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Posted at 9:18 AM ET, 12/29/2009

Why Duncan's record in Chicago is a problem

By Valerie Strauss

It’s an all too familiar story.

Someone gets appointed to a big job because he supposedly got great results at his old job.

It doesn’t take too long for people to realize that the supposedly great results weren’t so great--but the boss has taken the new organization on the same route anyway.

This is the story of Rod Paige as education secretary under then president George Bush early in this decade, and now, according to a Washington Post story today by my colleague Nick Anderson, of Arne Duncan as education secretary under President Obama.

Paige, a former superintendent of Houston’s schools who earned his doctorate in physical education, came under tough criticism for his record in that Texas school district when it became known that the progress made in keeping kids in school appeared to be a statistical trick of under-reporting by high schools.

Now we have Duncan, who the president knew for years in Chicago and hailed as having made enormous progress during his seven years as Chicago school chief, starting in 2001.

Anderson tells us that Duncan tried a lot of approaches to turn around the city’s struggling schools. He got rid of staff, brought on people who are supposed to be experts in turning around schools and shut down those schools thought to be impossible to fix.

There were more efforts, too, but you get the idea. He tried a lot of things.

Some may have helped in some places, but nowhere was there a great turnaround like the one he now demands from other cities.

When, for example, Obama appointed Duncan in December 2008, he said standardized test scores had risen in Chicago’s elementary schools by 29 percentage points during Duncan’s seven years as superintendent.

Well, not so much, it turned out.

According to one research group that issued a report this year, the real improvement was only about 8 percentage points.

And while Obama said that Duncan had improved Chicago’s dropout rate during each of his seven years as Chicago schools boss, which appears to be true, he didn’t mention that 70 percent of 11th graders still fail to meet state standards. Oh, and about half of Chicago’s kids who attend non-selective-enrollment high schools still drop out.

Another research group found that Duncan’s closure of low-performing schools did little good for students, Anderson reported.

Duncan himself did not call his work as Chicago schools chief an educational miracle, but he never stopped others, including Obama, from making more of it than there really was.

My point? Progress is hard. Progress is uneven. Progress takes different approaches.

No one person has the answer for everybody.

Yet Duncan has decided on specific routes for progress that school districts must take in order to win some of the billions of dollars in federal funds he is dangling--$3.5 billion in grants for systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

This is why so many people are upset at Duncan -- especially those who had hoped Obama would change the educational dynamic of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” era, with its emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests and charter schools.

They had hoped Duncan would take the country away from NCLB. Instead, he seems to be ratcheting it up, based on a record in Chicago that is hardly shining.

So here we go again. Most unfortunately.

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Check out all the Post's Education coverage at

By Valerie Strauss  | December 29, 2009; 9:18 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  education reform, no child left behind  
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I agree with everything you say here.

Posted by: mpollard1 | December 29, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse


You said it "Progress is hard. Progress is uneven. Progress takes different approaches. No one person has the answer for everybody"

So why is Duncan taking such a prescripted approach? I attribute it to frustration - especially the frustration of an urban superintendent.

Of the big three school districts cited by Anderson, New York MAY have seen more improvements but given their guiltless manipulation of data its immpossible to say. But New York doesn't deal with a fraction of the violence of LA, Chicago, or most urban districts in the South. And few Southern schools where the dropout crisis is worst have near the resources of the big three.

The story cited a teacher who had four of her students died violently off campus in the last school year. Few "reformers" have any idea of the challenge that represents. Somehow the kids are supposed to shake it off and get back on the aligned and assessed curriculum. Duncan, at least, seems to have more of a reality check. And hopefully he's learned from the Chicago School Consortium.

Obama/Duncan have split the difference, investing in pre schools, community schools, and saving us with the Stimulus. He then packed the RttT and other innovations with "reformers." Duncan began primarily with the perpective of a superintendent and I can see why they've tried to join with "reformers" to deal with the various stakeholders. I expect Duncan to learn, however. Maybe NCLB II will be the opposite of NCLB I and the RttT.

Posted by: johnt4853 | December 29, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The recent criticism of Arne Duncan's record in Chicago provides him an ideal opportunity to highlight the difficulties of implementing reform in states like Illinois that refuse to provide sufficient and equitable financial support to urban districts.


Posted by: Schoolfinance101 | December 29, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Nothing in the article is news to those of us who worked in the Chicago Public Schools. Unfortunately few, if any, of the personnel working in the "trenches" on a daily basis were (or are ever) interviewed when important decisions are made.
All you need to do is smile, don't rock the boat, play politics and you will advance. When I first heard about Duncan's move to the national stage, I truly couldn't believe it. Hyde Park and basketball are bigger than I thought.

Posted by: cella2009 | December 29, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I amazed at the negative tone of comments here and at Nick Anderson's article.

Improving our children's education is a responsibility all of us have and can all directly effect.

Parents have the biggest impact by their influence on their children and their children's schools.

Any parent who gets involved soon learns that for children, schools, and districts "Progress is hard. Progress is uneven. Progress takes different approaches. No one person has the answer for everybody".

I support any parent, teacher, principal, or superintendent who is sincerely working hard to address the many challenges we share.

That Arne Duncan did not solve the problems of Chicago schools in 7 years is no surprise. That he worked very hard to understand and address them with a range of well-thoughtout strategies is clear.

Do the same with your kids, your school, and your school board, and we'll make progress in improving our children's education.

Posted by: OregonPerspective | December 29, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

You hit the nail on the head!

Posted by: aby1 | December 29, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - what you say sounds like an accurate analysis.

But now what? Are we destined to go down a road that we know is likely to lead to nowhere good? Is there any way to stop this train? (to mix metaphors)

It's as if there's only one, unproven formula for fixing schools and we're going to use it, no matter what. It disrupts communities, maligns teachers, costs enormous amounts of money and doesn't help kids and still we press on.

It's madness. It has nothing to do with children's interests. I'm starting to think educational "experts" actually gave up on urban kids a long time ago or they wouldn't treat them with this kind of disrespect. The money goes to "edtrepeuners" who pay themselves big salaries and consulting fees, and to recent grads of elite colleges who get free masters degrees and a salary for spending a couple of years teaching - with no experience - in urban schools.

It's about adult interests. The kids are looking more and more like pawns.

Posted by: efavorite | December 29, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Oregonperspective - of course you're right that it's no surprise that Duncan or anyone didn't solve all the problems of the Chicago schools (or any schools) in seven years.

There are a couple of major problems, though. Apparently he and others presumed that he could solve the problems with the radical and untested changes he made; he was touted nationally for being successful when he wasn't; as Secretary of Education, he is exporting the same ineffective system across the county at a huge cost to the taxpayer not to mention the students and teachers who will suffer.

Posted by: efavorite | December 29, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

"This is why so many people are upset at Duncan -- especially those who had hoped Obama would change the educational dynamic of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” era, with its emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests and charter schools.

They had hoped Duncan would take the country away from NCLB. Instead, he seems to be ratcheting it up, based on a record in Chicago that is hardly shining.

So here we go again. Most unfortunately."

I do not understand why so many teachers are acting so surprised that Obama and Duncan are not running away from NCLB (if anything, they're intensifying it).

Obama was clear about his intentions in education during his campaign for president. Weren't teachers paying attention?

(I should note that I am a teacher myself)

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | December 30, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Obama's education policies are not only naive but lack any chance of doing what he says he wants done. The measure of school success- standardized test results, is far to narrow for public education in a democracy. Lyndon Johnson, who was actually a public school classroom teacher( unlike Duncan, Obama & George W. Bush), understood what these better educated leaders do not- student success has social and economic roots; we can't "fix" the schools in a vacuum.

Posted by: etstephens | December 30, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Wow-I didn't think the Post still had anybody who could write such an insightful, meaningful and timely article. Arne Duncan's lackluster record should be a front page story. If only Obama would show just a little intellectual curiosity and dig deeper into Duncan's failures to really reform public education. Thank you Ms. Strauss.

Posted by: citymom92 | December 31, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss puts it pretty well.

The hypocrisy of Michelle Rhee and her right-hand man Jason Kamras, both of whom seem to have seriously inflated the achievement gains of their own students, also comes to mind.

Not to mention the hypocrisy of investment bankers calling teachers 'selfish' for not wanting to give up some form of due process.

Teaching 'inner-city', deprived youth, or kids on the Rez, and so on is really, really hard. Every year, lots of very-well-intentioned, smart, energetic young people start such careers and try to do their very best, and fail. Those who are able to stick it out for more than a few years get really tired of all the administrative B.S. and would generally like a little protection from misguided higher-ups. That is, they would like to have union protection.

But the investment bankers say, no! We know better! If you teachers will just let your bosses fire you for any reason - or no reason - we'll make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams (almost a direct quote from Michelle Rhee). Never mind that the only possible way Rhee could pay all of the teaching staff such (fictitiously) high salaries would be to make class sizes in DCPS roughly twice as large as they already are. She doesn't have the foundation money to make up the difference.

Think that charter schools are the solution? Think again. First of all, on the average, they do no better than regular public schools in terms of test scores (the only ones that appear to do so, get to pick and choose their students and keep them for much, much longer hours). Secondly, teachers at charter schools, despite (often) higher pay than at regular public schools, are much more unhappy with their working conditions and have a much higher turnover rate.

It's like the Emerald City of Oz. Remember? It was only green because everybody wore green-shaded eyeglasses.

Posted by: TexasIke59 | December 31, 2009 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Obama and Duncan are looking for the federal government to make an "unprecedented" impact on public education. I believe their hearts are in the right place, but their lack of experience in education really shows. Neither of them has ever taught in public school or even attended public school. Obama has never sent his own children to public school. Duncan has enrolled his own young child in a Virginia public school, but I have a feeling that was a political consideration more than anything else.

So these two rush on, absolutely confident that they have all the answers. Duncan makes it clear that he thinks most teachers are unintelligent and lazy. He listens to Bill Gates and other corporate interests who tell him we should clear out most of the veteran teachers and replace them with non-union Ivy League super teachers who will just transform everything!!! Duncan says that standardized test scores are not a perfect measurement of teacher competence, but that they're the best way we have right now. I wonder if he will have the integrity to judge his own competence by the latest Chicago test scores. If test scores across the nation don't improve by 2012, will Obama fire Duncan? Or is accountability only for the little people?

Posted by: johnteacher | January 4, 2010 2:32 AM | Report abuse

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