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Reform: Lost In Chicago

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It's not an easy thing to believe in change, to hope, to leap, and sometimes the folks leading the charge for change don't make it any easier by being, well, a little full of themselves, or picking unlikely or unwise strategies for making things better.  They make it easy to doubt, or even reject the notion that change -- this kind of change, at least -- can work. Why am I bringing this up now?  Well, one of those reform-curious people going through the process of belief and doubt is former teacher Seth Lavin, who writes Chicago Schools Wonks*and was one of the first people to figure out the real identity of @mayoremanuel.   In the excerpt below, you can see Lavin is struggling in a way I think many people like him are struggling.  He's not saying anything particularly new -- you read and hear this all over the place these last few months in particular - but he's articulating a thought process that I think is important for everyone to understand, reformers and counter-reformers alike. You can be gleeful about his frustrations -- I have no doubt some of you will be -- but it would be so much more interesting if you shared your own instead, mirroring Lavin's self-reflection rather than mocking it. [Cross-posted from D299]


I’ve grown frustrated with Team Rahm on schools. This mostly isn’t because of policy but because of their tone-deafness when it comes to talking to Chicago about school reform. I wrestled a lot this week with what it is I think they’re missing and I came up with what’s below. Something to remember: this is just my opinion. It’s not pulled from nothing—it’s based on a lot of observation, conservation, reading and watching, but in the end it’s my opinion. So take it for what it is.

What Team Rahm thinks (or what I think they think):

CPS is a moribund institution that’s been stuck in a painful world of underperformance for years. Parents, kids and teachers deep down know it’s failing and want someone to blow it up. The key reason it’s persisted in failing for so long is that people who’ve been in charge lacked courage and a sense of urgency. No one’s had the courage to point to teacher quality standards and say “these are too low.” No one’s had the courage to point to the school day and say “this is too short.” No one’s had the courage to point to state standards and school evaluations and say “these aren’t rigorous enough.” No one’s had the courage to point to a huge portion of CPS schools and say “these are failing.”

Team Rahm sees itself as the leadership that finally brings the courage to call bullshit bullshit. And, as they see it, they finally bring the sense of urgency and willingness to slay sacred cows necessary to solve these problems. They’re lengthening the day and taking ownership of higher evaluation standards across the board (some theirs, some pushed by state law). Most noisily and most currently, however, they’re making an aggressive turnaround and closure push. This is the crux of what reform is to them, with that sense of urgency and real-talk courage all bound up inside: students who’ve been stuck in schools that have failed for years should be sprung free. Close those schools completely or turn them around by firing all the adults. Then, get those kids into a better school—either a better traditional CPS school, an existing charter school, a new charter school or that same school but made better by turn-around. It’s disruptive, noisy, painful—all the things that Team Rahm is proud to be able to push through for the sake of kids. It’s also clear, they believe, that if you can push through the political opposition and make these changes happen they will work.

Team Rahm sees the parent/teacher opposition that’s sprung up not as organic expression of skepticism or true community disagreement but as the organized troublemaking of small groups of noisy adults with adult-centric agendas other than school improvement (CTU, KOCO, PURE and to some extent RYH).

These groups, as Team Rahm sees it, don’t really represent the parent/teacher community. Beyond these groups Team Rahm sees a silent majority of teachers and parents toiling in frustration with an inadequate system who sees Team Rahm’s entrance as a long-awaited liberation from failure.

Why Team Rahm is wrong (I think):

I think Team Rahm is wrong. I think they are wrong about two really foundational things:

1.     These ideas will clearly work

2.     The silent majority of Chicago believes these ideas will work

It’s because Team Rahm at its heart believes these things, and the majority of Chicago doesn’t, that the entire Emanuel administration’s posturing on school reform is making people so angry. Ever-present is a desire to turn reform into a fight with winners and losers and an arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all tone that grows from these two flawed beliefs. That tone tells people, at best, “if you doubt these ideas you are part of the political opposition that prevents these ideas from working,” and at worst “if you doubt this plan you don’t want what’s best for kids.” There are so many problems with this:

These ideas aren’t new and they haven’t clearly worked. 

We’ve seen this movie before. Paul Vallas invented this movie. Arne Duncan, while a little better-liked, also directed this movie. The two of them ran CPS from 1995 to 2009. Cutting through bloated bureaucracy, elevating standards, aggressively and controversially closing bad schools while building new ones and (more recently) turnarounds—that’s what Chicago's talked about for years!

Chicago reform fatigue.

A lot of really wonderful things have happened in Chicago since 1995 and, like I said at the beginning, I think a lot of those ideas are part of what’s necessary to make CPS fulfill its promise. But it hasn’t worked! Even more relevant—no one feels like it’s worked. If we all felt like CPS reform had made CPS into a district that as a norm propels kids through college graduation and into successful futures then Rahm wouldn’t have hesitated to send his kids to CPS schools. And that’s Ravenswood, for God’s sake. Do you think parents in Bronzeville, Englewood, Austin and Altgeld Gardens believe CPS works well? Of course not! They may like their kids’ teachers some years but in general they think Chicago schools are terrible. And they think this after having read in 15 years of newspapers about closings, charter openings, turnarounds—all the same kinds of plans Rahm is talking about self-righteously now. And they think this after also watching Vallas and Duncan declare victory and float off into a national embrace. They are tired of this stuff. They have not concluded that the problem is reform was too small in scope. They see the sad truth—this stuff works sometimes but so far not as well or as sustainably and scaleably as advertised. And they certainly don’t look at Rahm and Brizard as white knights arriving at last to save them.

National reform fatigue.

Others will disagree but I think we’re in the middle of a national reform backlash. It’s odd to say that, I know, given we’ve finally reached a political consensus on both sides that this kind of reform is good education policy. For my money that 2008 Time cover with Michelle Rhee marked, not the arrival of school reform, but the peak of public trust for this current wave. Since then I think trust has gone significantly downhill. That’s not to say there aren’t reform efforts doing brilliant things (Relay, Achievement First, etc.) but these are so drowned out by reform institutions promoted as loudly but delivering uncertain outcomes. The national end result, I think, is the sound of static and a feeling of mistrust.

Why this is a problem for Team Rahm

They’re talking to Chicago wrong. In terms of school reform Chicago is like a new romantic partner fresh out of two consecutive abusive relationships (not counting the Huberman fling). Of course Chicago isn’t going to trust a reform push presented the way Team Rahm is presenting this one.

It’s making people angry, making the administration seem out of touch and eroding trust. True, CPS has mayoral control. SB7 gave the mayor even more power. Rahm doesn’t really need popular support to advance his education agenda in the near-term. That said, nothing in school reform works immediately and the longer-term success of reform initiatives depends on the faith and hard work of 500 principals, 40,000 CPS employees, 400,000 students and their families. If the city doesn’t believe in the mayor’s plan for the schools it can never work meaningfully or lastingly.

It could also, in the worst case for them, be an administration-sinking issue. From where I sit if Michelle Rhee had ben Kaya Henderson from the start Adrian Fenty would still be mayor of DC. He got booted out for seeming simultaneously arrogant and inept. The tone on school reform was a huge part of that. Of course he had other problems (baseball tickets) but.. so does Rahm. I’m not betting on education sinking the Rahm ship. Chicago has so little opposition and so much political cowardice it’s really hard to imagine anyone mounting a serious challenger candidacy. That said, I sure hope everyone in CPS’ leadership team and Rahm’s leadership team recognizes that they’ve started down a path that, in certain circumstances, could destroy them.

What’s my message to Team Rahm?

Please, please show some humility. Get over yourselves. You didn’t invent reform. You didn’t invent impatience. You didn’t invent being angry at CPS for failing Chicago. You’re right that Chicago wants reform. You’re right that Chicago is impatient and you’re right that Chicago is angry because it’s being failed by its most important institution. But that’s been true for decades. And at least two big, noisy, self-righteous CPS leaderships have swept through since then saying the same stuff you’re saying now and changing nothing (at least in people’s minds). No one trusts you and for good reason. Maybe that’s Paul Vallas’ fault and Arne Duncan’s fault and not your fault but it’s certainly your problem. You should expect cynicism, skepticism, anger and mistrust. You should know that no one believes your impatience alone is going to get us anywhere. Drop the arrogance. Drop the self-righteousness. Show us the proof first always and tell us constantly that you want to move carefully, build things to last and that you intend to stick around until we see the proof.

It may be your first rodeo but it isn’t Chicago’s.


*Lavin no longer works for John Fritchey, as the original version of this post stated.  Apologies for the error.

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Until they address the key issue, poverty, they will never get anywhere.

The poor must have their poverty significantly mitigated FIRST before progress is possible.

Of course they try everything else first because they don't have a clue what to do about poverty.

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