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In Chicago, Imagining a Different Ending

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Now that the teacher strike in Chicago has ended -- and the city's school children have returned to school -- one thing seems unavoidably clear: even after this supposed agreement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his city's public school teachers will remain deeply divided, deeply mistrustful of one another, and deeply entrenched for the foreseeable future.

The good news is that the rest of us can learn something from the mistakes both sides in this particular melodrama have made. In fact, there are cities that have actually transformed their school systems for the better, and done so in a way that left everyone feeling good about (and committed to) the changes. To bring about such a shift, however, the central figures of reform -- elected officials and teacher unions -- must start thinking very differently about how transformational change occurs, and what it requires.

One place Chicago's leaders might want to visit is the Canadian province of Ontario, which realized a decade ago that its school system needed some massive remodeling. Unlike Chicago, however, the key figures in Ontario understood that in order to improve their schools they needed to build collective capacity -- which meant generating both the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone could ever match.

Educational change expert Michael Fullan was a part of the successful reforms in Ontario. In his book All Systems Go, Fullan explains why it worked:

"The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together."

If the morality play in the Windy City had played out differently, each side would have heeded a different part of Fullan's advice. Mayor Emanuel would have recognized the importance of fostering a deeper emotional commitment from the folks most responsible for seeing the reforms through -- his city's teachers. He would have realized the futility of pointing out that Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country while also denigrating his city's educators and putting them on the defensive from the moment he took office. And he would have genuinely welcomed educators into the process of reimagining what Chicago's schools should look like. In short, he would have done what our civic leaders are supposed to do: foster eclectic coalitions that bring people together in a spirit of partnership to work towards a common goal.

By the same token, in a parallel world Chicago's teachers would have realized that a deeper level of technical expertise is required in modern American classrooms. They would have been the first to call for a longer school day -- and they would have made sure the extra time was used wisely. They would have been the first to demand a better system of evaluation -- and they would have made sure it actually helped teachers improve the quality of their professional practice. And they would have been the first to acknowledge the value of empowering each school principal to build his or her own teaching staff. In short, they would have done what our educators are supposed to do: help the rest of us understand what great teaching and learning actually looks like -- and requires.

Instead, what we see in Chicago is a mayor primarily focused on the technical aspects of school reform, and a teaching force primarily driven by emotion. Ontario instructs us that it doesn't need to be this way. But it will, in Chicago and elsewhere, until we heed some simple advice: How we speak, not just what we say, matters greatly. And until the tenor of our national conversation reflects a deep awareness of, and commitment to, working together to achieve results, our efforts at developing collective capacity will remain, in Chicago and elsewhere, agonizingly out of reach.