Totally out of my league in assessing Obama's choice of Chicago Public School CEO Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education, but I do know where to turn to for those who aren't: Chicago's own Catalyst. And their take is that Duncan's record at CPS has been modest; some improvements overall, but few at the schools in most dire need. A taste: Duncan’s oft-stated goal was to create the “best urban school district in the nation.” Yet here, as elsewhere, high schools have made little progress. Overall high school graduation rates improved under Duncan (up to 55 percent from 47 percent), as did college-going rates (up to 50 percent from 44 percent). Also improved is the district’s accountability around making sure students go to college. Duncan created the Office of Post-secondary Education and charged it with tracking students after they graduate. CPS is one of the few urban districts that partners with the National Student Clearinghouse, a data warehouse, so it can keep tabs on its graduates. And this past year, Duncan personally pushed principals to get more students to fill out financial aid eligibility forms. But even with these modest improvements, fewer than a third of the students who were freshmen in 2003 and graduated four years later enrolled in college. Individual schools, particularly neighborhood high schools like Marshall in the impoverished West Garfield Park community, have not done much better under Duncan’s leadership. Marshall’s graduation rate, for instance, is 40 percent, up only four points; and its college-going rate actually declined 4 points to 31 percent. Meanwhile, districtwide high school test scores remain stagnant—only 31 percent of juniors meet state standards—leading many to question whether CPS graduates can succeed in college or in the job market. All but two of the 10 lowest performing high schools in 2001 lost ground by 2008.
Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.