If Mayor Richard M. Daley names CTA President Ron Huberman CEO of Chicago Public Schools, as has been rumored in recent days, he’ll be turning to a loyal manager who will likely grapple with some tough days ahead.
“It’s going to be an even bigger challenge, in my opinion, than the one Arne Duncan walked into,” says Barbara Rader, a professor of urban education at DePaul University.
When the new U.S. Education Secretary took over Chicago’s schools in 2001, the progress made under his predecessor, Paul Vallas, had leveled off. So Duncan and his team pushed a massive reading initiative, more teacher and principal training and other reforms. Elementary school test scores started going up and have been on the rise ever since.
“So much of these things that are in progress need attention and there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made,” says Radner.
At the top of the list: high schools.
“There’s very little reason right now for anybody to cheer what the high schools have accomplished, on the whole, in the past seven or eight years,” says University of Illinois at Chicago Education Professor Steve Tozer, “most of us who are middle class professionals would not want our kids in these neighborhood high schools.”
High school test scores remain flat, despite modest gains in recent years on the ACT. The dropout rate still hovers around fifty percent. And too few CPS graduates leave with the advanced skills they need to go on to work or a four-year college.
Duncan’s successor will inherit a smorgasbord of initiatives targeting the grim statistics.
The High School Transformation plan emphasizes new, more rigorous curricula, beginning at the ninth grade level and gives teachers intensive, in-classroom coaching. And last year, the district launched a multi-faceted effort to cut the dropout rate by reaching out to kids before they even begin ninth grade and monitoring their progress to make sure they stay on track to graduate.
“I think what we’re seeing is an earnest effort by the system to try to find the solutions for the high schools,” says UIC’s Tozer, “But right now those solutions are in an embryonic stage.” Tozer thinks the new CEO would be wise to look at the high school improvement initiatives and reorganize the district’s approach to the problem.
A key step towards improving an underperforming high school is making sure it has the good leadership. Arne Duncan made training and recruiting high-quality principals a top priority.
“It’s absolutely critical for school building leadership to focus on the quality of instruction in each and every classroom, says Tozer, who runs a training program for principals at UIC.
The new CEO will also feel pressure to keep growing the number of highly qualified teachers in the system and continue giving them better and better training and support.
But affording enhanced teacher training and many other initiatives and programs may be difficult, if not impossible thanks to the bad economy.
Duncan’s successor will inherit a budget deficit that’s grown to a staggering $180 million. So the new CEO will have to grapple with painful financial choices, as he or she manages another tough issue: the district’s controversial approach to schools that resist all efforts at improvement.
Duncan championed Renaissance 2010 to the chagrin of community activists and the Chicago Teachers Union. It advocates closing, consolidating of overhauling failing schools and opening scores of new ones, often in partnership with private enterprise.
Seventy-five new schools have opened under the program. But the closings and consolidations have disrupted kids lives and the school turnarounds are complicated and difficult to pull off.
“You’re dealing with trying to quickly, really very quickly, transform a school," says DePaul’s Radner, who believes a semester of preparation time, at the very least, is critical. “If you don’t have that kind of preparation time it’s going to very challenging to carry out the Renaissance."