Is the Chicago honeymoon over for Supt. Brizard, before even starting?

by Julie Woestehoff

On the first day of spring break for the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel came out with guns blazing, drawing clear battle lines with Chicago teachers and parents by announcing that he will appoint Jean-Claude Brizard as the district’s Chief Executive Officer.

Brizard has been school superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., for about three years, where he quickly became a divisive figure who recently garnered a 95 percent no confidence vote from the city’s teachers. Parents don’t seem to like him, either: “He’s making it clear that he does not value parents and community members as partners,” said Howard Eagle, a Rochester parent.

Another parent, Mark Friedman, wrote

I personally can attest to the fact that educators and community members in many school districts throughout the country recognize, rather than minimize, exactly how toxic Brizard’s philosophies and style of leadership are for a district.

Brizard’s a “Broadie”

Those “toxic philosophies” are not unique to Brizard. They are the hallmark of the Broad Superintendents’ Academy, where Brizard was trained in 2008. The Academy was created by Eli Broad, an insurance company billionaire.

According to the newly-published “Parents’ Guide to the Broad Foundation’s Education Programs and Policies,” prepared by Parents Across America,

  • “A hallmark of the Broad-style leadership is closing existing schools rather than attempting to improve them, increasing class size, opening charter schools, imposing high-stakes test-based accountability systems on teachers and students, and implementing of pay for performance schemes. The brusque and often punitive management style of Broad-trained leaders has frequently alienated parents and teachers and sparked protests.”
  • “Broad and his foundation believe that public schools should be run like a business. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to produce system change by “investing in a disruptive force.” Continual reorganizations, firings of staff, and experimentation to create chaos or “churn” is believed to be productive and beneficial, as it weakens the ability of communities to resist change.”

The Academy’s website boasts that 43 percent of all large urban superintendent openings were filled by their graduates, or “Broadies,” in 2009, although the PAA guide reports that in recent months, three of those superintendents resigned or were fired, after allegations of mismanagement, autocratic leadership styles, and/or the pursuit of unpopular policies.

So, why does Chicago need Brizard?

Rahm Emanuel has already placed himself firmly in the camp of those neutron-bomb-style “reformers” who think that schools can only be fixed by getting rid of a lot of the humans inside them — particularly the highest-priced teachers and the lowest scoring children — while leaving the buildings intact for privately-run charters and turnaround schools that folks like Eli Broad like to support.

But Rahm did offer a justification beyond Brizard’s already proven ability to offend and marginalize the people most involved in the schools. Emanuel repeated Brizard’s claim that Rochester graduation rates went from 39 percent to 51 percent during his three year tenure.

Chicago’s most recent high school graduation rate, according to the 2010 state school district report card, is 71.8 percent compared with 87.8 percent in Illinois. So, yes, that could use some work.

But the graduation rate in Rochester, according to their most recent official data, the 2010 state school district report card, is 46 percent.

Hmmm. That’s a LOT lower.

But, if Brizard is a miracle worker who was able to move the graduation rate up significantly in a short time, we could still learn from him.

The problem is that the graduation rate didn’t go up under his watch. Brizard was hired in the middle of the 2007-08 school year. Graduation rates went up slightly after his first full year, from 48 percent to 52 percent, then fell again after his second year to 46 percent.

Data, schmata

I included these numbers in a press statement that I read and distributed at a hastily-called Chicago Teachers’ Union press conference just hours after Rahm’s announcement. The numbers I gave out have proven to be far more reliable than anything Brizard has claimed to date.

I spent quite a bit of time with several reporters Monday and early Tuesday going over the reports on the New York state website. After a slow start, with most of Chicago’s media simply repeating Brizard’s and Rahm’s claims about an increased graduation rate, some web-based and other news stories began to appear which called into question Brizard’s claims and, by implication, Rahm’s wisdom in selecting him.

Reporters were no doubt prodded along by the wealth of information provided by Rochester TV newswoman Rachel Barnhart. I forwarded her “Chicago Guide to J. C. Brizard” to local media.

Of course, Brizard himself has said that the community is too hung up on graduation rates.

When Chicago reporter Jay Levine asked Rahm today if he was misled by the graduation data, Rahm insisted that “they have improved,” staying the course with yet another false statement about schools.

Rahm may talk his way out of this one, but we have learned that there are many more red flags in Brizard’s story, and several weeks to go before his appointment can be finalized.

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