By JAMES WARREN
CHICAGO NEWS COOPERATIVE
On Monday, when Chicago’s mayor revealed a 53-item checklist to self-assess his first 100 days, one notable campaign promise — “Lengthen planet’s shortest school day/year” — wasn’t on it.
Published: August 26, 2011
But within 24 hours, another midwinter pledge was on the road to fulfillment with word that MayorRahm Emanuel, a k a the Missile, would jam a longer school day down the throat of the Chicago Teachers Union.
It doesn’t initially rank with adding 1,000 police officers to our streets or balancing the budget and not raising taxes — the latter a pledge that doesn’t quite hold up, given a property tax increase for schools. But adding as much as 90 minutes to the school day, if executed smartly, is significant.
The when and how, including whether the teachers’ union gets a pay increase in return, are left to a poker game in which the mayor holds big cards: the reality of the short day and an angry public’s at times irrational animus toward unions. Unable to pull the trigger, Mr. Emanuel orchestrated a process to maintain momentum for change and to pressure a maladroit teachers’ union.
The Missile and aides already know the essential options for lengthening the instructional day, like ditching the time-wasting “breakfast in the classroom” program. But his presidential-like penchant to name expansive advisory panels now inspires a board to make recommendations on a new day, with the union playing into his hands by refusing to participate.
It’s as if a sulking Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the United States Senate, had refused to discuss a debt ceiling deal with President Obama.
You think a fix is in? Well, then, show up to a few meetings and then squawk about a conspiracy. The union hardens an image of reflexive, intemperate resistance while facing a steely politician with high approval ratings who devours news cycles.
Granted, even a 90-minute extension just gets our schools to the national average. But view it in tandem with other proposed gambits, including a small bonus pool for principals.
The evidence linking improved teacher or principal performance with merit pay is murky, concedes Tim Knowles, an Emanuel education adviser who runs the estimable Urban Education Institute. But rewarding excellence is a smart goal and could bring useful, in-the-making metrics on how to assess performance intelligently.
For example, Mr. Knowles’s group has discerned ways to measure community engagement, a critical element of a school’s success.
The going is tough. Teachers and principals often labor in factory settings with factory rules and scant influence to reconfigure the assembly line. Merit pay shouldn’t be a stick disguised as a carrot or about working optimally in a suboptimal system where efforts are sabotaged by issues beyond one’s control — like grinding poverty and family dysfunction.
A thrust toward greater accountability is fine. But blaming teachers can be like blaming Chevy workers for cars badly designed and marketed by grotesquely-compensated management.
Yes, incentivize principals but consider how to reward systemic, not just individual, improvement. Don’t penalize a principal whose school’s reading scores are affected by an awful teacher whom he can’t ditch because of a contract making it virtually impossible to fire someone.
There is, too, a conspicuously unmentioned player: local school councils. In hiring and dismissing principals, they can be democracy run amok.
Since a happy Mr. Emanuel has just returned to his North Side home after his Tenant From Hell exited, he may walk a half-block north to Ravenswood Elementary School and four blocks south to Lake View High School.
At Ravenswood, a good principal was canned in a wrongheaded 5-to-4 vote by the local council several years back. At Lake View, a seemingly uninspired candidate — a former teacher there with lots of faculty chums — was just voted in as new principal.
In each case, the council’s two mandated teachers were critical to the outcomes. But what if a teacher gets a poor evaluation from a principal, who is pushed to new candor by new metrics and then votes on the principal’s contract renewal?
The Missile should add “Rehab one-size-fits-all school councils, even if community groups go ballistic” to the checklist and ram change through. Like a longer day, being average is a good aim for now. But at some point, we might conceive of occasionally being great.