As U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan is garnering much praise for rallying states to increase the number of charter schools and overhaul how teachers are trained and paid. But a string of stories about Chicago Public Schools, where Duncan served as its chief executive, are reminders that no one, not even Duncan, is a miracle worker when it comes to overhauling America's traditional public school districts.
On Sunday, Duncan's successor, Ron Huberman, drew criticism after the Chicago Tribune reported that he drove not one, but two cars -- including a hybrid version of Chevrolet's Malibu sedan -- leased on his behalf by the district for $1,800 a month. That news, along with the fact that the district leased a fleet of vehicles for its senior staff and other civil servants at an annual cost of $800,000, didn't sit too well with either the district's teachers or parents, who were already annoyed with Huberman over a new round of proposed school closings.
Last month, Duncan's advocacy drew skepticism after news came out that Chicago's 4th- and 8th-graders made little progress as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal benchmark for academic achievement. Although 62 percent of 4th-graders (and 51 percent of 8th-graders) performed at "basic" proficiency or higher, Chicago still scored below the national average for both grades; the average score for 8th-graders trailed all but seven other cities tested. Scholastic blogger (and longtime Duncan critic) Alexander Russo had himself a little fun with the news by noting that the Washington Post, which wrote glowingly about Duncan a year earlier, had joined a "Chorus Of Questioners" about his record.
Meanwhile Chicago is gaining a less-enviable reputation: For being a place where it's unsafe for children to attend school. The problem gained national attention in September when Fenger Academy honor roll student Derrion Albert was beaten to death by a group of brawlers after he walked into a melee occurring just outside the school. The incident, which was caught on videotape for everyone within a TV set (or YouTube) to see it, was another reminder that 47 Chicago school students were slain in 2009 alone.
Certainly Chicago doesn't suffer the pervasive academic and bureaucratic failure found in school systems in Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Since the city's omnipresent mayor, Richard Daley, took control of the district in 1995, its four-year graduation rate improved from an abysmal 39 percent for its Class of 1995 to a terrible-but-better 55 percent for the Class of 2007. Under the stewardship of Duncan and his predecessor, Paul Vallas (now a player in New Orleans' pioneering school reform), the district has also embraced choice and the charter school movement. Eighty-six charters have been opened since 2005 under the district's Renaissance 2010 initiative.
But Chicago also proves how difficult it is for any reformer to corral school district bureaucracies, beat back the locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers who make districts servile to their interests, and rally support from politicians who either ignore the districts altogether or want them to serve as jobs programs for their communities. Duncan is being reminded of this again as he pushes the $4.3 billion Race to the Top school reform program. Even as state legislatures in California have enacted the reforms Duncan has called for in exchange for the federal funding, school districts are backing away from signing agreements committing them to implementing the efforts on the ground. In California, for example, just 10 of the state's 30 largest districts -- which teach 19 percent of the state's student population -- have committed to the program.
The problems often stars with state governments, which, thanks to school funding overhauls and school reform efforts such as Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind Act, have greater influence over districts than they did four decades ago. Thanks to their vast campaign war chests and armies of rank-and-file members, the NEA and AFT have successfully lobbied legislatures to make teaching among the public-sector professions most insulated from performance management. All but two states allow for teachers to gain tenure (or near-lifetime job protections) less than five years after they enter the profession, according to a report I co-authored on behalf of the National Council on Teacher Quality last year; only 13 states require annual performance reviews. So school districts struggle to weed out all but the worst of their laggard performers.
Although the Chicago district, along with the districts in New York City and Washington, D.C., are under the control of the mayor, most others remain governed by school boards, whose members often are funded by teachers unions and whose elections are often ignored by the general public at large. Rare are initiatives to shake up school boards such as those undertaken by former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and a successor, Antonio Villaraigosa. This makes it difficult for school reformers -- especially superintendents, most of whom come in with few sources of long-term political support -- to gain any traction. This is why the average tenure of a school superintendent is just three years.
The fact that many districts still keep antiquated academic, financial, and management information systems in place -- even as the federal government has begun embracing the use of MySQL databases and Drupal content management systems -- particularly bedevils reform efforts. That they often don't embrace the kind of outsourcing that can (if used properly) improve use of resources is also a problem. In some districts, just 69 percent of school buses are kept in operation throughout the school year, according to Michael Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools, in a report prepared for a conference hosted Monday by the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And, as seen in Detroit, graft and corruption is often as prevalent as chalk.
Mayoral control, which is now being considered even in cities such as Milwaukee and Syracuse, has proven to help districts make academic and systemic improvements. But without embracing some private-sector management techniques, they will still remain both inefficient and academically lagging. The still-influential presence of the NEA and AFT, whose affiliates are now demanding that school districts reject implementing Race to the Top, means that there will still be difficulties in taking on meaningful reforms. As seen in the case of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, overhauling school systems may often require scorched-earth tactics against union leaders and politicians alike.
But as seen with the growth of the charter school movement, parents -- especially those in the nation's largest cities -- aren't waiting for either Duncan or school systems to improve traditional public schools. Their departures, along with the high costs of teacher compensation now weighing on budgets, may be the real pressures that force effective reform.
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