Education Secretary Arne Duncan's legacy as Chicago schools chief questioned

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

CHICAGO -- Soon after Arne Duncan left his job as schools chief here to become one of the most powerful U.S. education secretaries ever, his former students sat for federal achievement tests. This month, the mathematics report card was delivered: Chicago trailed several cities in performance and progress made over six years.

Miami, Houston and New York had higher scores than Chicago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Boston, San Diego and Atlanta had bigger gains. Even fourth-graders in the much-maligned D.C. schools improved nearly twice as much since 2003.

The federal readout is just one measure of Duncan's record as chief executive of the nation's third-largest system. Others show advances on various fronts. But the new math scores signal that Chicago is nowhere near the head of the pack in urban school improvement, even though Duncan often cites the successes of his tenure as he crusades to fix public education.

"Chicago is not the story of an education miracle," said Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington. "It is, however, the story of a large urban system that has made some gains and has made some promising structural changes."

For more than seven years, starting in 2001, Duncan tried to rejuvenate his city's struggling schools: jettisoning staff, hiring turnaround specialists, shutting down those deemed beyond hope. He pushed a back-to-basics curriculum, spawned dozens of charter schools and experimented with performance pay. State and federal test scores and graduation rates rose on his watch, and Chicago became a laboratory for innovation. As a result, the reputation of its schools has improved markedly since 1987, when an earlier education secretary, William Bennett, called them the worst in the country.

'Focused on outcomes'

Yet questions have arisen this year about the magnitude of Duncan's accomplishments. The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, which represents business, professional, education and cultural leaders, concluded in June that gains on state test scores were inflated when Illinois relaxed passing standards and that too many students still drop out of high school or graduate unprepared for college. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, a nonpartisan group at the University of Chicago, reported in October that Duncan's closure of low-performing schools often shuffled students into comparable schools, yielding little or no academic benefit.

"Obviously, you always want to get better faster," Duncan said in an interview when asked about the federal math scores. "I was focused on outcomes -- improving graduation rates, making sure that students who graduated had a chance to pursue higher ed. You can have the best test scores in the world, but if kids aren't going that next step, you're not changing their lives."

Duncan also said he had adjusted his school closure policy a few years ago to ensure better opportunities for students. He said that he was unhappy that the state had relaxed passing standards and that graduation rates remain unacceptable. About half of Chicago students fail to graduate on time with their peers.

In January, Duncan said at his Senate confirmation hearing: "We're proud to have made significant progress . . . and to really be a model of national reform. But again, hard work is going to continue there and is far from done."

In the interview, Duncan said he is careful not to exaggerate his record. Critics, however, say his legacy is routinely overblown.

"There's been this rhetoric about dramatic gains, dramatic success, that we have to replicate this model because of its dramatic success," said Julie Woestehoff of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. "And here in Chicago, we're looking at these schools and going, 'Uh . . . ' "

In 2003, President George W. Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, faced similar, perhaps stronger, criticism when his much-highlighted record as leader of Houston's schools in the 1990s came under scrutiny. Questions were raised that year about the reliability of Houston's reported dropout rates.

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