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Arne Duncan's Seductions--And Why Schools Need Them

Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposed today that $3.5 billion in grants dedicated to improving Title I schools--or those with at least 40 percent of students from low-income families--should go to school districts committed to "turnaround" strategies. These strategies include replacing a school's principal and at least 50 percent of its teachers; closing a school temporarily and reopening it under new management, such as a charter organization; closing a school permanently and moving its students to other institutions; or replacing a school's principal and investing in several "transformational" programs, like teacher development. To receive grant money, states would need to identify their lowest-achieving schools. Then, the local districts housing those schools would have to demonstrate that they would make good on at least one of the turnaround strategies, or "rigorous interventions."   

Since becoming education secretary, perhaps no piece of Duncan's record has been scrutinized as heavily as his support for turnaround policies. As CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan temporarily closed a handful of low-performing schools, ousted their staffs, and reopened them under new management, which often included local nonprofits. Duncan also directed Renaissance 2010, a program that closed failing schools and opened new ones. Though the goal of these revamping policies was commendable, their application was not without controversy. U.S. News & World Report noted in May that the Chicago teachers' union "vigorously protested school closings and staff overhauls, calling the tactics disruptive and disrespectful to teachers." And the long-term benefits of the sweeping changes, which have occurred only in the last few years, remain unclear. (See here for a study on the initial impacts of Duncan's policies.)

In a June speech to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Duncan touted the Chicago model and vowed to turn around 5,000 of the nation's worst schools. Today's announcement is a step toward this goal. What's more, Duncan's announcement shows that, when pushing its agenda, the current Education Department is nothing if not consistent. As with Duncan's other reform efforts, the turnaround requirements governing Title I grants prove that, because the federal government often can't force states to adopt specific education policies, the department will do whatever it can to influence them. Indeed, as The New York Times recently detailed, the department is dangling money in front of the states, telling them they can have it only when they agree to progressive, Obama-and-Duncan-backed changes.

Take the much-talked-about $4.35-billion Race to the Top (RTTT) fund, outlined in the stimulus, which allows Duncan to hand out competitive grants to states that invest in education reform. There are strings attached: States must not have caps on charter schools, for instance, or prohibit using students' test scores to evaluate teachers. So, states have been lifting charter caps and reconsidering teacher evaluation policies. While some have praised the Education Department's approach, others have criticized it: The National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers' union, said last Friday that it "find[s] this top-down approach disturbing."

The proposed Title I grants policy, which will be approved after public review, follows a similar line, so I suspect that some RTTT critics won't be pleased with it. (The NEA didn't respond to a request for comment.) But this strings-attached approach to reform may be just what some of the nation's worst schools need. It is critical that, in linking federal dollars to turnaround strategies, the government recognize the challenges these overhauls can pose to school districts and carefully track the effects they have on students. (See here for my TNRtv commentary on possible challenges.) But, with so many children crammed into rundown classrooms that lack textbooks, well-trained teachers, and other critical resources, and with no sweeping remedies to such problems coming from the states and their disparate education systems, drastic changes are in order. "We do not have, at the moment, any common set of ends for education, nor any common metric for judging whether we are getting there," says Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. "Duncan is trying--I think earnestly--to make the best of a bad set-up."

Indeed, it seems Duncan is using any means at his disposal to help those schools that are struggling the most. And he's wise to do so.