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Need "Quality Seats" for a Big Event? Call CPS

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If you've spent any time at all listening to CPS officials during the past few months, you've probably heard plenty of talk about the need for "quality seats" in Chicago's public schools. But you probably haven't heard CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard explain just what a "quality seat" -- or its upscale cousin, the "high-quality seat" -- is.

Sure, it's an aspirational, feel-good phrase, and it's something Brizard says he wants for all our kids, but until our highly-paid metrics maven defines that term by tying it to his much-loved testing data, we'll never know which schools, in his view, have "quality seats" and which schools don't. It's all about accountability, right?

Andrea Zopp seems like the best person to get to the bottom of this issue. She's one of Mayor Emanuel's hand-picked Board of Education members, and in her past life she was a top-notch prosecutor and a skilled questioner. As a prosecutor, Zopp never would have let a witness get away with the continued use of a vague term like "quality seats" -- particularly when that term figures into real-life issues, such as CPS's upcoming school closings.

And while Zopp is certainly capable of shining some light on this issue with just two minutes of straight-forward questioning, I'll wear an Arne Duncan T-shirt to work for an entire week if I hear anything resembling the following (fictional) exchange at the next Board of Ed meeting.

Andrea Zopp: You've used the term "quality seat" repeatedly today. What do you mean by that term?

J.C. Brizard: Thank you for your excellent question. A "quality seat" is a seat in a school that is delivering a world-class education for our children.

AZ: You spoke at the November board meeting about starting to look for a CPS school for your own son, correct?

JCB: I did.

AZ: And you and your wife will obviously do your best to make sure he's in a "quality seat," right?

JCB: All kids should have that opportunity.

AZ: Let's stick with my question. You and your wife will do your best to make sure that he's in a "quality seat," right?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: And because all kids should have an opportunity to be in one of those "quality seats," you, as the head of CPS, are going to have to identify those seats for parents throughout the city, right?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: And you'd agree that if you can't or won't actually identify those "quality seats," there's really no point in your using that term, correct?

JCB: I suppose that's true.

AZ: Now, you recently told us that 123,000 CPS students are in "under-performing seats," correct?

JCB: I did.

AZ: And CPS has roughly 400,000 students, true?

JCB: That's about right.

AZ: So, are the remaining 277,000 CPS students sitting in what you call "quality seats"?

JCB: Well, I'm hesitant to go that far.

AZ: Well, have you and your consultants from The Parthenon Group identified which schools have the so-called "quality seats" and which don't?

JCB: We're in the process of evaluating the portfolio.

AZ: So the answer to my question is "no," correct?

JCB: Correct.

AZ: Let's try it this way. You and the mayor recently visited Perez Elementary School in Pilsen, right?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: You and your CPS team gave that school a "Level 1" grade -- the highest of the three levels you could assign to a CPS school, right?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: But the majority of kids who attend that school aren't even reading at grade level, correct?

JCB: Correct.

AZ: Same is true for their performance in math, right?

JCB: Right.

AZ: You wouldn't send your son to a school like that, would you, Mr. Brizard?

JCB: Well, my son is still several years away from . . .

AZ: Because even with a "Level 1" classification, those seats at Perez aren't what you and your well-educated wife would call "quality seats," when you're discussing public schools in the privacy of your own home, correct?

JCB: As I said, CPS is evaluating its portfolio, and we're talking to our Human Capital Managers.

AZ: Human Capital Managers?

JCB: Our principals.

AZ: I see. Some of the information that you'll use to determine which schools have "quality seats" can be found in the new school report cards that CPS just made available online, right?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: But you didn't get around to posting report cards for Chicago's charter schools, which educate over 40,000 kids in this city, correct?

JCB: No, we didn't do that.

AZ: Let me switch gears for a minute. You're about to announce a whole bunch of school closings, right?

JCB: We prefer to call them "school actions" -- but, yes, we'll be announcing them in a couple of weeks.

AZ: And when you shut down those schools, you're going to tell the parents of the kids whose schools you're closing that you're moving their kids to better schools, correct?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: Will you be moving them to "quality seats"?

JCB: We will be moving them to "better performing schools."

AZ: But not "quality seats," as you've been using that term, correct?

JCB: Again, we are reviewing the portfolio at a granular level and . . .

AZ: You're certainly not going to be moving those kids to the type of seat that you'd consider for your son, right?

JCB: My son is still several years away from . . .

AZ: And to sweeten the pot for the kids whose schools you'll be closing, you said you might be making additional investments in the schools that you're going to move them to, correct?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: And according to the draft guidelines you released on October 31 -- and I quote -- "those investments could include: school safety analysis; social emotional supports; academic program investments; art and music programming; afterschool programming; professional development; additional administrative positions; school based health clinics; capital improvements." Did I read that correctly?

JCB: Yes.

AZ: You said "those investments could include" -- so there's no guarantee that you'll actually do any of those things, right?

JCB: We are presently evaluating the portfolio.

AZ: Did you ever consider making "academic program investments" or "capital improvements" or adding "art and music programming" or "afterschool programming" to the schools you're now talking about shutting down?

JCB: That's something I'd need to discuss with the mayor and Juan Rangel.

Mark my words -- if there's ever an exchange like that at a monthly Board of Education meeting, Chicago public school parents will start referring to spots in the audience at those Wednesday morning dog-and-pony shows as "quality seats."

Until that time, however, stayed tuned for continued "consultant-speak" and contentious school closings.