Opinion
Federal Commentary

Start Over

By Arne Duncan — June 12, 2009 6 min read

My top priority as U.S. secretary of education is to make sure our K-12 students are prepared to succeed in college and the workforce. If we can do this, we’ll be able to meet President Barack Obama’s ambitious but reachable goal that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Working with states to preserve jobs and reform schools using resources from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. Department of Education is focusing on four assurances that will prepare K-12 students for success after graduation. We’ll be working with states to make sure they’re creating policies to implement them.

BRIC ARCHIVE

First, states need to adopt rigorous K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and the workforce. Second, they should create data systems that will track from year to year whether students are making the progress they need to graduate from high school ready to succeed in college or the workforce; these systems also will provide the information to determine whether a teacher is effective in improving student performance. Third, the states need plans to find effective teachers and make sure those teachers are working in classrooms where they will have the greatest impact on the students who need the most help. Finally, states must have plans to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

In three of the four areas, state and national leaders have already taken significant steps and made progress toward these goals. Working with national organizations, 46 states have agreed to pursue common standards that will ensure that U.S. students are internationally competitive. States have been gradually expanding their data systems for the past five years and will soon realize the benefits of tracking student achievement and teacher effectiveness. And districts throughout the country are experimenting with programs to recruit and reward highly effective educators, especially to work in the most challenging environments. I applaud the state, district, and entrepreneurial leaders who have done the work to make these changes happen, and I’ll do everything I can from Washington to ensure their success.

But in the area of turning around troubled schools, we’re still lacking the policy and the political will to do the job right. We know that at least 5,000 of our schools—about 5 percent of the total—are seriously underperforming. Among high schools alone, 2,000 are dropout factories. That means that two out of five of their freshmen are not enrolled at the start of their senior year. We know that in thousands of schools serving K-8 children, achievement is low and not improving. If we don’t take aggressive action to fix the problems of these schools, we are putting the children in them on track for failure.

We have the resources to address this problem. The ARRA includes $3 billion for the Title I School Improvement Program, which is specifically designed to pay for interventions in low-performing schools. Combined with the fiscal 2009 appropriation of $545 million and the $1.5 billion we have proposed for fiscal 2010, school improvement will receive as much as $5 billion over two years. That is an unprecedented federal investment in fixing our lowest-performing schools, and we are determined to spend this money to make the dramatic changes that these schools need.

Too often, though, school officials have been content with changes that produce nominal progress. When choosing interventions for schools in restructuring under the No Child Left Behind Act, they have taken the path of least resistance. They haven’t made dramatic changes, such as replacing the school leadership and staff or closing and reopening under new governance. Instead, most of the time, they have chosen the law’s catch-all category of “other.” These changes may lead to incremental growth, but in our lowest-performing schools, that’s not enough.

In Chicago, the most successful interventions we implemented when I led that city’s school system were complete turnarounds. We moved the adults out of the building, kept the children there, and brought in new adults. It was the best and fastest way to create a new school culture, one in which student achievement was the primary goal. All of the school’s decisions—the length of the school day and school year, the choice of curriculum, the discipline code—revolved around that goal.

If we don’t take aggressive action to fix the problems of these schools, we are putting the children in them on track for failure.

The change was never easy. We created an arduous process for the selection and development of new school leaders to open a new school. We recruited existing administrators from within the Chicago public schools, and we worked in partnership with nonprofit entrepreneurs, such as the Academy for Urban School Leadership and New Leaders for New Schools, to identify potential leaders from outside the system. We needed the best people with the capacity to take on the challenges of fixing schools that had been failing for decades. Once selected, they worked for six months, deciding which of the teachers from the building to rehire and recruiting new ones. Although we opened a network of charter schools in Chicago, every turnaround school was a traditional public school, operating under the same regulations and union rules as other schools in the system.

The new school leaders ran intensive efforts to prepare their new teams, sometimes spending more than five weeks in the summer in workshops and planning sessions to get ready for the school year. They extended learning time for students while also creating extra planning time for principals and teachers. The hard work paid off: We saw immediate and sustained results. In every elementary and middle school we turned around, attendance rates improved and the percentage of students scoring above proficient on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, increased in the first year. Almost all of them sustained that growth every subsequent year. Dodge Elementary School, one of the first schools we turned around, became the Illinois school with the greatest gains on the ISAT. Five years after it reopened, 72.5 percent of Dodge students scored proficient or above on the ISAT, 55 percentage points higher than the year before its turnaround.

Chicago’s success proves that we as a nation can expect dramatic and quick turnarounds in our lowest-performing schools. I realize that the Chicago-style turnaround may not work everywhere. In particular, the model would be difficult to replicate in rural areas. But rural leaders can pursue other options that will make a significant difference in students’ achievement. They can rely heavily on online learning to bring a stronger curriculum. They can collaborate with many of the nonprofits working in Chicago and elsewhere to prepare new and innovative leaders to run low-performing schools. As we did in Chicago, they can extend the school year and school day. They can reward excellence among their teachers and give incentives for the best ones to work with their most challenging students. They also can offer teachers time during the summer and within the school day to work collaboratively to find instructional strategies that will deliver results. None of these reforms should be done in isolation. They need to be part of a comprehensive strategy focused like a laser on improving student achievement. Rural schools shouldn’t let their unique challenges become excuses for keeping the status quo.

I also recognize that our country may not currently have the capacity to fix all of these schools right away. In Chicago, we started small—turning around two schools in the first year—and grew gradually every year. Faced with the challenge of expanding in Chicago, we found that the Academy for Urban School Leadership and other nonprofits scaled up quickly without sacrificing quality. I’m calling on the existing network of turnaround specialists to be ready, and I’m urging charter school groups, unions, districts, and states to get in this business of turning around our lowest-performing schools.

We will need to dedicate all the resources we can to fixing our lowest-performing schools and making sure they work for children. I hope that, in the coming years, all 5,000 of them will be turned around and on the path to preparing their children for college and success as adults.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Start Over

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