Schools CEO Arne Duncan has had seven years to make his mark on public education in Chicago.

In this last installment in a three-part series, Catalyst explores his legacy in tackling teacher quality, elementary education and preschool.

Teacher quality

Recognizing that teachers are the frontline to student success, Duncan has taken a number of steps to infuse the system with high-quality teachers. 

One signature move, backed financially by the Chicago Public Education Fund, was pledging to grow the number of nationally certified teachers to 1,200 by 2008. He’s close. This year, 327 CPS teachers earned the credential, pushing the district total to 1,158.  There’s also been an effort to ensure that these master teachers are working in the lowest performing schools in the neediest communities which initially was not the case

Improving the district’s practices around teacher hiring and support is another notch on Duncan’s belt. To get CPS in on the early competition for good candidates, he pushed principals to make hiring decisions earlier by offering them extra money for each teacher hired before a certain date. He also gave teachers bonuses for submitting their retirement plans by April 1.

To support new teachers, Duncan forged a relationship with the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a well-regarded teacher induction program. The group opened a branch in Chicago, and its intense mentoring and new teacher support model has expanded into the low-incomes schools in Englewood and North Lawndale, where turnover is high. 

Recently, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education of the University of Wisconsin-Madison recognized Chicago and six other school districts for their promising efforts in teacher recruiting and hiring. One drawback was cited: Citywide, professional development is not uniform or tied to a common set of standards.

To encourage teamwork and innovation around raising student achievement, Duncan has also led Chicago in an experiment in performance pay for teachers. Now a few months into year No. 2 of a four-year pilot, the program will eventually span 40 schools—20 are participating now. Based on a national merit pay model, Chicago added the twist of extending bonus offers beyond faculty, bringing all school staffers—from custodians to cafeteria workers to office clerks—into the fold.

The first round of bonus checks were distributed last week.  Nearly $340,000 was awarded to 420 employees at nine schools where test score gains averaged 5 points.

Initially, Chicago Teachers Union officials were wary of merit pay, fearing that it would pit teachers against each other. But now union leaders support the project because it includes extra training for teachers, and they believe the teacher evaluations are objective.
Researchers are tracking whether Chicago’s merit pay program pays off for students. Mathematica Policy Research is conducting a five-year study.

Elementary education

By the numbers, Duncan has made the most progress raising basic elementary school skills, though not by as much as test scores seem to indicate. In 2006, changes that made the state standards test easier to pass boosted scores across the board.  

Still, Duncan rolled out a number of back-to-basics efforts aimed at reinforcing reading and math instruction. His first major rollout was the Chicago Reading Initiative, a $52 million investment that sent literacy teachers and reading coaches to low-performing schools, mandated two hours of reading instruction daily at all elementary schools and paved the way for more classroom libraries.

Results were mixed. A Catalyst analysis found that only 45 of 109 schools that joined the initiative when it was first launched made test scores gains that were higher than the districtwide gains, and scores at 41 schools fell.

The initiative also suffered leadership turnover, and an internal audit noted a shortage of certified reading specialists. Meanwhile, two other reading programs debuted—one of them the federal Reading First, targeting “scientifically proven” strategies to students in early grades—creating a hodgepodge of reading reforms. (A recently released national evaluation of Reading First found only small increases in test scores—2 to 3 percentage points—for 3rd- and 4th-graders who participated in the program.)

Then, in 2003, Duncan unveiled the Chicago Math & Science Initiative, bringing training, new materials and tuition assistance for teachers who wanted to earn specialized credentials in math and science. The following year, CPS mandated that schools on probation adopt the math and science program. Today, about 75 percent of schools are participating.

Evaluations of the math components of program found, not surprisingly, that teachers in schools that participated voluntarily were more likely to use the materials and attend training than teachers from schools forced to join. Many of the latter resisted using the new curricula.

According to the district, math and science initiative schools are posting higher gains in those subjects than non-participating schools. One caveat: science scores in non-participating schools are higher than those in schools that had been in the program for a year.

Duncan’s administration has also sought to collect and distribute more data that would help teachers improve or fine-tune instruction. CPS is also pushing teachers to make better use of assessment data—a goal that the district is still wrestling to implement.

Several new tests have been introduced. For kindergarten through 2nd-grade students, DIBELS, which stands for Diagnostic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, is a tool to help teachers get kids ready for 3rd-grade reading tests. For 3rd through 8th grades, Learning First, a test tied to state reading standards, is administered several times a year so teachers can pinpoint what skills individual students need to work on to pass ISAT reading. Math Benchmark is the math version of this test.

Results of these tests are provided to parents, but are not made public.

Early childhood education

President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for public education includes a hefty $10 billion a year investment in early childhood programs. What the president-elect envisions mirrors what is happening here in Illinois and Chicago, home to a deep bench of nationally recognized early childhood experts, notably economist James Heckman, whose research is the backbone of Obama’s plan.

For Duncan’s part, he hired Barbara Bowman as chief officer of early childhood education, a nationally renowned early childhood expert who co-founded the Erikson Institute. (Bowman is also Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett’s mother.)

Preschool programs have expanded during Duncan’s tenure, though not due to any special effort on his part. A statewide universal preschool program drove much of this expansion, adding some 3,840 slots over the last two years. Today, there are 16,840 preschool seats in district schools, and another 9,568 seats in community child care centers where CPS pays for certified teachers.

When demand for preschool in Latino communities outstripped the supply; CPS added a 3rd shift. Last year, 27 schools offered such classes, which begin at the end of the regular school day.

Meanwhile, preschools in impoverished African American communities like Englewood couldn’t fill their seats. Recently, the district redoubled its student recruiting efforts and brought enrollment to near capacity.

On the downside, however, CPS cut back its full-day prekindergarten to half-days, citing budgetary reasons, and shut down a number of child-parent centers, which were the gold standard in early childhood education for low-income families. The move created hardships for many working families who needed full-day child care, and as a result, some children could no longer attend. At the time, 982 children were enrolled in 55 classrooms.

And principals just received notice that full-day Head Start classroom in district schools would be cut back to half-days, too.

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