In naming CTA President Ron Huberman to run the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Richard M. Daley is passing over the educator widely credited with sparking some of the system’s biggest improvements.
Barbara Eason-Watkins, the district’s chief education officer, was U.S. Education Secretary and former CEO Arne Duncan’s preferred candidate. Her failure to get the top job revives a long-running debate in urban education over who makes the better leader: The lifelong teacher-turned-administrator or the uber-manager, who has never so much as set foot in a classroom?
"We were hoping the mayor would appoint someone with a strong background in education since we face so many challenges as an urban district,” says Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart in a prepared statement. “However, we will work with whomever the mayor sends and we look forward to continuing a collaborative partnership with CPS as we all strive to improve the quality of public education in Chicago for students and families."
Despite this expression of good will, Huberman’s selection is unwelcome news for the union and is likely to be viewed with skepticism by some, if not many, of the more than 23,000 teachers it represents.
Duncan didn’t have a background as an educator when he took charge in 2001. But Duncan had served for several years as CEO Paul Vallas’s chief of staff and before that ran a program pushing educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids on the South Side.
Huberman’s only exposure to education came during his two years serving as the mayor’s chief of staff.
“Ron is a fantastic manager who has proven his ability in many different jobs,” said Daley, in a question-and-answer session with reporters after Huberman’s introduction.
At the financially-troubled CTA, Huberman cut waste, improved on-time performance, reduced dreaded “bus bunching” and cut down on maintenance problems. As the mayor’s chief of staff, Huberman oversaw 49 departments, 39,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $6 billion. He also ran the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
Another non-educator turned urban school leader says those experiences should serve Huberman well.
“For so long in public education, there’s been no accountability at any level,” says Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. “You’ve got to understand, deeply, the finances of the organization, so you can spend money wisely.”
When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped him for the job in 2002, Klein was already a well-known litigator and New York’s schools were a mess. Klein helped establish a training and leadership academy for principals. Also, he implemented Children First, a comprehensive reform program that, among other things, ended social promotion in certain grades, provided struggling students with more ways to get extra help, and partnered with the business community, non-profits and others to expand small schools and charter schools.
Since the program took effect, test scores and the system’s on-time high school graduation rate have improved and New York City has won the prestigious Broad Prize for urban education.
“We know in America, in large urban school districts, we’ve often had people who were career educators leading the systems,” says Klein, “and the results have not been good for our systems. Period. End of case.”
Klein says all urban schools superintendents need to develop a strong relationship with the mayors they serve. Huberman already has that covered.
Another key ingredient for success: putting the right people in the right jobs, experts say.
“One either has to be a leader with a depth of knowledge about how to significantly improve student achievement and graduation rates or hire knowledgeable people who with you and your teachers and partners can do this vital work,” says Deborah Jewel-Sherman, co-director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
“I don't believe that it is an 'either-or-situation,'" Jewel-Sherman said in an e-mail. "Rather, our nation's urban schools need leaders with deep knowledge of the education sector and leaders who bring to the enterprise different skill sets.”
One of those “knowledgeable” people Huberman hopes to hold onto is Eason-Watkins. Duncan often cites his partnership with Eason-Watkins as the one of the main reasons for the successes during his tenure.
Eason-Watkins was known to want the top job, but any disappointment seems to have subsided for now.
At the Huberman announcement, the mayor and Duncan went out of their way to lavishly praise the chief education officer.
And Huberman says he’s had positive meetings with Eason-Watkins in recent days and that she’s agreed to stay on and work with him.