Letters: ‘Rahm Emanuel Is Right: Principals Matter’

Readers respond to the Chicago mayor’s argument that policy makers would do well to question their assumptions about education reform.

A lock and chain keep people off the property at the old location of the Benjamin E. Mays elementary school in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

I Used to Preach the Gospel of Education Reform. Then I Became Mayor.

“For most of my career,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote last week, “I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind.”

As a retired assistant superintendent, it was refreshing to read Rahm Emanuel’s essay. According to Miles’ Law, where you stand usually depends on where you sit. Throughout my 26 years as an educator (19 faithfully served as a district and/or school-site administrator), my experiences have shown me that many politicians, along with a disproportionate percentage of community stakeholders, have low expectations for children in urban schools. Too often, the very same individuals to whom school-site educators look for support and appropriate resources are the ones placing stumbling blocks in the path of holistic success.

Providing autonomy to schools in urban communities is essential to both improving student academic success and enhancing valuable social-emotional skills. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing the disparity of overall student achievement between learners in urban communities and those in the suburbs. However, the anecdotal evidence as well as peer-reviewed research show that measurable gains can be achieved when school leaders and classroom teachers are allowed to work independently but with the support of central-office personnel, similar to the Finland model. Let the experts do their job; however, provide them with the tools necessary to ensure positive outcomes for the students. Kudos to Mayor Emanuel and all other open-minded politicians and school-board members who are risk takers!

Eugene Butler Jr.
Pembroke Pines, Fla.

Rahm Emanuel is a smart guy who has done some good things for Chicago, but on education, his only success has been to finally relent to those around him telling him that his reform playbook was ineffective. Chicago Public Schools’ neighborhood schools have been improving slowly but steadily for nearly 20 years thanks to thousands of hardworking teachers and administrators who have been fighting for students in spite of all the chaos around them, such as massive school closings, unwanted charter schools, ever-tightening budgets, onerous district mandates, the Common Core freakout, and dizzying turnover in district leadership.

But I give Rahm credit for acknowledging what has been so obvious to so many for so long: The old market-based reform gospel has been a huge and unnecessary distraction, and we need to get back to focusing on good management by (1) nurturing school leadership, (2) nurturing quality instruction, and (3) building on the value that schools bring to neighborhoods.

Denis Roarty
Oak Park, Ill.

Sorry, 61 percent literacy levels at high-school graduation is progress worthy of celebration?


Alison Coad
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Can you simply replicate what one school district is doing in one area and implement it in another? In my opinion, there are too many moving parts. It’s the principals, teachers, and cultures that are making the difference, not the systems. I think a lot of money is spent trying to copy models that have worked in one area and that end up completely failing when implemented in another.

Colin Connery
Berkley, Mich.

I’ve always regarded Rahm Emanuel as something of a pit bull—ruthlessly closing Chicago schools and not particularly open to changing his view. I was wrong. He listened. In being open to a less narrow view of public-school education, he got on the right track with authentic education reform. We can succeed if we employ a child-centered paradigm, instead of myopically focusing on data and accountability.

Christopher Nye
Leadership Team, Educate the Whole Child
Great Barrington, Mass.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is right: Principals matter. In Chicago today, the average principal manages 48 team members, 553 students, and a budget of more than $5 million. We know schools with strong leaders attract and keep great teachers, foster more productive learning environments, and better engage families and the community. But the column revealed an even more important feature of Chicago’s principal focus: It starts and ends with listening to experienced principals.

My organization, the Chicago Public Education Fund, surveys Chicago’s school leaders annually. Our response rate hovers near 80 percent, and we use what we hear to partner with district leaders and act.

Other cities are listening to their principals, too. Over the past year, we have engaged more than 20 organizations across the country—from places such as Dallas, Minneapolis, Boston, and Memphis—to look closely at how they can better learn about and respond to the needs of their school leaders.

If we hope to change the conversation around success in public schools, we should all take a page from Chicago. We can start by listening to our best principals.

Heather Y. Anichini
President and CEO, the Chicago Public Education Fund
Chicago, Ill.

Several readers responded on Twitter: