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Numbers Man

He modernized Chicago’s emergency-response center, served as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and led (albeit briefly) the CTA—all before his 38th birthday. Now Ron Huberman, the Israeli-born gay ex-cop, has brought his intensity and his technocratic management style to the city’s public schools. Failure is not an option.

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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

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