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Chicago School Reform Could Be a U.S. Model

Cameron Elementary is using powerful tools to jolt teaching and boost achievement: money, coaching and collaboration. With the overwhelming approval of teachers, the school last year began a performance-pay pilot program now in place at numerous city schools. Much of the money for the program has come from a federal grant and private foundations.

Teachers earn extra cash for taking on additional responsibilities and are judged in a series of evaluations. Entire staffs get bonuses when state test scores rise. Slightly more than 50 percent of students passed the latest state reading exam, but the trend is up. The gains meant about a $1,000 bonus for most teachers, about $250 for janitors and $625 for the principal.

Teacher Erin Montana, 33, fresh out of education school and a three-month student teaching gig, took over a class in chaos two years ago. Students cursed, fought, even threw desks. "Every day I came in thinking I was doing the worst job ever," she said.

One afternoon last week, Montana's fifth-graders huddled quietly, reading a story about a boy who destroys a neighbor's garden in a vegetable-throwing fight. The students then built "story mountains," identifying characters, plot and theme.

"They trash Mr. Bellavista's garden," said Shanygne, 11, a slight girl with a ponytail. She scrawled the sentence on a Post-it note and added it to her "mountain."

Montana, crouching to check the group's progress, pointed to a picture of the glum boy. "What do you think is happening here?" she asked. "Do you think it's important?"

Eleven-year-old Shawnell, nodding at her teacher, began writing that the boy "felt sorry because he looked at the garden and the mess he made."

Montana said the isolation of her first year has disappeared. Her class is well-behaved, thanks partly to her growing experience and partly to advice from colleagues, including the "doing the right things raffle" she started at the suggestion of a mentor teacher.

Teachers meet weekly to discuss the best way to reach kids. Master teachers pinpoint where students fall short, study research and script lessons to target weak spots. They try lessons on a handful of kids, and when they find an approach that works, the school takes it to all kids.

"It's not like pulling something out of a book," Montana said. "We know that it's really thought through specifically for our kids."

Washington area schools have launched experiments similar to Chicago's. Charter schools are multiplying in the District, and D.C. schools are trying cash incentives for students. A Fairfax County initiative bumps salaries for some teachers who work a longer year and take on extra tasks, such as coaching colleagues. Pay for performance is underway in Prince George's County, tying some teacher bonuses to test scores.

What sets Duncan apart, education experts said, is his willingness to embrace a range of reforms and his ability to work with people who hold diverging, often conflicting views on how to fix schools. He has straddled the reform divide: On one side are advocates of dramatic shake-ups and tough accountability, and on the other are teachers unions and some educators who want more flexibility, support and money.

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart said that the union clashed with Duncan when he closed failing schools and replaced staff but that school and union leaders teamed up on performance pay. "He had my home phone number," Stewart said. "He always returned my calls, and I returned his. You can't not talk when you need something done."

Consensus-building will prove critical as Congress considers an overhaul of the 2002 education law, which spotlighted the failings of schools as well as deep rifts among unions, civil rights groups and education advocates. From his on-the-ground perspective, Duncan has praised the law's "high expectations and accountability" but pushed to give credit to schools that make gains even if they fall short of state academic standards. He also has called on Congress to double federal funding over five years.

The next challenge is reaching agreement on a new blueprint for school reform. Obama has said he wants to add $18 billion in annual federal education funding (equal to nearly a third of the Education Department's $59 billion discretionary budget), reduce high school dropout rates and improve math and science education. He also has vowed to double federal funding for successful charter schools to $400 million a year and promote alternative teacher training.

"There will be disagreements, but Duncan's personality is going to minimize the negativity," said Jack Jennings, president and chief executive of the Center on Education Policy in the District. "You get a feeling of somebody who is willing to listen and be open to ideas."

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