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Meet the New Boss

Ohanian Comment: It fits in the abominable Atlantic public education coverage tradition to give Jonathan Alter the role of reporting on public education in Chicago.

There is a good exchange:

CTA President Karen Lewis describes meeting with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: Rahm stuck his finger in her face and shouted, "Fuck you, Lewis!" She went on: "He's dirty. He's low-down. He's a street fighter."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel describes same Meeting: It was a good meeting that ended with a hug.

Alter is a Chicago native and an engaging writer--unless you know anything about public education, in which case you'll be enraged. I don't know if we can assume his attitude is a result of attending Phillips Academy and Harvard, but there it is. I'm not surprised that he "advises" NBC and currently writes for Bloomberg View , where they call commentators "thought leaders." Go figure: Alter has over 19,000 followers on Twitter and his posts are insipid beyond belief, mostly self-referential.

The Atlantic introduce this long profile of Emanuel with: Tattered finances, broken schools, rampant crimeâChicago's mayor is taking on an entrenched bureaucracy and a legacy of corruption to fix the problems that American voters care about most deeply. Can Rahm Emanuel make the city that works work? If there are broken schools in Chicago, who broke them? Reminder: Arne Duncan was Chicago schools CEO from June 2001 until he was confirmed as Secretary of Education January 2009.

By Jonathan Alter

. . .
Inside the Obama White House, Rahm was a passionate advocate for education reform. So upon taking office as mayor, of course he lobbied feverishly for legislation in Springfield to give him more power to remake the sprawling Chicago Public Schools system. Among other things, the new law, hailed as a national model, allows districts to fire bad teachers more easily (in recent years, only about three tenured Chicago teachers out of 30,000 were terminated annually), to implement tenure reform, and to allow for performance pay. It also gives CPS the leeway to lengthen the school day to seven and a half hours and the school year to 180 days starting in the 2012â13 school year.

During the campaign, Rahm seized on Chicago's school day, the shortest used by any big city in the nation. He shocked audiences by describing a system where the typical school day was less than six hours and some kids left as early as 1:45 p.m.--this in a city where the starting salary for teachers ($50,000 a year) was $5,000 higher than in New York. At City Hall last summer, he pushed schools to voluntarily extend the school day in fall 2011, a year ahead of schedule, in exchange for a 2 percent pay increase for teachers, which was half of what they were owed but had not yet received under an earlier contract. Rahm is still steaming about the contracts negotiated by Daley and Arne Duncan--who was then running CPS and is now the nation's education secretary--which gave teachers hefty pay increases and a shorter school year. "I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got," he says, meaning no strike. "But I don't know what the kids got."

Since January, only 50 of the city's 675 schools have voluntarily agreed to the extra time (compliance among charter schools was higher). Critics who should have known better cited Japan as an example of a country that produces high test scores while having a short school day. (They forgot to mention that Japanese students routinely spend afternoons and evenings at "cram schools," preparing for tests.) Rahm's view is that a longer school day and year are necessary without being anywhere near sufficient. "If it were up to me, we'd have year-round schools. I wouldn't have a summer break for children. I think it's nuts," he tells me. "We lose basically half of the academic year in the summer."

The mayor's main adversary on education is Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. Lewis is probably best known for a salty YouTube video that shows her addressing a 2011 convention as if she were opening for a Chris Rock Comedy Central special. She makes fun of her own girth, jokes about drug use, and goes after Arne Duncan: "Now, you know he went to private school, because if he'd gone to public school, heâd have had that lisp fixed." (She later apologized.)

In August, Rahm met privately with Lewis, who derided the longer day as "babysitting and warehousing," though Rahm had specifically said he was seeking the extra time for instruction in math and reading. They exchanged harsh words. Three weeks after the meeting, Lewis told the press that Rahm had stuck his finger in her face and shouted, "Fuck you, Lewis!" She went on: "He's dirty. He's low-down. He's a street fighter." When that story broke, Rahm mildly told reporters that it had been a good meeting that ended with a hug. Privately, he was furious that his media team hadn't given him a better heads-up that the press had learned about the profane exchange.

The energy expended on the length of the school day has obscured coverage of other Emanuel initiatives, like alerting parents about the availability of subsidized preschool, expanding full-day kindergarten access to 6,000 new kids, and adopting better-designed standardized tests. Perhaps most important, CPS and a consortium sponsored by the University of Chicagoâs Urban Education Institute unveiled a sophisticated online tool that lets parents and administrators learn which of Chicagoâs public schools are working. Each detailed report card goes far beyond test scores to determine whether teachers collaborate and classes are demanding and engaging; the ratings are based on answers to student and teacher questionnaires. . . .

Rahm's choice for CEO of Chicago Public Schools was Jean-Claude Brizard, a Haitian-born former high-school physics teacher and principal in Brooklyn who worked with Joel Klein, the reform-minded chancellor in New York City, before becoming superintendent in Rochester, New York. Brizard had already accepted an offer to run the Newark system, but once again Cory Booker found one of his people snatched away by Rahm, who also took it upon himself to handpick much of Brizard's team. Karen Lewis, noting Brizard's clash with the union in Rochester, said of the appointment: "It's a nightmare on so many different levels. This is going to be a hot, buttery mess."

Brizard manages to be soft-spoken without mincing words. "I've been surprised by the incoherence of reforms in Chicago," he told me. Shortly after arriving, Brizard informed his principals, who every year had rated 99 percent of Chicago teachers "superior or outstanding," that they must change performance standards faster. "Weâre getting better. We moved from less than 1 percent to 1 percent 'unsatisfactory,'" he told them wryly. He recommends that teachers read or watch the video of Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion, the bible for reformers who stress great teaching. Brizard understands that many charter schools fail, and that traditional schools cannot all adopt the crushing teacher workloads of the charters that succeed. "But what we have not done is learn great practices from outstanding charters like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Noble Street Schools," he says. His four-year goals include raising Chicago's 57 percent high-school graduation rate by at least 10 points and hiring 50 new top-flight principals.

Before achieving long-term goals, CPS must conclude hot, buttery contract talks this summer. For now, the mayor has the public behind him and is willing to weather a strike.

In his 2006 book, The Plan, Rahm proposed that all Americans go to school for at least 14 years. Like Presidents Clinton and Obama, he has long seen community colleges as crucial to preparing the American workforce for global competition and to saving young people who would otherwise be condemned to poverty. But Chicagoâs city colleges have become dysfunctional, with graduation rates a pathetic 7 percent. (Nationally, only 15 out of 35 community-college systems graduate more than 50 percent.) "We have 9.4 percent unemployment, 100,000 job openings, and I'm spending a couple hundred million dollars on job training," Rahm tells me. He pauses to let the absurdity of this sink in. "So we are going to reorganize it."

Rahm fired almost all the college presidents, hired replacements after a national search, and decreed that six of the seven city-run colleges would have a special concentration.

Corporations pledging to hire graduates will have a big hand in designing and implementing curricula. âYouâre not going for four years, and youâre not going for a Nobel Prize or a research breakthrough,â he says. âThis is about dealing with the nursing shortage, the lab-tech shortage. Hotels and restaurants will take over the curriculum for culinary and hospitality training.â Already AAR, a company that has 600 job openings for welders and mechanics, is partnering with Olive-Harvey College; Northwestern Memorial Hospital is designing job training in health care for Malcolm X College. Equally important, the city colleges are overhauling their inadequate guidance services and contacting the 15,000 students most likely to drop out. As of March, all 120,000 students are being tracked, and those in danger of slipping through the cracks will be counseled. Thinking big, Rahm wants Chicago to be the national model for rescuing the middle class. . . .

The Atlantic doesn't allow reproduction of full articles, so I just chose one part about public schools.

— Jonathan Alter
The Atlantic





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