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Posted at 4:30 PM ET, 01/20/2010

Russo on Duncan's Record

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | January 20, 2010; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan  | Tags:  Arne Duncan, school reform  
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This is another startling report on someone who is promoted to leadership in education, then it's discovered that their previous accomplishments in education were either mediocre or poor at best. Gee, where did I hear that a million times before??

As for Rhee, who quit teaching after two years, don't even get me started...

Posted by: ericpollock | January 20, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

President Obama has been poorly served by Duncan and his education advisers. Early on his speeches included a number of false and misleading statements. Just the fact that they are promoting charter schools as the answer for low achieving students shows lack of knowledge about them. A recent study found that only 17% of charter schools outperformed regular public schools. The Race to the Top has turned into a race to override teacher contracts. Teachers' careers will be based on the results of unreliable tests taken by students who may have spent little time in their classrooms. All of this is being led by a fraud.

Posted by: Susan50 | January 20, 2010 10:03 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Alexander, for blogging on this, and Valerie for hosting it.

However, tt was not only Russo's blog and Catalyst who raised questions. In 2007, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), Designs for Change, and FairTest (my organization) released a detailed report on the flawed evidence behind "Renaissance 2010" including inflated test scores. We also pointed out that the Chicago period in which Local School Councils were the most prominent effort at school improvement saw more gains than the subsequent mayoral control era of which Duncan was a part. (Under Duncan, as under his predecessor, Paul Vallas, LSCs have been incessantly attacked.) Designs had also released a report -- The Big Piicture -- showing that schools with the most improvement were schools not subject to central office interventions, interventions that in large part bear great resemblance to "Race to the Trough." Now even the business groups that created "Ren2010" (on the basis of no actual evidence it would work) have declared it a failure (though their "solution" is to do more of it).

Russo is right, the primary national reason to care is that RTTT is inflicting Chicago's failed policies on the nation, with most of the major media cheering it on.

The PURE, Designs, FairTest report is on the web at . It contains links to the Designs report and extensive citations and analysis to back up the claims made in this post.

Monty Neill

Posted by: montyneill | January 21, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

good point, monty -- there were many others pointing to the holes in the chicago story from early on -- is another. however, i was referring to traditional news sources, mainstream and trade, whose job it is to ferret out these things and who readers trust to give them the full story. let's not let them off the hook here -- they're supposed to do their jobs.

/ alexander

Posted by: alexanderrusso | January 21, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

OK. Granted. We can't change the past but we can try to learn from it in dealing with the present and looking to the future. There is nothing in Secretary Duncan's record to provide any confidence in the four tenets that states voluntarily were forced to "assure" they would implement to "compete" for the federal funds. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences warned that none of the four tenets have any scientific/technical basis.

The "competition" is now on. The District of Columbia, Indiana have their applications on the Internet, and the other states will no doubt have to inform their participating LEAs what they signed on to do. The 500-point rating sheet is on the Internet.

This is the Mother of All Education Competitions, but media coverage to date has been shallow and narrow. More news is needed.

Posted by: DickSchutz | January 21, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

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