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Obama Taps Chicago Schools Chief for Education Post

December 16, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama named Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as his pick for education secretary Tuesday. Analysts examine the challenges facing U.S. schools and how Duncan's efforts to turn around troubled Chicago schools will translate to the Cabinet post.

RAY SUAREZ: Arne Duncan has directed Chicago’s public school system since 2001 and, with Senate approval, will be the next U.S. secretary of education.

U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners.

RAY SUAREZ: President-elect Obama made the announcement this morning framing his choice in economic terms.

BARACK OBAMA: If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, then we’re going to have to out-educate the world today. Unfortunately, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, when a third of all fourth-graders can’t do basic math, when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college, we’re falling far short of that goal.

RAY SUAREZ: At the helm of the third-largest school system in the country, Duncan expanded charter schools and supported a plan that rewards teachers with better pay for higher student achievement. Test scores and graduation rates have risen moderately since then.

ARNE DUNCAN, secretary of Education-designate: Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening our economy, or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation, and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair, and just society.

RAY SUAREZ: If confirmed, Duncan would take over the nation’s Education Department at a critical time, as efforts to revamp the federal law known as No Child Left Behind have been stalled. It’s due for renewal, but Congress is waiting for new direction from a new administration.

The program, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, has been controversial. Supporters say it improves student performance, but a number of educators in both rural and urban districts argue the law is too inflexible and focused too heavily on standardized tests.

Back in 2006, Duncan called on Congress to double funding for No Child Left Behind. He struck a middle ground in other educational issues, pushing for strong measures to improve schools, but also reaching out to the teachers union and the community.

For a look at the challenges facing the president-elect and Arne Duncan, we get the perspectives of two close observers of public education.

Michael Petrilli, vice president of national programs and policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and co-director of Education Sector, an education policy think-tank. He served as special assistant to the president during the Clinton administration, where he dealt with education policy.

Contending with global competition

RAY SUAREZ: And, Andrew Rotherham, let me start with you. If, by definition, the average American kid goes to an average school, how's the average school doing?

ANDREW ROTHERHAM, education sector: Well, Ray, that's the question everybody wants to know, but in the context of American public education, average is sort of a meaningless statistic. What really is striking about the American public education system is the incredible variance.

We have schools in this country where anyone, anywhere in the world would be proud to send their kids. And we have schools in this country often not far away from those other schools where no one should have to send their child. And that's really the challenge that Secretary Duncan is going to have to take on.

How do we have a federal policy that helps schools improve, helps the schools that are doing well, but not good enough get better, and really deals with these low-performing schools that give rise to some of the statistics that you talked about in the intro to this piece?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, if there is such wide variance, how are the schools that most American kids attend? Have they been getting better?

MICHAEL PETRILLI, Thomas B. Fordham Institute: Well, we see minor, modest progress in recent years in average student performance. We are getting a little bit better in math, particularly at the fourth-grade level, for example.

The problem, Ray, is that our international competitors, countries around the world, their education systems are getting much better. It used to be that the United States was far out ahead of all of our competitors. We graduated more kids from high school. We graduated more people from college. Our test scores were higher.

We haven't gotten worse. We've pretty much stayed the same while the rest of the world has caught up and is now passing us by. This is a real problem. And as President-elect Obama said, this is going to be an economic problem down the road.

The power of the bully pulpit

RAY SUAREZ: What about the poorest performing schools, the ones that contribute disproportionately to the bad results, the ones that yield the most dropouts, the ones that in younger grades have the kids furthest behind in reading and math? Have they been getting better?

MICHAEL PETRILLI: Right. We do see some progress, at the very bottom of the achievement spectrum, the lowest-performing 10 percent of students have seen some gains in recent years. And you can give some credit to the No Child Left Behind Act.

But Andrew is right: This is a critical problem in our country that we had this huge variation. These schools that are in our inner cities, some of our rural communities, some of these schools are just performing at the same level as third-world countries' schools are performing, so we've got to do something much different.

Now, Arne Duncan has done some dramatic things in Chicago. He's closed down schools, overhauled them, replaced the staff, turned them into charter schools, which are public schools that are operated with more innovation and flexibility.

We've got to have some approaches like that if we're going to solve this problem, because it is a huge challenge right now, and we're not doing enough.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Andrew Rotherham, from his or her office on Independence Avenue in Washington, can a secretary of education wield their office in a way that helps move good schools along and really helps pull up the worst ones?

ANDREW ROTHERHAM: Yes, they can. The secretary really has, just as president has, when it comes to public education, two tools at their disposal: the power of the purse, and the power of the bully pulpit, the podium.

And they can use both those things. The purse, you know, federal policy, it can support promising efforts. Some of the things Mike just talked about, we can support through federal policy.

We can create incentives. So, for example, in 1994, President Clinton attached incentives and requirements around states having standards and assessments to federal aid. And that moved during the 1990s. It moved the states along in terms of developing assessments.

And then there's the power of the podium. And that's a very powerful thing. In fact, if you want to critique the Bush administration for one area where they really fell short on education, it's that they didn't go out and really persuade and set the stage.

The statistics you talked about at the beginning of this segment, you know, the dropout rate for minority kids in this country, which is almost 50 percent, in terms of high school completion, four grade levels in achievement gap separating children of color from other children, a lot of Americans really aren't cognizant of these realities and just how stark these disparities are, particularly Americans who are going to have their kids in good public schools that surround our cities, like Washington.

And the president can use the bully pulpit to really set the stage, and the secretary can use the bully pulpit to really set the stage in that context and help people understand the challenge of educational reform, both the near-term challenge, in terms of these incredible inequities, and then some of the longer-term challenges that Mike was talking about, in terms of our economic competitiveness over time.

Encouraging school reform

RAY SUAREZ: But aren't most schools locally funded and locally run in such a way that it's not really clear what the secretary of education does?

MICHAEL PETRILLI: Well, that's exactly right, Ray. The federal Department of Education is at least three or four steps removed from your child's classroom. And it's very hard for Arne Duncan or anybody to have a big impact on what's going on at the local level.

The best the federal government can do is to try to create a political environment where school reform can flourish. What we have today is, more than anything else, a political challenge.

That's because, in many big city districts and some of our rural communities, the adult interest in the system, the teacher unions, some of the other education groups, are very resistant to the kinds of reforms that make a big difference, such as removing ineffective teachers from the classroom or paying great teachers more in order to incentivize them.

What we've got to do is be able to have a conversation in this country about pushing those kinds of reforms forward, even if they're politically unpopular.

If you have some pressure from the federal government, that can help. But there are limits to what the federal government can do. The bully pulpit is great, but it only goes so far.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Rotherham, those are two frequently named flashpoints. Go ahead. Respond.

ANDREW ROTHERHAM: Well, Mike's right that sort of you have to be really humble in terms of federal policy and what it can accomplish. But, Ray, if you look back over the last half-century, if you look at sort of the major advances we've made in terms of equity, whether that's for children of color and sort of breaking down the barriers of segregation, or children with special needs and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, you know, federal policy can play a role in sort of prodding states along.

I'm a state official, a state board member in Virginia. I'm very, very cognizant of our state prerogatives. But at the same time, that sort of federal policy pushing, whether it's things like now what we're talking about, standards and accountability, or even things like changing and encouraging different ways for paying teachers, the federal government does have role there to push.

And people can be too quick to say, "Well, the federal government really can't accomplish anything," and sort of pull back. But it's a really ahistorical viewpoint, in terms of the progress we've made in education, really over half-century, and particularly in the last 20, 25 years.

Redesigning the education system

RAY SUAREZ: But when political candidates talk about it, do they really grasp the nettle when they talk to the public about, for instance, designing a system to pay teachers more for good classroom results? Is that easily designed, such a system?

ANDREW ROTHERHAM: Well, anyone who tells you they know how to design such a system down to every detail you should beware of. They're trying to sell you a bill of goods.

The problem has been -- so, for example, on teacher pay, there's been such resistance to innovation that we really don't know what works. And what we need to do is try a lot of different experiments, and there's more and more around the country, whether it's what, for instance, Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein did up in New York or the initiative in Denver that the teachers union helped put together there, or, you know, Houston, Minnesota. There's lots of different initiatives.

We need to learn from those and start to figure out, how do we incorporate performance and results in to how we pay teachers, because we don't do that now? But how do we do it in a way that's effective, fair to teachers, and so forth, and advances larger goals?

And there, again, that kind of innovation and that kind of experimentation is exactly the sort of thing the federal government can encourage and support.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, before we go, can we get that experimentation right out of the box?

MICHAEL PETRILLI: We can certainly make some progress here. And Arne Duncan and the Obama administration can do some things to set that political context. But, again, we should be very modest in what we expect at the federal level.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Petrilli, Andrew Rotherham, gentlemen, thank you both.