How Reform Lost Seth Lavin

There were no kids in class on Friday, for better or worse.  During the week ahead, there are more hearings about school closings and turnarounds.  Then report cards get sent home and it’s February.  Most of you who comment here are angrily (or, it seems, gleefully) opposed to most everything Emanuel and Brizard are trying to do.  (It’s much the same at the national level.)  But there are many others, readers and those too busy or turned off by the fighting to read or comment, who see the obvious need for change and want to believe that Emanuel and Brizard can deliver at least some of the improvements for kids that have been promised. (Seriously, Chicago schools have really got to get better, and not everything that’s gone wrong with them can reasonably be blamed on Vallas, Duncan, Huberman, or Brizard, or poverty, or NCLB, or whatever.)  But it’s not an easy thing to believe in change, to hope, to leap, and sometimes the folks leading the charge for change don’t make it any easier by being, well, a little full of themselves, or picking unlikely or unwise strategies for making things better.  They make it easy to doubt, or even reject the notion that change — this kind of change, at least — can work. Why am I bringing this up now?  Well, one of those reform-curious people going through the process of belief and doubt is former teacher Seth Lavin, who writes Chicago Schools Wonks.*  In the excerpt below, you can see Lavin is struggling in a way I think many people like him are struggling.  He’s not saying anything particularly new — you read and hear this all over the place these last few months in particular – but he’s articulating a thought process that I think is important for everyone to understand, reformers and counter-reformers alike. You can be gleeful about his doubts — I have no doubt you will be — but it would be so much more interesting if you shared your own instead, mirroring his self-re


I’ve grown frustrated with Team Rahm on schools. This mostly isn’t because of policy but because of their tone-deafness when it comes to talking to Chicago about school reform. I wrestled a lot this week with what it is I think they’re missing and I came up with what’s below. Something to remember: this is just my opinion. It’s not pulled from nothing—it’s based on a lot of observation, conservation, reading and watching, but in the end it’s my opinion. So take it for what it is.

What Team Rahm thinks (or what I think they think):

CPS is a moribund institution that’s been stuck in a painful world of underperformance for years. Parents, kids and teachers deep down know it’s failing and want someone to blow it up. The key reason it’s persisted in failing for so long is that people who’ve been in charge lacked courage and a sense of urgency. No one’s had the courage to point to teacher quality standards and say “these are too low.” No one’s had the courage to point to the school day and say “this is too short.” No one’s had the courage to point to state standards and school evaluations and say “these aren’t rigorous enough.” No one’s had the courage to point to a huge portion of CPS schools and say “these are failing.”

Team Rahm sees itself as the leadership that finally brings the courage to call bullshit bullshit. And, as they see it, they finally bring the sense of urgency and willingness to slay sacred cows necessary to solve these problems. They’re lengthening the day and taking ownership of higher evaluation standards across the board (some theirs, some pushed by state law). Most noisily and most currently, however, they’re making an aggressive turnaround and closure push. This is the crux of what reform is to them, with that sense of urgency and real-talk courage all bound up inside: students who’ve been stuck in schools that have failed for years should be sprung free. Close those schools completely or turn them around by firing all the adults. Then, get those kids into a better school—either a better traditional CPS school, an existing charter school, a new charter school or that same school but made better by turn-around. It’s disruptive, noisy, painful—all the things that Team Rahm is proud to be able to push through for the sake of kids. It’s also clear, they believe, that if you can push through the political opposition and make these changes happen they will work.

Team Rahm sees the parent/teacher opposition that’s sprung up not as organic expression of skepticism or true community disagreement but as the organized troublemaking of small groups of noisy adults with adult-centric agendas other than school improvement (CTU, KOCO, PURE and to some extent RYH).

These groups, as Team Rahm sees it, don’t really represent the parent/teacher community. Beyond these groups Team Rahm sees a silent majority of teachers and parents toiling in frustration with an inadequate system who sees Team Rahm’s entrance as a long-awaited liberation from failure.

Why Team Rahm is wrong (I think):

I think Team Rahm is wrong. I think they are wrong about two really foundational things:

1.     These ideas will clearly work

2.     The silent majority of Chicago believes these ideas will work

It’s because Team Rahm at its heart believes these things, and the majority of Chicago doesn’t, that the entire Emanuel administration’s posturing on school reform is making people so angry. Ever-present is a desire to turn reform into a fight with winners and losers and an arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all tone that grows from these two flawed beliefs. That tone tells people, at best, “if you doubt these ideas you are part of the political opposition that prevents these ideas from working,” and at worst “if you doubt this plan you don’t want what’s best for kids.” There are so many problems with this:

These ideas aren’t new and they haven’t clearly worked. 

We’ve seen this movie before. Paul Vallas invented this movie. Arne Duncan, while a little better-liked, also directed this movie. The two of them ran CPS from 1995 to 2009. Cutting through bloated bureaucracy, elevating standards, aggressively and controversially closing bad schools while building new ones and (more recently) turnarounds—that’s what Chicago’s talked about for years!

Chicago reform fatigue.

A lot of really wonderful things have happened in Chicago since 1995 and, like I said at the beginning, I think a lot of those ideas are part of what’s necessary to make CPS fulfill its promise. But it hasn’t worked! Even more relevant—no one feels like it’s worked. If we all felt like CPS reform had made CPS into a district that as a norm propels kids through college graduation and into successful futures then Rahm wouldn’t have hesitated to send his kids to CPS schools. And that’s Ravenswood, for God’s sake. Do you think parents in Bronzeville, Englewood, Austin and Altgeld Gardens believe CPS works well? Of course not! They may like their kids’ teachers some years but in general they think Chicago schools are terrible. And they think this after having read in 15 years of newspapers about closings, charter openings, turnarounds—all the same kinds of plans Rahm is talking about self-righteously now. And they think this after also watching Vallas and Duncan declare victory and float off into a national embrace. They are tired of this stuff. They have not concluded that the problem is reform was too small in scope. They see the sad truth—this stuff works sometimes but so far not as well or as sustainably and scaleably as advertised. And they certainly don’t look at Rahm and Brizard as white knights arriving at last to save them.

National reform fatigue.

Others will disagree but I think we’re in the middle of a national reform backlash. It’s odd to say that, I know, given we’ve finally reached a political consensus on both sides that this kind of reform is good education policy. For my money that 2008 Time cover with Michelle Rhee marked, not the arrival of school reform, but the peak of public trust for this current wave. Since then I think trust has gone significantly downhill. That’s not to say there aren’t reform efforts doing brilliant things (Relay, Achievement First, etc.) but these are so drowned out by reform institutions promoted as loudly but delivering uncertain outcomes. The national end result, I think, is the sound of static and a feeling of mistrust.

Why this is a problem for Team Rahm

They’re talking to Chicago wrong. In terms of school reform Chicago is like a new romantic partner fresh out of two consecutive abusive relationships (not counting the Huberman fling). Of course Chicago isn’t going to trust a reform push presented the way Team Rahm is presenting this one.

It’s making people angry, making the administration seem out of touch and eroding trust. True, CPS has mayoral control. SB7 gave the mayor even more power. Rahm doesn’t really need popular support to advance his education agenda in the near-term. That said, nothing in school reform works immediately and the longer-term success of reform initiatives depends on the faith and hard work of 500 principals, 40,000 CPS employees, 400,000 students and their families. If the city doesn’t believe in the mayor’s plan for the schools it can never work meaningfully or lastingly.

It could also, in the worst case for them, be an administration-sinking issue. From where I sit if Michelle Rhee had ben Kaya Henderson from the start Adrian Fenty would still be mayor of DC. He got booted out for seeming simultaneously arrogant and inept. The tone on school reform was a huge part of that. Of course he had other problems (baseball tickets) but.. so does Rahm. I’m not betting on education sinking the Rahm ship. Chicago has so little opposition and so much political cowardice it’s really hard to imagine anyone mounting a serious challenger candidacy. That said, I sure hope everyone in CPS’ leadership team and Rahm’s leadership team recognizes that they’ve started down a path that, in certain circumstances, could destroy them.

What’s my message to Team Rahm?

Please, please show some humility. Get over yourselves. You didn’t invent reform. You didn’t invent impatience. You didn’t invent being angry at CPS for failing Chicago. You’re right that Chicago wants reform. You’re right that Chicago is impatient and you’re right that Chicago is angry because it’s being failed by its most important institution. But that’s been true for decades. And at least two big, noisy, self-righteous CPS leaderships have swept through since then saying the same stuff you’re saying now and changing nothing (at least in people’s minds). No one trusts you and for good reason. Maybe that’s Paul Vallas’ fault and Arne Duncan’s fault and not your fault but it’s certainly your problem. You should expect cynicism, skepticism, anger and mistrust. You should know that no one believes your impatience alone is going to get us anywhere. Drop the arrogance. Drop the self-righteousness. Show us the proof first always and tell us constantly that you want to move carefully, build things to last and that you intend to stick around until we see the proof.

It may be your first rodeo but it isn’t Chicago’s.


*Lavin no longer works for John Fritchey, as the original version of this post stated.  Apologies for the error.

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  • Thank you for sharing Mr. Levin's observations. They remind me very much of a speech by Dr. Charles Payne, UC professor and short-lived Chief Education officer under Terry Mazany (a team that, by the way, seemed to "get it"). Ironically, this speech is required reading as part of the interview process for the CPS Office of School Improvement, perhaps the most arrogant of the reformers. Please excuse the length of this excerpt from Dr. Payne's speech, but it fit too perfectly to ignore:

    I want to go back for a second to this notion of “whiteness.”
    It is a longstanding staple of black humor that whiteness comes
    in degrees, that some people have more of it than others. There
    are jokes about “extra-white white people,” about people who were
    “unreasonably white” and the like. Among black educators, one
    often heard that kind of remark made about the Coalition for
    Essential Schools in its early years. At one time, one heard it about
    the Gates Foundation, although more recently people seem to be
    willing to give them some credit, albeit grudgingly, for having
    learned better behavior. And what did they mean when they say
    that Gates was “white”? Well, they meant that Gates was arrogant
    in the way it operated, coming into cities with a whole lot of
    money and a half of an idea. Now, the half an idea they had was
    small schools, which happens to be one of the better ideas on the
    table right now. Nevertheless, when you push that idea with no
    knowledge of what’s happening in the local system, no knowledge
    of its capacity for implementation, when you push for small
    schools without thinking about who will staff them or what they
    will teach, without consideration of their impact on other schools,
    the results can get ugly. Whether justly or not, Gates was initially
    perceived by black educators as saying, “Make schools small and
    the world will get better,” and refusing to listen to practitioners
    who were trying to say it’s more complicated than that. In this
    contest, whiteness comes to mean sheer disregard for the thinking
    of others. It refers to a kind of preciousness about one’s own ideas,
    the kind of overweening self-confidence that is conferred only by
    general obtuseness or an Ivy League degree. In historical terms, it’s
    the basic colonialist belief that there is only one right model and
    your particular history and culture don’t matter. Lisa Delpit argues
    that one of the consequences of that position is that whatever
    particular kind of knowledge nonwhite professionals may have—
    based on their knowledge of culture, based on the knowledge of a
    particular locality—gets devalued by the universalist model.
    It is very much, both symbolically and empirically, an Ivy
    League kind of attitude. A lot of the folks who are accused of being
    too white do come from elite backgrounds. People probably need
    to unlearn being from Elite U. There’s a contradiction in the whole
    idea of elite education and working in impoverished settings. Your
    education beats you over the head with the idea that you’re getting
    the best education that you can get. Then they say, “Now go out and
    work with other people and listen to them.” That’s a contradiction
    because you’ve been socialized to only listen to people who have
    elite backgrounds. Other folk, with other ideas and other ways of
    expressing those ideas, are automatically devalued, so that in order
    to actually make that elite education worth anything, you have to
    undo a part of it.
    Last summer I was interviewing James Lytle, the
    superintendent of Trenton, New Jersey schools, who is white. We
    were talking about all of the school reform programs that have
    come through New Jersey. Because of a ruling by the state supreme
    court, urban districts in New Jersey have substantial amounts of
    state money, much of which has gone into comprehensive school
    reform programs. Name a program and it’s been to New Jersey. In
    part, I was interested in how, from a superintendent’s viewpoint,
    the experience of working with outsider programs differed across
    programs. We did talk about that but he stressed that in many
    respects working with one reformer is pretty much the same as
    working with another: Nearly all of them are disdainful in their
    attitudes toward local educators. Reformers come to town, start
    implementing their programs and they don’t ask a single person in
    the Trenton system, “What’s been going on around here?” They
    do not have enough respect for the system’s professionals to think
    that they might have something to contribute over and above the
    model design. Lytle has accused program developers of taking
    the McDonald’s approach, with all the significant thinking and
    planning done at corporate headquarters while the franchisees are
    expected to just follow the policies. That is a good analogy but the
    racial analogy fits as well. Reformers take the role of the colonists
    from the mother country, treating the people with whom they are
    working as if they were peasants or niggers, explaining all failures
    and difficulties in terms of the limitations of the local people. “Our
    program would work if only these people didn’t resist so much.”

  • The truth is Chicago has been in a state of permanent reform long before 1995. The history of public education in Chicago is littered with one reform plan after another going back to at least the early 1900s. A common thread running through these reforms is that education for poor children, whether they are white ethnics newly arrived from Europe, black children up from the south, or minority urban youth born into poor communities is that education is the great equalizer.

    Its not, that is a great myth and assuming any reform plan can equalize poor children's outcomes to those in our society who are not poor is part of perpetuating that myth. It does not mean poor children can't learn, but it does mean members of higher social classes regardless of their race will push their own children harder based on the mean test scores necessary to be admitted to competitive colleges and/or skills necessary to become highly competitive workers. So if we lift the test scores of poor children up it will only cause those looking over their shoulders to send their children to more prep programs, provide even more enrichment, and put even more money away for college.

    Some poor children will rise to the top because of the individual skills they have and exceptional parenting, the majority cannot. We live is a class society, it will not go away just because the current Mayor or even past reformers believed education to be the great equalizer. To say its not fair is an understatement, its the reality we live with in our highly competitive society based on individual gain. The Mayor wants his own children to have an edge so that is why they are in Lab School, for that matter that is why my one of own daughters went to Payton and prepared for the ACT as early as her freshman year in high school.

    I have always believed even given this framework it is wrong to give up on poor children in urban areas even if the end game is somewhat more literate poor adults and not a pathway to the middle class that public education promises to the children of the poor and hasn't ever been able to deliver in America's urban centers.

    Rod Estvan

  • I resent that I am labeled a failure as a teacher. I resent that my students are labeled failures. I resent that my school is labeled a failure. I resent that my district is labeled a failure.

    We all would like to see better educational outcomes. Reformers have no monopoly on that desire, nor do they have a monopoly on potential solutions. But please, can we provide a little context? For example, let's address this incessant beating of the drum that 100% of students must be college ready.

    According to the 2010 census, about 56% of Americans attend college. Annually, about 50% of graduates from my school attend college. Our students are 95% low income. Most of their parents never graduated from high school. Heck, many of their parents never even went to high school. The students who walk in our doors are disproportionately poor, ELL, special education, below standard academic performers, disciplinary concerns, and not supported by family. At my school a 50% college attendance rate is a god damn miracle.

    Still, every year CPS calls us a failure and threatens us with closure or turnaround. We are not told that we're working extremely hard at changing our students' lives. We are not asked to join in finding solutions to the deep, sustained academic, economic, and social problems our students face. Instead, we are told to prepare our resumes and hone our interview skills for the eventual hammer that is sure to drop.

    I'm what CPS might consider an ideal teacher. All I really want to do is dedicate my life, my skills, and my expertise to helping kids become the best adults they can be. And yet, after only 7 years I am so disgusted with everyone but the students that I've just about had it with CPS.

  • In reply to Anonymous:

    The longer school day is for us-teachers- to raise the children in our schools even more. We provide glasses, clothing, food, medical needs, tooth brishes, diapers, how to use the toilet, how to get dressed--moral fiber, how to get along, sleep and protection. Teachers should be called parents because this is what the teaching profession is in CPS.

  • I have been working for CPS for 6 years. I want to throw in the towel and it is not because of the kids. I am also so disgusted with everyone else. This is my 2nd career. I have missed 2 days in that time. Our families need help not an hour and a half longer day. Good luck to you. Who knows where any of us will end up.

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    I have worked for CPS for 28 years. I have gone through so many changes, and like you, I have wanted to just give it up many times. When I felt that way, I was encouraged by veteran teachers who made me realize that no matter what was coming down from the powers that be, I had to remember that I was doing a good thing. My mother, who was also a CPS teacher for 38 years, told me if I could think of one good thing that happened at the end of the day, all the aggravation and nonsense was worth it. She and others pointed out that our biggest responsibility in teaching was the children sitting in front of us. When I walked my students out at the end of the day, I always could find something good about the day. If teaching is really what you want to do, stick it out. We, as teachers, are sometimes the only advocates many of our students have in their corner. The fact that you disheartened by what is going on shows that you care.

  • In reply to 1togoplease:

    Your comments are encouraging, but my frustration and sadness runs deep.

    If it was up to me I would teach in my current neighborhood school until I retire. It is crippling to know that CPS will not under any circumstances allow that to happen.

    How can I commit to these children knowing CPS will abandon me at the drop of a hat? How can I provide for my family when I know with absolute certainty that my career as an educator in Chicago will be permanently over long before I reach retirement? How can I continue to help the children in CPS that have become my life's work when my own home and family and career face imminent risk from CPS policy?

    I choose to teach in CPS. I choose to teach in a neighborhood school. I am incredibly proud of that. I believe these kids deserve at least as much as their more economically fortunate counterparts in Evanston or Skokie or Wilmette or Naperville.

    I am consistently stunned, absolutely floored, by the fundamental disrespect towards teachers from CPS, the Board of Ed, and the mayor. I don't think I'll make it to 10 years. Not to be vain, but that's a shame - for me, for my students, and for CPS. I know there are many, many other teachers like me out there.

  • Like 7-yr vet above, I too am an ideal teacher, but at the 12 year mark the hammer still fell on me when my school closed. So much is beyond our control...

  • This is what Rahm wants--you are too expensive to be kept--actually a principal said this btw-get out so that cheaper and less experienced and less giving teachers can come. There is a TFA program right now at Na.Louis that supports TFAs with little expereince, fast tracked to be CPS principals and APs.

  • In reply to Anonymous:

    TFA's are smug little craps - they rely on the kindness of veteran teachers to get through the first two years...then they turn their backs on the very people who saved them, mock their work, insult their character and track to incompent administration where they take great glee delivering the final blow..don't be fooled by these rich little creeps

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    I tend to agree with Rod here, although I do still believe in the "great equalizer myth" for certain students. The fact is, not everyone can or should go to college. I certainly couldn't bring myself to continue teaching if I was doing it to help the education "reformers" achieve their ridiculous aims. How have the current education discussions gotten so far away from what truly matters? I sympathize with the teachers who have expressed their discouragement but I also would like to point out that, years from now, nothing matters more than the good that you have been able to achieve in the lives of your students. It may seem meaningless at times, especially when we are continually bludgeoned by the negativity in the media and the reports about what our students can't do. Yet, if we do not stay the course, who will be the voice of reason? Who will provide the students with some semblance of a true education?

  • In reply to mrchristopher:

    So CPS wants me to trade the good that I can achieve in the lives of my students in exchange for losing my entire career half way through it? What the heck kind of proposition is that? It's ridiculous. But you're right - that is exactly what CPS is asking of its teachers.

  • The isolation of segregation is the source of so many of the problems in CPS: Yet, when is the last time you heard Rahm -- or any public figure in Chicago -- mention segregation, much less begin to develop a policy to address it? It's as if Brown vs the Board of Ed never happened.

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