Chicago Record Shows Duncan as Collaborator

By Dakarai I. Aarons — December 30, 2008 6 min read
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Arne Duncan’s seven-year tenure as the head of the 408,000-student Chicago school district has been marked by innovations to improve the quality of teachers and principals and a focus on basic reading and math skills.

His low-key, collaborative style was a key to his success in Chicago, observers say, and should suit him well as President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for U.S. secretary of education.

Mr. Duncan was virtually unknown when Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him in 2001 to follow Paul G. Vallas as the second chief executive officer of the schools under the system of mayoral control that started in 1995. Mr. Duncan, who was Mr. Vallas’ deputy chief of staff, didn’t even have his own secretary.

But he’d already made a mark behind the scenes, Mr. Vallas said in an interview, with his work to triple the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and expand the district’s International Baccalaureate program.

“When I left, I recommended three people as replacements to Mayor Daley. Arne was one of them. He was clearly the candidate who knew the most about the ongoing reforms, and I think his performance ever since has been strong,” Mr. Vallas said. “He’s ready for Washington. He’s managed seven years in Chicago under Mayor Daley and did it without being a polarizing figure.”

Renaissance 2010

One of the biggest legacies of Mr. Duncan’s tenure will be the Renaissance 2010 initiative that Mr. Daley announced in 2004. The project calls for closing underperforming schools, mostly in high-poverty areas, and replacing them with new schools run by outside groups and organizations. The goal is to open 100 such schools by 2010; so far, 75 of those charter and charter-like schools have been opened.

Many of the new schools have extended days and school years and focus on a specific topic. While Mr. Duncan has been praised for the innovation, critics have questioned whether the program is part of the mayor’s gentrification efforts in the same neighborhoods, and have said the closing of schools has often been disruptive to children.

John Washington picks up his great-grandson, Rayshaun Cates, at Samuel Morse Elementary School in January 2006. The school was closed for poor performance.

Under Mr. Duncan, the school district has seen significant increases in the percentage of elementary school students scoring as proficient or above on state tests, and more-modest increases among high school students. The increase in elementary school test scores is difficult to measure, though, because Illinois’ tests were changed in a way that some critics say make them easier to pass.

Chicago’s high school graduation rate increased from 47 percent to 55 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

As Chicago’s schools chief, Mr. Duncan has made the recruiting, hiring, and ongoing development of high-quality teachers and principals a top priority.

Working with business leaders and union executives, the district has increased the number of teachers earning voluntary certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to nearly 1,200, and has instituted tougher regulations for principals. Using a $27.5 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the district has launched a four-year pilot program that will eventually put in place a performance-pay system at 40 schools.

Anne C. Hallett, a veteran education activist who leads the Grow Your Own Illinois teacher-recruitment program, said Mr. Duncan’s efforts have built on earlier reforms to focus on teaching and learning in schools.

“They’ve really homed in on choosing only a couple of routes to improve and deepen the preparation of principals. There used to be quite a few different programs,” she said. “They have tried to focus and raise the standards on the principalship a lot. I think we are starting to see the results of that with some really terrific principals in the district.”

John Q. Easton, the executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said Mr. Duncan deserves credit for using data to innovate and being willing to constantly tweak programs to make them more effective.

“He’s hungry for data on what he’s doing and hungry for new ideas. I’ve worked with a bunch of superintendents, and he is by far and away the most honest and willing to publicly confront bad information,” Mr. Easton said.

Mr. Duncan’s sincerity and integrity have allowed him to build bridges, even on controversial topics, said Janet Knupp, the founding president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has contributed $25 million over the past eight years to help improve teacher and principal quality in Chicago schools.

Duke University's Johnny Dawkins, left, shoots despite the defensive efforts of Harvard University's Arne Duncan, during their 1984 basketball game at Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass.

“He was not doing this job thinking he was going to become secretary of education,” she said. “It was a moral obligation to him that every day, I have to do something improve the lives of urban kids.”

Founded School

A Windy City native, Mr. Duncan, 44, graduated cum laude from Harvard University and spent four years playing professional basketball in Australia before returning to Chicago in 1992. He took a job as the director of the Ariel Education Initiative. At Ariel, Mr. Duncan ran tutoring and mentoring programs and helped start a school, the Ariel Community Academy, in 1996, under Mayor Daley’s New School Initiative Program. He remained with Ariel until he was tapped as Mr. Vallas’ deputy chief of staff in 1998.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban schools, said Mr. Duncan’s political savvy helped him take risks.

“I don’t think he’s always given a lot of credit for that. He works in a highly political environment in Chicago. People like working with him and for him,” Mr. Casserly said. “Various constituencies in the city respond well to him. He’s a bridge-builder in a way that lots of other folks aren’t.”

Marilyn Stewart, the president of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, a American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said the union’s relationship with Mr. Duncan has been cordial. But she was critical of Renaissance 2010, saying that she’d never seen a complete plan, and that school closings were often done without enough communication with parents and others in the affected communities.

The closings, she said, also seemed to unfairly lay all of the blame for a school’s performance on the teachers.

“When you fire everybody, the new teachers who come in have to work with the same students the teachers had issues with,” she said.

Phyllis Lockett, the chief executive officer of the Renaissance Schools Fund, the business community’s fundraising arm for Renaissance 2010, said Mr. Duncan has worked hard to explain the need for change to those communities.

“Unfortunately, many of the parents viewed the school as an asset,” she said. “Many had no idea their kids were getting such a poor education. Arne went into these neighborhoods and had very candid conversations about the state of those schools and how they were performing.”

Mobilizing Support

Margaret Small, a co-founder of a pre-Renaissance charter, the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, a South Side school of 360 girls, praised Mr. Duncan’s support of the charter school movement in Chicago, particularly the way he mobilized financial support from the private sector to help open the quasi-independent small schools as part of the Renaissance 2010 initiative.

But she said that such a model raises key sustainability questions that have not been resolved in Illinois, and which she anticipates will be echoed on the national level as Mr. Duncan takes the helm at the federal Education Department.

“The goal of involving the private sector to commit to improving public schools was not inappropriate,” she said. “But they’re not going to solve it. The problem is at the state level. The mayor and Arne understand that. The resource question remains, ... and he will face it at a national level.”

Assistant Editor Catherine Gewertz and Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as In Chicago, Duncan Seen as Collaborator


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