Payne, Mazany to plot course for Chicago schools

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For the first time in almost a year, Chicago schools have a chief education officer.

For the first time in almost a year, Chicago schools have a chief education officer.

Friday morning, Interim CEO Terry Mazany named Charles Payne, the highly regarded expert on urban education policy and a University of Chicago professor, as an interim replacement for 35-year CPS veteran Barbara Eason-Watkins, who left the district in late April 2010.

It is also the first time in recent memory that the district’s top two positions have both been filled by educators, which grassroots activists and parents have clamored for. But it’s not likely to last long: Payne says he is definitely leaving after a new CEO is appointed by the next mayor.

Mazany said that when Mayor Richard M. Daley leaves office on May 16, “our job is to provide wind behind the sails of that leadership transition.”

Foremost on the pair’s agenda: Writing an “educational plan” for the city – something Payne says the city has not had in eight years – that will guide decisions until a new CEO can get up to speed.

It was one of several points during a press conference at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, where Payne seemed critical of the current state of affairs in CPS.

“The mistake of the city… has been to focus on programs in schools, rather than just focusing on the schools as organizations,” Payne said, noting that he had made the same mistake at times as well. 

To that end, Payne said, CPS must also pay more attention to developing and working with principals. “The city has no consistent philosophy, no consistent plan, for how we are going to develop the principal leadership that we need,” he said.

It’s not clear yet what specific steps Payne plans to take to assist principals, but he said the district should take “administrivia” off their plates so they can spend more time watching teachers in the classroom.

“There is no evaluation going on,” he said, referencing the fact that the vast majority of teachers get very high ratings. “It has to do with the lack of confidence among principals” about their ability to evaluate teachers.

Payne also signaled the possibility of new approaches in the area of early-childhood education. “The city has not thought about early childhood education in a systematic way. It hasn’t thought about the really terrible attendance problems in our early grades [or] about how different neighborhoods need different kinds of early childhood supports,” he said.

Perhaps more important than any policy changes Payne and Mazany come up with will be how the district goes about making its decisions. Payne said he would focus on starting “a conversation among stakeholders who do not normally talk to each other” and on getting community organizations, which he called “an under-utilized resource,” to participate in the school reform conversation. His model: Former Mayor Harold Washington’s 1987 education summit.

The press conference also highlighted Payne’s work coaching principals and organizing programs with the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community, an initiative modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

“You have got to develop the community itself,” Payne said. “Part of our work is building a core of parents who are going to be more involved.” In his book So Much Reform, So Little Change, Payne wrote about the persistence of failure in urban school districts, noting that discussions of education policy are often disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools and fail to account for the lack of social capital to assist schools in poor communities.

Payne is the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the U of C. He was previously on the faculty at Duke and Northwestern universities and is the author of several books. (Payne is also a former member of the editorial board of Catalyst Chicago.)

Mazany said that revamping teacher evaluations and laying plans to implement the Common Core Curriculum would also be top priorities.

He considered appointing a CPS insider to the interim chief education officer position, but realized that making such an appointment might not be good for the appointee.

“What Terry didn’t tell you was that I was the sixty-fifth person he asked,” Payne joked.