Stimulus to Help Retool Education, Duncan Says

By Bill Turque and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 5, 2009

To help struggling schools, the federal government will use stimulus funding to encourage states to expand school days, reward good teachers, fire bad ones and measure how students perform compared with peers in India and China, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said yesterday.

History has shown that money alone does not drive school improvement, Duncan said, pointing to the District of Columbia, where public school students consistently score near the bottom on national reading and math tests even though the school system spends more per pupil than its suburban counterparts do.

"D.C. has had more money than God for a long time, but the outcomes are still disastrous," Duncan said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters. He said the unprecedented influx of cash, which will begin to flow in the next 30 to 45 days, would target states, local school systems and nonprofit organizations willing to adopt policies that have been proven to work.

"The challenge isn't an intellectual one, it's one of political courage," said Duncan, who developed a reputation for a willingness to experiment and disrupt the status quo in seven years as chief executive of Chicago schools.

The stimulus law, which will channel about $100 billion to public schools, universities and early childhood education programs nationwide, will help prevent teacher layoffs, overhaul aging schools and educate low-income children. But it also gives Duncan unusual power to shape change.

Duncan said he wants struggling schools to use federal aid to adopt on a grander scale ideas that are producing results on a trial basis in some locales. He pointed to longer school days, instituted by some public charter schools, as essential to help struggling students make up lost ground.

Duncan said schools should be treated as community hubs that provide health care, meals and other services to support at-risk families. Some schools in Chicago, for example, are open up to 14 hours a day and offer services from YMCAs to health clinics.

"School buildings don't belong to us. They don't belong to the unions. School buildings belong to the community," Duncan said. "Almost every school building has classrooms. They have computer labs. They have libraries. . . . Why are they open six hours a day? It's crazy."

Duncan said he will encourage states to adopt achievement standards that give a clear picture of whether U.S. students are prepared to compete with global peers. And the funding will help states create better tests to show whether students are on track for college.

Duncan said the Obama administration aims to support performance pay to reward good teaching, individually and schoolwide. Beyond standardized test scores, Duncan mentioned classroom observation, parent and student surveys, and attendance as ways to help rate teacher effectiveness.

"We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers when student achievement isn't happening," Duncan said. He added, however, that teacher tenure -- a form of job security that is a key issue in contract talks for D.C. teachers -- is not the main problem. Duncan said it was vital to make acquisition of tenure more rigorous and establish a fair, expeditious process to remove low-performing teachers.

One element absent from Duncan's reform agenda is vouchers. Congressional Democrats are poised to eliminate future federal funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides up to $7,500 a year in tuition for low-income children to attend participating private schools. House Democrats stipulated in a spending bill passed last week that the $14 million allocated to the program for the 2009-10 school year can be used only for current scholarship recipients. Congress and the D.C. Council would have to vote to continue the program after that.

Duncan said that he opposed any move to disrupt the schooling of children now in the program but that vouchers were not the answer to school improvement in the District or elsewhere. "You need to fix the D.C. school system," Duncan said.

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