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Man of the Hour

What Ed Sec Duncan's Chicago past can tell us about the future of US education.

June/July 2009

Arne Duncan has us waiting with bated breath. With $100 billion to spend on education and an unprecedented amount of power to push through school reform that is “dramatic” and “historic” (two adjectives that have popped up in his own rhetoric), Duncan’s law is about to sweep the nation. But what will that law mean for you? To understand the thought process of what could be the most influential education secretary in history, Duncan’s friends and critics say that first you need to look at the city where Duncan grew up and rose to become CEO of our nation’s third-largest school district. The actions Duncan took in Chicago, including firing school staffs, backing charters, and supporting merit pay, may give us a hint of what’s to come for the entire country.

   Skeptics argue that no matter Duncan’s history, he now faces an impossible task. In the New York Times this past February, Margaret Spellings famously predicted disaster for Duncan: “The point is, it’s never been done before, and as much confidence as I have in Arne Duncan, there’s an awesome opportunity for slippage with that much money moving through the meat grinder.”

On the other hand, advocates say that he is living up to, even surpassing, expectations of how well he will manage the challenge. “He’s a thoughtful, committed, reform-minded secretary who knows he has an unprecedented amount of money to push forward,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS). “I’m impressed with the speed at which [the DOE] moved forward on the stimulus.”

Who’s right? At this point we don’t have enough information to rule on Duncan’s performance in the national spotlight. All we have is his past. Here’s what you need to know about education’s man of the hour.

Straddling Extremes
Duncan has spent his entire life walking the line. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and was also the co-captain of its basketball team. As a younger student, he experienced both an elite education and the toughness of inner-city schooling: He attended the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools but spent much of his time at a South Side tutoring program that his mother, Sue Duncan, has run for 48 years. Before Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him head of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 2001, Duncan ran the Ariel Education Initiative, which funded college educations for an entire class of inner-city children and started a new public elementary school.

During his time at Ariel and as top dog of CPS, Duncan became known as a reformer who loves radical ideas yet understands the importance of working with unions. Although the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, Marilyn Stewart, didn’t much like his firing entire staffs of people when he closed down schools, she conceded that the two had a solid professional relationship. Not a “lovefest,” she has said, but they did return each other’s phone calls. “The unions know that Duncan is somebody they can work with,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Controversial Measures
Still, Duncan is hardly a union man. He refuses to settle for the status quo, a phrase he has uttered so often with so much disdain that it has become a dirty word in education. He touts the idea of change—radical change. He demonstrates this attitude most clearly when he speaks of chronically failing schools. According to Duncan, if you pour millions of dollars into a struggling school and attempt to change some aspects of its operation and it continues to fail, then it’s time to cut your losses. You should shut it down.

In Chicago, this was Duncan’s plan for turning around schools. And now, positioned on the national stage, he is encouraging districts to do the same. Within nine months on the job at CPS, Duncan closed several of the city’s worst-performing schools, fired their entire staffs—from principals to custodians—and reopened them a year later as charters. This controversial initiative, Renaissance 2010, aims to open 100 high-performing schools in Chicago by 2010.

One jewel in the turnaround-school crown is the Dodge Renaissance Academy. According to Donald Feinstein, executive director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago, the organization that trains new teachers to enter these turnaround schools, only 22 percent of students at Dodge were meeting state goals before the transformation. Today, 72 percent of students reach those goals. So impressive are the gains at Dodge Renaissance Academy that President Obama chose it as the location to announce Duncan as his pick for education secretary.

Yet the strategy is controversial. “Absolutely toxic,” says Stewart of the Chicago Teachers Union, referring to the idea of issuing pink slips to an entire existing staff. Certainly some good educators—as well as good counselors and good cafeteria workers—are thrown out with the bad. Former staff may reapply once the school reopens, but there is no guarantee they will get their old jobs back. Stewart prefers the idea of firing the principal—fire the coach, not the team, she says—but Duncan argues that every adult in the school building affects a child’s success. You either succeed as a team, or you fail as a team.

Critics also argue that in the time the schools transitioned into charters, the neighborhoods gentrified. As a result, when the schools reopened, they did so with vastly different student bodies. “Look at the data,” says Stewart. “As the poverty level went down, the [test] scores went up. They aren’t the same students.” Duncan insisted that they were, and that the same kids from the same communities are now performing two to three times better than before the schools were overhauled.

Determined to find the middle ground in the battle between public schools and charters, Duncan oversaw a program at CPS called Fresh Start Schools. This program is a partnership between the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union. It enables union teachers and administrators to collaborate in turning around traditional schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress. It is this kind of flexibility that leads people to call Duncan “the quintessential pragmatist,” says CGCS’s Casserly.

Duncan claims that ultimately he wants each community to have the school that best serves the kids, whether that’s a traditional public school or a charter. To that end, he advocates charters opening in communities that have for too long been suffering with failing schools. Although states control the number of charters they allow, Obama and Duncan will push them to lift these caps. As Casserly puts it, they “will use the bully pulpit to move that agenda forward.”

The Teacher Tango
charters may be in service of Duncan’s ultimate priority, quality teachers. Great teaching matters most, says Duncan. In his quest to put the best and brightest into our nation’s classrooms, he is encouraging districts to reward teachers who demonstrate excellence, provide incentives for the top talent to teach in the lowest-performing schools, and offer increased pay to teachers who chose subjects that face teacher shortages (such as math, science, and languages). He also supports alternative training programs for teachers—programs that transition retirees, mid-career changers, and military personnel into the classroom.

“He’s been able to change the conversation from teacher quality to teacher effectiveness,” says Dan Katzir, managing director at the Broad Foundation.

In 2006, Duncan led CPS to secure a five-year $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Teacher Incentive Fund, the largest grant ever awarded to the district. The grant helped create a Teacher Advancement Program, or tap. This program melds professional development with performance evaluation. It is Chicago’s first merit pay program, but it also rewards other members of a school’s staff. Falling in line with Duncan’s theory that a school either succeeds or fails as a whole, tap offers monetary rewards to the entire school staff based on the performance of the students.

In the short time tap has been active in CPS, the district has shown a 3.7 percent increase on its composite scores—garnered from reading, math, and science tests. Although that score remains below the state average, the nine elementary schools participating in tap increased 5.2 percentage points from the previous year.

The program, however, is very young. George Schmidt, editor in chief of Substance News, a monthly journal about CPS written by classroom teachers, is critical of Duncan gaining so much leverage from tap so quickly. Duncan asserts that the program has achieved its goals, but Schmidt says the plan wasn’t outlined until 2006, wasn’t accepted until May 2007, and didn’t issue a first round of merit pay checks until December 2008. Therefore, he argues, it is impossible to pass judgment on the program’s effectiveness so soon.

When the Facts Lie
Another key to understanding Duncan is his faith in data collection and analysis in improving student performance. If he gets his way, teachers and school leaders will be able to anticipate every student’s test score, with the help of good data collection systems. Duncan believes that data collection, beyond eliminating the guessing game, is at the core of school reform. Not only is he asking districts to track a student throughout his or her academic career, but he also wants them to track students back to what teachers they had and teachers back to what kind of training and schooling they received—two ideas not very popular with the unions.

Although data collection is all about the facts, the issue isn’t so cut-and-dried. Data provides a score a student earned on a test, but who is issuing the test? What exactly did the test measure? “When people say their plan is based on data, I get nervous,” says Susan Ohanian, education author and longtime critic of No Child Left Behind. “This data comes from very crummy tests.”

Duncan agrees. He alleges that standards have fallen so low—intentionally driven down by the states—that a student’s reaching those standards in no way confirms his or her proficiency. He goes so far as to say that telling students and parents that the students have met the standards is equivalent to lying to them—misleading them into believing they are on the road to graduation and college. To this end, Duncan is working to implement more rigorous international benchmarks that all states must adopt.

During his tenure at CPS, Duncan brought up some very valuable numbers. The graduation rate went up, as did the number of graduates who were college-bound. The number of elementary schools meeting standards went up as well. On the other hand, the achievement gap widened. It’s a mixed bag of data that Duncan believes he could have improved through more radical change, painful and controversial as it might be. “He’s not afraid of new things,” says AASA’s Domenech. “That’s one of the reasons he was chosen by the president.”

Summer Days Are Ending—Literally
one of duncan’s fundamental beliefs is his simplest. The new education secretary has stated again and again that if future generations are going to be able to compete on the global stage, students are going to have to put in the time. School days and years will have to get longer.
“Research shows that you can get a lot of effect from extending the time in school if the programs are structured correctly,” says CGCS’s Casserly.

Duncan expanded after-school and summer programs in CPS, a district with a notoriously low total number of instruction hours. He also started a voluntary program, Freshman Connection, to help incoming ninth graders adjust to high school. In July 2008, 16,000 freshmen showed up to school to be mentored by juniors and seniors. The new students became acquainted with the school and the teachers’ demands before the school year officially started.

“It’s a simple solution,” says Domenech, noting that extending learning time has been effective in New York City. But it’s not an easy sell to suggest expanding it, as numerous districts are considering even cutting down to a four-day week to save money.

Indeed, today’s economic crisis has the ability to blur the big picture beyond recognition. To ask struggling schools, who can’t afford to pay their cafeteria workers, to take a giant leap into a fuzzy future and push forward radical ideas takes guts. But Duncan contends, as does the rest of the Obama administration, that a crisis must be viewed as an opportunity. Still, all eyes are on Duncan to see what kind of change will come. “There’s tremendous accountability. Everybody is watching,” says Domenech, adding, “The gains we want to see don’t tend to happen in the short-term.” Will we have the patience to see them through?       

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