What to Expect From a New Schools CEO

Call it a 180-degree shift.

When former Schools CEO Ron Huberman made his debut speech at a City Club luncheon in 2009, most of his talk was about how he planned to curb school violence and push failing schools to improve. There were two new programs in the works--a "culture of calm" initiative aimed at the worst high schools, and performance management sessions for schools and area offices--and data-heavy PowerPoints to make his case.

Contrast that with Terry Mazany's first major speech since taking the interim CEO's position. (He is on leave from his position as president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.) Speaking, as Huberman did, at a City Club luncheon, Mazany didn't mention any new programs, took a brief swipe at high-stakes accountability and called for a rigorous education and accelerated improvement in all schools, not just those that are struggling.

Mazany, tapped by Mayor Richard M. Daley to take the job until a new mayor is elected and chooses his or her own CEO, left open the door to taking the position on a permanent basis. Asked by an audience member if he would do so, he didn't say yes--but didn't say no either. "Clearly, that's not my decision to make," Mazany said, adding that he would work with the next mayor to provide continuity for the next CEO.

Mazany took a broad view of education reform, said that problems in schools "go way beyond any sense that schools are bad or have failed" and that viewing reform as fixing failing schools doesn't help them to improve.

"The challenge is not that schools are failing. Schools are more effective than they were 20 years ago," Mazany said. "It's that other countries are getting better faster and leaving us behind. Schools don't need continuous improvement. They need to be re-imagined."

Taking a shot at the high-stakes testing called for by No Child Left Behind, Mazany used a well-known metaphor: You can't fatten a chicken by weighing it. "Unfortunately with NCLB, we did that," he said. "We have so narrowed the curriculum. We have traded excellence for the tyranny of accountability."

So what should a good education include? Mazany laid out a vision of high-quality learning that made no mention of high test scores, but did include teaching students to be critical thinkers, responsible citizens and literate communicators; to have good interpersonal skills and self-confidence; and exposure to a rich curriculum that includes the arts, social studies, geography and civics.

Mazany said his first priority in Springfield is to shore up the district's budget. "A second round of cuts like we had [last year] would be devastating," he said, meeting briefly with reporters after his speech. "We cannot repeat that level of cuts, and staying even cannot be the new norm."

Mazany declined to endorse proposed legislation that would strip teachers of their right to strike, a move that legislators in Springfield are considering and that Daley has said he supports. Yet Mazany did say he supports "anything we can do to ensure stability in schools," noting that many children rely on schools for meals and after-school programs. And he noted the aftermath of strikes in Oakland, Calif., where he once served as associate superintendent in the 1990s, "were still in place 15 years later."

Asked about school closings, Mazany said that closings are still on the table for cost savings. Underutilized buildings siphon off money that could be used elsewhere, and Mazany said the district needs a comprehensive facilities inventory and plan--something it hasn't had in ages, and one that is desperately needed at a time of declining enrollment.

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