January 27, 2012: My big missive on Team Rahm, arrogance and the reform problems Rahm’s tone creates.

Hi everyone,

Wonks is a lot of fun for me for many reasons. Here are two:

  • As my dad says, writing is an exercise in organizing your thoughts. I’ve learned a lot about what I think just by doing this each week. I definitely still identify as pro-school reform. I still support charter school expansion, more test-driven accountability and am still proud to be a TFA alum. But I’ve developed more complexity in how I think about meaningful, sustainable school reform. I’ve also gotten more and more frustrated with the Rahm administration (which I helped vote in). More on that in a moment.
  • I get to meet interesting people. I’m certainly not central to the Chicago school reform world but Wonks has made me a lot more relevant than I used to be. That’s brought me to the attention of folks who actually are central, who I then get to meet, talk to, learn from and learn about. That’s a considerable help as I try to figure out what I think about what’s going on.

Anyway, like I said, 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.



Longer day back-and-forth

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah kicked off the week (and ticked off the mayor) with this story on longer day implementation at Skinner North. Mostly a negative take focusing on parents who say their kids are exhausted, etc. Rahm called the piece misleading. Apparently many Skinner North parents and teachers (including most surveyed) like the longer day, as do many in other longer day schools. Critics charge Ahmed-Ullah drew outsize conclusions from a (deliberately?) skewed sample.

Ahmed-Ullah doubled down in a story the next day that acknowledged and brushed aside the mayor’s criticism. It’s on parents that submitted 1,450 signatures to the Board calling for a 6.5-hour longer day rather than 7.5. This comes from a newish group called “6.5 to Thrive.” Here’s their website and their online petition.

Related: One problem discussed but not nailed down in all this coverage is that, while most of CPS serves low-income families, a lot of the organized opposition to the 7.5-hour day comes from parents in more affluent neighborhoods. Skinner North, for example, is only 34% low-income.

WBEZ’s put a group of VIVA teachers on the radio to talk longer day and what teachers want. Cool. From 848: http://bit.ly/x4QWaA.

CPS released more detailed guidelines on how schools should use extended time. Most interesting bit is time per subject and how that changes from grades 1-2 to 6-8.

Paying protesters

There’s been whispering for a weeks that pro-closings parent protesters showing up at community hearings are paid to be there. That exploded into the open this week with confirmation that at least some definitely are.

Two say they got paid to protest, back closing Chicago schools” (Rossi, Sun-Times).

Rossi finds money coming from a minister, Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, who also runs the HOPE organization in Englewood. He bussed parents to the meeting but said stipends were given separately to parents attending community organizing training.

Linda Lutton has a great radio bit with voices of parents at the hearings, including some paid to be there: “Paid protesters a new force in school closings debate.”

WBEZ’s Jennifer Brandel runs Rev. Watkins’ full response.

CPS’ Inspector General is now trying to determine 1) what’s actually happening and 2) whether anyone’s doing something they aren’t allowed to do. http://bit.ly/yfQTch

Rossi met with other CPS-involved ministers to ask if paying parents for community organizing is normal… “Ministers call paying protesters unusual.”

Russo and Rich Miller point out that paying protesters isn’t new in Illinois.

Everything else

Great headline: “Lunch staffers to CPS: We want to cook” (not just reheat). CPS cafeteria workers demand 5 specific changes to the way CPS school lunch works. Almost 500 responded to a survey, most saying school lunches aren’t nutritious enough or appealing for kids. Paging AGC…

Trib has three reporters raising questions about ministers’ support for Rahm/CPS reform given that their programs get money though CPS contracts.

Formal negotiations for the next multi-year CPS and CTU contract have begun. CTU presented demands to CPS, though not publicly. Anybody want to share the list?

Catalyst’s Harris has a more detailed story including accounts of CTU-led “practice strikes.” CPS’ spokesperson said negotiations actually started in November.

Trib runs a Hechinger Report story on the digital divide in CPS, finding huge variance in computer availability for different schools and neighborhoods.

Related, happier: Rep. Quigley engineered a CPS donation of $4M worth of computers and tech equipment that the GSA doesn’t need after the 2010 census.

Trib editorial board has some messages for you. First, “Don’t Protect Failing Schools.” First paragraph says that “closing or overhauling a handful of its failing public schools” is “school reform.”

Second: “Starting next year, Chicago elementary school kids will receive a priceless gift: another 90 minutes of classroom instruction.” Also, “We realize change can be hard for students and parents.” Thanks, Trib editorial board.

A message from me to the Trib editorial board: some medicine (data, historical analysis, an example of a district that’s meaningfully, sustainably changed things for the better through the policies you’re cheerleading) would help the sugar go down.

Rossi has a nice story on the new CPS health chief, Dr. Stephanie Whyte, who rushed to a collapsed parent’s aid at Wednesday’s Board meeting. Good first impression.

Gov. Quinn signed the school report card overhaul bill. Unclear how CPS’ new report cards will have to change. WBEZ’s Brendel has best coverage here.

Project NIA put out a report on discipline and police action in CPS. They call for the city council to compel the opening of disciplinary data on suspensions and expulsions that currently must be FOIAd. I’m all for it—good time for an alderman to stand up and play a role in schools. Karp’s Catalyst coverage. And full report.

Data lowlight: ~5,500 young people were arrested on CPS property in 2010.

Emanuel’s Facebook townhall on education made few waves. Russo posts it.

CNN writes up the new 6-year NYC/IBM-partnership high school on which Rahm’s basing a 5-school plan for Chicago. CNN coverage: http://bit.ly/xdrLlA

Josh Kalov covered two community hearings through live-tweeting/storify: Nash co-location (lots of KIPP discussion) and “technical closing” of Best Practice. Josh’s citizen-reporting’s a great counter-point to anyone saying digital hurts journalism.

Someone who probably thinks I’m wrong in what I said up top… a ChicagoMoms blogger writes up why she’s excited about Brizard and the longer day.

For Rocketship trackers.. last week’s Chicago TFA alumni blast encouraged us to apply to become Chicago’s first Rocketship leader. I followed up and was told there still wasn’t a specific plan to open Rocketship in Chicago but that having the right leader in place would help move things forward.

UEI and Ounce get $2.5M to find a model for effective ECE in low-income settings. They’ll work with programs on Chicago’s south side. Awesome. http://bit.ly/zSpQcf


Josh, for his great work at the hearings. Thank you!

Dad, for the guidance at the top and for being on WBEZ. So cool!

Kate, for your help with the opening section.

Emily M, for what you’re thinking about doing

Emily T, for participating in Giants-themed debauchery on a school night

Josh L, for same

And everyone who’s made it through the longest Wonks in history. Thanks for making this fun.

To share a Wonks sign-up link use this: http://bit.ly/uvk1dy



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