the arne archives

A retrospective of Arne Duncan’s complicated relationship with New York

Arne Duncan speaking at Al Sharpton's National Action Network conference in 2014.

Arne Duncan was no stranger to New York during his tenure as U.S. education secretary.

New York City is where he stumped for a yet-to-be-named federal stimulus package that would define his legacy. He returned again and again over the next six-plus years to visit schools, weigh in on contentious debates, and meet with both city and state education officials as he pushed his priorities.

On Friday, Duncan said he’ll step down from the job at the end of the year. By picking former New York Education Commissioner John King to replace him, Duncan ensured that New York’s close connection to the U.S. Department of Education will continue.

We dug through Chalkbeat’s archives, which date back to before Duncan joined the Obama administration, to pull out the highlights and lowlights of his time in New York:

Duncan eyes NYC as early Race to the Top ally

Just weeks into his tenure in 2009, Duncan held a press conference at a Brooklyn charter school, surrounded by the city’s mayor, schools chancellor and union presidents. New York City, he declared, was a model district for how he wanted to spend $4.5 billion in competitive grants, later dubbed Race to the Top.

“Districts like New York are remaking public education in America with bold and innovative new learning models, higher standards and teacher quality initiatives,” Duncan said at the press conference (Watch video here). “We must support those efforts. We can’t go backwards. And that’s why this money, this stimulus package is so critically important.”

Duncan got involved in local politics, too. Later that year, he personally intervened during the tense legislative battle over renewing mayoral control and helped convince an advocacy group to change its public position to support the extension in its entirety. Duncan then praised the New York Post for the tabloid’s role in extending mayoral control, an usual move for a sitting official in the Obama administration.

Duncan’s school visits

A P.S. 214 first-grader tells U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the story of Rumplestiltskin today.
Duncan visits a first-grade classroom at P.S. 214 in 2010.

Over the years, Duncan visited many New York City public schools. Often, but not always, it was to push his policy priorities and agenda.

In May 2010, he visited a trio of schools in Brooklyn to again curry public support for his Race to the Top grants. New York was eligible for $700 million of that pot, but only if the state legislature changed its teacher evaluation and charter school laws, among other commitments.

In 2012, Duncan toured storm-swept parts of Staten Island in the weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City. He visited schools and assessed the damage with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Duncan also was major proponent of New York City’s new career and technical education offerings. He spent two years visiting participating schools to advocate for funding to duplicate the CTE model in high schools throughout the country.

The school that got the most attention was Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which offers college-level courses and culminates in a free associate’s degree in the field of computer science or engineering. The secretary was so impressed by his visit, he returned in 2013 with President Obama.

Duncan also visited Aviation High School and New York Harbor School, which offer their own speciality CTE credentials.

“He wasn’t like this super politician,” said Deno Charalambous, Aviation’s principal. “He wanted to know what makes the school work.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (left) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tour a storm-swept area of Staten Island between school visits in 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (left) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tour a storm-swept area of Staten Island between school visits in 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Duncan keeps tabs on New York

As New York worked to implement the changes it promised to make in exchange for $700 million in Race to the Top grants, Duncan found himself often weighing in on contentious issues raised by parents and teachers.

He threatened to pull federal funds after a state delay over teacher evaluations in 2012, then praised the state for pulling off a deal. Duncan returned in 2013 to try to quell concerns that parents had about a tougher set of new tests aligned to the Common Core. In 2014, he backed Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his pursuit of a tougher teacher evaluation system.

“I think the governor has actually shown real courage and has frankly been a leader nationally,” Duncan told Chalkbeat in a 2014 interview after speaking at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference.

Sometimes, Duncan’s opinions weren’t welcomed.

In 2013, as the Common Core outrage grew among parents in New York, Duncan said some of the criticism was coming from “white suburban moms” who were finding out “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” Duncan apologized for the comments, but they became emblematic to many of how  education policymakers had become tone deaf to criticism during a period of change.

This year, Duncan again drew criticism when he said that he had not ruled out punishing schools or districts in New York that had large numbers of students who did not take the tests, a potential violation of federal law. Duncan did not pursue sanctions in the end, but held to his belief that testing was just something that children needed to get used to.

“It’s just part of most kids’ education growing up,” he said. “Sometimes the adults make a big deal and that creates some trauma for the kids.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: