How to run a big city school system: Hang on

In a major profile of the new chancellor of New York City's schools, the Sunday Times headline writer sums up Dennis Walcott nicely: A Schools Chief With a Knack for Conciliation. While, over in the Windy City, the Tribune went to slightly greater length to explain the appointment of Jean-Claude Brizard to head its schools:? New CPS chief leaves old district mired in questions, controversy.

Other than the size of the challenge (New York's is the largest school district in the nation; Chicago, the third largest), one of the things the two appointments have in common is that they are creatures of mayoral authority.? Michael Bloomberg, who stumbled into his third term as major domo of the Big Apple (no one calls it that any more), tripped badly when he tried to force another non-educator on the system.? He recovered quickly and moved one of his loyal deputies,? Walcott, into the job.

Chicago, on the other hand, is about to get a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who, while no slouch in the politics department (serving six years in Congress and several as a senior advisor to two presidents, including two as Barack Obama's chief of staff), has never run a city, much less an education system.? He might do well to talk to Adrian Fenty, the one-term mayor of Washington, DC., as well as Bloomberg, since, at first glance, Emanuel seems to have tripped coming out of the gate (he's not sworn in until next month) with the appointment of Brizard, who comes with a great deal of education management experience (he's a former principal with a masters' degrees in school administration and science education, graduate of the Broad Foundation's Superintendents Academy) and baggage, not the least of which are some angry citizens in Rochester, where he spent just enough time (two-and-a-half years) to give education reformers hope and the teacher's union agita. ?Says the Tribune:

A Tribune analysis of state and district records shows that even the accomplishments Brizard has heralded in his short time in Rochester are not what they seem.

For example, the district's passing rates on state achievement tests have increased in both math and English language arts across elementary grades, but scores plummeted in 2010 when the state raised the bar because of concerns that the test was too easy to pass.

And Emanuel surely struck the wrong note last week, introducing? Brizard, a Haitian native who served in New York City's schools, saying ?I chose somebody to shake up the status quo.? ?Isn't that what Richard Daley, who appointed three non-educators ? Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman ? tried to do the last couple decades?

Bloomberg and Joel Klein surely shook the status quo in New York during Klein's eight-year tenure at the helm?an extraordinarily lengthy one by urban superintendency standards.? And if the Times profile of Walcott is right, Gotham is getting a peacemaker, which seems to be what the city needs. It is anything but clear, however, that Chicago's new mayor, with his own reputation as a hothead, will need a troublemaker to run its schools.

A larger question, perhaps, is whether anything works.? Has any major American city seriously improved education opportunities for children?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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