PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off his three-day Great Lakes bus tour here, in a city he calls a national model for school reform.
"It wasn't a coincidence that we wanted to start this bus tour in Pittsburgh," Duncan told a gymnasium full of students, teachers and parents at Martin Luther King Elementary School. "I know you've had some tough conversations behind closed doors. But I know what you're doing collectively is also a model for the country."
Pittsburgh was just the first stop on Duncan's back-to-school tour, which will roll through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. The education secretary is aiming to spread his gospel of teacher accountability, pushing education reform in the face of massive state budget cuts and his own recent decision to unilaterally waive components of the federal No Child Left Behind education law.
In Pittsburgh, Duncan stepped off what he called "the magic school bus" to be greeted by a marching band and cheerleaders that tossed tinsel pom poms to Katy Perry tunes.
"If your teachers will let you, I'll put you on the bus until Friday," Duncan jokingly told the band. "I'll write you a note."
Duncan said he wanted to highlight Pittsburgh's successes, including a 2009 grant the district received from the Gates Foundation. For the grant application, Pittsburgh's superintendent and the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers worked together -- in what Duncan called "tough-minded collaboration" -- to create a framework for measuring and improving teacher effectiveness.
The Gates grant yielded a five-year contract that includes merit pay provisions and a new teacher evaluation system, RISE, that involves teacher consultations with principals. New leaders have since taken over Pittsburgh's schools, and Duncan lauded new Superintendent Linda Lane and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis for upholding the promises made by their predecessors.
Duncan said cities are "scared" to talk about evaluating and celebrating effective teachers. "That should be happening all over the country," Duncan said. "It's not."
"It strikes me as simple common sense that if you want to improve students' education, you have to consult with their teachers," Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat who represents Pittsburgh, said at the event.
Union chief Esposito-Visgitis agreed. "Of all the school-based factors, effective teachers make the biggest difference in student achievement," she said. She added that the new evaluation system was born "from our collaboration between union members and the district."
Lane, the superintendent, emphasized the district's post-high school follow-up with students. "Our vision is for 80 percent of our students to obtain a two- or four-year college degrees or workforce certification," Lane said, pausing as the school bell rang. She lauded the teachers' union for being the first group to contribute to the Pittsburgh Promise, the city's college scholarship initiative.
Pittsburgh parent Lisa Freeman challenged Duncan and district leaders to focus on parental involvement. "It's good that we have all of this, but parents, parents are the first teachers," she said. "We need to do a better job of getting parents involved in their children's education."
After the Pittsburgh event, Duncan and Education Department staffers drove through Pennsylvania for two hours to reach Early Connections, an Erie, Pa., early childhood center. They conducted a few classroom visits and a panel discussion about early learning.
"There's nothing better we can do than get our babies off to a great start," Duncan told a large panel comprised of local school leaders and the department's early childhood staffers. "You have colleges blaming high schools when kids aren't ready. High schools blaming middle schools. Middle schools blaming elementaries. We get our 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds ready for kindergarten, so many of these challenges go away."
The bus tour rolled on to Cleveland, where Duncan got his second marching-band greeting of the day. He addressed a panel about community participation in education in the auditorium of Eastern Technical High School.
"What keeps us young and what motivates us every single day is you guys," he told a group of students wearing matching button-down shirts and black vests.
Duncan stressed the importance of wraparound programs, which supplement school-based interventions. Such programs, he said, are especially necessary in a struggling districts like Cleveland's, which has a 30 percent high school graduation rate.
"We have to figure out, not just teachers and principals, but the churches, the nonprofits, the social service agencies ... who's going to be that mentor, who's going to be that role model," he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. She is Nina Esposito-Visgitis, not Linda Esposito-Visgitis.