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Education Mon Aug 24 2009

Obama and Duncan: Unanswered Questions

When I appeared on the 848 "Month in Review" on WBEZ last month, I made a comment that I heard a lot about afterwards: that Arne Duncan appeared to have no qualifications to run the nation's schools. I followed it up with a joke that the only qualification appeared to be that he used to play basketball with the President. You can listen to my appearance here.

Looking now at the increased news coming out that the CPS is in bad shape and made essentially no progress under Duncan's leadership, I think that point is made more serious. Why did President-Elect Obama choose this man to run the nation's schools?

If it is because Duncan had supposedly achieved such great progress with the Chicago Public Schools, then the President has to answer for why he failed to perform his own due diligence in evaluating potential picks.

This is not based solely on the research by the pro-privatization Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. More and more research is coming out:

Former CEO Arne Duncan often said that a key to creating the best urban school district in the country was to improve long-failing high schools. But Duncan's broadest, most expensive effort, called High School Transformation, sputtered in implementation and has failed to spark significant improvement, according to an evaluation released Thursday.

Granted, this information is just coming out now. But if President Obama was truly seeking change and was as in touch with the neighborhoods as he claimed to be (skinny kid community organizer from the South Side, right?) why didn't he know what every parent and every teacher knows: that the CPS privatization efforts were doing little to help students and schools?

If it is because Duncan was such an aggressive pursuer of Renaissance 2010 and the school privatization effort, why didn't the President say so? Even during his confirmation hearings Duncan was noticeably unwilling to give specifics. Given the criticism Obama was getting at the time from the left for importing much of the Clinton-era economic minds, it would have been risky to come out and say, "Privatize American education the way Duncan tried to do in Chicago."

The skeptical person could conclude that it isn't Duncan's supposed "new approach" to school reform--an approach that all evidence shows failed conclusively--that prompted his choice, but perhaps his ability to mask failure with corporate-speak laced "initiatives" that give liberals the sensation that schools are "innovating" and provide a good bulwark against criticism from teachers' union and public school advocates.

That would be the skeptical person. I'm going to give the President the benefit of the doubt and say that it was because they played basketball together.


Good Luck / August 24, 2009 4:58 PM


The linked report says that the top two factors that have undermined success were
1.) Absenteeism - "Marshall students missed a stunning average of 50 school days per year—greatly reducing the chance that any new curriculum could take hold. "

2.) Poor Teaching - "More than half of the teachers observed by evaluators were rated as unsatisfactory or basic—the two lowest ratings. The evaluators found that the vast majority of teachers had low expectations of students, lacked creativity in assignments and failed to ask good questions that challenged students to think critically."

It isn't accurate to place blame entirely on Duncan.

Although, for a man who has picked 32 czars to do his job for him, I can see Obama picking Duncan based on his basketball relationship.

Ramsin / August 24, 2009 5:01 PM

But wouldn't you say that Duncan failed to properly identify the problem in the first place? That doesn't necessarily help him.

Charter schools are being allowed to push teachers not certified for the proper grade level to teach there, are Duncan's solutions addressing the problems identified here?

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