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MEDIA: Reporters & Researcher Reflect On Duncan Era

Some notable things came out of a Friday Education Writers Association conference call about Arne Duncan -- not all of them negative. 

ReproductionFirst off, the panelists talking about Duncan (researcher John Easton, Catalyst writer Sarah Karp, and I) all agreed that the stability and continuity he provided to Chicago was useful and positive, as was his general practice of rolling out pilot efforts before going city-wide, and "tweaking" (to use John Easton's word) initiatives every year to make them work better.  "They just keep fiddling until they get it right," said Easton.  "Arne's for a lot of simultaneous experiments."

Easton (whom some have said will go to DC with Duncan) pointed out CPS's "aggressive" postsecondary efforts.  Karp raised questions about Renaissance 2010 and gentrification.

It was also good to be reminded of how different Chicago schools are:  Howe decentralized -- parent councils pick their own principals and control discretionary funds.  How constrained the charter school system is there -- 30 charters, all authorized by the district, most of them homegrown networks rather than national chains. How small, relatively, Renaissance 2010 is -- 100 small new schools in a system of about 400K kids.  And that the Vallas-era social promotion ban is still in effect, though much watered down.

Of course, the flip side of Duncan's data-driven behavior is that neither Easton nor anyone else could recall examples where Duncan had gone past the trial stage and gone big with a proposal.  Some examples where Duncan could have gone big but didn't include WSF, autonomy, districtwide standards or curriculum, and a longer school day and year.  There's not a lot that's been successfully taken to scale.  Some of the few efforts that have -- the reading initiative, for example -- have not seemed super-effective given Chicago's scores.

Speaking of scores, I think it's worth adding to the mix that, while Chicago officials generally ignore NCLB designations in favor of their own "probation" designations, Arne Duncan's Chicago school system has over 200 schools in restructuring (not just the planning stage) -- even with the inflated test scores that come from changes in the ISAT and PSAE (state tests).

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