New schools chief must focus on education reform and student needs

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The news that Joel Klein is leaving the New York City Schools and that Ron Huberman will leave the Chicago Public Schools left two of the largest school districts in our country grappling with leadership challenges. [Note: Terry Mazany, president of the Chicago Community Trust, will serve as interim CEO for CPS after Huberman’s departure.]

Their successors will control school systems that educate 1.6 million students, a figure that surpasses the public school population of all but nine states.  While some observers worry that these changes will create a vacuum of reform-minded leadership, this is more properly viewed as an opportunity to continue those reforms that have proven effective, discontinue outmoded district procedures that have not worked, and demonstrate for the country what effective district leadership requires.

To be sure, both men were instrumental in the current national climate of data-driven instruction and assessment, and their tenures underscore the effect mayoral control can have on school systems.  Mayor Bloomberg has picked Klein’s replacement, Cathleen P. Black.  Chicago’s next mayor will ultimately decide who will lead CPS into a new era in 2011.  As Chicago readies itself for new leadership, we should demand the system implement policies that put student needs before adult interests and focus on a few, core areas: 

•    Academic Standards:  Illinois standards are insufficiently rigorous and provide students an unrealistic measure of their achievement levels.  We must create more rigorous college and career-ready standards tied to diploma standards, ensure that our testing system measures meaningful skills that prepare students for college or a career, and provide realistic alternative options for students who plan to enter the job market upon graduation.

•    Accountability grounded by data:  Schools should be judged based on how well they improve educational outcomes among students.  We must establish a data system that is sophisticated enough to measure actual student growth and use this growth in making significant policy decisions about schools.  Schools themselves should be provided enhanced flexibility in exchange for heightened accountability, and every school should have performance-based student achievement objectives memorialized in a written document made available to the public.

•    School Options:  Chicago’s mosaic of magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, charter schools, and related programs within schools should be improved and the admissions process made more transparent to parents and communities.  In addition, these options should be extended to parents in all neighborhoods, especially those with a dearth of high-quality seats.  Charter schools in particular, which now serve 10% of the Chicago student population, should be allowed to expand to low-capacity neighborhoods, provided such schools have a track record of success and a sound management plan.  Charter school students should also be funded equitably and not disadvantaged by facilities policies that irrationally restrict district-owned buildings to traditional public schools.  As a corollary, we must intervene in any school, however organized, that struggles to demonstrate sustained student improvement, including closing schools that have failed students consistently.

•    Instructional Time:  Chicago is alone among the 50 largest urban districts in permitting an exceptionally short 172-day school year and a 5-1/2 hour school day.  New York doesn’t allow this — we shouldn’t either. Many districts are rightfully making international instructional time comparisons, where American schools fare poorly.  In Chicago, we do not even meet national comparisons. The days of providing our neediest students with the shortest school day, the shortest school year, and the least-qualified instructor and then asking them to pass high-stakes tests should end.  Optional, part-time pilot programs in a small sample of schools are insufficient.  We must extend learning time. 

•    Funding Reform:  The Chicago school system’s budget over the past 10 years has increased in inflation-adjusted dollars, while its enrollment has steadily declined. The solution is to move toward a student-based funding model that recognizes that student needs should drive funding allocations. So-called weighted student funding models should ensure that funding arrives at the school as real dollars—not as teaching positions, ratios, or staffing norms—that can be spent flexibly, with accountability systems focused more on results and less on inputs, programs, or activities.

•    Teachers and leaders:  A school system is only as good as its teachers and principals. We must focus our energies squarely on effective teachers and school leadership, including prioritizing the recruitment of new school leaders, improving the quality of teachers and leaders in the classroom, and supporting alternative programs to lower barriers for capable and interested future teachers and principals.  We cannot continue to ignore labor realities, should accept that the era of most teachers staying 30 years is over, and manage turnover so that the most effective teachers are retained and rewarded.

•    Efficiency:  Chicago has more than 50 school buildings that are enrolled at less than 50% capacity, and many of those produce abysmal results for students.  Most of Chicago’s schools were built when housing patterns and population densities were dramatically different, but the school system has not adjusted to the new reality.  A holistic school facilities solution is possible that includes consolidation, phasing in new school options, and expanding school facilities in targeted neighborhoods. In particular, there are portions of our city, especially in heavily Latino areas, where schools are dramatically over-enrolled.  We should use new school options, including high-quality charter schools, co-location arrangements, and similar models to reduce overcrowding and provide incentive for school providers to locate in areas where the need is greatest. 

Chicago has a proud history and in many ways has led the nation in school reform efforts.  It initiated mayoral control, pioneered local school governance models, and examined new school options before other large districts. The good news is that we know much more than we did when mayoral control was initiated almost 15 years ago — it is time for the next school superintendent to improve upon this tradition by focusing on what matters:  student outcomes and the life chances they create. 

Andrew Broy
President
Illinois Network of Charter Schools