Duncan charts a new path for Chicago Public Schools

Print More

Fresh on the job, CEO Arne Duncan sees his first weeks as a chance to cut through school politics. He is already putting a new stamp on Chicago’s public schools. He shut down the central Office of Intervention and reallocated its budget to struggling schools. Teachers will be required to teach two hours of reading daily. His top management team includes well-regarded education researchers and advocates. And he plans to use test score gains, not just absolute scores, to measure student achievement. In an Aug. 21 interview with Editor Veronica Anderson and Publisher Linda Lenz, Duncan shares details of his vision for improving schools and leveling the academic playing field.

Q:You’ve talked about the importance of leadership. What’s your strategy for getting first-rate principals in every school?

A: We have a very strong group of principals, but we also have a group that’s aging. A high percentage of principals are going to be leaving over the next five to 10 years. So we have an opportunity to develop a new crop of leaders to take us to the next level.

There’s a series of things we need to do. We’ve never had an internal capacity to recognize and develop talent. And if you look at a corporate model, they’re constantly developing from within: finding their best and brightest, helping to nurture them, training them to ascend to increasingly responsible leadership positions.

We have 26,000 teachers. There’s a tremendous range of skills, and some will teach throughout their careers—that’s their passion. But [some] teachers would make outstanding principals. We need to be nurturing them, we need to be training them, we need to be creating an environment where they can gain the skills and be supported to ascend to that position of leadership.

Q: Do you support local school councils choosing principals?

A: Absolutely. It’s very important.

Q: What do you do to help LSCs get better?

A: We have to continue to train [them]. We have to establish a framework in which good choices can be made, [to] articulate issues that we think are critically important. We can help the LSCs frame questions to drive our system to the next level and help student achievement.

Q: Can the LSCs expect more from central office?

A: We’re absolutely committed to providing [more support] whether it’s training or a clear framework of issues that are important. A big challenge of mine—and a great opportunity—is to cut through all the political crap.

Q: In our interviews, we found a strong consensus around the need for more professional development for teachers and principals. How do you find time for that?

A: I don’t think we need more professional development; we need better professional development. And we spend a ton of money on professional development every year. The local school councils spend a ton of development on professional development every year. The foundation and non-profit community spend a ton of money on professional development. So I’m not interested in doing more, I’m interested in getting a better bang for our buck. Making sure that professional development is long-term, strategic.

Q: Do you have an idea of how you tackle that?

A: The first thing we’ve got to do is gather facts. You ask anyone how much we spend on professional development, I don’t think there’s anyone who can give you a straight answer today. Secondly, we never had any sense of accountability. How do we measure the benefits of this myriad of professional development opportunities? I think we start to put in place criteria that will help us evaluate these programs.

There are things that are very high in importance to me. We have a great shortage of guidance counselors, of social workers, of special ed teachers. What incentives can we provide to have teachers go back and gain those certifications to help us meet that need? I’m very interested in teachers becoming absolute experts in their content area.

Q: Talk a bit about your new reading program and how you’re going to choose the reading specialists. What do you expect them to do?

A: Let me talk about the big picture, then I’ll come back to that specifically. We have to help our children enter the main stream of society. We have to help them be productive citizens. To me there’s nothing more important we can do than have them be able to read well, write well, think critically [and] be able to express their ideas, both on paper and verbally. We’re looking at a lot of different things. One is simply time on task. If someone wants to be a great violin player, you got to practice the violin. If someone wants to be a great scientist, you got to spend time in the lab. We want our students to be great leaders and writers. We’re going to mandate this minimum two hours a day spent on reading and writing.

None of these ideas are new. There are pockets of excellence throughout the city on this. What we’re trying to do is replicate and build upon those successes. What Barbara Eason-Watkins has done at McCosh, what Joan Crisler has done in Dixon.

The second thing is, we’ve never had a common literacy framework for the system. We have too high of a mobility rate in Chicago, and that’s something we need to address. But when a child leaves a school and [goes] to another school and they’re doing something totally different, that makes the transition much more difficult. The student falls further behind. So creating a common literacy framework—both between schools and between grades—puts us in a ballgame where our children can be more successful.

Q: Does that mean some schools might have to drop programs?

A: No. It’s not saying this program is correct or that program is correct. It’s saying we need to be focusing on a minimum of two hours of reading a day, preferably in the morning.

The other piece is … we need to get books into our classrooms. We’re going to spend a lot of money creating literature-rich environments at the kindergarten through 3rd-grade level.

Q: Textbooks?

A: No, literature. We want to create school-based libraries [and] classroom-based libraries. We’re going to pay for teachers to get the professional development they need to learn how to use these books in a classroom setting. If you have, let’s say, four 2nd-grade classrooms in a building, those four teachers should be working together, each picking different books and then rotating those books.

Q: Do teachers know what to do with the 2-hour time block for reading?

A: We’re going to do intensive staff development. [Chief Education Officer] Barbara [Eason-Watkins] and I met with every single principal over the last three days and started to lay this out. Principals are going to go back and lay this out with teachers.

Q: Is this CASA money? [In February, former CEO Paul Vallas announced the Comprehensive Approach to Student Achievement (CASA), a remediation program aimed at 200 low-scoring schools. It was put on hold when Vallas resigned.]

A: This is combining lots of pools of money. There were a lot of programs that were somewhat duplicative and overlapping. This is not new money. I wish I had new money.

And then the final piece is the literacy specialist. It’s so funny to me that we fund PE teachers, we fund art teachers, we fund music teachers, we fund drama teachers, we fund biology teachers. We have never funded a reading specialist position.

Q: Well, you did like, 12, 15 years ago.

A: Not in recent history.

Q: What’s going to be different this time?

A: We’re going to have a very high bar. We’re going to look for people with masters in reading. We’re going to look for people with reading endorsements. We’ve been talking to Golden Apple teachers who are specialists in reading.

We’re going to fill these positions over time, make sure this isn’t a patronage job. It can’t be somebody’s best friend. The regular teacher is paid for a 40-week work year; these teachers are going to be paid for a 44-week work year. So they’re going to be paid more. We’re going to look broadly throughout Chicago and the Midwest, and we’re going to advertise nationally. We want to build a very strong group of people who are experts.

Q: Does the reading specialist design the program, or does the reading specialist do what the principal says?

A: It’s a partnership. They work for the principal, but their job is to help to shape and create and implement the [reading] program. A principal has a myriad of responsibilities. We want someone who full-time is living and breathing and eating this.

Q: How much is that going to cost? We’re talking about one specialist per school.

A: We’re going to pilot in about 125 schools. We’re going to build this over time; get the kinks out. We’re not going to try to scale up too quickly. What you get then is CPS mediocrity, CPS crap.

Q: Let’s switch to high schools. Previous administrations have tried a number of things to improve high schools. Do you have any new ideas?

A: No. Just joking. We’ve got lots of ideas. The first thing that we announced [was the] construction of three new high schools. For the last five or six years, we’ve focused predominantly on elementary schools. I’m looking to shift the emphasis towards high schools.

It’s unacceptable that you have children on the South and West sides of the city that have been going to school in buildings that are simply not conducive to creating a proper educational environment. We’ve had high schools that have been either overcrowded or dilapidated or run down. We need to create an environment in which students feel we care about them.

Q: Is there something you have to give up doing in order to build these new schools?

A: No. It’s part of our capital plan. We have about $525 million for this year, so I’ve really stretched the capital budget to include this stuff. Our capital budget, after this year, shrinks dramatically without new funds. For us to complete this and to get every school in a place where we want it to be, education leaders, political leaders, the civic community, the corporate community have to come together and help us go to Springfield, go to Washington, to create new revenue sources.

Let me talk about three different ways in which I want to be much more creative and push the envelope. The first thing is having a diversity of strong educational programs. I often talk about the military academies—which I would have lasted one day at as a child. But for the right kid, that military academy is a wonderful program. We also need strong math and science academies. We need strong fine and performing arts. We need diversity of curricular foci to help our children develop their unique skills and their unique interests. I want to create a wide range of high-quality options and let the marketplace play.

Q: Isn’t this what sort of happens now? Schools have different programs, and there’s a whole lot of moving outside of local attendance areas.

A: We can take it to a different level. At Carver military academy, we have a waiting list of a couple of hundred kids every year. There’s a supply-demand issue. We need to replicate our successes. We have programs that aren’t strong. We need to shut them down.

Q: Do you anticipate creating schools that have a focus, or are you going to have schools that have a variety of programs within them?

A: Let me come back to that. Are we listening to what our students and parents are asking for? That’s one thing. Secondly, we want to look at this, three-, four- and five-year track. We have this one-size-fits-all mentality, this four-year model. There are some students that can do three years and they’re on to college. They’re mature, they’re academically advanced, they’re socially ready for that transition. The four-year model is going to be great for some. Other students, it’s going to be a five-year model.

Our over-arching goal is to prepare our students for some form of higher education. It might be a university, it might be a junior college, it might be trade or vocational training.

The time [when] our students could graduate from high school, go work at the steel mills is an ancient memory from a bygone era.

The third piece is looking to restructure the high school day. I look at the college model. The reality is that many of our students may have to work during the day. They might have to baby-sit for their mom. They might have a child of their own.

Our teenagers are dealing with a range of issues [and] our 9 to 2:30 schedule has hindered them. There are many students that I worked with before I came to the Board of Education who were really trying to do the right thing. They were trying to stay in school, and they were constrained by us. I want to take away those constraints.

The final piece I’m really interested in is small schools. I helped to start a small school [Ariel Community Academy] before I came to the board. Create an environment where there’s a real sense of belonging, where teachers are working together, where students are looking out for one another.

Q: But [small schools] has been hard to do in many schools. They’ve tried it, and it’s flopped.

A: I disagree.

Q: Well, what do you do?

A: It is hard to do, no question. You need teachers to buy into this. There’re examples on the West Side where the Multiplex is, there’re examples on the South Side, examples in New York. They’ve been wildly successful.

Q: But Chicago’s had a huge push on this.

A: What’s been the huge push?

Q: The Small Schools Network has been here. There has been some interest from central office.

A: Some. This is going to be a different level of interest. We have a significant grant outstanding with the Gates Foundation. I’m very optimistic on that coming in. It will give us tremendous resources. But I’m committed to doing this whether or not Gates comes to town. I brought in Jeanne Nowaczewski, who’s been at the forefront of the small schools movement.

It’s going to take some time, but I’m very hopeful that we can do this well. I’m not looking to break up every high school tomorrow.

Q: What about the 40 percent of kids who don’t get out of high school?

A: It’s unacceptable. And some of the things we’re talking about will address it. Changing the length of days, changing [the number of years it takes to graduate], creating smaller learning environments.

Q: What kid wants to go into high school thinking, it’s going to take me five years?

A: On the East Coast, there are elite prep schools that [offer] a post-grad year. It’s a fifth year of high school that prepares students for the elite [universities]. Why can’t we do that in Chicago?

Q: This is changing people’s mind set mainly.

A: Whatever it takes, absolutely. It’s a real opportunity to ensure more success at the college level. And, you know, we always focus on the remedial students. Maybe it’s a chance for a student to take a couple of AP classes that they weren’t ready for. Maybe it’s a chance to bump up their ACT or SAT score. Maybe it’s a chance to be part of our College Bridge or College Excel program where we pay for them to take college classes and get credit. I think we’re a little narrow-minded in our focus, and I want to expand the options. This cuts through issues of class. It cuts through issues of race.

Q: Speaking of going to the next level, what about the college prep schools? A couple of college prep schools on the South Side—Lindblom and King—have not gotten nearly the amount of attention and resources that Northside and Payton have gotten.

A: This is an important piece, but I see it in a much larger context. We need to focus on underserved areas of the city—the South and West sides.

Q: What about intervention? The School Board passed a revised policy at the August meeting. What’s new? What’s staying the same?

A: The first thing we did was eliminate the [central] intervention bureaucracy. When you set up a separate office, it’s supposed to be better, but it’s always inferior. We’re going to fully fund the four subject area specialists. Previously schools had to pay for these positions out of their discretionary money. We realize that to help struggling neighborhood schools is an extraordinarily difficult task. So we lengthened the [intervention] process from two to three years. If a school is doing a phenomenal job, they can complete the process in two years.

Q: How do you decide whether to take a school off of intervention?

A: There’s a whole range of things we can look at. Test scores, attendance, graduation rates.

Q: How does the new policy affect teachers? Can the board still fire them?

A: That all stays the same. We’re looking for ways to recruit more talent [to intervention schools]. If teachers come in that are highly credentialed, we’re going to ask them to do additional work. But we’re going to pay them more. We’re also looking to create incentives to reward schools that do an outstanding job—the principal, teachers, and the rest of the staff.

Q: What will you use besides test scores to hold elementary schools accountable?

A: A big thing that I want to look at is incremental change. How much are schools accelerating student achievement? Let’s say the average student in a school is only gaining 0.6 of a year. I don’t care what the absolute numbers are, those kids are actually falling behind. This levels the playing field. This creates a clear objective way to measure student achievement.

Q: So can we expect a change in the probation policy?

A: We’re not going to walk away from the [old] criteria, but we have to look at it in a more holistic manner. This is an important piece of the puzzle that’s been missing.

Q: You’re starting a research department. What do you want it to do?

A: We’re doing two things: One, we’re creating a strategic planning unit that is going to shape the course of our future, a year out, three years out, five years out. Help us to set priorities, then hold our feet to the fire to make sure that we’re accomplishing those things.

I’m thrilled that we brought in [University of Chicago researcher] Melissa Roderick. I have tremendous respect for her. She’s going to build a smart team. McKinsey & Company is going to come in on a pro bono basis and help us get up and running.

[Second], we need to understand what’s working, what’s not and why. And we need to be self-critical, to learn from past successes and past failures.

Q: Do you anticipate having to cut the budget to do what you want to do?

A: We came into a set budget. Everything we do, we have to find resources internally. We want to evaluate everything. When things aren’t working well, [we will] reallocate those resources. We have to make sure every single dollar we are spending is making a difference in our students’ lives.

Q: The business community would like to see teachers paid on the basis of skill or gains in student achievement. Is that a good idea?

A: Merit pay per se is not the top priority on my agenda. We are interested in what we’re doing with the reading specialists. It’s not merit pay, but we’re going to pay teachers more to do additional work.

Q: How do you want to be judged?

A: I know what young people—from humble beginnings—can do when given true opportunities to succeed. I’ve seen them do extraordinarily well. I’m never going to accept failure or walk away from kids because of where they come from. So I want to be judged on, can we provide those concrete educational opportunities? Can we provide the long-term support? Can we provide the long-term guidance that will help our children fulfill the tremendous potential I know they have? I see vast untapped potential and it’s our job as the school system—our job as a community of adults around Chicago—to help our children fulfill that potential.

Q: What about test scores?

A: Test scores are a part of it. We’re trying to get our children ready for higher education. They’re going to have to be able to do well on test scores.

Q: Would you say your biggest challenge is raising test scores?

A: No. I think the biggest challenge is broader. I have the highest expectations for our students, for our teachers, for our principals and for [central office]. And no one is going to be tougher on me than me. I know what these kids can do. Doing well on tests is critically important to help them fulfill their dreams. Is it the only thing? No. Is it important? Absolutely. I’m not going to back away from that