Arne Duncan’s cloudy legacy from Chicago Public Schools

An article published two days ago (12-29-09) in the Washington Post acknowledges that Arne Duncan’s legacy as head of the Chicago Public Schools is not nearly as wonderful as we have been led to believe.

Here is the link to the article: http://tinyurl. com/dunchibust   or

http://www.washingt wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 12/28/AR20091228 02368.html

A telling quote from the article: “… 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.” Another quote in the article, this from Chester Finn, with whom I seldom agree: “’Chicago is not the story of an educational miracle.’

Duncan was in charge in Chicago from 2001 to 2009, or 8 years. During that time, Chicago public schools’ 4th-grade math NAEP scores slowly rose from 214 to 222 (out of 500), or 8 points. In Washington, they went from 205 to 220, a rise of 15 points. The average large city math score went from 224 to 231, a 7-point gain.

During that time, Chicago’s 8th-grade math NAEP scores went from 254 to 264, a rise of 10points, DC’s 8th-graders went from 243 to 251, a gain of 8 points, and the average for large US cities went from 262 to 271, an increase of 9 points.  I doubt that those rises are significantly different from each other – even to a statistician. So Chicago public school students don’t seem to have improved as much as Duncan’s hype might suggest.

In fact, there is quite a pattern of hypocrisy, and/or mendacity going on with education in the US, and President Obama’s education secretary unfortunately seems to fit right in. Here are a few examples:

  • Do you remember Rod Paige, the education secretary under Bush 2? Supposedly he worked such miracles in Houston Public Schools that his example became the model for No Child Left Behind. Under his leadership, supposedly 100% of the graduates of some very-low-income and nearly-all-minority-population high schools went to college, and dropout rates fell to nearly zero. But it was all smoke and mirrors. To quote Wikipedia:  “Many touted the ‘Houston Miracle’ accomplished under Paige where student test scores rose under his leadership. A 60 Minutes report exposed many dropout rates touted in the ‘Houston Miracle’ as false; deliberate fraud occurred at Sharpstown High School, for instance. Not only were dropout rates falsified, but Houston area teachers admitted to raising test scores (for which they received cash bonuses) by cheating.” You can find lots more details if you read an in-depth New York Times article written by Diana Schemo and published on  August 28, 2003: “For Houston Schools, College Claims Exceed Reality.”
  • Bill Gates was a well-to-do grandson of a national bank president. He attended an exclusive private school where the parents purchased for him, and for a few others, computer time on one of the tiny number of mainframe computers that existed in the US at the time. The school even let him program Tic-Tac-Toe on the computer instead of going to math class.  After finishing private school, he went to Harvard University, programmed some more, and then dropped out to found and run Microsoft. He constantly says that US public schools are no good at all.  But what does he really know about public schools? As far as I can tell, his foundation gives its money to charter schools, and has a policy of not funding regular public schools unless they make teacher pay based on student scores and get rid of teacher certification.
  • The public story behind DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee is that she worked incredible miracles when she taught for 3 years in a non-union, privatized, formerly-public Baltimore school, and that the news of this success was all over TV, in the Wall Street Journal, and many other places. The fact is that repeated computer searches of the Wall Street Journal do not show her name appearing at all during the 1990’s. Also, the only articles I found, in a Connecticut newspaper, make it seem like she was just barely hanging on as a teacher. What is also true is that test scores at her school actually seemed to go DOWN during her time there, and the private company that ran her school there was thrown out by the Baltimore city administration for not only not improving anything, but also for costing more. So, while her actual accomplishments as a teacher are rather slim, her REAL claim to fame is that she wrote a position paper while she was at the New Teacher Project that supposedly ‘proved’ that the main problem with inner-city public education is the very existence of teacher unions. Since then, she got the attention of rich foundations that want to privatize public schools. She has been pretty consistent in lambasting DCPS teachers (except when she found it expedient to backtrack), and her main method of administering  DCPS has been mass firing of teachers, staff and administrators without any due process, appeal, or even a real explanation. (Except for nearly-uncheckable innuendo.) She also takes credit for progress that started years before she came to Washington. Unfortunately, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama and McCain both extolled her. See the blog called ThatsRightNate for a satirical take on her wondrousness. The only good thing I note is that a lot of people are beginning to see through her act. Even Duncan and Obama haven’t mentioned her for quite a while. On the other hand, it appears that they almost never visit regular public schools – it’s almost always charter schools or private schools.
  • Consider also Jason Kamras, who won the National Teacher of the Year for 2005 award (for reasons I cannot discern), and who is now Michelle Rhee’s chief accomplice. I’ve examined, in as much detail as I could gather, what effect he had at Sousa. What I found was that the longer he was teaching there, the lower the DC-CAS scores got at the school. When he left, they began to rise. See my blog from Dec. **** Hmm…
  • Arne Duncan attended the exclusive University of Chicago Lab Schools for grades K-12 and then went to Harvard and played pro basketball in Australia. After that, he set up a charter school funded by an investment firm (Ariel Investments).  This apparently qualified him to become first an executive in, and then the head of, Chicago Public Schools in 2001 – so he was in sole control there for 8 years. As far as I can tell, his only experience with teaching was being a tutor for minority students. I have read that Duncan’s primary means for “success” in Chicago has been to close down a school, scatter all the staff, and IN FACT TO REPLACE MOST OF THE STUDENTS, TOO, start over and then claim success. See for some hilarious details. (“Nate” also has a serious blog, too.)
Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 2:13 am  Comments (10)  

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  1. Hi, Guy – great post, as usual – a good follow-up to the WaPo article, with even more numbers.

    Also, I wanted to read the thatsrightnate post about Duncan, but when I clicked on the link, it just took me to his main page. I googled and found this one from 12/16/08: . Is this what you meant? If so, how about putting this link in your post so others can get to it quickly. You’re right, it’s a good read. I wish I’d been paying more attention to criticism from Duncan’s hometown when Obama selected him, especially after experiencing the dissonance between Michelle Rhee’s glowing national press coverage and our first-hand experience here in DC.

    Speaking of Rhee, I googled fruitlessly for a reference to her Harvard master thesis being about the negative effect of unions on inner-city education. Where did you find that? I did learn that her Master’s advisor was economist Thomas J. Kane, and that Rhee and Kane have appeared together at numerous education conferences.

    Do you by chance have access to the archives of master’s theses from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where Rhee went and Kane teaches? If so, tell us about it.


    • Well, I may have been conflating a couple of things. Memory plays funny games with itself. I also cannot now find any reference to what her master’s thesis was about. However, as head of the NTP, she and one of her cronies wrote a position paper saying the same thing. I may have confused the two. GFB


    • Yes, that is the report I was referring to. Notice that the report only refers to the intricacies of allowing existing teachers to transfer from one school or position to another, which is one of the things that any union that is worth the name would try to protect. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me that if a school’s enrollment decreases or the number of classes in one topic decreases, that a teacher who has been doing a good job should be fired with essentially no notice. (Rhee, by her words and actions, clearly disagrees!)
      From my own perspective as a (former) teacher, I think that the time line and process for those transfers could fairly easily be rectified to benefit just about everybody> This way, local administrators would know how many of his/her teachers were applying to go to another school, how many veteran teachers were applying to transfer into his/her school, and would also know how many new teachers would need to be hired for what positions. Central administration would know where to send their new applying teachers. Veteran teachers would know where the openings were, and what their options were. (I’m a bit undecided on “bumping” if there is a major reduction in force. But I know that almost every school system has lots of teachers retiring or otherwise leaving, every single year.) To emphasize my point: this is something that veteran teachers, new job-seeking teachers, local school administrators, and central administration could fairly easily come to agreement on, to the better satisfaction of everybody; student learning would consequently benefit.

      In the past, administrators who wanted to get rid of a particular teacher, for whatever reason (and believe me, a lot of those reasons are personal or involve inter-office or union politics, rather than competency), they would simply find a reason to “excess” the teacher, so that he/she would have to go to another school. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly, at many schools. (Yes, in some cases, the teacher was in fact incompetent; in other cases, it was the principal!)

      So, rather than saying that this is a problem that needs to be worked on, together, by union and management, Rhee’s response is that we need to do away with pretty much all of the protections and due process that having a union entails. The way that Rhee has repeatedly put it, you would think that having a union AT ALL was the major impediment to education of urban youth, because, according to her, SHE (and a very small handful of her acolytes) ALWAYS KNOWS BEST, and everybody else, especially other teachers, and particularly active union members, are always wrong.


  2. Hey, it’s Nate from First, thank you very much for the link to my blog. My blog is satirical. What that means is you’ll find a lot of articles on there praising Duncan in a very backhanded way:

    In reality, I’m a Chicago Public School teacher. I’ve been through Duncan and I’m very opinionated about things. In fact, I’m so opinionated that I had to start a second blog to write about education without satire. I’m am a member of CORE, a group that is trying to fight the privatization efforts going on in Chicago and nationwide. You can find my education blog here:

    I’m always looking for high quality education blogs, so you can be sure I’ll be back here soon.


  3. Do you have a link to the NTP paper? That would be a good reference to post.


  4. Dear efavorite and Guy,
    maybe this is the report:


    • Thanks, Ed – that’s an article written about the report, which is titled “Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers’ Union Contracts.” If you go here:

      It gives a summary of the report and links to the full pdf version (which I have not yet read).

      Note that while Rhee co-wrote the Edweek article about the report, she is not listed as an author of the full report.


  5. and this:
    Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules of Urban Teachers Union Contracts focuses on the impact of “voluntary transfer” and “excessed teacher” staffing rules found in the collective bargaining agreements of urban school districts.
    Report Summary
    “Voluntary transfers” are incumbent teachers with seniority rights who want to move between schools, while “excessed teachers” are those whose positions are cut from their school, often due to enrollment or budget changes.

    Through a study of five major urban districts, the report demonstrates how “voluntary transfer” and “excessed” teacher rules result in systems that hire too late to secure the most talented teacher applicants, bump valuable teachers, and require schools to hire poorly matched or-worse-poorly performing teachers.
    Education leader Kevin Johnson issued a statement of support:


  6. Here’s something you might want to know about Arne Duncan:

    and its related story:


  7. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!


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