Russo on Duncan's Record
My guest today is Alexander Russo, a former Democratic Senate aide, who frequently criticizes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (and many others) in his "This Week In Education" blog. Russo was a 2009 Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. He takes a look at the way Duncan's record has been coverered by the media.
By Alexander Russo
Over the long weekend a new Chicago Tribune story came out suggesting that Arne Duncan’s accomplishments as head of the Chicago public school system were not nearly as substantial as previously claimed.
The article notes that Duncan’s signature reform, called Renaissance 2010, has “done little to improve the educational performance of the city’s school system.”
That’s strong language, but it isn’t the first instance. A few weeks ago, a Washington Post front-page story noted similarly mixed results. Some of the same problems were noted in a July USA Today article.
This is a stark contrast from just a year ago, when Duncan, now education secretary, and President Obama were making bold claims:
"In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent,” President Obama said in announcing his selection of Duncan.
"We’re proud to have made significant progress . . . and to really be a model of national reform,” Duncan said during his confirmation hearing.
A year after the fact, this much is finally becoming clear: Arne Duncan (and President Obama) greatly overstated the progress made in the Chicago school system. Until recently, the press generally gave Duncan a free ride. And, unless we’re extremely careful, Duncan’s current efforts, and in particular the so-called “Race to the Top” initiative, could become an unfortunate repeat of the same cycle of hype, lack of scrutiny, and eventual disappointment.
For many who follow school reform in Chicago, the Post and Tribune stories are a long time coming -- belated but generally welcome antidotes to mainstream coverage of Duncan that has been superficial, under-reported, and suspiciously positive given the facts available even at the time of his nomination.
Last winter, when Duncan was nominated and approved, the national press generally fawned on Duncan and took his claims at face value. Perhaps the most obvious example was this Washington Post article from December 2008. Reporters gathered polite quotes from people who didn’t want to – or couldn’t afford to – question the nominee’s record. They covered his basketball career, his mom’s tutoring program, his friendly relationship with Obama.
But none of them noted Chicago’s lackluster NAEP scores or the watered-down nature of the state test scores, both of which were already known at the time and readily available.
The local papers didn’t do much better. The Tribune’s star education reporter, Stephanie Banchero, was away on sabbatical during the key period. Coverage at the Chicago Sun-Times had been slashed due to budget woes. Only on my Chicago blog, District 299 (and also at Catalyst magazine) could readers find the holes in the claims made by Duncan and on his behalf.
Some Beltway bloggers don’t think belated revelations about Duncan’s resume are all that big a deal. Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias says he didn’t believe Duncan had really been picked for his accomplishments anyway. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein thinks that the Post story is more about how hard it is to change big urban systems than anything else (here).The American Spectator’s RiShawn Biddle ) sees the low scores as evidence of problems greater than any district superintendent can address.
Others aren’t so easily satisfied. The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess chastises the press for overplaying Duncan’s accomplishments and slams Duncan for under-appreciating his advantages.
Did Duncan lie? If leaving out the truth is lying, then I think he did. But in all fairness, it was nothing new. He’d been doing it for years.
Right up until he left town, Duncan touted Chicago’s annual increases on the state standardized tests called the ISATs, even though he knew they were overstated. The upticks were largely due to changes in the tests and test administration format rather than any great improvements in classroom instruction. The official increase was 29 percentage points; the actual increase has since been estimated at less than a third of that.
This was widely known and occasionally reported, though never acknowledged by Duncan or City Hall. There were no caveats, no hedges. Now, of course, Duncan claims to be unhappy about the watered-down state standards. But during the nomination process, Duncan let his friend and future boss, President Obama, repeat the inflated claims.
Still – who cares what Duncan did or didn’t do in Chicago, or said about his record? That’s ancient history, right? Well, not exactly.
Much the same thing could already be happening again. Just as in the past, Duncan has gotten glowing press reviews despite accomplishments that are mostly rhetorical and not without controversy.
Like Renaissance 2010, Duncan’s current “Race To The Top” initiative is woefully undersized in relation to the scale of need and the overheated rhetoric that’s being used. Already his supporters are claiming victory.
Unless we’re careful, we could soon be looking back at 2009 and early 2010 wondering why we didn’t see what was coming.
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| January 20, 2010; 4:30 PM ET
Categories: Education Secretary Duncan | Tags: Arne Duncan, school reform
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