By Dan Haley
He talks about the great principal and the failing principal. And test scores don't come up. No mention of data or technology. Rather, Jean-Claude Brizard, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, describes walking into two Chicago elementary schools, neither in the affluent neighborhoods of the city, and knowing almost instantly that one principal was a high flyer, the other rudderless.
How does he know? He says he tells the principals that he has about 90 minutes, to show him parts of the buildings they love, to take him into the classrooms of the two best and two worst teachers in the school. The principal who tours him through the handsome but empty school auditorium or student-less cafeteria has nothing child-focused to show off to him. The principal who walks through halls showing a "rich environment" celebrating the work of the kids and readily walks him into classrooms where teachers do not seem surprised to see a principal or even the CEO, tells him he is in a school with a confident principal and a focus on teaching and learning.
Brizard, still new in the job after only five months, came to Oak Park last week to talk to the editors and reporters who work on our papers covering the West Side and the near Loop and Gold Coast neighborhoods. First impressions: He is smart in multiple ways. In a short time he has absorbed enormous quantities of information. Budgets. City and state politics. Neighborhood politics. Building-by-building conditions. Dysfunctional history. He is easy to talk with. Charming, not slick. His Caribbean/New York accent takes a little time to pick up, along with his soft-spoken way. He is totally focused on big issues even as he understands that his progress is often going to be measured by one parent's experience as they make hard choices for one child.
Brizard clearly believes in principals. School-by-school, they will be the building blocks for anything he accomplishes in his years in Chicago. With plans for bonuses for thriving principals, with a clear vision of the autonomy a strong principal should earn through assessment and accountability (and an equally clear sense of what decisions need to be centralized), Brizard believes the system can renew itself over time.
"Doing the human capital work is critical," he says. "If you take care of principals and teachers," things will turn up.
Brizard appears enormously confident, despite the battle over the longer school day this fall, that over time he will be able to bring the Chicago Teachers Union into the same gear he operates in. He knows there is both macro- and micro-momentum on the side of school reform — longer days, year-round school, more innovation, more accountability. And he believes that ultimately the union will have to get into sync with its members, whom he believes are already buying into the coming change.
"Teachers today don't want lockstep. They want to be professionals. They want career ladders and options," he says. And while the push for changes in public education is spreading nationwide, he says that in urban school systems "the urgency is greater" than anywhere else because the challenges are so immense.
With a powerful mayor covering his back, Brizard is remarkably candid when discussing the ward politics that have often dictated which neighborhoods got the new school. He is also gathering the data for what he calls "a very big conversation on equity" within the system. The surprise he is likely to reveal is that, right now, the Chicago schools in the toughest neighborhoods are already getting greater financial resources than the tonier parts of the city. That furthers his argument that fixing schools isn't all about money. It is about picking your bets on key issues and investing in the right people.