Arne Duncan’s Turnaround Trials

May 05, 2009 1 min read

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has over $100 billion at his disposal, more than any previous ed secretary, to bring about significant reform to America’s public schools. In the latest episode of PBS’ NOW, host David Brancaccio talks to Duncan and takes a close look at his record of reform as CEO of Chicago Public Schools to get an idea of the things he might have in store for the U.S.

Brancaccio visited one of Duncan’s “turnaround” schools in Chicago’s South Side, Harvard Elementary. The school was in rough shape when Duncan took it over. Of 3000 elementary schools in Illinois, Harvard ranked in the bottom 10; 98 percent of its students lived in poverty; and, in one year alone, the police were called over 100 times to deal with violence in the school. In 2007, Duncan gave pink slips to every member of the faculty and staff, a move the Chicago Teachers Union and many parents protested.

Despite those concerns, Duncan felt that drastic change was necessary. “We’ve put in millions of additional dollars [into Chicago schools], done things around the edges, and at the end of the day 88, 89, 90 percent of students were still not reading at grade level. It was an absolutely dismal failure.”

Control of Harvard Elementary was handed over to The Academy for Urban School Leadership, a not-for profit company. The AUSL hired a new principal, Andre Cowling. He rehired three of the teachers from Harvard Elementary, rehired the cafeteria staff, and hired new janitors. To fill the rest of the teaching positions, Cowling turned to back to the AUSL. According to NOW they have a “pipeline of new teachers” that they train to work in turnaround schools.

A year later, there are signs of improvement at Harvard Elementary.

According to Devondra Barrett, one of the three rehired teachers, the students are “engaged, they’re quiet, they’re learning, they’re happy.” The numbers are looking better as well. Ten percent more students are meeting standards and the police haven’t been called once.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.