Second City No More

03/15/2011 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the recent election of mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, Chicago is entering a new era of school reform, one that has the potential to transform our region into a national leader and provide better school opportunities for Chicago families. This era will not be without controversy, however, and issues as diverse as a daunting budget deficit and a stringent collective bargaining agreement might conspire to block serious-minded reform. We have a rare opportunity to continue those reforms that have proven effective, discontinue ineffective outmoded district procedures, and demonstrate for the country what effective urban school district leadership requires.

The most significant education decision Emanuel will make is appointing a new chief executive officer to lead the school system. What Chicago needs is a schools chief with a coherent vision, demonstrated leadership ability, and sufficient educational judgment to execute an ambitious plan to improve our schools. Chicago's current piecemeal education reform approach won't work. Instead, as Chicago readies itself for new leadership, we should demand the system implement an integrated policy platform that puts student needs before adult interests and focuses on core areas that drive student outcomes: accountability grounded by data, high performing teachers and leaders, family engagement, school options, funding reform, instructional time, and facility efficiency.

We must establish a data system that is sophisticated enough to measure actual student growth and use this growth in making significant policy decisions about schools and teachers while we recognize that a school system is only as good as its teachers and principals. Parents and guardians must be treated like partners in the effort.

Chicago's mosaic of magnet, selective enrollment, and charter schools, and related programs within schools, should be improved and the admissions process made more transparent to parents and communities. Chicago's current $6.6 billion schools budget is sufficient to educate the 413,000 students in the system, provided the money is spent efficiently and not allocated on practices like quality-blind raises for all teachers or central office allotments. In addition, we have more than 100 buildings enrolled at less than 50% capacity; a holistic school facilities solution is possible that includes consolidation, phasing in new school options, and expanding school facilities in targeted neighborhoods. Finally, Chicago is alone among the 50 largest urban districts in permitting a shamefully short 170-day school year and a five-hour and forty-five minute school day. Other cities do not allow this, and we shouldn't either.

Chicago has in many ways has led the nation in school reform efforts. Unfortunately, the last two years have seen Chicago take a back seat in the national education reform conversation. But the good news is that our city's new mayor is taking charge at a time when we know much more about what works in urban schools than we did when Mayor Daley initiated mayoral control 15 years ago. It is time for the city to focus on what matters: student outcomes and the improved life chances they create, and reclaim its mantle as a national school reform leader.