Planning with the Full Picture

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

With a new blueprint, teaching and learning make a comeback at the Chicago Public Schools

PayneThe education plan released by the Chicago Public Schools last April identifies just one goal, and it’s not to raise test scores. It directs the district’s administrative and instructional personnel to “improve schools so that all students become powerful and creative thinkers, responsible global citizens, self-confident individuals and effective, literate communicators.”

That’s a big-picture view of the purpose of education that Terry Mazany, president of the Chicago Community Trust, wanted guiding decisions when he accepted the job as CPS’s interim chief executive officer in 2010. “But there was a consensus among leadership at CPS that the district had lost this meaningful and coherent vision for education,” he says.

To re-establish that vision and a new education plan to go with it, Mazany needed first to fill a position that had been vacant for nearly a year, that of chief education officer. “The education side had been badly fragmented,” he says. “I knew I needed somebody who had unimpeachable credibility, someone hugely respected.”

He called on Charles Payne, SSA’s Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor. Payne, who was already serving in Mazany’s kitchen cabinet, found the move from occasional adviser to full-time executive difficult to imagine, but still more difficult to refuse.

“It’s one of those things that it’s really hard to say no to: ‘Do something for the children,’” Payne says with a laugh. “At the same time, given that the problems are systemic, you think, the chances of one or two people making any difference are not all that good.”

Whatever his misgivings, Payne signed on because he and Mazany shared a belief in the power of an overarching vision. “It’s important to be explicit about what we think we’re doing, what our goals are,” Payne says.

To participate in the process of drafting a plan, the pair tapped more than 120 educators, parents and community activists, as well as an external advisory board drawn from education, business, government, foundations and higher education. Work groups primarily composed of CPS district and area personnel and school principals focused on three key priorities: instruction, assessment and professional community; creating safe, respectful and supportive climates for student learning and partnerships with families and communities; and developing effective leadership at all levels. Participants regularly met to discuss the issues and draft goals and strategies, spelling out necessary actions at the school, area and district levels.

The resulting plan, “Elevating Our Vision for Learning: Improving Schools for All,” both raises the bar for education in the 21st century and reinstates teaching and learning as the district’s core business. Its research-based ideas about school improvement are backed by examples of best practice from the U.S. and abroad, giving educators a vital “touchstone” for their work.

“Schools have been told for a number of years now, ‘Get your test scores up, we don’t give a darn how,’” Payne says. “Our emphasis on the development of the ‘whole child’ is crucial, as is the notion of creating a global citizenry.”

Along with a discussion guide, the final plan was distributed to central office personnel and principals, local school councils, and parent and community groups. When incoming CEO Jean-Claude Brizard came to CPS, he was given a copy as well. “Jean Claude didn’t need a document like this for guidance,” Mazany says, “but perhaps it saved him a clash with the prior culture. It did bridge from one administration to the next.”

The new administration has already taken action consistent with the report’s recommendations: budget priorities, new schools, an emphasis on higher standards, broadening the curriculum, recognizing the limitations of the ISAT, even the development of school leadership. In mid August, CPS announced the formation of the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, a principal training and support program, as well as a plan for economic incentives tied to principals’ performance.

“To what degree this new program and other initiatives have been influenced by the report, I don’t know. I suspect they’re more likely to have been influenced by the fact that the new leadership has values that are pretty consistent with those in the report,” says Payne, whose time as the interim chief education officer ended in June. With an up-to-date education plan and a new administration in place, Payne’s only note of caution concerns the pace of change. “I’m worried about the supercharged atmosphere, the sense that everything has to happen at once. There are so many folks in power who want to see some results right away. I’m worried about that.”

—- Patricia Nedeau