This Month's Interview
The Chicago schools chief is Obama's pick for Secretary of Education. It's a slam dunk!
By Alexander Russo | January 2009
Q: What’s the most persistent misperception about Chicago public schools?
A: I wish the public better understood how much change can happen. People don’t see how much potential all of our children have, regardless of socioeconomic status or family background, when we give them real opportunities to succeed.
Q: What element of Chicago’s reform efforts do you think would work in other districts, even smaller ones?
A: We’re all fighting the same battles; the keys are focus, execution, and constantly trying to accelerate the pace of change. I think our three core strategies—instructional excellence, talent attraction and development, and creating more learning opportunities—are relevant anywhere.
Q: What do you do better now as a district leader than you did in the beginning?
A: My job is to recruit the best and brightest talent and support them as they strive to help children. I understand how to do this better, and how to overcome the barriers.
Q: You are one of the only people to sign on to both dueling education manifestos, Broader, Bolder and the Education Equality Project, when most people signed only one. Why?
A: I see these two ideas as mutually reinforcing, rather than in conflict. If we push both agendas really hard, instead of spending time debating them, we have an opportunity to transform the life chances of our children.
Q: To what education ideas have you exposed President-elect Obama?
A: I’ve taken lots of politicians on school visits, but no one listened more to teachers and students, or asked tougher questions, than Barack.
Q: Who’s a better ballplayer?
A: Barack can hoop. He has a good crossover, gets to the basket and finishes, and is tough defensively. He is smart, competitive, and he plays to win.
Q: What are the perks and perils of being talked about as a potential Cabinet member?
A: While it’s a great honor, it’s honestly more of a distraction—my entire focus is on our children here in Chicago.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you before you took the job as head of Chicago schools?
A: That children can’t vote; I didn’t fully understand how little some politicians cared about investing in children.
Q: If you could get one thing done for education in Washington this year, what would it be?
A: Greater Title I funding tied to innovation, not the status quo, could drive significant improvement nationally.