Blind spot in glowing record?

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In the beginning, there was the Law. Without the state legislation adopted last May, few of the initiatives you’ll read about in this issue would have seen the light of day. The revised Reform Act took the shackles off the school system’s finances, allowing the School Reform Board of Trustees to tap pension, reserve, state Chapter 1 and other previously earmarked funds. It also stripped unions of much of their power, allowing the board to eliminate job titles and adopt a employee code of conduct without hassle. For all that, the city schools have Mayor Daley, the Legislature’s Republicans and a handful of stick-to-it business leaders to thank. Should the vast new powers be abused, then the city will have mainly the mayor to blame, since he (or perhaps in the future a she) names the people who run the system.

So far, it appears the new school administration and board are using these new powers wisely. They’re redirecting resources into seven areas that they’ve rightly identified as ingredients of good schooling. For example, they’re investing in leadership development by creating a principals academy. Further, they have proceeded with uncommon determination, energy and finesse. Free of records to defend and political entanglements, they have been open to others’ ideas and willing to change their minds. In one of its smarter moves, the new regime has introduced the Request for Proposal (RFP), using it to launch alternative schools, small schools, after-school programs and school intervention teams. Instead of simply distributing money for these projects, the administration has required would-be recipients to make their case for funding. The competition itself encourages schools, universities and other agencies to give more serious thought to what they want to do and accomplish.

Amid the many promising developments, however, are a few troubling ones. CEO Vallas has talked a lot about the importance of “buy-in,” meaning that for a program to work well, those who have to carry it out should have a say in its creation or adoption. So, it’s surprising to hear him say, as he did in an interview with Catalyst, that Direct Instruction will become the standard mode of teaching in kindergarten and the primary grades. Under certain circumstances, schools will be able to opt out, he said. But that’s not necessarily the same as buy-in. As the administration defines those criteria, it should keep in mind that buy-in requires some kind of choice.

There’s another issue that concerns many of those involved in school reform: the administration’s relationship with local school councils. On this issue, the editors of Catalyst disagree.

The editor believes that the new regime’s unwritten policy of benign neglect toward local school councils is a serious shortcoming. Since local school councils choose principals, who are the single most important figures in schools, it’s foolhardy at best to ignore the role of LSCs. Like every other sector of the school system, LSCs need leadership and support, which don’t have to cost a lot of money. Until they get it, the city will never learn the potential of communities to help improve their schools.

The managing editor believes that expecting the administration to spend more time training LSCs, given the myriad problems facing schools, is expecting too much. Certainly, a new LSC Advisory Board ought to have more than token input; after all, these are the people in the trenches day after day. And the Office of School and Community Relations should provide swift help to LSCs that ask for it. But with high turnover and vacancies on more than a few LSCs, precious dollars should be spent first on training principals—the most important school leaders—and faculties.

But we both agree that the mayor and his school team can and should use their influence and media savvy to make the upcoming local school council elections a highly visible, important event—the same way the new administration promoted on-time school enrollment late last summer. The administration now credits its splashy back-to-school campaign for boosting school enrollment.