Just returned from Part 1 of U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan’s listen and learn whistle stop in Atlanta where he met with 20 representatives from education, state agencies, nonprofits and the business community at Tech High, an APS charter school in the shadow of the Gold Dome.
(The superintendents of Atlanta, Clayton, Decatur and Gwinnett were among the guests, as were a few top teachers and principals.)
Among the clear themes of the hour-plus discussion:
National standards are coming. All the speakers want them. Duncan said the problem would be selling the standards, noting that the conventional wisdom in Washington has been, “Republicans don’t like national and Democrats don’t like standards.” He said he can only be a cheerleader in this contest; it will fall to states to champion the standards.
Seated at his side was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who said the greatest obstacles to passing No Child Left Behind, of which he was a sponsor, were the national standards and assessments. “It almost brought it to its knees,” he said, agreeing that it will be a challenge to win passage now of core standards. (Georgia is aboard; our governor is one of the leaders among his peers on the issue.)
Sitting in a charter school, Duncan was asked about the role of charters in the ambitious federal reforms. Duncan said the issue was not good charters, but good schools:
We need more good schools. Good charters are part of the answer. Bad charters are part of the problem. We have both now and everything in-between.
In the context of more public charter schools, Duncan also called for the same education choice for poor families that affluent parents have always enjoyed:
What works for wealthy people would work for poor families as well. Poor families often had one choice and that choice has not always been great.
But Duncan said the bar to win charter school status has to be set very high. Then, there has to be real autonomy and true accountability. He also said that successful charters can’t be content to be islands of excellence, but must become beacons to show other schools how to succeed. He did not get into the details of replicating school successes; the scaling up has always been a problem.
At one point, civic leader Tom Bell related the struggle to launch Atlanta’s Drew Charter, telling Duncan how it took more than two years because of the resistance of teachers and APS administrators. A few minutes later, APS Superintendent Beverly Hall prefaced her comments to Duncan by noting that Drew encountered its problems under the previous regime in Atlanta, not hers.
(Hall was commended by both Duncan and Isakson. The senator mentioned her in his introductory remarks, calling both Hall and Duncan “the real deal.” Duncan later called her an inspiration.)
As usual, people were exceedingly polite. I kept hoping someone might ask Duncan to glance around the Tech High auditorium – covered holes in the walls flanking the stage and a clock stopped at 12:03 — and ask about adequate school funding.
I am heading now to a meeting between Duncan and Grady High students. Let’s see if the teens are more direct in their statements.