Plucked by Mayor Daley from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004, Ron Huberman today heads up the Chicago Public Schools, stepping into the shoes of Arne Duncan.
Under the brilliant lights of the auditorium stage at a West Side school, Ron Huberman sits behind a long table at the center of a menagerie of civil servants, ready to be denounced. In the audience, hundreds of students and parents wait desperately for answers and action. It’s March, and grown men, many of them likely gang members, have recently been beating up girls on their way home from the four schools housed here in the Little Village Lawndale High School campus. Why can’t the cops do anything? Thugs in SUVs chase after school buses, throwing things that break windows, apparently acting on long-simmering tensions between the black and Latino communities. Why hasn’t the school district beefed up security? Why haven’t officials rerouted buses to keep kids safer?
A month earlier, Mayor Richard M. Daley had yanked Huberman from his post as president of the Chicago Transit Authority and installed him as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, the nearly $5-billion bureaucracy that is as large as all of Chicago city government, employing 43,840 adults and teaching more than 400,000 kids. Though tonight the roster of officials in attendance includes a police commander, an alderman, a CTA bureaucrat, and various school administrators, here in the auditorium, the buck stops with Huberman.
One by one, parents, students, teachers, and activists march to the microphones and engage in the time-honored Ping-Pong match of community politics: Citizen yells at public official. Official tells citizen what she wants to hear. Citizen demands changes. Official makes empty promises. (Repeat.)
When it’s finally Huberman’s turn in the semi-scripted proceedings, things proceed differently. Even in a suit and tie, the 37-year-old gay ex-cop seems much younger than the average big-city agency head. An Israeli-born immigrant who is sometimes mistaken for a light-skinned black man, he looks like a kinder, gentler version of the action star Vin Diesel.
“Life is difficult enough,” he begins. “You shouldn’t have the added burden of worrying about the safety of your kids on their way to and from school.” In the audience, heads nod in fierce agreement. Huberman combines an officer’s ability to command respect with a politician’s gift for speaking platitudes with sincerity. Whereas his cohorts this evening made vague pledges and budgetary excuses, Huberman is ready to deliver: He’s set aside $5,000 in overtime pay for security staff and $5,000 worth of radios and equipment for parent patrol volunteers. “You all came with a plan,” he says. “When you come with a plan, it’s our responsibility to make that plan happen.” He gives out his e-mail and phone number, asking families to follow up with him. “Next time, we’ll meet in a gymnasium. So rather than us sitting up here, speaking to you down there, we’ll get on the same level,” Huberman promises.
When he finishes, everyone from 20-something white yuppie teachers to immigrant Latino mothers beat their hands together as if they mean it. For a moment, the new schools chief has turned the mood from a confrontational community meeting into an all-for-one campaign rally.
After you witness a performance like this, Huberman’s resumé begins to make sense. You can understand what Daley might have seen when he plucked Huberman from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004. You begin to grasp how this one man could have modernized Chicago’s 911 apparatus, changed the accountability system for city government, and rescued public transit from the brink of bankruptcy—all in less than five years.
Yet security concerns in Little Village just extend Huberman’s list of daunting challenges, most of which can’t be overcome with a slick speech and a $10,000 budget allocation. With almost zero prior education experience, he presides over a district in which many junior high schoolers can’t read a map; fewer than one-third of high-school freshmen make it to college; some students cross four dangerous gang lines every morning and afternoon.
Huberman’s quest to remake the country’s third-largest school system may be the purest test of Mayor Daley’s mantra that a great manager can direct any organization. More important, it’s the ultimate trial of Huberman’s belief that measuring progress and analyzing numbers offer the best way to reform a faltering organization. If this uber-technocrat makes serious progress, he will stride toward his rumored destiny as Daley’s heir. And if he doesn’t, he’s the type who might create a data-filled PowerPoint slide deck to explain why he failed. Whatever the outcome, Huberman is poised to make his mark on public education in Chicago and the nation.
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Photograph: Ryan Robinson
After noticing Huberman in meetings between the police department and the mayor’s office, Richard M. Daley (shown here with Huberman in 2007) made the up-and-coming cop one of the youngest members of his cabinet.
For someone charged with educating hundreds of thousands of students, Ron Huberman got off to a rather unremarkable start in the classroom. He had come to the United States with his family when he was five, and they spent seven years in Tennessee before moving to La Grange, where his father, a cancer researcher, took a job at Argonne National Laboratory. Huberman didn’t distinguish himself at Lyons Township High School, and for college he settled on the University of Wisconsin mostly because he admired the beauty of Madison. He took his studies more seriously—pursuing a double major in psychology and English—but he didn’t have any real plan when he graduated. After working for a year in real estate in Washington, D.C., he moved home and did what he had been dreaming about for years—joined the Chicago Police Department.
Huberman has been openly gay since high school, and becoming a cop, especially in a department that has faced accusations of homophobia, might not have been an obvious career move. Yet, he says his sexuality was the last thing on his mind when he joined the force. Although his experience coming out as a teen left him sensitive to groups who have faced discrimination, he is part of a generation for whom sexual preference often bears little relevance to what happens at work. “It’s really never been an issue,” Huberman says. “It wasn’t one in the police department, and it hasn’t been one in this job either.”
Walking the beat in sketchy sections of Rogers Park, he quickly saw that law enforcement alone couldn’t begin to solve the problems plaguing low-income areas. So one afternoon in the mid-1990s, while deciding whether to enroll at the University of Chicago, Huberman sat in on a class there taught by Pastora San Juan Cafferty, a professor in the School of Social Service Administration. Midway through the lecture on social interventions in inner cities, Huberman raised his hand. When Cafferty called on him, he calmly dissected her argument and registered his disagreement. In 25 years of teaching, she had never seen anything like it. “My God, he’s bright,” Cafferty thought.
After a chat in her office, she called the dean of students. “I don’t know where he is in the process of admission,” Cafferty said, “but you should zero in on him.”
Huberman left the same sort of impression on Cafferty that he would leave on many prominent Chicagoans during the ensuing decade. Though he was confident almost to the point of arrogance, he was exceptionally smart, and a born leader. He enrolled in the U. of C.’s social service graduate school and later its business school, eventually earning two master’s degrees. The teachers and leaders who have worked with him overwhelmingly sing his praises—even the activist priest Father Michael Pfleger, who has sometimes disagreed with Huberman during his career, calls him “a gift to government.”
At the police department, where he worked night shifts through much of grad school, top brass quickly promoted Huberman through the ranks, first to tough field assignments, such as the tactical gang team, and later to managerial desk jobs. As assistant deputy superintendent for the Office of Information and Strategic Services—the department’s techie-in-chief—he created CLEAR, a system that gave cops real-time access to details such as criminals’ aliases and locations where crimes commonly occurred. The system became a national model. City Hall and the CPD claim that CLEAR, together with Operation Disruption, a surveillance camera system Huberman launched, were major drivers of the 25 percent drop in city murders, from 598 in 2003 to 448 in 2004.
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Photograph: Scott Strazzante
In October 2007, Huberman addressed the CTA budget.
Mayor Daley first took notice of Huberman in meetings between the police department and the mayor’s office, and in April 2004 the mayor hired the up-and-coming cop to overhaul the Office of Emergency Management and Communications—the agency that answers daily 911 calls and provides disaster response.
At 33, Huberman became one of the youngest members of the mayor’s cabinet, but he wasn’t the first unknown that Daley had handpicked to take over a crucial department. Like his father, Chicago’s current mayor often cultivates promising, talented loyalists, then deploys them to key agencies. In recent years, he has unearthed ever-younger prospects, elevating them to top positions in city government, installing many in powerful entities ostensibly outside city control. When the mayor took over Chicago’s flailing school district in 1995, he appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, as CEO and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as board president. Another acolyte, Lori Healey, has been shuffled from planning commissioner to chief of staff to her current role in charge of the city’s Olympics bid. Richard Rodriguez, 38, Huberman’s replacement at the CTA, was previously appointed by Daley to direct the aviation and construction and permits departments.
The strategy is simple: Find smart people, train them to manage, and throw them into problem agencies with a broad mandate. Those who thrive move on to bigger and better things: Key members of President Obama’s inner circle—adviser David Axelrod, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, adviser Valerie Jarrett, and even First Lady Michelle Obama—cut their teeth working for the mayor.
“Mayor Daley is just, by and large, a great judge of talent,” says Paul Green, the director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University and a coauthor of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. “Some of his most vocal critics who will not give him a break on anything will tell you Daley has been blessed in that area.”
The management tactic doesn’t always proceed without bumps. Frank Kruesi, a Daley associate since the mayor’s days as a state senator, ran into so many public relations disasters as head of the CTA that Daley eventually reassigned him to the city’s lobbying operation in Washington, far from public scrutiny. And Daley has caught flak from cops and community groups since bringing in Jody Weis, a longtime FBI official, as police chief. (The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
Huberman, who eventually supplanted Kruesi at CTA, represents the most extreme example of Daley’s trial-by-fire approach, having doused three bureaucratic blazes and then moved on at Daley’s behest, leaving behind gushing underlings and astonished foes.
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While running the 911 center, Huberman developed a performance management system that has become the open secret of his success. Cobbled together from business books such as Jim Collins’s Good to Great, the accountability practices at General Motors (back when the automaker was successful), and Huberman’s police and academic experience, it allowed him to ask a simple question: How did we do yesterday—and was it better than the day before? Similar management systems have been around for years in the corporate world, but Huberman came up with a simplified version that he could apply to government. He used it to quantify boring-but-important numbers, such as how quickly 911 calls were being picked up, and then used the figures to hold managers accountable.
When he became Daley’s chief of staff in the wake of the hired truck and patronage hiring scandals, Huberman adapted the method to scrutinize all 40-odd city departments. Every week, he would call dozens of city managers into a room, then interrogate them. The process was akin to an oral final exam. There were no excuses—if a manager blamed a problem on another department (say, CPD pointing the finger at Human Services for rising crime among the homeless), the department head could respond. When officials made legitimate cases for bigger budgets, Huberman helped find money. Goals were met, or heads would roll.
It was the ideal instrument for a demanding boss who works 12-hour days (not counting nights and weekends stacked with meetings) and expects underlings to do much the same. Though Huberman had barely spent time in the private sector, he developed a reputation as a brutal, corporate-style executive. (None of the critics or victims of Huberman’s sometimes-brusque style would speak on the record for fear of angering a powerful man who has the mayor’s ear.) At the CTA, his rapid reorganization shook things up, and managers who didn’t quickly meet expectations were ousted. The results of Huberman’s 21-month reign are remarkable: He took over an agency on the verge of financial meltdown, then corralled union leaders and Springfield lawmakers into agreeing on a multimillion-dollar pension-and-funding overhaul that kept buses and trains running. He led a campaign to cut down slow zones—areas of track where trains must run at reduced speed due to safety concerns—from 23 percent of the system to just 7 percent. He also oversaw a $530-million expansion of the Brown Line, the revamping of an awful CTA website, and cleaner buses.
“He definitely brought in a management style where you had to perform,” says Kevin O’Neil, the force behind the CTA Tattler, a blog that scrupulously tracks the agency. “If you didn’t, you were gone. Call it cleaning house, call it what you want to call it. It seems to me, that’s good management, period.”
Huberman also made a point of actually riding the trains and buses. On one occasion, while aboard a southbound Red Line train in 2008, he confronted an unruly man who had been harassing a female passenger. “You’re going to get off the train,” insisted Huberman, according to an e-mail submitted to the Tattler. Though protesting, the man finally did
exit the train—with Huberman right behind him. (Huberman’s office confirmed that the incident occurred.)
Around City Hall, people were already whispering that Daley sometimes spoke of Huberman as a potential future mayor. Inside CTA, his decisions weren’t always popular. Early on, Huberman hired a 24-year-old mayoral aide with no transit experience, Adam Case, to head communications, a role that put him in charge of three veteran managers and a staff of dozens. Some longtime employees resented the move, but Huberman credits Case with shepherding crucial projects, including adapting the CTA’s Bus Tracker notification system for mobile devices. “My ultimate responsibility was not ensuring that there was harmony and goodwill within the communications department,” he says. “My responsibility was ensuring the customers of CTA got the best information possible.”
At times, Huberman’s emphasis on riders irked overseers. He signed a deal with Google for a trip planning application, obviating an in-the-works planner from the Regional Transit Authority, the body that supervises the CTA. “I felt it was good for customers and I was moving ahead,” he says. “I did not want to get stuck in red tape.”
In several respects, Huberman fell short of his promises. Though he boasted about riding public transit, the CTA still maintained a car for his workday trips, with a staffer driving. (Huberman says it was necessary for emergencies and back-to-back meetings around the city.) He also left a $242-million budget gap—a shortfall he blames on a variety of factors, including the ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s free rides for seniors and unforeseen drops in tax revenue. Still, his too-rosy 2009 projections were made last fall, after serious economic shocks. “I’m very confident that as soon as the economy comes back, CTA will be in good shape,” Huberman predicts.
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Photograph: José M. Osorio
In April 2009, as the recently appointed CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, he joined students at the John M. Smyth Magnet Elementary School on the West Side.
When Arne Duncan left Chicago Public Schools to become U.S. secretary of education, Huberman was not the obvious choice to succeed him. Both Duncan and the then board president Rufus Williams (since replaced by Michael Scott, a Daley ally) endorsed Barbara Eason-Watkins, the career educator serving as interim CEO.
At his first school board meeting, Huberman was greeted with boos from outraged parents and teachers in black armbands. Most critics, however, weren’t really attacking Huberman. They were condemning a school system that has been failing students for decades. The most pressing crises range from the killings of more than three dozen kids this past school year to a deficit projected to reach $475 million in 2010. “What Huberman is walking into is a mess,” said Barbara Radner, an associate professor of education at DePaul University, soon after he took over.
Since 1995, Mayor Daley has maintained total control of CPS, choosing the CEO and all board members. Vallas, his first chief, cleaned up the central office and spent billions renovating schools. But his myopic focus on math and reading test scores neglected other subjects. Duncan broadened the education strategy, instituting programs aimed at teacher training and generating some student achievement gains. But he also presided over Renaissance 2010, a controversial program to close dozens of struggling schools and replace them with 100 new ones, with latitude for modifications like longer days and non-union teachers. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either an innovative public-private partnership or an effort to privatize CPS and undermine the teachers’ union. So far, its effects on the broader system have been mixed at best.
As part of Renaissance 2010, Duncan (who declined to comment) left behind a list of 22 schools to be closed or reconstituted. During Huberman’s first weeks at CPS, he spent more time on that list than on anything else. He e-mailed parents and students, many of them livid over school closures, and sifted through public testimony. Many people called for a moratorium on school closings pending further research, but Huberman compromised, recommending the shutdown of 16 schools, some of which had been on academic probation for ten years. He said he didn’t want to leave them open just so experts could spend another year reviewing them. “To freeze and put kids as hostages in underperforming schools while we study more is wrong,” Huberman says.
Though critics weren’t pacified, the retraction on six closings, along with his more recent decision to subject Renaissance 2010 charter schools to higher standards, suggests Huberman is more than just a steamroller for mayoral policies. “He’s Daley’s guy, of course, but I think what we have here is a chance for someone with a much more comprehensive understanding of the community and the system to take this task on,” says Radner. “He’s coming in as a person who knows what happens outside the school door.”
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Before becoming head of the sprawling school system, Huberman had spent little time in the education world (he has taught one law school course), and he arrived at CPS without much of a plan. Already, though, he has taken deft action in response to several minor crises. After questions were raised about the handling of several instances of alleged teacher abuse of students, he ordered a review of 800-plus cases over five years. When swine flu threatened the city, he acted quickly to help teachers and principals recognize dangers and closed Kilmer Elementary School after a 12-year-old girl became ill. Huberman also tripled the number of year-round schools to 132—almost one-quarter of the system—and engineered a management shakeup that sent the chief administrative officer, Hill Hammock, packing. In early June, Huberman confirmed that up to 1,000 non-classroom employees would lose their jobs as the CPS strives to overcome its massive deficit.
Other decisions are more troubling: Despite promises to slash the budget, Huberman watched silently as the seven school board members doubled their receipt-free expense allowances to $24,000 per person per year, with $36,000 for Scott, the board president. And Huberman approved at least two no-bid consulting contracts—including one of up to $150,000 for Barbara McDonald, his former boss at the police department, who has followed him to several agencies. McDonald’s indistinct role is to “provide advice and consultation” to Huberman on communication and outreach, according to the approval agreement submitted to the board. “She’ll add so much value, she’s going to more than pay for contract costs,” Huberman says.
Huberman’s biggest challenge, however, will likely come as he tries to adapt performance management to a practice as subjective and heavy with variables as teaching children. Many educators, unconvinced by Duncan’s data-reliant efforts and aggravated by the testing-dependent federal No Child Left Behind law, remain skeptical. “You end up missing, devaluing the role of teachers. You’re turning teachers into delivery clerks,” warns Mike Klonsky, an education professor at DePaul and the director of the Small Schools Workshop, a consulting group.
Any changes Huberman dreams up will likely run headlong into the behemoth, 232-page agreement between CPS and the teachers’ union, which includes items as detailed as the length of a high-school day (421 minutes) and eligibility rules for swimming coaches.
Huberman acknowledges the undertaking is complex, and stresses his team is striving to tailor his system for education. But he harbors few doubts—and says so in language featuring words such as “metrics,” “accountability,” and “outcomes.”
Listening to him spout consultant-speak like that between bites of a late-lunch salad in his boxy, still-sparse office at 125 South Clark Street, it’s hard to believe this is the same Ron Huberman who can walk into a classroom or a community assembly or a meeting with America’s most powerful mayor and wow everyone in the room. Yet the wonky dialect is like Huberman’s native language. He is comfortable drowning in data—by his lights, the CPS team just needs to figure out which numbers to start collecting and analyzing.
Already, they’ve discovered areas ripe for savings and improvement. After the performance management team examined district-funded afterschool tutoring agencies, they found that some programs increased students’ grades, test scores, and attendance rates, while others had a detrimental effect. The obvious response: Cut funds from weak contractors, and redirect money to successful ones.
Renovating the whole of CPS is a much more demanding task than his last three assignments from Mayor Daley. To Huberman, though, the school system is just another organization, responsive to measurement, leadership, and novel ideas. Before school begins this fall, he promises, he will unveil a workable plan to save hundreds of millions of dollars and pursue aggressive improvements in education in every neighborhood. “Anyone who’s in my job has to believe it’s all solvable,” Huberman says. “Because if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be here.”
Photograph: Ryan Robinson