What would most professors of education do If they were secretary of education? Beyond Tinkering some of us have been involved in education through a fashion show of new initiatives…
Arnie Duncan’ s article is here.
But those of us who toil in classrooms are curious about what most professors who teach teachers and think about teaching and learning think about the new policies at the Dept. of Education.
Read this article and then have your say. Who better to understand the urban initiatives and difficulties than someone who at times was feuding with the Department of Education. Does the experience make him a better Secretary of Education? What do you think?
What changes would you make?
Monday, Sep. 14, 2009
Can Arne Duncan (And $5 Billion) Fix America’s Schools?
By Gilbert Cruz
The secretary of education is on fire. He’s running up and down a makeshift basketball court in a Kentucky parking lot and has just executed one of those rare flashy moves that also manage to be completely functional: a behind-the-back, no-look pass to a teammate, who cuts backdoor for an easy layup. Moments later, he drains a fadeaway jumper with an opponent dead in his face.
On some weekends, when the rest of Washington is on the back nine or a racquetball court, Arne Duncan (whose first name is pronounced Are-knee) can be found playing in three-on-three street-ball tournaments across the nation. On a muggy, overcast Saturday in late July, while 50 Cent’s “I Get Money” blares from a set of speakers, the former head of the Chicago Public Schools pounds the blacktop, alternating between playing intensely and walking off to take calls on his BlackBerry. Almost none of the other ballers know who the white dude with the salt-and-pepper hair is, and even fewer expect him to last long in the tournament. And yet his team goes on to win every game (20-10, 20-6, 18-9, 20-11, 20-10, etc.) and eventually the grand prize of $10,000.
That may sound like a lot of money–Duncan plans to give his share to charity–but it’s chump change compared with the kind of cash he gets to play with at work. The economic-stimulus bill passed by Congress in February included $100 billion in new education spending. Of that total, Duncan has $5 billion in discretionary funding. That money alone makes him the most powerful Education Secretary ever. “I had very little–in the single-digit millions,” says Margaret Spellings, Duncan’s predecessor. “That’s millions, with an m.”
Duncan’s choices could have a transformative impact on America’s beleaguered public-education system. On July 24, he stood beside President Barack Obama and announced the guidelines for states to compete for most of that cash. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) fund lets states apply for grants that focus on a short list of reforms guaranteed to anger one of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies, the teachers’ unions. (The remaining $650 million will go to innovative local school districts and nonprofits.) With Duncan handling the ball, the Obama Administration is about to square off with the unions over perhaps the most controversial classroom issue of all: the idea that teachers should be held accountable for the success or failure of their students.
The Everest of Reforms
For all the money at his disposal, Duncan is not making it easy to get. To qualify for the cash, states are being encouraged to remove laws limiting the expansion of public charter schools (which are typically exempt from union rules and other regulations), sign on to common standards, develop a strategy to turn around their worst-performing schools and work toward building better data systems.
But the provision that has provoked the greatest outcry is a requirement that states drop any legal barriers to linking student test results and teacher performance. After years of dancing around the issue, Washington wants to know which teachers produce the best and worst students and is finally backing up that desire with real money.
To the powerful teachers’ unions, however, the idea that their jobs could hinge on a set of standardized-test results is anathema, in part because many teachers believe the tests are unreliable indicators of student performance. “Our disappointment is clear,” says Kay Brilliant, director of education policy and practice for the National Educators Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “If it’s going to be more of the same, more NCLB [No Child Left Behind], more testing and minimal support, then we’re not interested.” Duncan admits he is tackling the Everest of entrenched interests with this particular reform. “It’s pretty controversial,” he says of the rule. “But to say that great teaching doesn’t matter and should be disconnected from student outcomes, to me, is ludicrous.”
As states get ready to apply for funding, the opposition is still strategizing. “Are the unions going to tell legislators that they’re dead ducks if they support this?” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a leading education reformer. “I bet not. But they’ll definitely work hard to soften the RTT language and then work to undermine the implementation.” The Administration believes it can overcome resistance to its plans. Eight states have amended or removed laws to make themselves friendlier to charter schools, partly in anticipation of Duncan’s pot of gold. And California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing hard to drop a law that prevents state officials from using student data to evaluate teachers.
Duncan’s approach has also scrambled the once predictable politics of educational reform. Republicans typically favor reform. But Duncan’s top-down approach, with Washington telling states how to behave, makes some conservatives nervous. “When you’re talking about that much money and you’re using the language that the Secretary is using, then you get states already starting to change some of their laws before any money has actually been given out,” says Representative John Kline, the new ranking Republican member of the House Education Committee. “I’m not completely comfortable with that.”
Duncan, 44, is no stranger to occasional discomfort. He grew up in Hyde Park–the tony South Side enclave that’s home to the University of Chicago–but played a lot of basketball in one of the rougher neighborhoods nearby. Often the only white player on the court, he became adept at figuring out when to be aggressive and when to hang back. In the early 1960s, Duncan’s mother started an after-school tutoring program in an inner-city neighborhood following her discovery that few of the 9-year-olds in her Bible-study class could read. “In Chicago at the time, you didn’t see many white people around black neighborhoods unless they were selling insurance,” says Michelle Gordon, who attended the program as a teen and now works in a North Carolina law-school library.
Duncan and his siblings spent each weekday afternoon helping out at their mother’s center on the corner of 46th and Greenwood. After the tutoring, everyone would shoot some hoops. Those were his evenings. During the day, Duncan attended the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, a rigorous K-12 program that led him to Harvard. There he graduated magna cum laude while maintaining his obsession with basketball, co-captaining the team his senior year. After college and a failed tryout with the Boston Celtics, Duncan flew to Australia to play in that nation’s professional basketball league. He stayed for four years, playing ball, working with foster kids and eventually meeting his wife Karen.
He returned to Chicago to run a nonprofit for investment banker and Obama backer John W. Rogers Jr.–his mentor since their years together at the Lab School, where Duncan says he followed Rogers around “like a puppy dog.” Duncan proceeded to co-found a small school with his sister. He then ran the magnet program for the Chicago board of education and was the system’s deputy chief of staff, before being tapped to serve as its head. His 7½ years as superintendent produced mixed results. While he oversaw modest gains in student achievement, Duncan’s tenure was most notable for his willingness to try anything, regardless of ideological association–expanding charter schools, paying students for good grades, experimenting with teacher merit pay and shutting down failing schools and reopening them with new staffs. He’s still keen on such controversial turnaround strategies. In late August, he announced another competitive grant program that uses $3.5 billion in nondiscretionary funding in an effort to fix the nation’s worst schools.
No More Tinkering
Duncan has spent a lot of time in his new job crisscrossing the country, talking to teachers, teachers’ unions, school boards and teachers’ colleges about the need to shake things up and change the way they all do business. Finn says Duncan’s courage in speaking truth to the educational establishment is his greatest achievement, at least so far.
But it is also clear that the nation’s educators are still recovering from the comparatively modest changes that the Bush Administration forced on school districts, particularly the NCLB measure, which so emphasized test scores to the exclusion of other educational goals that many experts now regard it as a failure. NCLB has become, in Duncan’s estimation, such a “toxic” brand that his Education Department recently tore down the faux red schoolhouse emblazoned with the law’s name that sat outside its main entrance in downtown Washington. Duncan will be instrumental in rewriting NCLB, starting with the name. “We’ll probably get a really smart 10-year-old to figure this one out for us,” he says. “It’s got to be something more aspirational, more inspirational, more about the direction we need to go.”
But Diane Ravitch, a pre-eminent education historian at New York University, says Duncan’s RTT initiative is in effect an extension of the Bush-era reforms. “This whole fund is being used to lure or bribe or implore or compel states and school districts to do things that we don’t actually know are going to make things better,” says Ravitch, who is critical of the accountability movement’s emphasis on standardized testing. “My biggest problem with Duncan and Obama on education is that they are giving Bush a third term in education.” Duncan counters that he is merely breaking down walls–borrowing a little bit from the left, a little bit from the right. “I just want to do what works,” says Duncan, who is planning a multicity listening tour with Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton. “There are great ideas everywhere along the political spectrum, and there are terrible ideas. But that’s never how I’ve viewed the world. I view it in terms of, What’s good for the kids at 46th and Greenwood?”
Duncan’s background has made him intimately aware of what is at stake for America’s students. As he puts it, if you made it through school in the gang-ridden South Side, you had a chance of making it out. And if you didn’t, you might have ended up dead. “The dividing line between those two was clearly educational opportunity,” he says. Sure, all kids are guaranteed seats in a classroom, but too many are taught by middling teachers in awful schools, Duncan says. “It’s obvious the system’s broken. Let’s admit it’s broken, let’s admit it’s dysfunctional, and let’s do something dramatically different, and let’s do it now. But don’t just tinker around the edges. Don’t just play with it. Let’s fix the thing.”
Find this article at: