Chicago Tries Management-Style On Schools

Some urban school systems are turning to the tough tactics businesses and law enforcement use to improve employee performance. The sometimes-contentious approach, known as performance management, has yielded promising results in Houston, New York and some other districts. In Chicago, it's forcing city educators to embrace a cultural revolution in how they go about their work.

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Imagine having your performance review in front of your co-workers, with the company's CEO grilling you while you present data to defend your work. Well, tough management tactics like that have been part of the culture for years at many successful companies.

And now, as Jay Field reports, they're spreading beyond the corporate world to big urban school systems.

JAY FIELD: There's the scary room. It's on the 15th floor of Chicago Public Schools' headquarters. Performance Management, reads the sign as you step off the elevator and follow the arrow pointing to the left.

(Soundbite of conversations)

FIELD: Seconds later, you're there.

Every three months, top district officials arrive here to be questioned. This morning, it's Melissa Megliola Zaikos's turn. She manages around a hundred schools across the city.

Ms. MELISSA MEGLIOLA ZAIKOS (Manager, Autonomous Management and Performance Schools): We've really put two big stakes in the ground. One is around growing all students, and you'll see that throughout the presentation today.

FIELD: The room looks like it's never been broken down and taken apart. There are U-shaped rows of tables, laptops, name cards at every seat, and three large computer screens projected on the front wall.

Megliola Zaikos briefs district leaders on a test 80 of her schools have been using to measure progress. It doesn't take long for CEO Ron Huberman to cut her off.

Mr. RON HUBERMAN (CEO, Chicago Public Schools): So for those 80 schools, how, as the CAO, do you know whether they are reflecting on the data, altering behavior, tracking them to the student level?

Ms. MEGLIOLA ZAIKOS: Yep. So I guess it's sort of how we designed our professional development structure and...

FIELD: Welcome to the real-time quarterly performance review, participation mandatory.

During Megliola Zaikos's review, at least the brief part we're invited in for, there aren't the fireworks that have reportedly occurred at meetings with educators who've had much less exposure to this type of grilling.

Professor LIZ LIVINGSTONE HOWARD (Associate Director, Center for Nonprofit Management, Kellogg School of Management): The whole concept of measuring performance has been part of the corporate world forever.

FIELD: But only recently, says Liz Livingstone Howard, have big bureaucracies like urban school systems been forced to embrace such tough tactics. Howard, who teaches social enterprise at the Kellogg School of Management, says districts are hiring more leaders from the corporate world and taking in millions of dollars from outside organizations that expect to see evidence that reforms are actually working.

Liz Howard says it's all about accountability.

Prof. HOWARD: Personal accountability, departmental accountability, leading up obviously to system-wide accountability is critical to identify people who are willing to make the changes that need to be made.

FIELD: Few educators dispute that big changes are needed at many Chicago schools.

Though the system has seen modest improvements in recent years, like the slight jump in elementary school test scores, those bits of good news are overshadowed by the ongoing struggles at Chicago high schools, where as many as 50 percent of students drop out.

Ms. CLARICE BERRY (President, Chicago Principals and Administrators Association): I just hope that this is not just more hype, spin, another magic solution.

FIELD: Clarice Berry runs the union representing the city's more than 600 principals. She's seen reform efforts come and go.

Ms. BERRY: Everyone is frightened. Everything is such high stakes in this system and every system across the nation.

FIELD: Top district officials argue that performance management offers principals a way to tackle tough educational problems that seem insurmountable. And they point to other districts, like Houston, where these methods are working.

The superintendent there, Terry Grier, credits performance management with forcing his principals to use data to pressure their worst teachers to get better or get out.

Dr. TERRY GRIER (Superintendent, Houston Independent School District): The teachers in the bottom quintal, that bottom 25, 20 percent, they are leaving the district. And that, quite frankly, is our goal.

FIELD: District officials in Chicago say they've learned a lot from studying what other cities are doing. But to a large extent, Chicago is on its own here. No district is trying to implement performance management in such an all-encompassing, systemic fashion.

Sarah Kremsner is supervising the rollout of performance management to more than 600 schools across Chicago.

Ms. SARAH KREMSNER (Chief Performance Officer, Chicago Public Schools): The issues are hard. This is not easy work. We do have very honest conversations about what is working and what isn't working, but they're very professional conversations.

FIELD: As it asks thousands of educators to embrace the process, the district seems to be going out of its way to highlight the spirit of civility. Performance management, the district stresses on its Web site, isn't a blame game. It's just a way to have a conversation about some brutal facts.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field in Chicago.

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