Cover Story

Meet the teacher

"Meet the teacher" Continued...

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

Duncan did not shy away from shuttering dozens of bad schools, never mind the resultant uproar from the teachers union and community. He even went so far as to help fund a radical idea from a private group to give Chicago's worst schools extreme makeovers.

The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit founded by venture capitalist Martin Klondyke in 2001, initially set out simply to prepare teachers for success in urban settings through a residency training program. But the limited effectiveness of sending too few good teachers into entrenched cultures of failure triggered a more dramatic proposal. What if the worst schools in Chicago could be gutted of every last vestige of their former selves? What if every teacher, staff member, and administrator could be fired and replaced in the course of one summer vacation? What if the same students who left in the summer could return in the fall to new paint, new teachers, new culture?

Duncan embraced the idea.

"Arne always had the philosophy of differentiated approach to the governance of his schools," said AUSL director Don Feinstein, who doubts whether the program could have gotten off the ground had a less supportive and innovative CEO been in power. "He was willing to break up the monopoly that the district is the only one that could work to improve the schools. He created the space for us."

AUSL's space has grown considerably in recent years. The group now occupies several converted classrooms at the Chicago Academy in the northwest quadrant of the city and oversees an annual budget of more than $70 million. It operates six training academies, churning out new teachers to fill the ranks of a growing number of so-called "turnaround schools." The group will convert three more failing schools this year, pushing the total number to eight since 2006.

Sue Stone, a mentor teacher at one of AUSL's training academies, spent nine years teaching in Chicago's inner-city schools. She remembers her first classroom, a shower stall off the gym: "I would be there crying, saying, 'I can't believe I moved here and this is my job.'" That school has since closed-a casualty of Duncan's be-good-or-be-gone approach.

For Stone and other AUSL mentors, the program represents a real chance for lasting change. Up-and-coming talent is drawn to the residency for what resident Aubrey Hall calls "the challenge" of working with urban youth: "I didn't want to teach in the suburbs where there are so many great teachers and kids that are on track. I'm not needed there."

The need in inner-city Chicago is immense. Despite the innovation and advancement Duncan achieved, the beast that is Chicago Public Schools remains a stark contrast to the tamed environment of Ariel's teacher's lounge or the Sue Duncan Children's Center. Critics point to the now 29 violent school-related deaths in the district this year. They decry the city's 50 percent graduation rate and its dismal standardized test scores. And all such problems persist despite soaring annual costs of more than $10,000 per student.

Therein stands a point of tension in Duncan's education philosophy. For all his experience and belief in bottom-up solutions, holding rank atop the education pyramid of the Windy City and now the nation applies pressure for top-down strategies. Indeed, the education powers that be in Washington will test Duncan's resolve against a union-approved, one-size-fits-all paradigm. Even Obama, a close friend to Duncan, may not share the same level of commitment to innovation, choice, and accountability.

"It's great that Secretary Duncan has spoken favorably about things like charter schools and performance pay, but it remains to be seen whether the administration is going to match promising rhetoric with real policy reforms," said education analyst Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation. "If history is any guide, more funding is not going to solve the problems in our schools."

Lips looks at Duncan's track record in Chicago as mixed, pointing out that the ongoing difficulties were not enough to trigger honest consideration of additional choices like vouchers or tax credits for private schooling: "He deserves some credit for supporting some promising reforms there, but time will tell where they're really headed."

Duncan readily admits that his seven years in Chicago were no cure-all, just steps in a new direction. Conservatives like George Will and former education chief Lamar Alexander are among those who say it's the right direction. Liberals in Washington's education establishment may prove harder sells.

But perhaps the most realistic perspective comes from Duncan's mother: "It's an impossible task," she says of solving the nation's education ills. She would know.

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