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Third Duncan Speech to Charter School Audience

Earlier this week Secretary Duncan spoke at the national Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference. He painted a bleak picture of the 5000 lowest performing schools in the country describing them as, ” often unsafe, underfunded, poorly run, crumbling, and challenged in so many ways that the situation can feel hopeless.” He went on to indicate that few districts in the nation have taken on the challenge of turning these schools around. He has a definite bias for a turnaround approach which usually entails closing a school and reopening it with new leadership, a new staff, and a new vision. Duncan closed 60 schools in Chicago. Of the sixty he reopened approximately a dozen schools some run by the district others under non-profit partners, but all – as he is careful to point out – use union teachers.

His message to the charter audience was to pose a challenge to them. While he acknowledged that there have been some great successes with charters, there is too often a lack of accountability making the quality uneven. He pointed to the CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) report which I mentioned in my last post and characterized it as a wake up call to the charter school movement.

The charter school movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third rate schools to exist. Your goal should be quality, not quantity. Charter authorizers need to do a better job holding schools accountable – and the charter schools need to support them – loudly and sincerely.

He also pointed out that charters are not inherently “anti-union” – a remark greeted with disappointment by some of the more ideological luminaries of the movement. The secretary apparently has been meeting with a broad spectrum of stakeholders in his turnaround effort including AFT and NEA. He is looking for transformative change and laid out four models that they are proposing:

The first model, based on Chicago, he describes as the “children stay and the staff goes.” They hold the view that no serious change in a school’s culture can occur without at least 50% new staff so teachers are allowed to reapply for a position in the reconstituted school.

The second option, replace the staff and leadership and hand it over to a for-profit EMO (Education Management Organization) or to a charter operator such as Green Dot, Mastery Charters or AUSL (Academy for Urban School Leadership – Chicago).

The third option keeps most of the school staff but makes dramatic changes in the school culture including a rigorous performance evaluation system, a new curriculum, increased learning time for kids and collaboration time for teachers, and principal and leadership teams with more flexibility for budgeting, staffing and calendar.

The fourth option is to simply close the school and reassign the students.

All of these options assume a year of planning for reopening in the fall of 2010 and apparently will be fully articulated in the application for the Race to the Top funds.

The full text of the secretary’s remarks are available on the Education Department’s website

Next week he will deliver the final of four speeches to the 10,000 delegates and guests of the NEA Representative Assembly. His topic will be teacher quality and effectiveness.

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