Education Pick Backs Test-Heavy Regime
By JOHN HECHINGER, JANET ADAMY and ROBERT TOMSHO
The Obama administration's selection of Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as education secretary signals an intent to maintain a rigorous system of standardized tests in public schools, while experimenting with reforms disliked by unions, such as teacher merit pay.
In announcing the appointment Tuesday at a Chicago news conference, President-elect Barack Obama said he and Mr. Duncan share a "deep pragmatism" and a willingness to tap ideas often associated with conservatives. "Let's not be clouded by ideology when it comes to figuring out what helps our kids," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Duncan's "strength is really his openness to ideas and a real interest in data and how things are working," said John Easton, executive director of the Consortium of Chicago School Research, a University of Chicago program that has studied the city's schools.
One of Mr. Duncan's first tasks will be deciding what to do about the federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2002, and now due for reauthorization. The statute, which has divided educators, requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools that don't make adequate progress on tests measuring student achievement face sanctions.
During his campaign, Mr. Obama said he favored helping troubled schools rather than punishing them. Asked about the law in Chicago yesterday, Mr. Duncan told reporters he thought the ideas behind the law make a lot of sense, adding that he plans to look at data to evaluate it.
Mr. Duncan is also taking over at a time when the financial crisis is taking a toll on colleges. His approach to post-secondary education isn't well known.
The 44-year-old Harvard graduate has earned a reputation as someone who has found ways to carry out major overhauls without alienating key constituencies. Mr. Duncan has generally maintained the support of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Marilyn Stewart, CTU president, said Tuesday the union didn't agree with several of Mr. Duncan's initiatives, including his push to close troubled schools and get rid of some teachers. But the two sides have been able to build a relationship because Mr. Duncan has helped the union push programs it supports, Ms. Stewart said. Those include an initiative called Fresh Start Schools, a pilot program for schools on the verge of closing that gives them more autonomy, rigorous reviews of teachers and extra funding.
Another program the union cites is the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Among other things, it uses performance-based compensation to reward teachers when test results and other measures of their students' achievement improve.
Asked why she and Mr. Duncan have been able to work together despite their differences, Ms. Stewart said: "When I've called Arne Duncan, he's always returned my calls."
"What we have seen is a superintendent who has a very big system and who gets it and understands that you have to work with teachers," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the CTU's parent union. "You try new ideas, but you do that with collaboration."
In 2007, Mr. Duncan helped avert a strike by agreeing to a new five-year contract with the CTU. It grants a 4% wage increase every year and a three-year freeze on insurance costs. To supporters, the pact showed Mr. Duncan's flexibility and strength as a negotiator. Some teachers opposed the contract because it contained a provision to explore lengthening the school day.
Scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which is used to hold schools accountable under the NCLB law, have improved markedly during Mr. Duncan's seven-year tenure. For the 2007-2008 school year, 65.2% of students met or exceeded state standards, compared with 38.3% in 2000-2001.
The gains included all minority groups, but there was still a major shortfall in the test scores of black and Hispanic students, when compared with whites.