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Week of 5.1.09

Transcript: A Radical Fix for Schools?

BRANCACCIO: We can complain all we want about good American jobs going overseas, but without top-notch schools, we may never get those jobs back. You may remember the education survey of 15 year olds in 30 countries: the United States came in 21st in science, 25th in math. The Obama administration may not have a global competitiveness czar, but it does have Arne Duncan the new Secretary of Education. Is fixing American public schools an impossible task? You tell me after you see what's been going on in Duncan's old school district back in Chicago. Karla Murthy produced our report.

I don't want to put a dent in your sense of national pride...but here's the thing... too many schools are failing in this country. In math, our fourth graders are out performed by kids in... Kazakhstan. A quarter of American high schoolers drop out. Up to a third of new teachers in America also drop out within their first three years on the job. But President Obama thinks he's found the guy who's going to turn that around. It's the president's hoop-shooting buddy from Chicago—Arne Duncan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing Cabinet—in American history.

BRANCACCIO: Besides Duncan having a pretty good jump shot, Obama believes that his man has an innovative vision for education—that will get results even if it means stepping on the toes of traditional political allies.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: When faced with tough decisions, Arne doesn't' blink. He's not beholden to any one ideology, and he doesn't hesitate for one minute to do what needs to be done.

BRANCACCIO: To get things done, Arne Duncan has been given a lot of money... 100 billion dollars in stimulus money.. That's almost twice the education budget from last year. And that makes him one of the most powerful secretaries of education we have ever seen.

All the teachers I keep bumping into keep saying, "Well, when you see Arne Duncan, ask him so what's he gonna do with the money."

DUNCAN: This is a historic investment in education, over $100 billion. But let me be clear—investing in the status quo is not gonna get us where we need to go. And what we're doing is coupling unprecedented resources with an unprecedented reform agenda.

BRANCACCIO: New guys in town always love the word "reform". But just what exactly does Duncan's vision of reform look like? To find out, we traveled to his hometown—Chicago—where he ran the public school system for 7 years. During that time, the number of elementary school kids meeting state standards went up... 30%. And the drop out rate went down every year he was in charge. In the process, he turned Chicago into his own education laboratory that delighted and upset a lot of people.

To fix the worst schools in his district, Duncan took a radical approach. He would simply start the school over. As part of a plan called renaissance 2010—Duncan closed schools down—got rid of the entire staff—and then reopened the school with a whole new staff and a new label—"turnaround schools."

It's a strategy that upset some powerful constituents including the Chicago teachers union, which represents 24 thousand teachers. The union's president Marilyn Stewart is opposed to a wave of school turnarounds now that the head of her old school district has gone national.

STEWART: I hope Arne Duncan would—would replicate the models that are working. He wanted—he knew that Chicago could be the model for the nation. I absolutely believe Chicago could be a model for the nation—but not the way they're doing it.

BRANCACCIO: At the school board meeting this past January—Chicago teachers unleashed their anger about Duncan's turnaround strategy—which—it must be remembered—throws out good teachers along with the bad.

TEACHER: Why am I being thrown into that barrel not to be heard of again?

TEACHER: I'm a soon to be displaced teacher with two Bachelors degrees with honors. I just met a lady who was given a third grade position at one of these turnaround schools and she had the audacity to ask me for help.

BRANCACCIO: Despite the public outcry—8 schools have been shut down, reopened and re-staffed. Now Duncan is going nationwide. He has designated 3 billion dollars in stimulus money to improve thousands of low performing schools around the country.

DUNCAN: In the toughest of our schools, there are always great teachers. Unfortunately the fact is there isn't enough of a critical mass. There's not enough of that.

And in this work, David, in education, talent matters tremendously. Nothing is more important.

BRANCACCIO: Studies show that a good teacher is the single most important factor in boosting student achievement—even more important than class size, money spent per student or the quality of textbooks.

And the turnaround model is one way to get rid of crummy teachers and, hopefully, hire better ones. We'll get to see how this plays out in just a minute.

But if the turnaround model is the stick approach to getting better teachers—Duncan also supports a carrot approach—it's a separate big program to pay teachers more.

DUNCAN: Teachers aren't motivated by money; they're not in it to make a million dollars. But we have to reward excellence among great teachers, among great principals. And this is one of the only professions where systematically we don't reward excellence.

BRANCACCIO: Rewarding excellence sounds like a good idea... but in the past, performance pay programs, as they're called, have been intensely opposed by the teachers union ... because typically they're based solely on student test scores.

STEWART: This is the business model. The business model where you're coming from—a mindset where you can control all of your variables.

BRANCACCIO: connecting teacher pay to student test scores is a minefield. Should teachers who take on the toughest-to-educate students get penalized? Isn't it easier for the teacher who gets the brightest kids from the most stable homes to win the salary derby?

STEWART: But just to tie a particular teacher to a grade, when there's so many things that—that influence that, that the teacher has no control over, I think it's not fair.

BRANCACCIO: But in Chicago, Duncan tried something different...it's called the Teacher Advancement program. Instead of rewarding teachers for better test scores, teachers get more if they train more.

WHITE: In the majority of performance pay, they're focused just on performance.

BRANCACCIO: Todd White is the Senior VP of Training for the Advancement Program.

WHITE: As opposed to just telling teachers you gotta perform better or your kids have to perform better, we put in place a structure that ensures teachers have the support they need to grow professionally.

BRANCACCIO: Today—white is training teachers in Philadelphia on the advancement program—which is in 220 schools around the country. Teachers receive ongoing training to grow professionally and receive more pay as their responsibilities increase. Plus -all the teachers in a school—in fact the entire staff—is rewarded if students perform better.

STEWART: We like this because there's embedded professional development. The whole school is compensated for—for doing something as a team.

BRANCACCIO: The Advancement Program is now being phased into 40 schools in Chicago. But there is another reason why Duncan was able to get the program into schools.

WHITE: Where Chicago went right was they involved the union.

BRANCACCIO: And that helped avoid what could have been a contentious process.

STEWART: There's evidence in this, proof that when—when districts work with the teachers unions, there's success.

BRANCACCIO: Duncan might have been successful with getting one kind of performance pay program in Chicago. But already—the national teachers union is concerned about the same thing that upset teachers in Chicago. Turns out—there's a provision in the stimulus law to push all state governors to build a data system—that could among other things be used to link teacher pay to students and test scores. Duncan will give out an additional 16 billion dollars to states that either have the educational data system in place or can show serious plans to do so. It's all part of Duncan's grand initiative which he puts this way:

DUNCAN: I think what No Child Left Behind got wrong was they were very, very loose on the goals, so there were 50 different goal-posts all over the map. But then No Child Left Behind was very tight about how you hit those goals. I want to flip that. I want to fundamentally turn that on its head. I want to be much tighter and much clearer on these goals. But then be much looser and give states the chance to be creative. Give them the chance to create and innovate and push hard to hit that higher bar.

BRANCACCIO: Duncan wants all students to be college ready, and to be able to compete with other students around the world using internationally benchmarked standards. But reaching those goals requires cooperation from school officials and those who represent teachers.

Can you really pull off these changes without the help of unions? You know, in Chicago, the union liked some of what you did and didn't like a lot of what you did.

DUNCAN: We're trying to fundamentally change the culture here and can we become the engine of innovation. Just as we have to do it, unions have to change, principals have to change, teachers have to change, parents have to step up. But for us to get where we go—where we need to go, business as usual is not gonna get us there.

BRANCACCIO: In Duncan's view, if we really want to fix our schools, it'll be like training for a marathon. Some of it is going to hurt.

DUNCAN: As a country, we have to, you know, be willing to experience a little bit of—of pain and discomfort. That's the only way we're gonna get there. Our children deserve it.

BRANCACCIO: Now come with me to see with your own eyes how one of Duncan's very painful policies—the turnaround model—played out among children, their families and their school.

Harvard Elementary is located in the south side of Chicago—in one of the toughest, poorest areas in the city. 98% of the kids that go to school here live in poverty.

WILBURN: It was literally a war zone here at Harvard.

BRANCACCIO: Wanda Wilburn has 3 kids that go to the school.

WILBURN: You know, the drugs, the gangs, the shooting, the fights, the mob action. It was—it was horrible. I mean, I would literally have them huddled together tryin' to get in the building', to make sure that we would be safe.

BRANCACCIO: But the violence in the neighborhood did not stop at the school doors. Tierra is an 8th grader here.

TIERRA: They'd be havin' fights every single day. And they just do anything they want, running in the halls and stuff.

BRANCACCIO: In a single year, the police were called over a hundred times to the school. The way Tierra's mom Catonya withers sees it, the principal had little control over the students.

WITHERS: The children wouldn't respect him as a man—especially as a principal, but not as a man.

BRANCACCIO: They'd use swear words to him?

WITHERS: They u—they used to, yeah. To his face, and nothin' would be done.

BRANCACCIO: Even for veteran teachers, like Devondra Barrett—teaching in such a tough school day in and day out was exhausting. Barrett grew up in the neighborhood and went to this very school as a kid. She's been teaching for 15 years.

BARRETT: I kept praying for change and wanted it to change

BRANCACCIO: Did it sometimes get frustrating for you? Or?

BARRETT: Oh, yes. It—it became frustrating. It became very frustrating. But I just wanted to hang in there because I know what—the purpose that I was here for was to teach the children and to just hang in there and stay with the children.

BRANCACCIO: Getting students to actually learn in such a tough environment was not easy...and it showed in the test results. Out of over 3000 elementary schools in the state, Harvard Elementary ranked in the bottom 10.

Arne Duncan was determined to turn that around. The plan? Every adult in the school would get a dreaded pink slip.

What was it that led you to take what really is a drastic course of action?

DUNCAN: We had put in some of these schools millions of additional dollars, done thing around the edges. And at the end of the day, 88—89—90 percent of the students were still not reading at grade level. It was just absolutely dismal failure. These children have one chance at an education. They can't wait. And we had—to—we had to be bold and do the right thing by them.

BRANCACCIO: The news that the ax would fall on Harvard elementary came in 2007. Many parents were not buying what Duncan was selling.

WILBURN: I thought the school was in such dire condition that there was nothin' that they could absolutely do—beyond a miracle from God.

BRANCACCIO: Devondra Barrett didn't think it was going to work either. She says, over the years, the school district had made a lot of promises that added up to nothing. But now, she had something else to keep her up at night—Barrett, a devoted teacher who wanted to give back to her community, was out of a job like everybody else.

Here you are, by all accounts, a great teacher, knocking yourself out with these students. And then they give you a pink slip. That must have been hard.

BARRETT: It was very scary. Because it was like, "Okay, you have to get out of here and try again." And I felt sorry for some of the teachers who were close to retirement. And just, you know, people were crying. It was upsetting.

BRANCACCIO: Teachers, cafeteria workers, janitors...everybody gone. To re-staff the school, Duncan then handed the school over to a not-for-profit company called the Academy for Urban School Leadership. And the first person they hired was a new principal ... Andre Cowling.

COWLING: After finding out I would be principal here at the school. I just had to stand out and just see what was actually going on. And it was complete chaos.

BRANCACCIO: At 6 foot 7 inches, Principal Cowling is an imposing figure. Before going into education—he was in the army and served 1 tour in Iraq. He later took a corporate job and was making good money. But he says—his real calling was in education.

So, you're looking at what at some level was chaos, to use your word. And you're thinking, "Why did I take this job?"

COWLING: I will tell you, I thought that for a moment. This is the most difficult job that I've ever had in life. But it is the most rewarding job that I've ever had.

BRANCACCIO: Principal Cowling had to figure out how he was going change the entire culture of the school—to eradicate a mindset that this was a problem too big to fix.

COWLING: I'd used to just sit in my car, just right where that—right behind that school bus over there, and just take notes.

BRANCACCIO: So you're doing reconnaissance, is what you're doing over there?

COWLING: That's what we call it, a re—it was definitely a recon mission.

BRANCACCIO: One of the first things he saw that he wanted to change was the out of control way that kids piled into school.

COWLING: If our children don't come into the building orderly, you can pretty much rest assured that their day is going to be disorderly the entire day.

BRANCACCIO: And you call it—setting the table?

COWLING: Setting the table. And we call the—we call the instruction the actual meal. But you can't give them a meal if the table hasn't been set yet.

BRANCACCIO: Now, there's no more running in the hallways. Students line up quietly and walk to their classes.

Cowling says he relied on his military training to get through that tough first year. But he says kids actually respond to this level of structure and clear expectations.

COWLING: You know, we can't handle a lot of what goes on, or control a lot what goes on in the neighborhood, and what not. We can't do that. But—but our kids are here for six and a half to eight hours a day, for some of our kids. We can definitely control what goes on in their lives then.

BRANCACCIO: Everyone at Harvard was allowed to reapply for their jobs. Devondra Barrett had gotten 2 other job offers, but she reapplied and Cowling said yes.

So what do you make of this new principal?

BARRETT: He's great. He's great.

BRANCACCIO: But just from your professional opinion, what is it that he does to maintain more order in the school?

BARRETT: Well, first of all, he is very tall. So, him being six-feet-plus, the children have to look up to him. And then they feel a little bit, you know, like, "Maybe I shouldn't try him."

BRANCACCIO: Barrett was one of only 3 teachers that the principal asked back. Now, Cowling had to find 23 more teachers that he believed were just as dedicated and qualified as Barrett. So he then turned to the Academy of Urban School Leadership- the not-for-profit in charge of the turnaround. The Academy has created a pipeline of new teachers that they train to work in turnaround schools.

We went to visit one of their training schools in action. Dodge Renaissance Academy is funded by school district money and grants from places like The Gates Foundation. The academy puts potential teachers through a year long program, where they get a chance to work with real students, in real Chicago public schools like this one.

SILVERMAN: You know, you can talk and talk and talk about the practice of teaching, but to truly get in the classroom and get mentored by someone who's proficient in the field—that's—you know, that's priceless.

BRANCACCIO: Danielle Silverman and Lakeya Poston are teachers in training—modeled after the medical profession—they're called residents—only with red pens and no scrubs. Debbi Thompson, is their mentor teacher—has been working with them all year long.

BRANCACCIO: What do you look for as you're observing?

THOMPSON: I look for little spots where I could tweak their lesson just to, you know, maximize instructional time, minimize behavior distractions, that sort of thing.

If the management piece isn't there, they can't get to any other content.

BRANCACCIO: 'Cause we've all met them, wonderful people who want to be teachers, who may know their subject area.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: But don't have the experience in the classroom. And they can get eaten alive if they don't have these techniques?

THOMPSON: Yeah. The whole purpose, too. I'm preparing them to go into turnaround schools. And that's gonna be the biggest struggle they're gonna have in the first year.

BRANCACCIO: Getting kids to move from one place to another can often create a lot of commotion. One technique they learn is to teach the students a routine—position number 1 means sitting down. Number 2—stand up quietly, and #3 move to the next location.

But the training doesn't end there. Every day, mentors and residents meet after school. It's a chance for teachers to unwind, and get some advice. Danielle Silverman, the resident teacher, had been getting some grief from one of her little bundles of joy.

SILVERMAN: You're distracting the morning meeting, please take your seat. And he was like, Ugh!

THOMPSON: You know what, he was probably looking for that from you.

SILVERMAN: I try so hard to ignore him because I think he is searching for me, to call my bluff.

BRANCACCIO: The mentor teacher says, all right, pull the kid outta the group immediately when he acts up.

THOMPSON: Not being able to participate does have some sort of leverage with him.

POSTON: Just tell him—up front. I'm not giving you any more warnings anymore...

BRANCACCIO: The collaboration that's developed among teachers is key to the academy's philosophy. Without that, teachers are more likely to burn out.

You could've picked an easier path into education. You could've gone to some established school, upper middle class parents, everybody already knows how to behave.

POSTON: Right.

BRANCACCIO: But, that's not what you chose to do.

POSTON: No, that is not what I chose to do. I believe that every child deserves to be able to say that they had a phenomenal teacher, every year.

BRANCACCIO: Back at Harvard Elementary—Principal Cowling hired 14 graduates from the academy who had little to no experience outside of their training program. Barrett took one look at the new teachers and thought uh uh.

BARRETT: Nope. She's not gonna make it. Oh, they're gonna run over him. Oh, they're gonna get her good. But when school started, we was like, "Wow. They really have their class down and in control." But I didn't really think they were gonna make it.

BRANCACCIO: So, the students act differently now?

BARRETT: Yes. They act differently. We still have some that—you know, that try to test you. But I know they're performing very well. Because you can tell when you go by the different classrooms. They're engaged. They're quiet. They're learning. They're happy.

BRANCACCIO: In the first year of the turnaround at Harvard—10% more students were meeting state standards. And there has not been a single police visit to the school.

Just before leaving for Washington in January, Arne Duncan announced that 4 more schools in Chicago will get the turnaround treatment this fall....an announcement that has the Chicago teachers union fired up.

STEWART: I think it's—it's disrespectful to teachers, because you're saying we're—we're dispensable and come a dime a dozen.

BRANCACCIO: And you think it's throwing out good talent when that happens?

STEWART: It's absolutely throwing out good talent when it happens.

BRANCACCIO: Stewart says it doesn't make sense to get rid of the teachers... and it makes even less sense to get rid of the janitors and cafeteria workers too.

STEWART: In these tough economic times, why would you go into a school and say all the adults have to go. These are people who have nothing to do with the academic—achievement of the children in that particular school.

BRANCACCIO: Stewart says Duncan should take a look at Earle Elementary. There, they kept the staff, and just got new leadership in the school, and test scores have been improving.

STEWART: Arne Duncan should appreciate this, and President Obama would appreciate it. That you—you fire the coach not the team.

COWLING: I understand what—what Marilyn Stewart says when she says that. But in the case where you have the worst-performing schools in the city, the most critically-ill schools in the city, you have to replace them.

BRANCACCIO: But what's the rationale for the janitors and the—the lunch lady?

COWLING: Let's—let's take our janitors for instance. Our children should be able to enter into school into a very clean environment every single day. And if they can't do that, then we need to get a set of janitors that can actually do that. And if one part of the entire organization fails that could actually cause us to fail at our mission as a whole.

BRANCACCIO: At Harvard Elementary- Cowling re-hired all the cafeteria workers, but replaced all the janitors. And 70% of the teachers that were let go did find other jobs.

It's still too early to see how successful the turnaround schools in Chicago will be in the longer run.

But now in Washington, Arne Duncan has the power to set the course not just for one school district but across 50 states.

BRANCACCIO: Are you gonna go around the country urging states to start closing down some of the really bad schools?

DUNCAN: Well, we've already done that. And that's one of the assurances we actually put in the stimulus law, asking states to tell us what are they doing to turn around those schools?

BRANCACCIO: I know when it's announced that a school is going to get shut down that's hard for the community. I mean I—talked to some parents that were initially upset.

DUNCAN: It—it's very hard. And going out and talking to a room full of parents who are—who are angry, who are worried. But those are the parents that I value the most because they care the most about their children. And the parents who are the angriest at first invariably are the parents who are the most happy with you afterwards.

WILBURN: I was like a child on Christmas when I first stepped back in this building. And I was like, "Wow, the transformation that it went through." So its been great. Its been a blessing, truly.

BRANCACCIO: Arne Duncan might have won over parents at Harvard Elementary... but now he has to make his case to the entire nation.

DUNCAN: As a country, we've lost our way. And I'm just convinced that we have to educate our way to a better economy. That's the only way that we're gonna get to there from here. And trying to get America back to its spot as the international leader in education.

BRANCACCIO: So, does rewarding select teachers—an idea floated in this week's program—help or hurt the cause of public education? Two experts go head to head on the issue of merit pay in our online "issue clash." Not only can you moderate the debate, but pick the winner and add your own two cents as well. Find it at our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week

WEB FEATURES
A Radical Fix for Schools?

Issue Clash: Merit Pay

In Your State: Stimulus Spending on Education

Extended Interview: Arne Duncan

Book Excerpt: "Work Hard. Be Nice."


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