On Friday, December 10th, Secretary Arne Duncan sat down for a candid conversation with the American Association of School Superintendents’ (AASA) 2010 Superintendents of the Year. This group of 29 leaders invited the Secretary to cap their three-day forum on what works and what doesn’t work in school turnaround implementation.
The superintendents, led by the 2010 Superintendent of the Year Betty Morgan of Washington County Schools, Md., and Superintendent Patricia Jo Phillips of North St. Paul, Minn., delivered impassioned pleas to the Secretary to improve public opinion of our nation’s public schools. Phillips asked Duncan to lead the charge by getting the word out on the “turnaround stories galore” that exist but aren’t reported in the media. The Secretary wholeheartedly agreed that there are a number of positive turnaround stories out there, but added that getting media attention on them has been tough.
Since President Obama took office, Congress has appropriated more than $4 billion to help turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. The Secretary has set a national goal to turn around 5,000 schools in five years. In the first year, 44 states so far have reported they are supporting turnarounds in 730 schools. Through the commitment of superintendents, principals, and teachers, the country is well on the way toward meeting that goal.
The conversation with leading superintendents touched on other key issues. The superintendents shared examples of what they feel is an uphill battle of continuing to do more with less, financially. Secretary Duncan agreed was only going to get tougher, as he said in a November speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The New Normal“.
The superintendents discussed two key areas where they could be helpful to the Department. The first includes providing input to the ongoing conversation on the appropriate parameters for measuring growth as the Congress looks to reauthorize ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) next year. Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, pointed out that their input into the dialogue could help set some real definitions for measuring growth, but that collaboration within their states is key, as further definition and delineation for growth, and improvement will likely filter down to the state level.
The second included the superintendents’ comments and experiences regarding tenure reform. Several superintendents emphasized their work with progressive local union leaders whose members are asking for these needed changes, though there has been little coverage in the media of local examples where real collaboration is happening.
The conversation ended on the high note provided by Betty Morgan, who noted that we are indeed getting somewhere in terms of reducing the dropout rate and making significant in-roads on dropout recovery. The Secretary responded with the good news that half of the country’s turnaround schools are in fact high schools, and that this not only bodes well for reducing the dropout rate, but also increasing graduation rates as well as the number of students leaving high school both college- and career-ready.
Around the beginning of the year, this group of accomplished superintendents will release a white paper on school turnarounds. As the Department again begins the push for reauthorization, their suggestions will indeed be something to look for.
Karen Stratman-Krusemark, Office of Communication and Outreach
Ms. Stratman-Krusemark taught high school English in Texas before joining the Department of Education.