Solid footing for city’s new school leaders

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To outsiders, it must seem foolhardy that Mayor Richard M. Daley nudged out an education team that made Chicago the envy of many other urban school districts. Most cities would die for the consistency of purpose and track record of accomplishment that CEO Paul Vallas and School Board President Gery Chico provided. To repeat the litany: financial stability, labor peace, new and rehabbed schools, higher expectations for students and staff, a sense of accountability and a new public confidence in the public schools.

Yet the dynamic duo seemed at a loss over what to do with the next major challenge, improving leadership and instruction school by school. For the past two years, the administration merely has offered more of the same measures to advance student achievement, mainly more time in class and more school monitors. Intervention, for example, was presented as a new and improved Reconstitution, but it failed just the same. Something needed to change, and the mayor decided that it would be the men in charge.

Bringing in an entirely new team does not mean starting over. The underpinnings of the Vallas and Chico accomplishments—the mayor’s commitment to improved schools and state laws that gives him the power to impose his will—remain in place. Chicago’s broad-based school reform community—including corporate leaders, universities, foundations, education groups, community-based organizations and many teachers and administrators inside the school system—remains actively involved, providing hard-earned knowledge as well as continuity. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, unique in the nation, has copious data to help guide the way.

And, with exquisite timing, members of the Chicago Teachers Union have elected a president with reform credentials. For eight years, Deborah Lynch-Walsh researched education reform for the American Federation of Teachers; she then opened the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center. Making the talk-show rounds as president-elect of the CTU, Lynch-Walsh sounded as much like a reformer as a union leader, advocating a greater investment in the regular school day so less time and money are spent on remedial teaching. With so much reform having been “done to them,” as Lynch-Walsh puts it, teachers probably are ready to step into school-improvement leadership roles.

There also is a remarkable consensus about what School Reform: Phase III should look like. Earlier this year, Catalyst interviewed 52 education leaders inside and outside the school system about the direction reform should take. Overwhelmingly, they talked about improving instruction by investing in people: Recruiting good teachers, administrators and local school council members, and supporting them with intensive training and professional development.

The complete change in leadership also allows for new and improved relationships among the major players and a re-examination of old problems. Vallas was both enormously receptive to good ideas and a hot-tempered overseer who brooked no criticism. As a result, a thousand flowers bloomed, but debate about complicated issues dried up. Fear became the prime motivator inside the system. Fear worked for a while, but it won’t take the school system to the next level. That’s a lesson we all should hope the mayor has learned as well.

ABOUT US There are changes coming at Catalyst , too. It is with great pleasure that I announce that, effective July 1, Veronica Anderson will become editor of Catalyst, assuming responsibility for all day-to-day editorial operations and all editorial staff. Mario Ortiz will become managing editor. As publisher and editor in chief, I will continue to have over-all responsibility for the publication but will focus more on fund raising, marketing and special projects. Before joining Catalyst as managing editor almost five years ago, Veronica was a reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business. Mario joined the staff a year ago after covering education for newspapers in Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee.