Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cautiously optimistic...

That's how I feel about Barack Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan to be Education Secretary.

Obviously, it would have been great to have someone who talks about the needs of high achievers and gifted students a lot, and who has a great track record in that area, but there are few big city school chiefs (who form the farm team for this cabinet post) whose focus tends that way. There's a simple reason for this. By definition, your top 1% of students are going to be rare. A big city school chief needs to focus on making sure most of his students perform at grade level, and that most graduate from high school with the skills necessary to become productive citizens. Chicago has definitely been making progress on this front.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic, even beyond Duncan's reformer credentials. When he came to Chicago in 1992, he worked on the Ariel Education Initiative, a program of Ariel Investments. Ultimately, this led to the Ariel Community Academy, on whose board Duncan was still serving as of late. Ariel is one of those feel good inner-city success story schools that does a lot of things right -- extended school days for kids who need it, high standards, plus (near to my heart) a curriculum informed by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

Most importantly for our purposes, though, is one of Ariel's philosophies: middle school kids should have the opportunity to do high school work if they're prepared for it. See this brochure on the school, page 5. To quote, Ariel "provides exceptional students the opportunity to begin high school level coursework while still at Ariel."

This openness to acceleration is a promising sign. Most education decisions are made locally, and this is certainly true with gifted education. But the Education Secretary could do a lot to use his bully pulpit to push the idea of acceleration as a cheap, easy solution to meeting the needs of kids who can handle a little more challenge. Given that Duncan worked with a school where it was par for the course, there's reason to hope he might encourage others to make it par for the course, too.

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