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Editorial: School chiefs revolving door has to end

BarbarByrd-Bennett former top educatiofficial Detroit Cleveland.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former top education official in Detroit and Cleveland.

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:26AM



Chicago has gone through four schools CEOs in the last four years.

We must do better.

We have to do better.

And if the mayor can learn from past mistakes, we might actually do better.

Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard is leaving after just 17 months on the job, Chicago Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and Rosalind Rossi reported Thursday night.

His replacement, current Chief Academic Adviser Barbara Byrd-Bennett, will become Chicago’s fifth leader since 2008. The last long-term leader was Arne Duncan, CEO from 2001 until he left to become U.S. education secretary in 2009.

The revolving door must stop. Chicago is the midst of massive and unprecedented reform. The city’s ability to recruit and retain strong, stable leadership at the top can make or break those efforts.

Pressing issues need immediate, uninterrupted attention: The new teacher contract must be signed, the latest school closing list is due Dec. 1, and schools are in the thick of putting in place a new common core curriculum and a teacher evaluation system crucial to improving classroom outcomes.

Then there is the longer term: making the longer school day truly a better day, confronting an estimated $2.3 billion deficit over the next two years, and investing as heavily in improving teaching and learning in all schools as CPS has in closing and turning around failing ones.

Though Brizard’s departure may be tough on Chicago in the short term, it was time for him to go. The leap from Rochester, N.Y., where he led that city’s relatively small school system, to Chicago was simply too great. Mayor Rahm Emanuel bet on the wrong man and did little to set him up for success.

A fine, forward-looking man who brought much-needed classroom experience to the CEO’s office, Brizard failed to command the respect needed to pull off an extremely difficult job.

Brizard was hobbled by Emanuel’s tight oversight and by the mayor’s decision to make several of Brizard’s early top appointments for him, as well as by strong leadership from the school board president. This led to a constant refrain: Who is really in charge?

But a CEO with more pronounced leadership and execution skills likely could have held his own.

Is Byrd-Bennett that person? We don’t know yet.

A former teacher, Byrd-Bennett ran the Cleveland public schools and a district of low-performing New York City schools, and she was a top executive in the Detroit schools. She’s also known in Chicago, which is a plus. She joined CPS as interim academic chief in May and last year helped train CPS’ educational leaders. She earned high marks during the strike for her savvy negotiating and people skills.

But does Byrd-Bennett have what it takes to help improve instruction, to navigate the land mines of school closings and work under a controlling mayor while building her own capacity to execute with clarity and precision?

It’s a tall order, but one in which Chicago cannot afford to fail.

Emanuel would do well to give Byrd-Bennett a longer leash than he gave Brizard, letting her fill key posts, hold her own news conferences and build strong relationships in neighborhoods where schools will close.

Emanuel is not about to drop his bulldog ways when it comes to improving schools, nor should he. But he has to give Byrd-Bennett room to choose the best path to realize his vision.

Most importantly, Emanuel must let Byrd-Bennett, an educator, decide how best to improve teaching and learning. Call schools what you will: charters, turnarounds, traditional. In the end, what matters most is what goes on in the classroom.



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