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Week of 5.1.09

Interview: Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan In addition to being President Obama's longtime friend and basketball partner, Arne Duncan has a reputation for being one of the leading reformers of low-performing schools during his seven years as chief executive of Chicago's public school system. Widely known for his implementation of the radical "turnaround program"—in which some of Chicago's failing schools were shut down and reopened with an entirely new staff—Duncan became the Secretary of Education in January.

Duncan is now faced with the daunting task of distributing $100 billion of stimulus package money devoted to education reform throughout the United States. In an interview with NOW's David Brancaccio, Duncan reveals his plans to overhaul the country's public education system.

This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio (DB): What led you to take such a drastic course of action at some of Chicago's public schools?

"You have to take really radical steps to do the right thing by the children."
Arne Duncan (AD): I was convinced that because students were performing at such horrendously low levels that we, as educators, were part of the problem. I looked at the history. In some of these schools we had invested millions of additional dollars and at the end of the day, up to 90 percent of the students were still not reading at grade level. It was just absolutely dismal failure.

DB: I spoke with the head of the Chicago Teacher's Union, Marilyn Stewart, and she used a sports metaphor: "If there's trouble at a school, get rid of the coach. Don't fire the whole team." She points to some schools that had been doing poorly that are doing much better now after they changed the principal and the administration.

AD: It can work ... But when you have a handful of schools at the absolute bottom who are resistant to change, who are getting worse, not better, despite more resources and opportunities, those are the schools where you have to take really radical steps to do the right thing by the children. So it's not a one size fits all.

DB: But even the janitors had to go. It seemed so severe.

AD: It's tough medicine. The flip side is when you see very high-performing schools in the toughest of communities, whether it's inner-city urban Chicago or anywhere else around the country, you see every adult in that building is a part of the success, the custodians, the social workers, the security guards, the lunchroom attendants.

DB: NOW visited the Dodge Renaissance Academy in Chicago, one of the schools where you implemented a "turnaround" strategy in 2002. Tell me about the results.

"Investing in the status quo is not going to get us where we need to go."
AD: The results are staggering. The same children are performing two to three times better in some situations. Not two or three percent, two or three times better. Dodge went from being one of the lowest performing schools in Chicago, and therefore the state, to being the greatest gainer, the fastest gainer in the entire state. It went from being the school that children were running away from because it was so bad to a school that was actually accepting children from other schools because it had improved so much.

DB: What is the process by which this works? Is it just that you're getting rid of bad teachers and that's it?

AD: I want to be really clear, in all these situations, in the toughest of our schools, there are always great teachers. In any tough school and in any under-performing school, there is always extraordinary talent. Unfortunately, the fact is there isn't enough of a critical mass. The goal is, in these communities, is to get a critical mass—not ten percent, not 20 percent—but to get a 100 percent team of teachers, principal, custodians, security guards, lunchroom attendants, you name it.

DB: At one of the Chicago schools we visited they said they were getting police calls all the time before the turnaround. Now, under the new system, police are able to go off and fight crime elsewhere.

AD: Exactly. We looked at some of the early data, and in some of these schools attendance would go up, eight to ten percent in the first year. Why? Because the students wanted to be there; they felt cared about, they felt safe, and they felt challenged. There are so many indicators that within a month, two months, three months into these turnarounds, we knew we were onto something very, very special way before we looked at any kind of test data.

DB: You have $100 billion to fix education in America. What are you going to do with the money?

"This is one of the only professions where systematically we don't reward excellence."
AD: We were worried about as many as 600,000 teachers losing their job because of the recession. We were sort of teetering on the brink of educational catastrophe. And we have a chance to stave that off and save a generation of children. But let me be clear, investing in the status quo is not going to get us where we need to go.

We want to save and create literally hundreds of thousands of jobs, but we are pushing a very, very strong reform agenda and trying to get America back to its spot as the international leader in education.

DB: If you attract this number of people, you're going to have to pay them.

AD: I think teachers are underpaid. We need to pay great teachers and great principals significantly more based upon student achievement. And we're putting lots of resources on the table to really reward excellence and offer incentives to those great teachers who go to communities that historically haven't had that kind of great talent.

DB: What about linking teacher pay to performance?

AD: I think we cannot do enough to recognize, reward, shine a spotlight on, and yes, incent excellence. This is one of the only professions where systematically we don't reward excellence. We have to reward excellence among great teachers, among great principals. We have to be able to identify that talent, give them more leadership opportunities, give them a chance to mentor and be those master teachers and build real career ladders.

DB: One of the great concerns is that you don't want a system that moves teachers away from taking on the toughest kids. Because those tough classes are where it's toughest to raise the test scores.

AD: I want to create an incentive structure so the best and brightest want to take on those assignments.

DB: Are you going to urge states to start closing down some of the really bad schools?

AD: I think that the bottom one percent of schools in America—something like 95,000 schools in the country—need tough, tough medicine. They need to be transformed. They need to be turned around. And that's one of the assurances we actually put in the stimulus bill. We're asking states to tell us what they are doing for the schools that are very low-performing.

DB: What is your message on test scores? There is a perception that under the previous administration schools got too oriented toward certain test scores.

AD: With "No Child Left Behind," we had 50 states doing their own thing, and that led to a "dumbing down" of standards. You had 50 different states with 50 different goal-posts. And unfortunately those goal-posts got lower and lower.

"We have to engage the unions. This has to be done with teachers, not to them."
What I'm absolutely convinced of is that in far too many states, we are literally lying to children and to parents. When a child hears they are meeting a state standard or a parent hears their child is meeting state standards, I think the logical assumption is that that child's in pretty good shape. Unfortunately, because in so many places those standards are so low, those children who are meeting a state standard are barely prepared to graduate from high school and absolutely woefully under-prepared to go to a competitive university, let alone graduate.

I think we need common, college-ready, career-ready, internationally benchmarked standards. And we need to raise the bar dramatically.

DB: What about engaging teachers unions?

AD: Much of the reform we drove in Chicago, were not my ideas, I wasn't that smart. It was really driven by a set of teacher advisors. I had some of the best teachers in the system who worked with me in developing incentive pay programs.

So we have to engage the unions. This has to be done with teachers, not to them.

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