Long haul the real challenge for new leaders

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Schools CEO Arne Duncan is out of the starting gate and off to a promising start. While he hails the record of predecessor Paul Vallas, he is quickly setting a different course.

During his first weeks on the job, Duncan dismantled the central Office of Intervention, eliminating a dozen or so administrative jobs and shifting the money to schools. He also gave intervention schools another financial boost when he decided to continue picking up the tab for each school’s staff of four subject-area specialists.

While he won’t say so directly, Duncan also shifted money earmarked for CASA—Vallas’ hurriedly announced reading program for 200 low-scoring schools –to his own reading initiative, one that focuses on children’s literature, daily two-hour reading sessions and teacher training.

Living up to his reputation as a consensus builder, Duncan invited education researchers, reform advocates and others with whom Vallas was often at odds into his cabinet. His signature appointment is Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, whose outstanding leadership led one large Woodlawn elementary school to academic success.

Next on his plate, he says, is changing how standardized tests are used to hold schools and educators accountable. Instead of focusing solely on the percentage of students above national norms, Duncan plans to look at year-to-year gains, as well, a recommendation made in March 1998 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. As Duncan points out, using gain scores brings all schools into the accountability spotlight.

Unlike his previous boss, Duncan is moderating his pace. “We’re not going to try to scale up too quickly,” he says in an interview with CATALYST editors. “What you get then is CPS mediocrity, CPS crap.”

Sounds like he knows what he’s doing. But such prudence may be sorely tested when Duncan faces the bigger challenges of finding new revenue and improving instruction.

Raising more money for Chicago’s public schools will be tough. The last administration used up nearly all of its capital resources, but much more needs to be done. And Vallas was unable to persuade state and Washington lawmakers to give the city more money. Now, Duncan, a political newcomer, will have to do what Vallas couldn’t. That’s a tall order.

Foundations and private donors may fill some of the need. Vallas’ combative relationship with the funding community limited the amount it was willing to contribute. In this arena, Duncan’s even-tempered approach will serve him well.

Vallas also left big shoes to fill in the public relations arena. By announcing one big program after another and lighting a fire under the system, Vallas created expectations for quick progress, then met them.

The challenge that Duncan and his team face—changing leadership and instruction school by school—is truly difficult and can’t be accomplished overnight. And that creates a challenge of its own: Figuring out a way to communicate improvement to the public that includes but not is solely reliant on test scores.

ABOUT US Five new members are joining our editorial advisory board: Anne Lewis, a columnist for the highly-respected Kappan magazine; Hazel Stewart, retired Region 3 education officer and former principal of Tilden High School; John Cody, a reporter for WBBM-AM radio; Tony Wilkins, a parent LSC member at Murray Language Academy; and Rosa Martinez, a parent LSC member at Salazar Elementary.

Best wishes and thanks to departing board member Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS’ new chief education officer. Thanks as well to departing members Carolyn Cyriaque, Joan Klaus and Idida Perez, who provided invaluable advice during their four years with us.

NOTE This month, we publish Catalyst Yellow Pages, a guide to more than 300 school improvement esources in Chicago. Thanks to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge for initiating and funding this program and to Catalyst Web Site Editor Dan Weissmann for guiding it to completion. Details on how to get copies of this unique resource are on our back cover.