Mike Klonsky, veteran activist in Chicago, was surprised to read in the New York Times that the public schools of Chicago were the fastest improving urban schools in the nation and that their improvement was due to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wisdom in choosing principals. This ran counter to everything he knew.

He writes:

I’m not sure who in Rahm Emanuel’s oversized City Hall PR Dept. planted this story in the New York Times, but kudos to them for getting this piece of fluff past the fact checkers and custodians of common sense. Peter Cunningham swears it wasn’t him, but I congratulated him anyway.

The Op-ed by David Leonhardt, “Want to Fix Schools, Go to the Principal’s Office” focuses on Chicago and gives all the credit to the mayor and CPS super-principals for the district’s supposed “fastest in the nation” gains in student achievement, rising graduation rates and lower dropout rates.

Using cherry-picked data, he makes a case that Chicago is on or near the top of the nation’s public schools, even while 85% of its students continue to live in poverty and the entire district teeters on the brink of financial collapse.

In other words, Leonhardt is whistling past the graveyard. He’s over his head when it comes to writing about education in Chicago.

All this reminds me of the Arne Duncan, Chicago Miracle in 2008, when no success claim about turnaround schools was ludicrous enough to be challenged by a compliant media.

As for fewer dropouts and spiraling graduation rates, I’d love to believe the reports but don’t know how anybody can, given CPS’s history of deception in reporting such data.

Klonsky notes that these are difficult days for Chicago principals because of decisions made by the mayor, like privatizing custodial services:

Ironically, Leonhardt’s pat on the principal’s head comes at a time when Chicago principals are threatened with 30% budget cuts and are being hard hit by the board’s privatization scheme’s which have left their buildings in shambles, massive staff cuts and exploding class size. Not to mention the fact that CPS principals are rarely in a school long enough to lead any substantial school improvement effort.

Lest we forget, Mayor Rahm made history by closing 50 public schools in one day, a feat for which he will live in infamy. And activists led by Jitu Brown had to conduct a 34-day hunger strike to persuade the mayor to keep a community high school open.

In assessing the article’s claims, Klonsky interviews Troy LaRiverere, one of the city’s star principals, who was fired by Emanuel after LaRiviere criticized him. Troy is now president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. LaRivere said:

Chicago principals are working in a district that continues to make it far more difficult for them to do their jobs. They pull one resource after another. For example, if you’re a CPS principal now, you can’t have an assistant principal. If you really value the position as the article claims, then you invest in the position. The words don’t line up with deeds.
Finally, we’re all not making the gains we could be making if they invested in us and in the schools. The principals that are making gains are making them, not because of the system, but in spite of CPS.

Klonsky says that Chicago principals have learned how to do “more with less.” Meanwhile Mayor Rahm is looking for newbies to replace the veterans. And says Klonsky:

But to single them out over classroom and special-ed teachers, who have been steadfast, even while baring the brunt of cuts, losing their planning time while class sizes explode, is divisive and misleading at best.