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Top Chef: Education Reform

November 18th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

It was the Top Chef of education reform. Last weekend, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Indianapolis-based non-profit, The Mind Trust, held its second annual Education Case Competition for top business school students from across the country. A rather intimidating panel of education powerhouses assembled to judge the competition; I was delighted and honored to provide some local Chicago color.

The Case: how should urban districts respond to decreasing enrollment and increasing competition from charter schools, other local non-urban districts, and private and parochial schools? Working within current political and economic realities, teams needed to re-imagine an ideal urban education system, focusing on governance, public accountability, budget, operations and organizational structure, human capital, transportation, facilities, and measures of success. Students were encouraged to “think boldly and creatively and not be constrained by traditional practices and structures in public education.” Dream big.

The least persuasive plan I heard responded to the seeming insatiable demand for school choice by providing bus service to every single student in the district. A random lottery for everyone! I asked the team, “On top of the financial and logistical nightmare you’re proposing, why are you staffing each school with a community outreach person when there won’t be any parents left in the neighborhood to engage?” One of my esteemed colleagues put it more succinctly: “What makes you think school choice matters to parents if every school in the district sucks?”

In the end, a gussied-up version of the neighborhood school model, the very one that has succeeded in this country for over a century, ruled the day. The winning team proposed a school district that valued human capital, lean operations, and high aspirations and expectations, above all else. The plan rewarded high performing schools with increased autonomy, and turned to principals, parents and community members to come up with creative solutions to their own problems. True to their business school roots, the students empowered each individual school to harness market forces to solve its budget woes. They hoped to create a culture of excellence.

Two big shockers of the competition: one, the final round was a head-to-head smackdown between Northwestern and the University of Chicago–as a U of C alumnae, just once I’d like to leave a room without a chip on my shoulder; and two, the winning team delivered the How to Walk to School blueprint almost to a tee.

When our eight mommy reformers brainstormed about how to revitalize our underutilized and underperforming neighborhood elementary school, Nettelhorst, we didn’t draw upon any educational research or fancy economic modeling; our plan just made intuitive sense given the facts on the ground and a razor-thin window of opportunity. And, we’re not the only rag-tag band of reformers creating change in our community from the ground up. Want to be inspired? Check out: WatersToday here in Chicago, Peralta in Oakland, the Passyunk Square Civic Association in Philadelphia, and the Sustainable Heights Network in Cleveland. I’ve met some of the folks behind each of these movements, and I’m blown away by what they’ve been able to accomplish.

Education experts advocate for ever more Draconian top-down initiatives, and tell us that reform takes decades and that change is incremental. We don’t have time for the status quo anymore. “As our nation faces the challenge of improving opportunity and outcomes for all students, we need our most talented and innovative leaders to be involved–just the type of leaders who participated in last weekend’s competition,” says Mind Trust Founder and CEO, David Harris.

Here’s my spin on the Mind Trust competition: Want to reform public education? How ’bout something really old school: Start by fixing the neighborhood school in your own backyard. Step one, look to the talent-pool sitting around the local sandbox. Bet your bottom dollar that those “talented and innovative” leaders will be right under your nose.

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