Obama's can-do education pick

Arne Duncan, Chicago schools chief, improved performance despite tight money.

Teacher unions and education activists alike give high marks to Barack Obama's nominee for education secretary, Arne Duncan. They praise the chief of Chicago public schools for his pragmatism, diplomacy, and, most of all, his record. But here's another reason to cheer: He improved student achievement despite money constraints.

That's important because America's federal budget is under enormous strain, especially with another economic bailout coming.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama dreamed big and expensive: $10 billion for early childhood ed; more federal money to help states increase school hours and days; funds to recruit "an army of new teachers" with higher salaries.

Meanwhile, states are demanding more dollars from Washington to implement the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the controversial standards mandate that is up for congressional renewal.

There's no sounder investment America can make than in education, and some of Obama's ideas are ones that states can try without federal aid. But here's a trick question that educators and taxpayers often miss: Does better learning depend heavily on more money?

When it comes to education reform, "most of what money buys you is a little less political opposition to your change strategy," says Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, a research and advocacy group working to improve learning through higher standards.

"In truth, if you have more flexibility in the use of dollars, that can often be the same thing or even better than the inflexible use of more dollars," she says.

Surely Mr. Duncan envied wealthy public school districts in Illinois, such as Chicago's northern suburbs, which in 2005-2006 spent more than $17,000 per student. In that same period, Duncan had $10,400 for each pupil in his urban district, the country's third largest.

Despite the imbalance, the former cocaptain of Harvard's basketball team ran up the learning score in Chicago's schools, among the nation's worst when he took over in 2001. Since then, elementary performance has risen from 38 percent of students meeting federally mandated standards to 65 percent. The drop-out rate has decreased every year.

That's not good enough, especially with Chicago high school scores stagnating at just under 30 percent. But what's important here is the upward trend, and what's behind it.

Duncan moved the immovable with a strategy that emphasized flexibility and accountability. He shut down nonperforming schools and backed nonunion charter schools. He focused on teacher and principal training and mentoring, and pushed bonuses for performance. A district that had been plagued with strikes became stable as he worked closely with unions.

Schools are mostly a state and local matter, but Duncan can translate what he's learned to Washington by helping bridge the divide between unions and reformers in troubled districts and in working to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

And he can carry forward the accountability baton passed to him by outgoing secretary Margaret Spellings. That is the key to significant reading and math gains made in urban districts across the country in recent years – gains built on standards, not gold bricks.

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