Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hearings on Secretary of Education: Duncan

SENATE HEARING TUESDAY SPOTLIGHTS SCHOOL REFORM

Associated Press -- January 13, 2008
By Libby Quaid

Barack Obama's choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan, said Tuesday he wants to improve the No Child Left Behind law and lure more people into teaching.

And the nation's school children should be on notice: Duncan would like longer school days, Saturday school and summer school.

Duncan, the Chicago schools chief, got a friendly reception from Republicans and Democrats alike at his Senate confirmation hearing, a sign that his nomination will be approved swiftly.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, declared Duncan to be "the best" of Obama's nominees.

The education community is watching closely to see how Obama will proceed on President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which passed with bipartisan support in 2001 but is deeply unpopular today. Obama has pledged to overhaul it but has been vague about how far he would go.

Duncan told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee the law should not punish schools where only a handful of kids are struggling.

He praised the law for shining a spotlight on children who need the most help. No Child Left Behind holds schools accountable for progress among each group of kids, including those who have disabilities or are learning English.

But right now, a school is labeled as failing if only one group of kids is struggling, even when the rest of the kids are making gains. Give individual kids more tutoring and other support, Duncan said.

"Let's not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school," Duncan said. "Those teachers are doing a Herculean job, and we need to recognize that. We need to reward that."

Along the same lines, Duncan suggested he's open to letting more special ed kids take a modified version of the annual tests required by No Child Left Behind. He was responding to Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

"You want to have assessments that actually assess a student's ability," Duncan said. "If you give any child an assessment they can't read or pick up a pen, what benefit is that to the child? What are we as adults learning from that?"

No Child Left Behind prods schools to improve test scores each year, so that every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It was due for a rewrite in 2007, but the effort stalled. Lawmakers hope to try again within the next couple of years.

School reform advocates who want to keep the law have been heartened by the selection of Duncan, a big-city schools chief they view as a kindred spirit. Duncan has run Chicago public schools for the past seven years.

Yet it was hard to pin down exactly where Duncan stands on No Child Left Behind and other controversial issues.

"I have seen the law's power and its limitations," Duncan said in his testimony. "I agree with the president-elect that we should neither bury NCLB nor praise it without reservation."

At the same time, Duncan praised an idea unions have resisted, the idea of teacher pay raises tied to student performance. Duncan started a performance-pay program in Chicago with federal dollars from the Education Department.

"That's something that I want to look at, to not just support but also potentially increase," Duncan said. "We can't do enough to reward and recognize ... excellence."

Duncan said he intends to travel the country recruiting new teachers and to take steps to keep teachers on the job.

"Given the tough economic times, that actually helps our chances of recruiting great talent," Duncan said.

Duncan also said kids should spend even more time in the classroom. Kids in 200 schools came to class on Saturdays last year, Duncan said, and he brought 15,000 freshmen back to school a month early on a voluntary basis.

"I think our school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short," he said.

Duncan, 44, introduced his wife and children to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, saying his interest in schools is obviously more than professional.

Duncan worked in Chicago schools under former schools chief Paul Vallas after heading an education nonprofit. Before that, he played professional basketball in Australia, where he worked with underprivileged kids as a social worker. He grew up working in his mother's tutoring program on Chicago's South Side.

In Chicago, Duncan managed to raise test scores and graduation rates, and he improved the quality of teaching.

His critics, however, say he shouldn't get credit for better test scores because they improved before he took over and state tests became easier during his tenure. Parents who opposed his aggressive school closings say they were disruptive to kids.

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