During my interview with Jean-Claude Brizard, I asked him to explain the source of his aggressive ambition to fix Chicago Public Schools. Reforming a massive, decades-old, broken urban educational system is not a job one man can do alone. And it’s not a job without difficult decisions, political pressures, and bitter opposition. Does the No Child Left Behind law work for or against his reform efforts? How do charter schools fit into his reform agenda? Which educator(s) does he look up to or turn to for advice? Brizard addressed these questions and others in the final excerpt of the interview.
Education Reform in Over Drive
Rhames: You are widely regarded as an aggressive school reformer who tries to get things done fast, one who is not very fond of pilot programs. Next year you’re looking at implementing three huge initiatives district wide: Extending the school day, mandating new Common Core Standards, and rolling out the new teacher evaluation matrix.
Brizard: And principal evaluations—the beginning of a new portfolio. If you only knew! There are so many different things we are working on.
Rhames: What are your specific strategies to ensure each effort is a success?
Brizard: You’re talking about execution and you’re talking about having the right people in charge to make sure it works. So we have a bunch of project managers and especially the people who work in my cabinet who are responsible for key initiatives. So I am not Superman, nor do I claim to be, which is why I need to have the right people on the bus who are managing the work. And right now we are doing that. And, of course, they are getting a lot of support to get the work done. I really believe in hiring smart people to do the work and then getting out of their way. But [I am] the conductor, making sure the music is getting played.
But going back to your first comment: I tend to be impatient. ... But the reason why I am impatient—when you look at the disparities in our city; when you look at parents who tell you, “Why should I trust my kid to a lottery” because they can’t find the schools that they are looking for; when you see the kinds of gaps; when you see the facts of the drop-out rates in Chicago, that 95 percent of the kids that drop out are minorities, most are African American males—you begin to understand the work that we have to do. For me, every time I hear about a shooting on the South Side or the West Side, you see a 17-year-old or a 16-year-old getting killed or shooting someone, I draw a line right back to a kid being a high school dropout. I draw a line right back to the disparities we have in the city. Don’t get me wrong, there are many other factors at play, but there’s a critical correlation between crime and high school dropouts. That is the emergency that I have, and I don’t have all the patience in the world to fix that.
Poverty’s Impact on Education
Rhames: Well, I’ve heard Karen Lewis [Chicago Teachers Union president] and others say that we can’t have an honest conversation about narrowing the achievement gap in Chicago unless we talk honestly about poverty in the same neighborhoods. Can you speak to that? Do you agree with that, or do you think that is an excuse for us having failed our students?
Brizard: Karen is not wrong in that poverty does impact achievement, but I do believe it is a cop-out for a lot of people. Poverty is an issue; it does impact achievement in the same way that nutrition does and a bunch of other issues. But at the same time, we sometimes look to make excuses for when we are not doing our jobs. So I say, fix our [schools] and do it well. And I do believe education is the way out of poverty. If we are going to sit and wait for poverty to get fixed and then go fix education, we are going to be waiting a hell of a long time.
Charter Schools vs. Privatized Public Education
Rhames: Your wife is starting a charter school in New York. What role do you think charter schools should play in the entire landscape of education reform?
Brizard: I think they play two roles: One is that they have to be a laboratory of innovation. In other words, showing us what can be done with flexibility and autonomy. That has to be a big piece of it and we have to find a way to leverage that learning. The second is that there has to be a choice for parents. And perhaps a way of introducing quality schools in places where we don’t have quality. So it’s a quick way of creating great schools, by providing someone with the leverage to bring new adults into the building.
Rhames: But some would argue that it’s nothing more than the privatization of public education.
Brizard: Oh, that’s completely false and again another one of those cop-outs. Charter schools are public schools. They are part of a district. So that’s the rhetoric I’ve been hearing about around the country about privatization ... That’s a whole bunch of malarkey.
No Child Left Behind
Rhames: If you were to give a grade to the existing No Child Left Behind legislation, what would it be? Has this been an effective piece of legislation overall? Has it helped or hurt education?
Brizard: I would give it a C. Overall, it has been a decent piece of legislation in that it has helped. It is flawed in many ways because it does not take a look at value-add, it only looks at absolute performance. It also had its artificial goal of every kid reaching utopia by 2014, which we all knew was unrealistic. So if you have a school that takes in a lot of kids that are underperforming, it treats it as if it were Walter Payton [one of the top high schools in Chicago]. It needs to look at value-add. But for the first time in history, schools were held accountable for the performance of all kids, including subgroups of kids. Before that, schools could easily say, we have 80 percent proficiency or 90 percent proficiency, but meanwhile every Latino or every African American or every special ed kid was failing and the school could still claim victory. Those days are gone. For the first time we brought accountability into education. So we need to fix things in the law, but it certainly took us in the right direction and I think it was a great thing for education.
Who Do You Admire in Education?
Rhames: Which superintendent or education reform leader do you admire most or see as kindred spirits? What is it about their core beliefs on teaching and learning that appeal to you?
Brizard: Wow. There are so many people. If you were to read my personality profile, you would find it interesting because it says very simply that most people find me very hard to understand, because I’m very collaborative, but I can get very cranky and be very pushy. I smile a lot, but I can fire people very easily, as well. I’m the kind of person who really believes in trusting, but if you cross me once you’ve lost that. So I’m a bit of a contradiction, in other words. I’m a reformer, but again I’m a lifelong, traditional educator. So it’s hard to pick one person.
But there’s a bit of Joel Klein [former chancellor of New York City schools] in me. There’s a lot of Kaya Henderson, who is the current head of DCPS, in me. There’s a little bit of Michelle Rhee [former head of DCPS]. A little bit of Tom Payzant, who was [the superintendent of schools] in Boston, in me, as well. But the one person who I worked with most, who mentored me, is someone who I don’t think you even know.
Her name is Laura Schwalm; she is the head of the school district in Garden Grove, California. Laura was my mentor when I was a fellow in the Broad Foundation [Urban Superintendent Program]. What I like about Laura is that she is a real educator. I mean she is a true educator; she gets teaching and learning. But she is someone who does not tolerate mediocrity; she understands resource alignment and how everything has to focus on kids and what happens in the classroom. She is someone who appears to be low-key, well balanced and non-aggressive, but you try to hurt a kid and she’ll come at you with daggers. So someone like that I found to be really useful as a mentor because she taught me how to be collaborative, how to not accept mediocrity, and how to have a laser focus on what she thought was important for kids.
Photo provided by Chicago Public Schools
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.