Q&A with Schools CEO Ron Huberman

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Much has been said of CEO Ron Huberman’s management acumen and his lack of experience in education. Rumors are now flying about his plans to reorganize the district and make drastic cuts. To date, nothing major has been announced, however, word is expected soon. Huberman talked with Catalyst Editor in Chief Veronica Anderson about CPS finances, his infamous performance management strategy, what he plans to do to improve teacher quality and how technology could transform learning.

 

Budgeting and management

Q: Let’s talk about money. You’re facing a pretty big shortfall.

A: Yes, we are.

Q: There’s some extra federal stimulus money coming in, but what else are you going to do to rein in expenses?

A: We’re looking at a variety of things. In essence, the classroom is off the table. Unfortunately, that means that everything else is on the table. I am not interested in an across-the-board cut. I’m much more interested in strategic cuts, which preserve programs that have the greatest benefit for our kids.

Much has been said of CEO Ron Huberman’s management acumen and his lack of experience in education. Rumors are now flying about his plans to reorganize the district and make drastic cuts. To date, nothing major has been announced, however, word is expected soon. Huberman talked with Catalyst Editor in Chief Veronica Anderson about CPS finances, his infamous performance management strategy, what he plans to do to improve teacher quality and how technology could transform learning.

 

Budgeting and management

Q: Let’s talk about money. You’re facing a pretty big shortfall.

A: Yes, we are.

Q: There’s some extra federal stimulus money coming in, but what else are you going to do to rein in expenses?

A: We’re looking at a variety of things. In essence, the classroom is off the table. Unfortunately, that means that everything else is on the table. I am not interested in an across-the-board cut. I’m much more interested in strategic cuts, which preserve programs that have the greatest benefit for our kids.

Q: Give an example of a strategic cut.

A: A program that has very low outcomes. So, for example, we have over ten different supplemental math programs. We are reviewing the data and what we’re learning is that some of those programs have a much greater return in actually improving math scores. We don’t want to say, “Okay, we’re going to take every math program and cut it 10 percent.” We want to look at what does each program cost per student; and what is the effectiveness of that program per student. Then cut the ones that cost a lot and don’t have a lot of effectiveness.

We have teams on the ground right now [April 2009] doing that level of analysis. We hope to announce the cuts between now and June. We have not given up the fight in Springfield. The governor’s proposed budget gives us approximately $57 million in new funding. It’s the lowest funding increase since 2002.

 

Winning federal grants

Q: What about the Race-to-the-Top Grant that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has talked about? Is the district going to apply?

A: Yes.

Q: What are you going to pitch?

A: Well, the Department of Education in D.C. has not released the criteria yet. I flew out and I met with Arne. The areas that they’re looking for [are] more time with kids–using this money to fundamentally change the school year and the school day—and teacher quality, particularly mproving and rewarding teacher quality.

Q: Are we talking about merit pay?

A: That’s exactly right. The third area is using funding to turn around schools that are not working and it’s the controversial [strategy] of closing schools and reconstituting them.

Q: Some Race-to-the-Top money is earmarked for states. Are you working with Gov. Quinn on the state’s bid?

A: We are. We reached out and will be working directly with [the Illinois State Board of Education] to ensure that we have the right joint competitive grants.

 

Performance management

Q: You mentioned strategic cuts. That sounds like the performance management effort. What’s your vision for that?

A: To focus the district on being outcomes driven. It means different things in different places. Let me talk about what it means centrally. We want a system to hold the central office accountable to the schools. Every dollar we use in central office is a dollar that’s not going to a school, so we want to be as streamlined as possible. Right now, central office manages 200 programs. If you talk to our principals and teachers, they will be the first to tell you which ones they believe are most and least effective.

Q: Are teachers and principals part of this decision making process?

A: I have teachers and principals involved in everything that we do. If we’re going to fund 20 literacy coaches, we’re going to want to make sure that we have a system that judges [their] effectiveness.

Q: What are the metrics to determine, for instance, the impact of coaches?

A: We want to be able to understand and articulate quantitatively which [academic coaching] programs are more effective. We want to use data to get to the answer. School-based performance management will be different.

Q: Really?

A: Well, not different, but fundamentally what we want to do is provide better tools for teachers. We’ve been looking at a lot districts that have achieved a great deal by being data-driven. They do regular assessments of students and they give that information in real time to teachers.

Q: CPS has something like that. What about Learning First?

A: My focus groups with teachers and principals [say] we’re not there yet.

Q: What’s missing? Do teachers have the right teaching tools?

A: Let’s say you have two or three 3rd-grade math classes. Maybe what we should do is take six students from each of these math classes who are doing really well and move them to a different class that’s accelerated. Another six kids from each of these classes are falling behind, so let’s create a class for them that will really meet their needs. Good analysis with technology that does these assessments can really arm teachers with information [they need] to achieve differentiated instruction.

Another example: Let’s say a teacher teaches a two-month segment in addition, subtraction and multiplication. Two months later that teacher does an assessment and finds [students] nailed addition and subtraction. But with multiplication, students are losing it.

Q: Learning First was supposed to do that. Is no one using it?

A: It is being used, but we have a team searching for an assessment tool that can be done more consistently, in some cases monthly and in other cases quarterly. We want to focus our professional development around how you use these data-driven tools. I talk to our teachers and many of them share that they’re frustrated with professional development. Often, it doesn’t meet their needs.

We have a team on this–identifying the right assessment tools, marrying that with the right professional development, and providing the right coaching on how you use this data analysis.

Q: One criticism is that some coaches don’t have subject-matter experience or expertise.

A: That’s a problem we have to get right. We shouldn’t have coaches [who] don’t have content area expertise. What I’m talking about is, right now, we have coaches who help teachers with certain math curriculum, certain English curriculum and often that’s very general. We’d like to arm teachers with the ability to make specific coaching requests for specific areas.

Q: I see. Coaching tailored to their needs.

A: Yes. A teacher might say, “I’m not getting through so well on multiplication. I’ll request a coach to work with me on my ability to teach multiplication.” We hope assessments will help teachers pinpoint more effectively for themselves where [they need help].

 

Student voices

Q: What about students? Can they weigh in on your plan for schools?

A: I’ve already built up a network of students who e-mail me from different schools and tell me what’s going on.

Q: Those are powerful students. Teachers best not mess with them.

A: The parents are next. Getting the unvarnished information from parents. What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? Do you like how our report card looks? What do you find frustrating about CPS? I did this at CTA.

 

Huberman’s top priorities

Q: What are your top three priorities? Where you want the district to be in three years or five years?

A: Can I give you more than three?

Q: Sure.

A: One is safety. I’m terribly concerned by the level of violence in our communities. It’s not happening in the schools, but it fundamentally affects our kids’ ability to learn. Another key priority for me is performance management. We want to ensure that we’re providing the best options and outcomes for our kids. Another priority is to ensure that we are recruiting and hiring the very best teachers.

Q: Does that include where they teach? President Obama and Duncan are getting governors to talk about the distribution of good teachers.

A: Yes, it’s critical. We are working on a program right now to incentivize the best teachers and get them into the lowest-performing schools.

Q: What can you share about that now?

A: Well, what we need to do is send a group of teachers [to low performing schools] so they can rely on each other for support. We’re looking at ways to do that, including bringing them in with a veteran high-performing teacher who would serve as a coach and a mentor.

One of the big issues that we have is teacher mobility. I spoke to a few teachers who were with us for two years. I asked them, “Why are you leaving?” They told me that (1) they didn’t feel supported and they felt isolated and (2) they were not armed with the skills that they needed to succeed in their classrooms and so they ended up being terribly frustrated.

Q: You’re talking about new teachers or the best teachers? It’s not quite the same group.

A: We’re talking about the highest performing new teachers and existing teachers.

 

Technology and learning

Q: Okay. What’s next?

A: Technology. It’s a multi-prong strategy. Here’s the vision. You’ve got Johnny, he’s a good student, right? We know that there are different ways that kids learn. We want technology to help us do a good diagnostic. Then, we want to create online programs for kids that are tailored to the way that they learn so that we progress their learning faster.

The next piece is video games. All the video games have two formulas. One is, it’s all about getting to a level and when you get to a level you get something. We would like to create an online learning program, and then when a kid gets to the next level, we give them access to something they really want. Not the games we produce, the games they want — Wii [and] Xbox.

Q: Access to this in the classroom?

A: Some of this is in the classroom and some of this is extracurricular. This is not replacing teachers. It’s value-added. We want the graphics and the interface to be very similar to how kids play games, so they can relate to it.

What we want to then do is take all of our kids and connect them with a coach or a mentor. Think [of] social networking sites–MySpace, Facebook. We want to create a learning space online for kids who are in similar learning environments so they can help each other. We’re not talking about somewhere where they can get in trouble. This is controlled social networking. We’d like them to feel free to compete on a game front, so that the fun of the game and the fun of competing on the core academics get blurry for the kids.

Q: I’m still not clear on how this fits in the classroom.

A: It’s not for all kids. This is not meant to be a panacea across the district.

Q: So these games are for kids who are behind?

A: We’re figuring that out. For sure, we want to make this a universal, after-school, at-the-library program.

Q: So it’s not in classrooms at all.

A: It’s definitely outside of school. We believe that they also have application in the school. No one has developed this.

Q: That’s going to be expensive.

A: I think I have investors. I want CPS to be the lab to figure this out. I’ve been in touch with Facebook [and] Microsoft and they’re very interested. Not for a fee. If they get this right, the applicability is much bigger than CPS. We want to figure out if this works with an online mentor or does it have to be a teacher in a class.

Q: I see. So you’re up to four priorities. Any others?

A: I’m going to stop here.

 

Leading the district

Q: What about the organization chart? When you were appointed CEO, people had concerns about your not having experience in education. How do you respond to that?

A: Well, I’d say I engage educators and they’re at the table of decision making and working through everything that is critical. The people who are questioning [me], I absolutely understand their concern. I think it’s legitimate and appropriate. But I fundamentally believe CPS needs an effective administrator and manager at the top. There’s a difference between being a subject matter expert in education and translating that into the complexities of large organizational change, [and] then being able to execute it on a global scale. Those are the strengths that I bring to the table. Partnered with education folks–I value their expertise—it makes for a strong team.

Q: What’s working at CPS now?

A: There’s been great progress on improving teacher quality. There’s been great progress in school creation.

Q: What’s not working?

A: The things I’ve laid out, I’m not saying the district is not doing well or they’re not doing these things. We’re just taking it to the next level.

 

Improving high schools

Q: Let’s talk about high schools, specifically the district’s transformation initiative. Is it dead?

A: No, it’s not. The fundamental issue was implementation. The plan for transformation was good. How we implemented it was problematic. We’re studying what worked well and what didn’t so that we can alter the plan where we need to. Then, we’ll come back aggressively.

Q: Are you going to add another group of high schools for next year?

A: We don’t know.

Q: What about funders? They pulled the plug on evaluating the program. That’s a big signal.

A: I met with [officials at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] about this particular initiative and I think that they agree with me that there was a problem in execution. Implementation varied by school and so that makes it very hard to evaluate.

Q: Any sign from funders that they would support the program in the future?

A: We need to signal back to them that we’re serious about this.

Q: Another important issue in high schools is truancy and class-cutting. Is that on your radar?

A: It’s very much on my radar. How you treat this at the elementary level versus high school is very different. But fundamentally, we have to make our schools more compelling for our kids.

Q: Any initial ideas on how to do that?

A: Well, yes. How we teach kids and how they live their lives needs to be congruent. I walked into a [chemistry] class the other day and we were teaching the kids about the periodic table. The teacher was having them memorize the chemical compounds. That is not a compelling class. In today’s world, what they should be doing is experimenting online, mixing chemicals virtually and trying to predict what will happen. That is a much more compelling model.

Q: What’s the context for this?

A: We are at the tail-end of the information age and we’re entering the conceptual age. The thought of memorizing something doesn’t make sense because kids can Google something and get information. You may teach kids today about reading comprehension, but the way they read is different. Kids will read books, but online they skim and they pick out information and they keep going. So what you really want to do is capture high school kids’ imagination and give them tools [to] solve their own problems. It gives them a reason to want to be in school. The social controls to keep them in school are not there.

Q: Social controls?

A: For some kids, the family is not ensuring that the kid ends up in school. The school is not providing the right social supports to keep the kid in school.

Q: We didn’t talk about your violence and safety efforts.

A: We’ll have to come back to that.