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"Where’s plan for longer school day?"

by Esther Cepeda  |  09/06/2011

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools head Jean-Claude Brizard really are going about the business of extending the school day all wrong.

Their hearts are in the right place — there’s no question that all students, and CPS students in particular, need a longer school day.

But it seems as if they’re trying to roll something — anything — out ASAP with no concrete plans for what the extra 90 minutes will be used for. Buy-in from the people expected to implement the plans appears not even to be an afterthought.

It’s just another in a sequence of moves the people who actually work for CPS have endured as the two leaders strain to make good on Emanuel’s campaign promises.

Most recently, Emanuel and Brizard neglected to give a head’s up to the president of the Chicago Principals Association before she learned, at a news conference, about the plan to create a merit pay system for school principals. Not exactly a professional way to treat respected colleagues.

And now there’s the longer school day debate. Brizard made headlines by offering television viewers the nugget that he’d be willing to offer 2 percent more pay to teachers in exchange for a 90-minute longer school day and five extra days of instruction, but he had not talked to the teachers union about it first.

While it’s understandable why Brizard might have wanted to skip the step of going to the seemingly always-ready-to-say-no teacher’s union first — who could blame anyone for thinking it would have been an extra, fruitless step — that’s no excuse for dissing the people who will have to work the extra hours.

After hearing of the plan, an outraged Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, said, “There is no planning. This is just some stuff they threw out. It’s all political. There’s no discussion with the people who do the actual work.”

I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with anything Lewis has said as much as I do about that.

Maybe someone has been laboring behind the scenes for roughly 100 days and has formulated research-driven recommendations on how to build and implement a longer school day for CPS students, but I haven’t heard of anything like that.

Meanwhile, Emanuel is going around town asking everyone from clergy to youth task-force members to support a plan that isn’t actually a plan but merely a vague vision of a longer school day that miraculously improves student academic achievement. Worse, he’s balking at the idea that careful consideration of exactly what students will be doing during that time — and collaboration with the teachers who will be leading those activities — should be the driving factor in formulating such a drastic change.

“Teachers will help design a longer day,” Emanuel said dismissively. “I cannot wait for a high-class debate and discussion and agreement about, ‘Is it more math? Is it more history?’ ”


For a guy who champions corporate methods for squeezing more value and higher efficiencies out of complex systems, he’s completely wrong if he thinks any organization can be expected to improve any aspect of performance without first engaging in rigorous debate and discussion among stakeholders.

The mayor should reread every business leader’s bible, Good to Great by Jim Collins: It’s disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action that enable even bad organizations to turn around and achieve enduring greatness. Organizational change requires painstaking collaboration, planning and systematic implementation. Foot-dragging is anathema, but it is immensely rare for those who launch radical change programs and wrenching restructurings to succeed.

The mayor is claiming a mandate to improve Chicago schools, and there isn’t a stakeholder in town that doesn’t want to see CPS do a better job at better educating and graduating students. But no mandate is a license for slapdash efforts implemented for the sake of claiming, “I said I’d do it, and there, I’ve done it.”

Chicago Teachers Union