Can Our Schools Run on Duncan?
When President Barack Obama announced that his choice for Secretary
of Education was Arne Duncan, chief executive of the Chicago Public
Schools, he extolled his basketball buddy as a pragmatic, successful
school reformer. "He's not beholden to any one ideology," Obama said,
adding that Duncan would speak with authority based on "the lessons he's
learned during his years changing our schools from the bottom up."
As a critic on the campaign trail of President George W. Bush's No
Child Left Behind Act, Obama implicitly offered Duncan's efforts in
Chicago as an alternative model of how his administration would improve
American schools, particularly the most troubled.
But so far Duncan and Obama have only modified Bush's education
plans, retaining many problematic elements. The administration's
hallmark program, Race to the Top (RTTT), encourages states to adopt
specified changes in a competition for money they desperately need. But
it offers only $4.35 billion in the first two rounds for school systems
that spend roughly $580 billion a year, $47 billion of which is federal
aid. Yet by emphasizing this program, Duncan is pursuing dubious reforms
that are not only likely to fail, but do real harm.
Obama claims that Duncan's reform agenda is based on experience, but
some of its key features remain untested-and those that have been tested
have not worked well, if at all. Unfortunately, Duncan's approach is
rooted in an ideology that threatens America's system of public
RTTT gives points to states if they meet specific requirements, doing
the opposite of what Duncan says is the Obama administration's
objective-being tight on goals, loose on implementation. The policies
Duncan urges states to implement in their quest for federal dollars
include: expanding charter schools; linking teacher pay to student test
scores; enabling districts to dismiss entire staffs of failing schools;
weakening teacher tenure; and testing and tracking student performance
even more stringently, albeit more comprehensively.
In late July, after a group of civil rights organizations faulted
Obama for not proposing and funding an education strategy that aimed to
help all students, Obama defended RTTT before the National Urban League
as "the single most ambitious, meaningful education reform effort we've
attempted in this country in generations."
A dubious record
The track record of similar reform efforts in Chicago and across the
nation, however, is too spotty to justify pushing them on every
financially desperate school district.
Under pressure from Chicago's school reform movement, in 1988 the
state legislature devolved many responsibilities of the central
administration to elected local school councils (LSCs) that hired
principals and exercised modest budget authority. (I served on the LSC
of Kenwood High School, which my children attended, as a parent
representative between 1996 and 2000.) The councils worked well in about
one-third of schools, satisfactorily in a third and poorly in another
third. But in 1995, when the state of Illinois made Chicago's mayor
directly responsible for the schools, Mayor Richard M. Daley shifted
power back to the central administration. Generally skeptical of
government and a believer in the superiority of private business, Daley
appointed superintendents-called "CEOs"-who identified with business
groups like the Commercial Club, an elite business group that advocated
corporate-style school management and a free-market education ideology.
Following a wave of magnet-school creation in the late '90s, in 2001
Daley made Duncan CEO of Chicago schools. Duncan promoted charter
schools and a controversial program known as "Renaissance 2010," which
involved shutting down poorly performing schools (mostly in black
neighborhoods), dismissing all staff (including the lunch ladies), and
reopening them, with or without the old student body.
Many of Duncan's initiatives, and those like them, have not succeeded:
- In the most definitive national study to date, Stanford University
researchers reported last year that only 17 percent of charter schools
outperformed traditional public schools in math, with 37 percent faring
worse than public schools and 46 percent measuring up equally. Chicago's
charters (without tenure protection for their mostly nonunion teachers)
have performed better in math, but no differently in reading, than
public schools. Chicago's public magnet schools-where teachers have
tenure and a union, but students compete for admission-scored much
higher in both math and reading.
- Duncan's much-touted RTTT encouragement of bonus payments to "good"
teachers-to spur both teacher development and higher student test
scores-had "no significant impact on student achievement or teacher
retention" in Chicago, according to Mathematica Policy Research, a
leading firm in assessing performance of social programs. (A study of a
New York City merit-pay program also showed little effect on student
- RTTT priorities also reflect Duncan's Renaissance 2010 plan-close
schools, then reopen them as small schools or charters-and his
"portfolio strategy," the school plan equivalent of an investment
portfolio of private and public educational "assets." But studies by SRI
International and the Chicago Consortium on School Research (affiliated
with the University of Chicago) concluded that Renaissance 2010 schools
only occasionally performed better than demographically similar schools
and that the portfolio strategy yielded "no dramatic improvements."
- Both Duncan and the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind
legislation encouraged increased reliance on standardized tests to
measure student performance, thereby pressuring teachers to teach to the
test so they and their students would "pass." But strategies imposed on
Chicago schools as a consequence for low scores-often against community
and union protest-did not produce higher test scores, let alone better
schools. Elementary school scores did rise sharply, but mostly because
of a change in the test.
- The number of high school students who failed to meet grade-level
performance remained between 69 and 73 percent from 2001 to 2008, the
year before Duncan left Chicago for Washington. In 2009, the Commercial
Club concluded that despite "moderate" elementary school gains, after
all of Duncan's policy changes, the city's high schools remained
"abysmal" and students were not prepared for success in college or
There were certainly individual school success stories, some of which
do not manifest themselves through improved test scores. Chicago Public
Radio's Linda Lutton has reported on the night-and-day difference in
atmosphere between a Renaissance 2010 school and one not similarly
transformed. Yet the practical results of the policies pushed by Duncan
and Bush in the last decade, now put forward in slightly different form
by Duncan and Obama, do not merit repetition.
Ultimately, the issue is: How well do the students learn. But
important ideological issues are at stake as well, such as, what should
This question is at the heart of a longstanding battle between
business-oriented educators, who want to churn out a ready workforce,
and progressive educators, acting in the tradition of John Dewey, who
believe schools should nurture well-rounded, independent-minded
Unfortunately, most Republicans and many Democrats, including some
progressives, believe that the problems with American schools can be
solved with more market-style policies, competition, financial
incentives, charter schools, privatization, standardized testing and
weakened teachers' unions.
But the theory that supports treating education as a marketplace is
flawed, as is the practice. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy
Institute and others point out that few professionals in the private
sector are paid for performance (except in finance, and that should be a
cautionary example). And when faced with performance incentives, people
typically end up gaming the system. In a 2003 study, economists Steven
Levitt of the University of Chicago and Brian Jacob of Harvard found
that as high-stakes testing increased, teachers were more likely to
cheat, for example, changing student answers, giving students correct
answers and teaching from illicitly obtained advance test copies.
The educational systems in the rest of the developed world, which
famously outperform U.S. schools, are overwhelmingly public, highly
unionized and protected from market-style funding. Even though American
suburban schools vary dramatically, many of these schools-with unions
and teacher tenure-perform so well that affluent families pick their
homes partly on the basis of school quality.
A Chicago Consortium on Schools Research team led by Anthony S. Bryk recently published Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago,
the result of two decades of study. They found that successful schools
had five essential pillars of support: educational leadership,
parent-community ties, professional capacity, a student-centered
learning climate and instructional guidance. The stronger these pillars,
the more the schools thrived and test results improved.
Rather than focus on building complex systems that extend beyond the
school, market-oriented reformers tend to focus on one factor-teachers.
(See story, page 20.) Like most American managers, they see teachers,
along with their unions, as a factor of production to be controlled, not
as allies and resources for cooperation.
Americans across the political spectrum see education as a major
solution to crime, inequality, unemployment and so on. But for decades,
researchers have shown that the single most significant determining
factor in students' success in school is the socioeconomic status of
their parents. (See Roger Bybee's story below.)
That doesn't mean poor students can't learn. But their
disadvantages-from untreated toothaches to constant transience of
residence and school-can overwhelm even the best school.
What the children in America's failing schools need is direct policy
intervention to reduce inequality, to provide broader public services
and to connect residents of very poor neighborhoods to jobs that pay a
What they are getting are Duncan's questionable market-oriented
reforms-reforms that often involve assaults on the public sector and
organized labor. It's a predictable shame when such nostrums are peddled
by Republicans, a tragedy when embraced by Democrats.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek.