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Ready or Not, Here We Reform

On August 11, I had the opportunity to meet with Chicago Public Schools' new CEO Jean-Claude Brizard on his listening tour. Brizard and Dr. Noemi Donoso, his Chief Education Officer, spent more than an hour discussing education reform with me and several classroom teachers selected for the two-year Teaching Policy Fellowship by Teach Plus. For years I had been talking about education reform in theory, but as Brizard continued to solicit our thoughts on upcoming initiatives, I sensed for the first time that change was actually coming to Chicago Public Schools.

Leading up to his hiring by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, there was a tremendous amount of controversy about Brizard's record as the Superintendent of the schools in Rochester, New York. He was largely cast by the media as an anti-union, my-way-or-the highway-type of administrator who was being sued by co-workers for discrimination. Though his reputation as an aggressive education reformer has earned many critics, Brizard remains one of the most-watched district leaders. If he is successful in reforming Chicago— the nation's third largest school district— his efforts will be emulated by reformers around the country.

I attended the meeting with Brizard without preconceptions. I wasn't concerned with what people have said about him, good or bad. He has the job leading CPS now, and he deserved a fresh start as he tries to fix a greatly broken system. In our meeting, Brizard came across as a very smart leader who understands the intricacies of how schools work. He was also well-versed in the opposing educational philosophies that push back on standardized testing and charter schools. Implementing his bold, even radical plans for CPS will likely rattle the rafters of the existing bureaucracy. To use his words, the changes are sure to be "messy."

But how do you fix the colossal, decades-old problems in urban education without getting messy? How do you improve student learning, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness and attrition without shaking up the system at its core? Now is the time for teachers everywhere to speak up and lend the policymakers their ideas. Reforming the system will be uncomfortable initially for almost everyone, but it's not going away. Instead of resisting change, we need to join the conversation to make reform efforts most effective.

Thanks to the new teacher evaluation legislation passed last year during Illinois' failed attempt to get a $400 million Race to the Top grant, some of Brizard's reforms are already required by law. Still, many of his reform efforts will be a battle, namely disbanding the current teacher salary matrix, extending the school day, and initiating collaboration between traditional and charter schools.

On August 15, for instance, Emanuel and Brizard announced their plan to give principals merit pay ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 a year using a $5 million fund sponsored by private donors. Despite the fact that Emanuel and Brizard will not give Chicago teachers their blanket 4 percent raises as promised in their union contract, Emanuel said a plan for teacher merit pay is also in the works. The Chicago Teachers Union is livid and threatening to strike.

Change is coming to Chicago Public Schools, and it's coming fast. And it's not alone. The spirit of education reform is spreading nationwide. In fact, Brizard and his team are pulling ideas from reform models from Washington D.C to Hillsborough County in Florida.

I respect those who disagree about the direction that education reform is going, but reject the notion that there is no need for education reform, that the reform itself is the problem. It is time for all the stakeholders in education to engage in a civil, respectful, professional dialogue. We must collaborate to offer up real, practical solutions, and stop demonizing the alternate point of view. The only option that should be deemed unacceptable is keeping with the status quo. That's what has placed us in the substandard state we are in today. Did you know that 68 percent of 4th graders scored below proficient on the National Assessment (NAEP) reading test in 2009? And that the same test and year showed that math and reading scores of 17-year olds remained at the same levels as the 1970s?

Brizard knows that he does not have all the answers. Nobody does. But the reform train has already left the station, and those who are not already on it should jump aboard at the next stop so that their voices can work to influence its final destination. Those who don't will be left in the dust.

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