In his seven years as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan has taken on a host of urban education policy challenges to varying degrees of success.

In this second installment in a three-part series, Catalyst examines the Secretary of Education nominee’s efforts around principal leadership and special education.

Principals and leadership

In 2004, Duncan raised the eligibility bar for principal candidates, adding such hurdles as completing a portfolio of their experiences and skills in management and instructional leadership. After the new rules went into effect, the number of candidates on the principal eligibility list shrank from about 500 names to 350.

Duncan also created 24 area instructional offices to provide oversight and support for principals; the offices have often been led by former school principals. However, the strategy has had mixed results. A 2006 analysis by Catalyst found that reading, math and science scores rose in each of the district’s 17 elementary school areas, but the areas comprised of schools in the poorest communities on the South and West sides made the least progress.

Duncan set up a new Office of Principal Preparation and Development in 2003, to craft a systemwide strategy for finding and recruiting new school leaders and providing ongoing training. The office was created just as CPS faced the prospect of significant principal turnover; in 2004, the district revealed that half of principals were set to retire within the next four years.

In 2007, the turnover hit full force. CPS found itself with a record number of principal vacancies: 120 principals gave notice that they planned to retire. The previous year, 70 principals had retired. CPS had more than enough candidates to fill the vacancies; at the time, 490 candidates had met the eligibility requirements.

CPS continued its recruiting efforts, setting its sights on recruiting more candidates from outside Chicago. Yet to date, that effort has borne little fruit. Only a handful of candidates from outside the city have joined Chicago’s principal ranks.

More recently, CPS began taking other steps to improve principal quality. Last year, for the first time, new principals got week-long leadership training and personal coaches—retired principals and principals from elsewhere who were brought to support rookies. The district also sent principals at so-called turnaround schools to train at the University of Virginia.

CPS is now considering a form of merit pay for principals, tying part of their salary to test scores, attendance and in high school, the number of freshmen on-track to graduate. There’s also a proposal to get rid of the current graduated pay scale, under which principals earn salaries of $118,000 to $160,000, based on the size of their school. The proposal calls for a flat salary of $125,000.

The Office of Principal Preparation is now reviewing the principal eligibility process, with an eye toward revamping it early next year.

Special education

One area where there was no improvement or reform under Duncan was special education, long a trouble spot for CPS. Performance continues to be dismal. Fewer than 25 percent of elementary students receiving special education services met state standards last year; less than 10 percent of those in high school did.

Half of high school students with learning disabilities drop out; only a third of those who graduate enroll in college, most in two-year programs, according to 2007 data.

The average performance gap on state tests between students in special education and those who aren’t is 45 points—a gap that has widened during Duncan’s tenure and that is higher than the statewide average.

Overall, about 12 percent of CPS students receive special education services (11 percent in elementary schools; 16 percent in high schools). In some high schools, as many as one in three students are in special education.

A court order requires Chicago to “mainstream” special education students in regular education classes as much as possible. CPS has made some strides in making sure special education students are included in regular classes, but the district has also been aggressive in trying to get the courts to lift the order, says Rod Estvan, who directs the education program for Access Living, a disability rights advocacy group, and formerly a monitor for the court. The order expires in 2010.

The district also has peeled away investment in special education services. Two years ago, after some adjustments, CPS cut some $12 million from special education, mostly eliminating individual aides for students. District officials maintained that some aides had lingered at schools long after their special education students left.

Advocates urged Duncan to redirect those savings to underserved special education students who were not performing well.

African-American students continue to be overrepresented among students diagnosed with learning or behavioral disabilities, a problem that has not been addressed by Duncan’s administration. 

Before he took over, CPS was using a process to cut down on the number of unnecessary special education referrals, and keep in check representation of minority children. In recent years, however, many schools have stopped using the procedure, and some parents have complained that schools that maintain the practice use it to deny services to disabled children.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

Lorraine is the executive editor of The Chicago Reporter. Email her at

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