Obama's education secretary choice faces system in crisis

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of children in this country do not learn and eventually drop out of school. That is Arne Duncan's problem now.

Duncan, president-elect Barack Obama's choice for secretary of education, confronted the challenge on a smaller scale as head of Chicago public schools for the past seven years. He managed to raise test scores and graduation rates, and he improved the quality of teaching. But, still, the problem is not solved.

Obama acknowledged as much Tuesday as he announced his selection of Duncan: "Look, we're not going to transform every school overnight."

"But what we can expect is that, each and every day, we are thinking of new, innovative ways to make the schools better," the president-elect said. He called it "morally unacceptable" not to do better.

The 44-year-old Duncan, like Obama a Harvard alumnus, ran an education not-for-profit on Chicago's South Side before working in Chicago public schools under former chief Paul Vallas, now the schools chief in New Orleans. He also worked with children in Australia, where he played basketball for four years after college.

The new administration must do its work under the umbrella of No Child Left Behind, the accountability law that prods schools to improve test scores each year so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014.

The law has become as unpopular as President George W. Bush, who championed it. But beyond No Child Left Behind, the federal government has scant ability to force public schools in this country to improve.

Nationwide, while students have made progress, more than one in four still score below basic on eighth-grade math and reading tests. The news is worse among black and Hispanic children, nearly half of whom score below basic on the same tests.

Dropout rates are dismal, too: One in four students quits high school. Among black and Hispanic kids, one in three drops out.

How does the next administration intend to solve the problem? Duncan said the answers aren't simple, but he has some ideas.

"I know from experience that when you focus on basics like reading and math, when you embrace innovative new approaches to learning, and when you create a professional climate that attracts great teachers, you can make a difference for children," Duncan said at Tuesday's news conference.

The fate of No Child Left Behind is uncertain; the law was due for a rewrite last year, but Congress and the next White House will be in no hurry to tackle it. School reform advocates who support the law view Duncan as a kindred spirit.

That includes the chairmen of the congressional education committees.

Obama "made an excellent choice," said Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Duncan's selection is "very exciting news for school reform," said Democratic Rep. George Miller of California.

Obama pledged during the campaign to overhaul No Child Left Behind, saying it emphasizes annual reading and math tests at the expense of other subjects and is too punitive to struggling schools. Yet it remains unclear how much of the law Obama would actually undo. His advisers included fans and foes of the law, and his campaign said he would not dump the annual tests.

Duncan supports the law, although he has said it can be improved.

Even the law's strongest critics, a group led by the teachers' unions, said they were pleased by Duncan's selection.

"This could be the beginning of a promising new period for public education in this country," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said: "Duncan has shown a genuine commitment to what we see as the essential priorities for an incoming education secretary."

Beyond K-12 schools, Obama has a sweeping education plan, although the economic meltdown makes his $18 billion pre-kindergarten program, or any increase in education spending, unlikely anytime soon. The same is true of his plan to pay up to $4,000 of college costs in exchange for community service.

He mentioned a few other ideas on Tuesday, starting with merit pay, the idea of tying teacher bonuses to student achievement.

Politically powerful teachers' unions have resisted extra pay that is tied mainly to test scores. But they have agreed to it -- in Chicago and elsewhere -- when other factors, such as teaching in hard-to-staff schools, are involved.

And Obama mentioned charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, free from some of the rules that constrain regular schools. Dozens of charter schools are operating among the 625 schools in Chicago; Duncan told the House Education Committee last summer that "almost all of them are succeeding."

Later Tuesday, when Obama, Duncan and Vice President-elect Joe Biden visited the library at Dodge Renaissance Academy, Obama made the case for another idea the students worried about: Longer school days. Duncan also has tried this in Chicago.

"You're trying to figure out if you're going to be in school longer," a smiling Obama told a dozen kids sitting on the carpet.

"Well, let me tell you, kids in a lot of other countries go to school more than kids here in the United States," he said, adding that he hasn't made any decisions. "The longer you're here, the smarter you get."

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