urban districts?  At a time when our school districts are facing greater demands on their resources, higher expectations on their performance, shrinking budgets from their cities and states, and a more demanding economy into which their most successful students are now entering, what happens to those districts that lose great leaders?
This isn’t just a federal issue, either.  our states are seeing massive turnover in the chief state school officer positions.  For each of those open state chiefs, there are likely superintendents in that state (as well as those from others) who pique the interests of politicians, policymakers, and educators.
But let’s get back to our urban districts.  Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver.  All are facing brand new superintendents at their most important moments.  Same is true for districts like Prince Georges County in Maryland.  Other districts — Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and the like, have supes in their first years.  It’s getting to the point where DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the job for a year and a half now, is quickly become a grizzled veteran in world of urban superintendents.
Yes, ED is fortunate to soon have Duncan at the helm, where he can bring his Chicago experiences and insights to bear on the national scene.  We can look at the improvements and the innovations and the ideas that have percolated in Chicago (and other cities) and paint them with a larger brush and allow them to have larger impact.  But as ED begins to fill out its other positions, how many cities will lose their top school administrator for the greater good?  I assume that a supe or a chief state school officer will take over at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but what about the other openings in ED’s Duncan era?
It raises a lot of questions in Eduflack’s mind.  Does one have to run a major urban school district to lead school improvement at the national level?  What about our rural school districts?  Who speaks for the small communities or the K-8 school districts when the focus is on urban turnaround?  How important is it for a senior-level ED appointee to have real K-12 classroom instruction experience?  How much of such experience is enough?  What’s the necessary balance between pedagogy and innovation at ED?  Does K-12 or higher ed experience truly matter when it comes to the knock-around political world that is Washington? 
We all know heading one of the larger school districts in the nation is a difficult job.  The stakes are high.  Turnover is frequent.  Districts churn through leaders, with many top districts recycling many of the same leaders again and again.  So how does one protect the gains in such districts, while preventing the brain drain that comes with turnover and current upward mobility?  And more importantly, what are groups like the Council of Great City Schools and AASA doing to ensure that incoming superintendents — in both our most urban and most rural districts — have the professional development tools, support, and guidance necessary to keep improvements moving forward and bringing about the sort of change that so many communities are crying out for?
Maybe Duncan is already thinking of that, and is going to adopt a superintendent-in-residence program at ED to help ensure that school administrators have the access to best practice that we are constantly trying to deliver to both principals and teachers.  Or maybe we figure that urban districts always manage to figure it out, and between CGCS and the Broad Foundation, we’ll keep those top jobs staffed, so no need to worry.
And while we’re off the topic, allow me this little rant.  By now, many have seen the screaming Internet messages warning that all of the top jobs at ED are going to go to educational innovators and free thinkers, and not those with distinct classroom pedagogical training or instructional experience.  I don’t want to address such rumors here because I don’t think they are worth the electronic ink.  And anyway, Sherman Dorn does a far better job discussing the silly fears than I ever could —  But I do want to address the larger issue.   What ED needs now, what ED always needs, is a team that is committed to school improvement and is committed to the child.  That commitment takes many forms.  We see it in classroom and district educators.  We see it in education researchers who have committed themselves to spotlighting best practice.  And we see it in innovators, idea-makers, and policy minds who look for new ways to solve the problems that ail our schools.  Before we condemn picks for jobs at ED, we should let President-elect Obama and EdSec in-waiting Duncan actually make the picks.  There may just be a method to their madness.  And we may be surprised how the individuals, the personalities, and the backgrounds selected complement each other and form a wide net of experience and action designed to real school improvement.  At the end of the day, we have to believe that Obama and Duncan (and their surrogates) are seeking to improve public education through ED, and not harm it.  So let’s let them give it a try.
I’ll step down from the soapbox and relinquish the rostrum.  More questions than I have answers today, I’m afraid.  But sometimes such questions result in really interesting answers and insights down the road.  

Dropping Out in the Windy City

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 —,0,1248671.story.  Thanks to 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.