Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comment on Duncan by Angus Davis

My friend Angus Davis, who's spearheading education reform in Rhode Island, sent this email to his fellow Regents, which nice summarizes how great Duncan is:
From: Angus Davis <angus.davis@gmail.com>
Date: Mon, Dec 15, 2008 at 5:22 PM
Subject: Obama to Name Arne Duncan US Secretary of Education Tomorrow

Fellow Regents,

Some excellent news for education reform -- President-Elect Obama will tomorrow morning name Arne Duncan his pick for US Secretary of Education.  During his time in Chicago's public school system, Duncan has been a strong advocate for meaningful reform.

Duncan is midway through implementing his mayor-backed Renaissance 2010 plan to create 100 new schools (many of them charters); he describes himself as a "portfolio manager" of both district- and charter-operated public schools. Low-performing schools have been closed and reopened with new staff and revamped curriculum. As he explains, "We've been able to do things - for example, close schools for academic failure. It is hugely difficult, it's hugely controversial and it's absolutely the right thing to do. That simply does not happen in other cities, because of a lack of political will."  In a hearing this summer before Congress, he
testified, "We are one of the few districts in the country that literally shut down underperforming schools and replaced the entire school staff."  The turnaround strategy has resulted in doubled or tripled student performance in many of these schools, he testified: "Same children, same families, same socio-economic challenges, same neighborhood, same school building... Different teachers, new leadership and a new educational approach, and the results are dramatic.  As Chancellor Klein said, it puts the lie to any myths of what poor children can or cannot do."

Duncan espouses accountability and data-driven decision making (indeed, the announcement tomorrow will be at Dodge Renaissance Academy, where they publish their recent math and reading scores with pride on their
home page).  He opposes social promotion, which he describes as a "shameless practice."

He shuns the "blame the parent / blame the kid" mentality, testifying in a July 2008 hearing: "I worked in the inner-city community for some time and saw that parents, despite whatever lack of education they had, they were extraordinarily interested in their children's education and in wanting something better.  So before we blame parents I think we need to really be self-critical and look in the mirror first."

Duncan is a forceful advocate for charter schools; in May his office issued a press release touting a RAND/Mathematica study showing 8th graders in Chicago charters were more likely to graduate high school and to attend college than traditional district-run schools.  In the release, Duncan said: "We're very pleased to hear how well our charter school students are prepared for their future, but we aren't surprised by these results. We work hard to make sure all of our schools are among the many high-quality educational options for parents looking for the right fit for their children."  The report also found that Chicago charters do not "skim the cream."  The sub-headline of the release from his office: "Charter schools are one of many high-quality, diverse educational options, says Duncan."

Duncan favors a merit-based pay system to reward excellent teachers for performance and has begun to roll out such a program in Chicago with the support of union leadership.  Like DC, only teachers who want the system get it -- in Chicago, a school that wants to adopt pay-for-performance must get 75% of the teachers to vote for it.  He says, "In our world, talent matters tremendously, and nothing is more important than geting the best and brightest adults working with our children every single day."  He hired 171 new principals this fall.  He has attracted many new teachers, getting 10 resumes for every available slot, improving the quality of the applicant pool. 

He embraces Obama's call for an "army of new teachers."  In Chicago, he secured TFA's newest regional training site, and hired 330 TFA corps members this fall alone (these are in addition to the 250 TFA alumni still teaching in Chicago and the 25 TFA alumni currently working as principals in the city).  In welcoming the newest corps members this fall, he said, "We are thrilled that Teach For America serves as a channel for this idealism, as well as a pipeline that brings outstanding teachers and leaders into the district." 

He supports No Child Left Behind, calling its focus on accountability "a huge step in the right direction," and supports a move that tracks growth or "value-added" in a given school year rather than a one-time snapshot (i.e. Stanford 10 in September and June to measure the growth in achievement, rather than a one-time snapshot).

When I spoke with Duncan several weeks ago on the phone to get his advice and counsel on our search for a new commissioner, he seemed genuinely excited about our position and he spent a half hour giving me specific feedback on who our committee should consider recruiting for the post.  I'm glad Rhode Island is on his radar and I will definitely call him back after the dust settles in the 2009 to ask for his help and perhaps including Rhode Island on his tour of states that are advancing the cause of education reform in his first year in office.


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