At his first appearance on Capitol Hill to outline President Obama’s education agenda, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his goal to turn around 1,000 low-performing schools each year over the next five years. Specifically, he spoke about how the president’s FY 2010 budget request builds on the over $100 billion investment made in education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and how the Administration will seek to use the “four assurances” or “commitments” contained in ARRA to drive reform efforts.

In order to receive a portion of the $39.5 billion allocated for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, state must commit to:

  1. Increase teacher effectiveness and address inequities in the distribution of highly qualified teachers;
  2. Establish and use pre-K-through-college and career data systems to track progress and foster continuous improvement;
  3. Make progress toward rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments;
  4. Support targeted, intensive support and effective interventions to turn around schools identified for corrective action and restructuring.

I don’t want to invest in the status quo,” Duncan said. “I want states and districts to take bold actions that will lead directly to the improvement in student learning. I want local leaders to find change agents who can fix these schools…I want superintendents to be aggressive in taking the difficult step of shutting down a failing school and replacing it with one they know will work.”

Notably, Duncan explained that in turning around the lowest-performing schools there needs to be a focus on the elementary and middle level schools that feed into the 2,000 or so “dropout factories” (high schools that graduate 60% or less of their incoming freshmen four years later) that account for the vast majority of high school dropouts in the United States.

For this turn-around effort to be a success and for schools to improve, Duncan said these schools must possess great principals and teachers – which he intimated could be attracted and retained through the Teacher Incentive Fund. The administration has proposed a 431% increase for the grant program that helps states and school districts to develop and implement performance-based compensation systems that reward teachers and principals for increasing student achievement and taking positions in high-need schools.

In response to a question from Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) about the potential for intra-school conflict and push-back stemming from performance pay programs, Duncan was quick to note that he is supportive of collaborative, school-wide performance-based rewards in schools where student achievement has increased.

Duncan also voiced the Administration’s strong support for improving student literacy through a comprehensive expansion of the Striving Readers program, which NASSP has worked hard to advance.

In particular, the Administration calls for a $35 million increase for Adolescent Literacy Grants, which would fund up to 87 competitive awards. The president’s request also includes $300 million for a new Early Literacy Grants demonstration program that would allow up to 70 new grants for districts to test a variety of strategies designed to improve student’s reading comprehension in the elementary grades through the use of programs that are grounded in scientifically based reading research.

In light of the Administration’s high hopes, their goals may come up flat against the fiscal realities of the moment, and the fact that the budget approved by Congress is about $10 billion less than the president’s request. This means that the funds available for the president’s proposals will likely be significantly less than he would like, and thus the extent to which reform occurs may be likewise tempered.

Which programs will receive increases, which will be level-funded, and which cut, will all be areas where the next funding battles will occur in Congress. We’ll keep you posted on developments, and when to contact your members of Congress to demand action, so check back often for updates.

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