The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That phrase came to mind as I reviewed the reams of headlines produced by Catalyst during the years since Mayor Richard M. Daley took the reins of the Chicago Public Schools. Many of the stories that Catalyst has written over the last 15 years are the same stories we write and discuss now—budget cuts, too many high school dropouts, too few preschools…and so on.

That’s not to say that Daley, who’s stepping down from the job everyone in town thought he had locked up for life, has been bad for public schools. His education legacy, in some ways, is positive: labor peace after years of strike threats, a lower dropout rate, a smaller district bureaucracy and more high school graduates enrolling in college. Other big-city mayors followed suit on one of Daley’s major moves: scrapping the district’s policy of social promotion of failing students. This past week, the mayor appeared at two public events showcasing education: a press conference to announce a revamp of career training in high schools and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new school on the Southwest Side.

Yet Daley’s most ambitious strategy, Renaissance 2010, has had mixed results and still angers grassroots activists because it shut down failing and under-enrolled schools and sparked an explosion in privately-run charters.

These new Renaissance schools have brought a chance at a better education to students eager to escape failing traditional schools but unable to get a coveted slot in magnet schools with special programs or selective schools. Some Renaissance schools, indeed, are high-performing. Yet school closings have been detrimental to students. A study by researchers at the University of Chicago shows that most displaced kids landed at another bad school. And despite Renaissance, three out of four Chicago Public Schools students remain enrolled in low-performing schools.

Most importantly, Renaissance 2010 never included a strategy for improving neighborhood schools that still enroll the vast majority of students.

The public judges schools by test scores, and despite some improvement, Chicago’s scores have yet to reach state standards—not to mention national averages, a better measure of how well schools are preparing students for life and work in the 21st Century.
Whoever wins the coming mayoral free-for-all will have to come up with a plan to raise achievement—and Chicago is beyond the stage at which the rollout of a big program will cut it.

Whatever school improvement strategy the mayor’s successor devises, the devil will be in the details.

One key element will be to boost morale, which teachers report is at rock-bottom because of layoffs and budget cuts. The toughest schools are most likely to have a revolving door of teachers, according to another University of Chicago study. Many veteran teachers fear that the district wants to push out experienced educators in favor of lower-paid rookies (a complaint heard in workplaces everywhere, not just schools). Chicago schools need a leader who can inspire teachers and make clear that their hard work is valued, needed and supported.

Good teachers are just one element of good schools. Community and parent involvement, strong leadership, and challenging coursework for students are other essential elements, research has found. The worst schools won’t improve without all the pieces of the puzzle.

The next schools CEO should be someone who understands the puzzle at ground level. That’s something Daley’s hand-picked CEOs—Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, all non-educators—haven’t brought to the table. Duncan gets a bad rap in some circles, but seemed to best understand that idea and worked closely with his chief education officer. That job is now vacant.

Maybe managers fit the bill under Daley’s tenure, as a way to shake up the system. But to take schools to the next level, the next mayor needs to heed critics who have long called for an educator with a proven track record to run the system. 

It’s no guarantee, but it’s a shot. Besides, we’re tired of recycling headlines.

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