Last June, shortly after Paul Vallas stepped down as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, education professor Tim Shanahan got a call from a young man named Arne Duncan. “I’d never heard of him,” says Shanahan, an expert on reading from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Duncan, then 36, said he had been Vallas’ deputy chief of staff and wanted to come right over. “He said he’d asked a bunch of people about reading, and they said talk to me,” Shanahan recalls.

Hearing Shanahan talk about his work, Duncan told him, “What you’re describing makes a lot of sense. My mother would really understand that—I’d really like you to meet my mother.” (“A weird thing to say on the first date,” Shanahan thought.)

At the end of their 90-minute conversation, Duncan said if he were in a position to do anything on reading in the next year, he hoped Shanahan would help. Shanahan made a vague offer to consult.

As soon as Duncan had shut the door, Shanahan tossed his notes from their meeting into the trash. “Yeah, right, you’re going to be in that position,” he thought.

Weeks later, Duncan got Vallas’ old job. In August, Shanahan got a call from Barbara Eason-Watkins, the new chief education officer, who gave him 48 hours to decide whether he would oversee Duncan’s first major program—the Chicago Reading Initiative.

Eight months later, all of Chicago got the same awakening Shanahan had. Initially viewed by many as too nice or too understated to survive the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago school politics, Duncan surprised most everyone in early April when he recommended that three schools be closed for low performance. And he didn’t bother to try to get the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on board, despite earlier efforts to work cooperatively with its new activist leadership.

With that maneuver, Duncan, a one-time professional basketball player, proved that he’s willing to throw an elbow. CTU leadership instantly cried foul, but Duncan had the backing of his coach—Mayor Richard M. Daley—who ultimately will decide how long to keep him in the game.

The move also showcased Duncan’s leadership style: Keeping focused on long-term solutions, he moves quietly behind the scenes, seeking opinions from outside experts, making deliberate decisions, then acting aggressively to implement them.

Duncan and his team are asking the right questions, says Peter Martinez, director of the Center for School Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “What are we spending on staff development? Are external partners making a difference? Are we getting quality out of the principal and teacher pipeline?”

However, a number of looming crises could keep him from realizing his own agenda.

For the first time in more than seven years, Chicago’s public schools are facing a decrease in state funding. The new federal education law, No Child Left Behind, may force dramatic changes in the city’s school choice, testing and busing policies, leaving little time for central office to prepare. And by this fall, Duncan will begin contract negotiations with the CTU, whose leaders are furious with him about the school-closing decision.

Behind the scenes at central office, Duncan faces an internal challenge that some say could sabotage his school improvement efforts: getting longtime CPS bureaucrats to buy in to his agenda. “He can’t do it alone,” says Bill Gerstein, a South Shore High School assistant principal who has known Duncan for more than 20 years.

800-pound gorilla

Duncan draws praise from many quarters for his administration’s efforts to extend a sincere welcome to outside groups involved with the school system, including the reformers, academics and foundation officials with whom Vallas often sparred. But such efforts risk alienating long-time administrators, particularly those who pre-date the Vallas administration.

“The doors are open, and people from the board are being pro-active about including [outsiders]—it’s great,” says Victoria Chou, dean of UIC’s College of Education, who is working with Shanahan on the Reading Initiative.

Duncan began his tenure by stacking his leadership team with half a dozen outside experts, including Shanahan, Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago and Jeanne Nowaczewski, who worked with small schools for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

Duncan has kept experienced hands from the Vallas administration, such as Phil Hansen in the Office of Accountability, Sue Gamm in Specialized Services and Wilfredo Ortiz in High School Development; he also promoted veteran administrators Eva Nickolich and Armando Almendarez, both now deputy chief education officers. All of them report to his No. 2, Eason-Watkins, who was plucked from the principal’s job at McCosh Elementary, where she had won many admirers.

High-profile outsiders have helped shape many of Duncan’s signature projects, including the following:

Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company is doing pro-bono consulting for Duncan’s Human Capital Initiative, an effort to improve the quality of instruction and principal leadership. A steering committee for the initiative includes representatives from the CTU, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), and Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a business-backed school reform group.

The Chicago Public Education Fund helped develop and fund an audit of district spending on professional development, led by consultant Karen Hawley Miles, president of Education Resource Management Strategies, who has done similar audits in five other urban districts.

Six local foundations, including The Chicago Community Trust, sit on a steering committee with Duncan to decide how to spend $18 million in grants earmarked for creating small schools, the centerpiece of his approach to improve failing high schools. Two-thirds of the money was donated by the William and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But by focusing so much attention on outreach, Duncan risks alienating long-time insiders, who have had little input on his initiatives, says one former CPS administrator. “The feeling within the system is that Arne has brought in a lot of people from the outside who do not understand education in CPS, and [he] has put them in jobs that pay quite a bit of money,” says an administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s no communication with educators in the system.”

Better outreach with long-time insiders is a priority, says Eason-Watkins. “Both Arne and I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to reach out to individuals,” she says. “Any individual, no matter where they were in the organization, if they called and needed clarification, it was provided.”

But LQE Executive Director John Ayers has a different take. “I hear there’s gridlock,” he says. “[Duncan’s lieutenants] are frozen out, and the decisions are still in the hands of traditional educators.” Central office has a “command-and-control mentality” and some staff hoard information, he adds.

Mid-level bureaucrats are the “800-pound gorilla that sits over school reform,” says Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at UIC. “You still have the old mentality, the old guard, nestling in the ranks, and hoping that this too will pass. If Arne’s going to drive change, it’s gotta be not just in terms of changing people but restructuring that bureaucracy.”

While Duncan and his team work to open lines of communication with central office staff, some in the field are getting mixed signals, or worse yet, no signal at all.

“I am not sure who to call to get some answers,” says Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, who serves as an external partner to several schools. At times, Radner says, the central office response is, “We’re waiting for the kid on the fifth floor [where Duncan’s office is located at 125 S. Clark St.] to make up his mind.”

In another fifth-floor office just a few blocks away, Mayor Daley helps the kid make up his mind on major decisions, according to Ald. Patrick O’Connor, who chairs the City Council Education Committee. “These guys aren’t making huge decisions without everybody being shown what the decisions are and being able to make the case [for] why they need to be made,” he says.

Green horns

Both Duncan and Eason-Watkins get high marks for focus and determination—and for being quick studies, but some view their lack of experience at the helm of a large organization as a weakness.

Fair or not, this perception has reached the grassroots, which has a generally positive impression of the new leadership. Early this spring a document titled “The REAL Organizational Chart,” credited to an LSC representative, began making the rounds on central office fax machines. Written by an LSC representative, it showed Duncan and Board President Michael Scott at the bottom; above them were CPS officials who had made decisions or overseen efforts that had angered LSCs.

The uneasy honeymoon has kept some outside groups in a wait-and-see posture. “The jury is so out on this one,” says Jacqueline Leavy, director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which tracks CPS capital spending. “It seems that there’s a sincere desire to set a new tone. But we’re waiting to see. We need results.”

For instance, Leavy says the district has not yet put out a capital spending plan for the current fiscal year, which is nearly over. “We’ve asked and asked and asked,” she says. “Put it on paper, give it to people.”

Chief of Staff Peggy Davis concedes that “bureaucracies don’t change overnight.” Efforts to change the organizational culture, getting people to collaborate across departments, for instance, have proved a mixed bag, she says. “Arne has been saying since he came in that we need to work as a team, and it’ll take a while for that to sink in and change.”

Those seeds are beginning to bear fruit, says John Easton, who oversees research and program evaluation. “There’s more alignment of what to look at across the organization,” he notes. For instance, the criteria used to determine which schools to close for poor performance are also being used to evaluate schools for three other new initiatives: revamped school report cards, incentives for high-performing schools and a retooled principal evaluation process.

Within the inner circle, “the flow of communication is quite steady,” says Albert Bertani, who left the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association last fall to head up the Office of Professional Development. “It’s not uncommon for my assistant to come in and say, ‘Arne’s on the line—he wants to talk to you for a quick two minutes,'” he says.

‘Find their own way’

In recent months, Eason-Watkins has been leading a charge to tackle bureaucratic gridlock head-on. By summer, she plans to begin reshaping the configuration of regional offices to enhance their ability to provide instructional support to schools. Her plan could break the district’s current six regions into as many as 24 smaller units.

Her guiding mission is to ensure that principals have access to an administrator who would be readily available and more focused on instructional support. Now, region officers are administrative jacks-of-all-trades who, among other things, oversee food service and transportation, reconcile LSC disputes and handle school crises, Eason-Watkins explains. Some of those functions might be centralized, she notes.

“We’re approaching it thoughtfully and collectively, and [we’re] engaging a lot of people in conversation,” she says. In April, Eason-Watkins led a group of 20 administrators from various departments on a retreat to discuss the plan. “The last thing any of us would want to create would be … a situation where someone would have to go through more of a bureaucracy to get the information that they needed.”

The plan gets a thumbs-up from Margaret Harrigan, a retired school board administrator who made her name as a subdistrict superintendent in the late 1970s. “It’s wonderful that it’s being considered,” she says. Regional administrators have too many schools to work with effectively, she says. “I couldn’t have done anything if you gave me 100 [schools]. … The only downside is if they don’t get real leaders in those positions.”

Meanwhile, some voices at City Hall are counseling even more caution. “We all have to be convinced that it’s gonna improve the situation as opposed to just reshuffle the deck,” says Ald. O’Connor. “When you do these massive overhauls, there’s a certain amount of time that you lose, because everybody gets re-situated, and the new system takes a little time to shake out.”

There’s no clear-cut model for re-organizing a big bureaucracy to support instruction, says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who studies the management of large school districts. The strategies districts often try—decentralization to the subdistrict level or to individual schools—generally don’t work. “The bottom line is, there’s no clear way to do this, or more people would be doing it,” says Kirst. “They’re gonna have to find their own way.”

Power centers

Tony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, says the idea of “re-inventing line authority” is appealing but presents institutional challenges. “Historically, central offices have operated on seniority and loyalty and patronage,” he says. “Now, you’re talking about a system that’s expertise-based. To move in this direction would entail a major cultural shift. Many of these people who are there because of personal and political connections may not be that easy to move.”

Keeping political peace was one of Vallas’ strengths, notes LQE’s Ayers. “Vallas set up a lot of things that kept the power centers in place,” he says, pointing to the jobs, contracts and favors Vallas doled out to keep peace with the teachers union, central office staffers and community constituents. “It was usually all above board,” he says. “Not always pretty, but what the hell, it’s Chicago.”

This is one arena where Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott comes in. He keeps the field clear for Duncan and his team to focus on education, Ayers concludes. “He’s a great choice for…managing community expectations and doling out goodies and solving problems. That’s the game, and he’s very, very good at it.”

Catalyst staff contributed to this report.

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