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Duncan Talks School Improvement, Stimulus, and Education Department Culture

By Alyson Klein — May 29, 2009 2 min read

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got to use his favorite word again in a speech this morning when he said he wants states and districts to take “dramatic” steps to overhaul schools that are struggling to meet the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.

He talked about how, as superintendent in Chicago, he closed the city’s lowest-performing schools and brought in all new staff, resulting in significant academic gains.

But in a wide-ranging speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Duncan said that there’s a shortage of folks out there—among states, districts, and even innovative non-profits—who know how to reshape foundering schools.

“I can count on one hand the number of turnaround specialists doing this work,” he said.

There is already $3 billion for school improvement included as part of the economic stimulus package, and Duncan is pushing for another $1.5 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget. Some experts have told me that, while that money is great, they’re not sure it will necessarily be put to good use because districts also need expertise to help fix chronically underperforming schools.

Duncan also acknowledged that the $100 billion in stimulus funding for education may have an uneven impact in states, since some, such as California, will still have to make drastic cuts, while others, such as South Dakota, will get an enormous windfall.

But he said that shouldn’t preclude states that are in the red from taking steps to overhaul schools.

“In a time of crisis, you have to look very carefully at how you are spending the money,” he said. “States that have been hardest hit” may be well-positioned to advance reforms, he added. “This is a huge test of leadership.”

Today’s was the latest in a series of tough-talk speeches by Duncan about the need to turn around low-performing schools, with the implication that states and districts that don’t take the hint may be left out of the running for some of the $5 billion in Race to the Top and innovation grant money he will be doling out.

Duncan said he hadn’t expected that so many states would drag their feet in applying for the first round of fiscal stabilization funding in the stimulus package. He said the Education Department hasn’t come up with a contingency plan in case states don’t finish their applications by the July deadline, since he expects them all to be complete by then.

“I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem,” he said.

Duncan was also asked about his efforts to improve Education Department’s culture, after the department ranked near the bottom of a survey of the best places to work in the federal government. (The survey was taken before the Obama administration took office.)

He said that he will try to create the kind of collegial, professional working climate that he would like schools across the country to adopt.

If the department doesn’t rise in the rankings, “you can hold me accountable,” he said.

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