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Rahm Emanuel: I’ve evolved on education, and the rest of the world should, too

Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.
Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat

After eight years running Chicago’s schools, outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel says he’s learned a few things — including that principals are important and students benefit from health and social services.

In an essay published this week in The Atlantic, Emanuel says he now knows that the “old gospel of education reform” isn’t what’s needed to fix schools or help students succeed. The final paragraph of the piece summarizes its content and tone (though Emanuel’s famous snark shines through more strongly in other places):

For most of my career, I preached the old gospel of education reform. But now research and experience suggest that policy makers need to embrace a new path forward and leave the old gospel behind. Principals, not just teachers, drive educational gains. The brain-dead debate between charter and neighborhood schools should be replaced with a focus on quality over mediocrity. To get kids to finish high school, the student experience should center on preparing them for what’s next in life. Finally, classroom success hinges on the support that students get outside school. If other cities follow Chicago’s lead in embracing those ideas, they’re likely to also replicate its results.

The essay offers some new insights about Emanuel’s personal evolution on education, revealing, for example, that the rapper Common’s mother narrowly stopped the mayor from signing off on a contract that limited principals’ latitude to hire teachers.

It also represents an effort to solidify a positive education legacy as Emanuel prepares to leave office amid a high crime rate and scandal over how he handled the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. He cities rising college enrollment rates and, not surprising to anyone who’s been within earshot of him in the past 18 months, a Stanford University study finding that Chicago’s academic gains have outpaced other cities’.

And the essay also suggests that Emanuel could be considering his next move in the Democratic Party apparatus that has shaped his career so far. Many national Democratic figures supported the recent teacher strike in Los Angeles and have joined calls for raising teacher salaries, as support for charter schools and other ideas associated with education reform has waned.

Emanuel’s description of himself as an education-policy maverick is overblown, though. Many others in the reform movement that he says has not changed have long argued that a school’s quality is more important than who manages it; that students’ readiness for college and careers is just as important as whether they graduate from high school; and that schools benefit when principals are empowered.

Those ideas underpinned much of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school reforms starting in 2002, for example, and mayors and superintendents in many places infused those ideas into their policies in the decade between then and Emanuel’s election.

Whether Emanuel’s suggested compromise will inform the future of education policy in Chicago is unclear. City voters will choose a new mayor later this month.

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