February 2009 Up Front

News Analysis
Duncan look right for the job

Like the person who picked him for the post, Arne Duncan will have to juggle a number of competing priorities as the secretary of education.

First up is the reauthorization of the No Child Behind Act, which has been delayed for more than a year and remains on hold as President Barack Obama takes office. At the same time, Duncan will have to address ways to close the achievement gap and dropout rates while implementing a large-scale investment in early childhood education.

“There are lots of challenges and, obviously, huge opportunities,” Duncan told The Associated Press. “I think there’s a huge amount of work that has to go on on the early childhood side. There’s a huge amount you’ve got to do in the K to 12 sector. And higher ed, particularly the student loans, presents some huge, huge challenges.”

With the selection of Duncan, who has spent the past seven years as the chief executive officer of Chicago’s public schools, President Obama is working to bridge a divide that threatened to split his own party on the best way to improve education. In the days before Obama announced his choice, Democrats appeared to be split into two camps.

One, led by New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee, supports an agenda that is pro-testing, pro-school choice, and generally -- at times strongly -- anti-union. The other, which is supported by transition team leader Linda Darling-Hammond, is concerned with more federal funding for schools and government-supported programs that focus on addressing learning gaps for low-income children.

“Look,” Obama said when he announced Duncan’s selection, “we’re not going to transform every school overnight. But what we can expect is that, each and every day, we are thinking of new, innovative ways to make our schools better.”

Duncan’s history in Chicago reflects both camps’ views. He has pushed to get more flexibility under NCLB while closing or replacing the administrative teams at more than 60 chronically low-performing schools under a program known as Renaissance 2010. Charters have replaced many of the closed schools, and teachers who agree to work in hard-to-staff buildings have received merit pay. Despite those moves, he also has managed to avoid collisions with the teachers unions.

“I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, when you embrace innovative, new approaches to learning, and when you create a professional climate that attracts great teachers, you can make a difference for children,” Duncan said at the announcement.

How much of a difference remains to be seen. Chicago, like many urban districts, has made dramatic gains in elementary schools while struggling with poor achievement and high dropout rates at the secondary level. Under Duncan, the number of elementary school children performing at or above state standards has risen from 38 percent to 65 percent. Graduation rates also have improved, but only 30 percent of high school students are at grade level.

Still, that willingness to take risks -- especially with programs such as Renaissance 2010 -- while also being willing to compromise are reasons why Duncan’s selection was highly praised on all fronts (see sidebar).

Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who lead the Congressional committees that will reauthorize NCLB, said Obama made an “excellent choice,” and a Chicago Sun-Times editorial noted: “The nation will be lucky to have him.”

Schools across the U.S. certainly hope so.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

What education leaders have to say

Here is what President Barack Obama and leaders of various national education groups have to say about Arne Duncan’s selection as secretary of education:

• 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. He’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools -- even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs -- even when it was unpopular.

President Barack Obama

• Arne Duncan will bring a broad vision and practical experience to the position of America’s “top educator.” His understanding of the No Child Left Behind Act will be invaluable in improving federal education policies to align with and complement state and local reforms while maintaining his long-standing and absolute focus on doing what is in the best interests of children.

Brenda Welburn, Executive Director
National Association of State Boards of Education

• We hope that Arne Duncan departs from the “top-down approach” that has been the norm for the past decade, and instead sustains a culture of partnership and support for states, as well as local school districts. With a solid background in public education and a commitment to improving teacher quality, he is a natural choice to support Obama’s goals of increasing school funding, creating assessments that accurately measure student achievement, and recruiting, retaining, and rewarding effective teachers.

Anne Bryant, Executive Director
National School Boards Association

• This could be the beginning of a promising new period for public education in this country. For too long, federal education policy has been about teaching to the test, and Duncan could use his new position to move beyond those failed policies, and provide every child with 21st century skills.

Dennis Van Roekel, President
National Education Association

• I applaud the selection of Arne Duncan to lead the nation’s education system. Those of us who have worked side-by-side with Duncan know he is a skilled leader who is committed to improving public education for all children. We look forward to working with him and the new administration.

Daniel Domenech, Executive Director
American Association of School Administrators

• We feel Arne Duncan is an exceptional choice to carry out the new administration’s mission when it comes to real education reform. Policymakers, education and business leaders, and the public at large know that quality teaching is the number-one factor that affects student learning and achievement. Through Duncan’s extraordinary leadership as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, the district has become an urban model for National Board Certification.

Joseph Aguerrebere, President
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

• We are extremely pleased with the nomination. [Duncan] has demonstrated a commitment to improving the education of all students and a willingness to bring educators of all stripes together in the pursuit of meaningful school reform. An education department led by Duncan would emphasize the needs of urban schools.

Gerald Tirozzi, Executive Director
National Association of Secondary School Principals

• Duncan has shown a genuine commitment to what we see as the essential priorities for an incoming education secretary. There may be times when we will differ, but we believe we will agree fully that America’s students and teachers need an education secretary committed to focusing on real solutions for closing the achievement gap and providing every child with a rigorous, well-rounded education.

Randi Weingarten, President
American Federation of Teachers

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Gay-friendly schools

Milwaukee’s school district apparently will become the nation’s first to create a gay-friendly middle school. The charter school, which will open in 2009-10, will serve grades six through eight. Milwaukee’s decision to form gay-friendly schools bucks a trend seen in Chicago and New York, where plans have been stalled or protested by community groups.

Healthy eating

Federal officials are zeroing in on school food programs following a report by the Institute of Medicine saying children are not eating enough fruits and vegetables or receiving key nutrients. The report, a review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school breakfast and lunch programs, says students get too many calories from solid fats found in foods such as pizza and hamburgers and sugars from candy and soft drinks. The USDA will submit child nutrition programs to Congress for reauthorization in 2009.

Meanwhile, the School Nutrition Association says about 80 percent of schools are reporting an increase in the number of free lunches served this year. More than 30 million children were fed with state and federal funds in 2006-07 as part of the National School Lunch Program, and the number is expected to be higher this year due to the flagging economy.

Sexual harassment

The U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether Title IX is the only exclusive legal remedy for claims of sex discrimination against schools. The case, Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, is being closely watched because the justices will determine whether victims can sue under a broader civil rights law known as Section 1983. The lawsuit against the 4,600-student Barnstable, Mass., district comes from the parents of a girl who was subjected to sexual harassment by an older boy while in kindergarten in 2000-01. No criminal action was taken against the boy, and the district offered to place the girl on another bus. The girl’s parents sued, saying the boy should be taken off the bus instead.

Teachers and drug testing

Two years ago, Hawaii’s public school teachers agreed to random drug testing in exchange for an 11 percent pay raise. Now, even though checks have been cut, teachers have successfully fended off the tests by saying they are a violation of their privacy rights. The Hawaii State Teachers Association says it will support testing in cases where drug use is suspected, but the state government says teachers are not following the intent of the contract, which is awaiting a ruling from the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. Only a few districts nationwide, most in Kentucky, have required random drug testing of current teachers.

TIMSS test results

Fourth- and eighth-grade students are making solid achievement gains in math, but science performance remains flat and several Asian countries are continuing to strongly outperform the United States, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The study, known as TIMSS, is the world’s largest review of math and science achievement. The bad news: Almost half of eighth-graders from Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore scored at the advanced level in math, compared to just 6 percent of American students. The good news: Massachusetts and Minnesota students outperformed their peers in all but a handful of countries. What’s next? President Barack Obama has pledged to make math and science education a national priority.


• The state of Texas is fighting Judge William Wayne Justice’s order to take immediate steps to improve bilingual education programs for 145,000 middle and high school students who are considered deficient in English. Justice has ordered improvements by the start of the 2009-10 school year, but the state says it has not receive enough money from legislators. The judge rejected the state’s claims and said the Texas Education Agency must submit an improvement plan by Jan. 31.

• A judge has blocked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to make Cali­fornia the first state to require algebra tests for all eighth-graders. The mandate, which would have taken effect in 2011-12, was approved by the state board of education in July in an effort to meet federal testing requirements. But the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators sued, saying the state does not have the money, staff, and training to comply with the decision.

Schools feeling the economy’s pinch

The economic pinch felt across the United States is encroaching more on school districts, which are seeing its effects in the form of layoffs, larger class sizes, and cuts to programs and curriculum.

At least 18 states have cut K-12 education, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and more is expected as legislatures return this year. Thirty-seven states plus the District of Columbia are facing combined budget deficits of approximately $66 billion in the 2009 fiscal year.

The spending trims and cuts come as no surprise given the scope of the economic downturn, but K-12 education has been relatively protected in recent years. That’s not true anymore.

More than 30 percent of school districts have moved to larger classes in response to the downturn, according to a survey released by the American Association of School Administrators. And state legislatures, which have made K-12 education the largest line item in their budgets, are targeting schools as a way to help expenses match rapidly declining revenues.

In states such as Virginia, which has protected education despite shortfalls in the past, teacher raises are on hold and layoffs may be necessary depending on the level of cuts, according to Gov. Tim Kaine’s office.

Washington state has cut its early education quality rating program, which was designed to improve child care, to save nearly $3 million. Oregon has rolled back plans to increase graduation requirements in math to save money on remediation.