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.”

checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”

new kids on the block

Meet the newly elected Indianapolis Public Schools board members

Three newcomers were elected Tuesday to the Indianapolis Public Schools board. From left: Susan Collins, Evan Hawkins, and Taria Slack.

In a shakeup of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, two challengers unseated incumbents in Tuesday’s election.

In all, three newcomers will join the school board: retired teacher Susan Collins, Marian University administrator Evan Hawkins, and federal employee Taria Slack.

Learn more about where the new school board members stand on issues such as the district’s budget woes, school closings, and innovation schools, from their responses to our candidate survey published last month.