Can Our Schools Run on Duncan?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pushes Chicago’s ineffective reforms on America’s children.

David Moberg

On July 22, a boy plugs his ears while Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes remarks at the 'Let's Read. Let's Move' summer enrichment series at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

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.”

The theory that supports treating education as a marketplace is flawed, as is the practice. When faced with performance incentives, people typically end up gaming the system.

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 education.

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 performance.)

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 beyond. 

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.

Mar­ket-style myopia

Ulti­mate­ly, the issue is: How well do the stu­dents learn. But impor­tant ide­o­log­i­cal issues are at stake as well, such as, what should edu­ca­tion achieve? 

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 citizens.

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 Richard Greenwald’s A Mod­est Pro­pos­al for Teacher Tenure Reform,” in ITT’s Sep­tem­ber 2010 issue.) 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 It’s the Pover­ty, Stu­pid,” also in ITT’s Sep­tem­ber 2010 issue.) 

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 liv­ing wage.

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 in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH