My Advice to Mayor Rahm: How to Be a Real Education Mayor

05/23/2011 12:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Mayor Emanuel, welcome! It's great to have a new mayor who says that improving our schools is his number one priority. That's a great place to start.

More potentially positive steps: you chose an actual educator as Chief Executive Officer for the Chicago Public Schools instead of the non-educator bureaucrats we have had since 1995. My concern: the new CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, has little experience running a school system, and greatly exaggerated his resume.

You appointed a slightly more diverse school board to replace the old board which seemed to represent only business interests. My concern: the new board's independence and responsiveness to parents, teachers, students and the community remains to be seen.

You've made some gestures to parents, too. My concern: your proposal to implement a "parent trigger" law suggests that you're more interested in using parents to close schools and bring in more charter schools. Your talk of making parents sign contracts sounds more like Paul Vallas's silly "parent report card" than a plan for an actual working partnership.

Another education mayor?

Of course, Mayor Emanuel, you are not Chicago's first "education mayor." You're not even the first to say that you won't tolerate the education status quo.

The fact is, in Chicago, the status quo is mayoral control. We've had it for 16 years with little to show for it.

In order to truly make our schools better, Mayor Rahm, you will need to understand that the real status quo is bad education policy-making coupled with misleading rhetoric.

Ironically, the stated reason for Mayor Daley taking over the schools in 1995 was that the 1989 school reform law, which put parent-majority local school councils (LSCs) in charge of the schools, didn't yield results fast enough. (Wong, p. 14)

However, later studies actually showed that academic improvements under LSCs were larger than Vallas-era test score increases, which were influenced by test-prep and other artificial mechanisms.

To shake off this status quo, and to have a chance of real school reform, we suggest that you try the following:

Tell the truth about schools: As a candidate, perhaps you were simply misinformed by your staff about such things as the relative strength of charter and traditional high schools. You continued to insist that all of the top high schools in Chicago are charters, even after a group of smart students from traditional high schools made a video proving that, in fact, none of Chicago's top high schools are charters.

Past misstatements are water under the bridge. Just make sure that you know the truth from here on out, and stop passing on bad information. That only calls into question your decision-making proccess.

You can find out a lot of what you need to know from PURE's website and blog, and from other groups and individuals who have offered straight talk about our schools for years.

That leads me to the next point.

Welcome diversity of all kinds: This includes racial, ethnic, gender, and other EEO diversity, of course, but also diversity of opinion.

Your education transition team was heavy on business types and charter school supporters, with little representation from people who might challenge -- well, the education status quo.

Be strong enough to share power: Chicago has some 6,000 volunteers already working hard to improve schools. The LSC structure is a strong one, and has been shown to work better than top-down interventions.

But to be their most effective, LSCs need better training than they have been getting from the CPS Central Office. LSCs prefer the training they get from independent groups over CPS programs. Yet CPS has refused to contract out LSC training and support, which would also cost less. With high-quality training, LSCs can be your strongest partners in school reform.

Finally, be responsible: These are children, not recycling bins, business licenses, or casinos. Your talk of moving fast, making rapid change (seemingly for change's sake) and shaking things up seems reckless, careless, even dangerous when children's lives and their futures are at stake.

All parents want a great education for their children. Few of us want our children to be experimented on.

There are people in this city who know a lot about what works in schools. You don't seem to be listening to many of them.

Let me direct your attention to the thoughtful letter by former state legislator and retired director of Chicago's Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Diana Nelson, which was recently published in the Chicago Tribune. Among several other sensible ideas, she suggests that you listen to other voices than the ones on your appointed team.

Looking to fix the schools, Mayor Emanuel? There are a lot of great ideas out there, ones that are much sounder than the "status quo" of the past 16 years under mayoral control. Just reach out and you'll find them.