Some of the initiatives that Arne Duncan championed in Chicago’s schools sound familiar:
• Remaking struggling schools and requiring teachers to reapply for jobs.
• Giving teachers bonuses for demonstrated improvements in student achievement.
• Breaking up large high schools into smaller, more personal environments.
• Sending staffers door to door to encourage kids to show up the first day of school.
But other steps that the Chicago public schools undertook with Duncan as their chief sound even bolder:
• Paying students for good grades, with half the money going into college funds.
• Closing schools with low enrollment or chronically low performance and opening new specialized magnets to give parents more choice.
• Setting up a lab school that simultaneously educates students and trains teachers.
Despite the grousing of some of Duncan’s critics, there’s a largely positive buzz about President-elect Barack Obama’s candidate for education secretary.
News reports portray him as an intelligent, thoughtful reformer who’s made tough choices but been able to work with teacher unions, someone who’ll be able to bridge the differences between educator factions that have competing visions about how the federal government should go about improving the nation’s schools.
Duncan gets credit for raising test scores and college attendance rates among blacks and Latino students in Chicago during his seven years as school chief (those groups still lag behind their white counterparts, though).
What’s encouraging to me is that Duncan has hands-on experience in applying policies and rules to the reality of classrooms and children’s lives.
The son of educators, Duncan has tutored disadvantaged kids. He started out in education heading a foundation that supports a public elementary school that teaches young children about finance through hands-on investing.
He’s grappled with the range of major headaches that come with running an urban school district:
• Trying to devise effective ways of reaching students who are far behind academically, come from poor or dysfunctional families and are in danger of dropping out.
• Finding and keeping high-quality teachers for schools with the most challenges, at the same time improving teacher training and removing those who are simply ineffective.
• Balancing budgets when almost every year requires a scramble for more income, cuts in spending and job elimination.
• Coping with ancillary issues, such as rats in school cafeterias and violence that strikes students and teachers.
But what could serve Duncan best in his new role, if he’s confirmed by the Senate, is his experience in implementing the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which will come up for reauthorization next year.
For all its value in forcing states to work toward having all students meet more rigorous standards, the law sometimes impedes progress instead of fostering it. The best intentions don’t always work well on the ground.
As an example, schools that don’t meet “adequately yearly progress” must take certain steps each year they’re out of compliance.
One of the first steps districts must take is to notify parents when schools don’t make adequate progress and give them the option of transferring to other schools. But that often proves chaotic — and unhelpful when options are limited by space.
Another step is to provide students with added resources, such as subsidized tutoring. Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson said those extra services should come first, and that accountability should be strengthened for companies hired to provide the tutoring.
“He gets it,” Johnson said. “He’s been on the front lines in an urban school system. He knows all the challenges. And he doesn’t shy away from accountability.”
— Linda P. Campbell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.