So tonight Shawn–Laree and I attended the first of a series of "Conversations About the Future” sponsored by Chicago Tribune and PNC bank. It was a really good civic event-- thrown by a newspaper, sponsored by a bank, peopled by the people whose opinions matter about the subject at hand.
James Janega of the Tribune liveblogged it, and I took some good old-fashioned hand-written notes, so I wanted to pop them in here, with some annotations. Here goes:
They started late, but at 6:14 all Chicago Tribune Editor Gerry Kern said was, "we understand the traffic was bad out there, and people are still filtering in", but on the liveblog Janega said, "we have been waiting for a panelist, who has just arrived. I can see the questions so far". Politeness precluded either of them from naming the late arrival.
Kern introduced Jim Rohr, CEO of PNC Bank, and I felt like this was Deadwood and Swearengen or Bullock was chatting up the newspaper guy in the saloon. There's something so civic about business types and newspaper people and government officials getting together to talk about stuff.
Out of the blue, the guy from PNC introduces the CEO of Sesame Street. Total bonus. This is Elmo's World, we just live in it.
The panelists were seated in this order: Ron Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Karen Lewis, President, Chicago Teachers Union, Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Chicago, Sen. James Meeks, Chairman, Education Committee, and Harriet Meyer, President, Ounce of Prevention Fund.
If you're going to talk about education in Chicago, there's really not a better group to have than this. It seemed like a clapping contest, as audience members pumped up their people. It probably wouldn't stun you to hear that I made some real noise for the nun.
The moderator, Bruce Dold (who was uniformly solid), goes right at Meeks and asks if he's running for Mayor. He says that he "was deputized to announce" that the Tribune is sending the audience to Australia. Showman, this guy. And current.
Dold doesn't bite. He asks again. Meeks alludes to the idea that it would be tacky to announce in this moment, that he'd "need a press conference" to do that, but acknowledges that "I'm at the petition-gathering stage". He's running, period.
Dold asks the same of Huberman, and he gives him a less complicated and pithy answer: No.
At this time, we note that Huberman had some microphone issues. I love it when audiences cry out, annoyedly but ultimately helpfully, that one's microphone is not functioning. "Can't hear!", "Mike!", etc.
Huberman suggests that Dold move on, or, in the alternative, that he might borrow Lewis' microphone. "You already borrowed enough” Lewis says to Huberman. The tone for their side-by-side interaction is set.
Huberman starts off with a few statistics (is anyone surprised?) about Noble Street Charter Schools. “The school system is substantially better off than it was 15 years ago”
Lewis rebuts: “We need to make bolder, stronger moves.” By that she seems to mean "something other than getting rid of tenure and making evaluations harder". Huberman says “accountability has to be universal, from top to bottom.”
Meeks: “I like everybody up here” (which is obviously a precursor to an attack) and then goes on the attack (“the school system is abysmal).” He also says, as a toss-off, that “everybody here is a potential voter”. Not sure where he was going with that...
Meeks says that "one of the mistakes we made was to make the school system political-- to make the mayor look good". He also singes Huberman, telling him that his "things are incrementally better" opening speech could have come from Arne Duncan or Paul Vallas during any time in their tenures. He asks the rhetorical question, "who's going to be the leader to create change”. I get the impression he has an answer to that, and the answer is him.
Lewis goes after Meeks's: "the system has been underfunded for decades”. Huberman tries to interrupt her and she bristles with a classic TV debate line re: "I let you finish". She then asks, "where's my husband”, mock-style, as if for protection.
Huberman now fights to prove how radical he is. His verbal tic is “right”. He ticks off a number of ideas: more effective teacher evaluations, Charter schools, removing ineffective teachers. “These are not sexy ideas”, he says. Oh yeah? I dare you to tell me that what he says is not sexy.
Meyer of the Ounce of Prevention Fund finally gets a chance. She says they're all Red Skelton, looking for their keys under the lamp post even though the dropped them in the dark. She says that early childhood is where it's at, and here we are whining about the Chicago labor union contract. I'd love to hear more from this person-- every time she opened her mouth, it was gold.
She talks about goals. "Not everybody has to go to Harvard”, but we want them out of jail and paying taxes. Nice to set the bar where it belongs. Seriously, isn't that what most people want for their kids-- one of those two options? (I'm not begin sarcstic).
Meeks: "why is everyone speaking a different language?" Couldn't figure out where this was going. Sr. McCaughey talks about parental expectations as a driver of early childhood education. “Thank God we have Meeks in Springfield”, says Huberman. Lewis rolls her eyes.
Meeks talks about his failed voucher legislation, noting that his colleagues (in the legislature) always asked "how we spend the money”.
“Kids are only going to be in third grade one time (or twice like I was)”, so we shouldn't punish parents for the failures of government.
"The sister runs great schools”, says Huberman, and they are "a part of the fabric of education in Chicago". He talks about his support for vouchers. Karen brings up the idea of 60,000 to 80,000 students and says that Catholic schools, charter schools and other alternatives are not prepared to handle these students.
Sr. McCaughey notes that "not everyone leaves" when vouchers are in play. “It costs us $4,500 to educate a kid. But [the Illinois State Legislature bill] was for $3200 in voucher money". As usual, the Catholics will be losing money on education of kids. She does concede that they are not prepared to educate every single kid. Lewis implies that the kids who can't make it in public school will be "counseled out" or otherwise sent back to public schools.
Huberman gets hyped at this point, saying that "it's a myth” the kids are "counseled out" (a term that was new to me, but seemed to be a known evil by the audience) or kicked out of charter schools and that's why they're successful. Ron says they spent close to $10,000 per kid. He says that 200-300 schools are failing, but many are delivering.
This annoys Meeks, because it is a mildly positive statement about public schools. He goes after Ron on the idea that there is any good news to be had. “Let me get granular here” says Huberman. Lewis does a face palm. I get the impression that he gets granular with her often and the palm reaches her face often.
They took questions from the audience in the form of little cards that they had in the city newspaper version of the "goodie bag"–- a translucent folder full of the program and Sesame Street giveaways, bank brochures, buttons, and notepads.
The question was this: a teacher questions from the audience claims a 90 percent success rate for her students in achieving or surpassing state standards. The teacher asks "what do you have to offer me to stay within Chicago public school system?".
Huberman says “we feel like we should be bending over backwards for you.” Lewis references a teacher mentoring program that was cut in the budget cuts this year and says “we feel frankly very mistreated”.
Lewis says that there's an assumption that those who stay in the classroom are "chumps". Getting as far away from kids as you can get is the way to move up. She tells a story about the principal who gave a gold dollar to every teacher every month for perfect attendance. Teachers were completely worried that they would miss their gold dollar if they took a kid to an emergency room and were marked absent. Message: teachers aren't greedy.
She vehemently states “we do not protect poor teachers -- we protect due process”. She gets hyped about the Constitution of the United States and its ammendments as if somehow it is embedded in the union contract. She insists that the process is but 90 days.
Meeks called her out on bad teachers. He said schools are failing but teachers continued to get great grades. He questions how failing schools can have teachers who get awesome reviews.
Huberman says he is scheduled to renegotiate a reasonable teacher evaluation system with Lewis. Lewis retorts with: professional development “we need to bring everybody up to these standards.” I get the impression that this is their little dance, done all day.
Ron is incredulous. “To suggest that professional development is the reason our schools are failing…” is preposterous basically he references the E3 process and that it is “so arduous and requires such an unreasonable time”.
Sr. McCaughey is asked why there is less violence in Catholic schools, and she goes for it. “Because we emphasize Judeo-Christian values” and that parental expectations dictate a less violent environment.
Meyer backs her up, citing a study by James Coleman of the University of Chicago who “invented school busing and then regretted it decades later”. He did a study on Catholic schools and found that because the values in the schools are the same values that are emphasized at home, and that is why they perform higher.
At this point, Lewis walks out on a completely unstable rhetorical limb and decides, upon looking around, that she needed to be rescued by other panelists and says something along the lines of "this is just the Ron and Karen show" and that they need to get more people involved.
Meeks offers himself as the arbitrator for the Ron and Karen show. Funny how that works–- very mayoral of them isn't it?
Huberman accepts, but Lewis looks askance across the stage, like Meeks just farted. He then gets up goes, goes over to them, and links their hands. They raise them up in mock unity. People clap. Huberman says that they actually get along but "have different audiences to talk to”.
Huberman says that when adults are controlling the culture in the schools, that's as effective as having religious values. He many schools he goes into are in bad neighborhoods, but when adults are controlling the environment, there is learning going on inside.
Lewis chimes in, religion-wise, saying that the CTU works with “the faith-based community” and talks about her best years as a teacher where when she was close to parents and felt supported by principals and assistant principals management and others.
Dold, out of the blue, as if to reset drama, brings up the fact that the CTU withheld campaign money from Meeks when he came out against the union.
“That was Senate. That was Senate. That was only my race for Senate", says Meeks. It took the audience a while to figure out that he was differentiating the past from the future, in other words he wants and expects to court cash from the CTU in his race for mayor. Boy everything really is a new day isn't it?
Meek then says that Ron and Karen need to meet every week. It was an easy thing to say. And it gets him into the spotlight of course if he is this magic arbitrator that he would like to be.
Huberman says an answer that pumps the hand-embrace back on Meeks. He says that he meets with Lewis very often, but they will not agree on everything, "no matter how often we come to the table and hold hands", but it was very unlikely that Ron and Karen will ever agree on certain things (charter schools, for instance).
“The legislative process cannot wait for Ron and Karen to come to the table and hold hands”, he says, rhetorically rejecting Meeks' dramatic gesture. "It has to come from Springfield".
Lewis says "the will is there” to get things done and brings up the fact that there is no Chief Education Officer.
“I've seen the bodies of children buried under what we think are quick fixes", she says.
Dold asks “is there a role for Catholic schools here?” (in negotiations or in helping out the public schools). Sr. McCaughey says she wants to help. She talks about an initiative for every kid being a strong reader at the end of second grade. "Learning to read so they can read to learn", as she puts it.
Last thing from Dold is to Huberman re: accountability and charter schools. When will accountability be applied to them? Huberman says, “it has to be now.” Says they're going to shut down low performing charter schools “and we have to be agnostic (excuse me sister) in closing them down no matter what type of school they are". Clever.
Hugs, milling about, etc. FIN. Looking forward to the next one!