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Arne Duncan: Better education starts with best educators

Ohanian Comment: When the reporter at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, asked US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "What keeps you up at night?" Arne gave a boiler plate, prepare-kids-for-the-Global-Economy answer. Only he made the mistake of trying to personalize it.

When I was in high school in the South Side of Chicago, my friends could drop out and get a decent job in the stockyards or steel mills, and own their own home and support a family.

Substance Editor George Schmidt called him on out-and-out lies.

For those who may not be aware, Arne attended the very expensive, very exclusive University of Chicago Laboratory School, where President Obama's daughters went to school and Mayor Rahm Emanuel currenlty sends his children.

The Lab School is in Hyde Park which, while it is indeed located on the south side of Chicago, is generally not considered "the South Side of Chicago." You know, where Big Bad Leroy Brown lived.

Arne was 7 years old when the stockyards closed.

That last sentence is masterful as well as damning. Reporters should be fact-checking every word that comes out of Arne's mouth.

NOTE: According to the Wall Street Journal, the University of Chicago Lab School, one of the top private prep schools in the country, is one of the top five feeder institutions for elite colleges

Star-Ledger Staff

Education is the one policy area in which Democrats and Republicans are finding an abundance of common ground, where President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie agree on most issues.

Both favor tenure reform that allows schools to fire bad teachers and reward good ones. Both believe student performance should be central to that assessment and that standardized tests should be used to help measure progress. Both believe in expanding charter schools, especially in failing districts, and closing down persistently failing schools.

Other reforms have bipartisan support as well: building quality preschools, expanding the school day and school year, and building a career path that gives the best teachers more authority and higher salaries.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan discussed the state of education reform recently with Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran. An edited transcript appears below.

Q. The evidence on the effectiveness of the reforms you are pushing seems mixed and weak. Why?

A. A lot of these things have never been done before. There isn’t a 50-year track record. But it’s hard to argue with the idea that great teachers and principals matter. It’s hard to argue that children, particularly in poor communities, need more time. Or that kids should have access to great content 24/7 with technology. All these things make a lot of sense. There is no magic bullet, but I’m convinced these things can change children’s lives.

Q. Tell me about your experience in Chicago. As with Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, you see improvements, but it doesn’t seem dramatic overall.

A. There are schools and communities that are breaking through. We see lots of examples in Chicago and New York and D.C. The question is whether we can take it to scale. We haven’t done that yet.

Q. How important are the structural reforms, like promoting charter schools, when compared to personnel issues, just finding the best teachers and principals?

A. If you just had a lot of Michael Jordans, structure wouldn’t matter. But we don’t have enough Michael Jordans.

Q. In many of the leading countries on education, elite college graduates go into teaching. But not in America. How important is that?

A. Extraordinarily important. In Singapore and Finland, you have to be in the top 10 percent to teach. How we strengthen that pool, train that pool, compensate that pool and create career ladders for them is vital. This entire pipeline is broken.

Q. What can we do?

A. One example: Denver put in two tracks. One track has higher compensation and less security. And they have a more traditional track. When they started, only a third of the teachers opted in. Today, it’s like 85 percent.

Q. Would that attract top college performers?

A. I would argue (it) would.

Q. What else?

A. When I travel around the country and try to recruit teachers, I ask: “What would you think if you were 30 years old and you could make $100,000 teaching?” And you can hear a pin drop. People get real interested in a hurry. No one goes into teaching to make $1 million, but you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty either. I’ve talked about doubling salaries and a great teacher making $130,000 or $140,000. That would help.

Q. What reforms are emerging to attract and retain great teachers?

A. Denver is an interesting one. Hillsborough County (Fla.) has mentor and master teachers. Teachers are paid significantly more based on student growth. Montgomery County (Md.) has peer review, and peers are tougher on each other than other folks. A bunch of places are doing creative stuff.

Q. Let’s talk about tests. When scores were released in New York recently, we saw that some teachers were rated as great one year and awful the next. It dissolved a lot of confidence in test results.

A. You have to look at multiple measures. You look at value added over a course of years, not just one. You have multiple observations, too, from principals or peers. And you can ask the children, with student surveys.

Q. But doesn’t this whole movement to raise standards and impose accountability hinge on having good tests? I’m not sure we have that.

A. It’s never going to be perfect. We’re investing $350 million in the next generation of assessment, so it’s going to be a choppy couple of years until we get there. We always let the perfect be the enemy of the good in education, and we have to stop that.

Q. New Jersey is at top of the nation in spending, especially in the urban districts. But there is a sense that we haven’t gotten much bang for that buck. Do you agree?

A. I think that’s a fair assessment. There are pockets of excellence, but have kids in Newark been well-served? I think the answer is no.

Q. We hear a lot that the root problem is poverty, not schools. But how does performance vary among poor kids? Do poor minority kids in Boston do better than those in Atlanta?

A. Poor kids in Massachusetts are doing dramatically better than poor kids in other states.

Q. What does that tell you?

A. That poverty is not destiny. There are some folks who feel you have to end poverty to fix education. I believe you have to fix education to end poverty.

Q. You’ve said Newark has potential to be a national model. Why?

A. You have a mayor who is actively engaged. A lot of mayors run from education because it’s difficult and challenging. He’s running to it. I have a lot of confidence in (Superintendent) Cami Anderson. You have resources. The district is a manageable size. Newark has a chance, in the next three to five years, to go to a new level.

Q. There is strong push-back against Anderson’s reforms in Newark. What do you make of that?

A. There is lots of cynicism and fear. These communities have been lied to for years. They’ve heard promises and nothing has changed. So people don’t believe it. I had one group say I was going to sell the buildings for condos. They honestly thought that.

Q. How should a superintendent handle that?

A. You have to be transparent and include people in the process. When we were picking what new school would go into a building, we had a community advisory group. Folks who wanted to open a new school had to make a presentation. These were parents, pastors, business folks. They would screen them. It takes more time, it’s choppy, but you had folks feeling this was their school.

Q. In New Jersey, the governor wants the state Supreme Court to reverse the Abbott rulings that have required massive spending in the urban district. He hopes to cut spending in the urban districts. Does that worry you?

A. I want to make (it) clear: We have to invest in the best in education, but not invest in the status quo. Asking for more accountability, more innovation, more choice — sure. To do it without money doesn’t make sense. You have to do both.

Q. Even in New Jersey, where you said we are spending twice as much as Chicago?

A. Yes. These kids need longer days, longer weeks, classes during the summer and Saturdays. We need to lure the best principals and teachers to the most underserved districts. That all takes resources.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. I sleep pretty well. But the stakes have never been higher. When I was in high school in the South Side of Chicago, my friends could drop out and get a decent job in the stockyards or steel mills, and own their own home and support a family. Those jobs are gone and they’re never coming back. If you drop out today, you are condemned to poverty and social failure. The lack of urgency about that is striking. So how do we shake the complacency? That’s what keeps me up.

— Arne Duncan, comment by George Schmidt
New Jersey Star-Ledger





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