Chicago, May 30 — Two weeks ago at a Washington panel discussion, Grover Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy, had the task of introducing widely popular Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Whitehurst crisply summarized the conventional wisdom on Duncan. “In his position as head of the Chicago Public Schools he carried out an assertive reform agenda that included, for example, closing down underperforming schools and expanding charter schools. At the same time, he managed to stay in the good graces of powerful constituencies that might have been expected to battle for the status quo. Apropos of his ability to lead change without generating heated antagonism, The Economist notes that, ‘It is hard find anybody with a bad word to say about Arne Duncan.’”

Whitehurst then went further. Other education secretaries, he said, “come to office well liked.” But “the one thing that is clearly distinctive about Duncan is that he has a lot of discretionary funds at his proposal to drive his and the President’s education agenda.” Money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (better known as the stimulus bill) make Duncan potentially the most powerful Education Secretary since the post was created in 1979. As Whitehurst noted, Duncan has the money and the political capital to start doing nationally what he did in Chicago.

But it’s not clear that the results of Duncan’s Chicago reforms justify taking his ideas to a national platform.  In 2001, Duncan became Chief Executive Office of a bad school system. And earlier this year, he left a system that was still bad. Chicago students continue to test significantly worse than the average student in the rest of Illinois, in other large urban centers, and in the U.S. at large. Education experts see promise in Duncan’s CPS reforms. But they have yet to make a measurable difference in student achievement.

A Laboratory For Reform

In 1995 – eight years after Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary Bill Bennett declared Chicago schools the worst in the country – the Illinois state legislature passed the groundbreaking Chicago School Reform Act. The reform act wrested the power to manage the public schools away from the Chicago School Board and placed it in the hands of Mayor Richard Daley and a Chicago Public Schools CEO of the mayor’s choosing. Paul Vallas was the first CEO and in 1998 Vallas named Duncan as his deputy chief of staff.  Duncan had been running the Ariel Foundation, which helped predominantly poor, African American children on Chicago’s South Side prepare for college. Vallas wanted Duncan to focus on the city’s magnet program.

While Duncan was quietly drawing praise for his work on magnets, Vallas was, as the Chicago Sun-Times put it in 2002, “a headline machine” butting heads with the CPS bureaucracy, principals and teacher’s unions. In 2001 Vallas left, and Duncan, at 36, was named Daley’s second CPS CEO. While an internal hire –and a favorite of Vallas – Duncan promised a “new age of accountability” in student achievement. Still, the Chicago press, Chicago Teacher’s Union and local educators first viewed Duncan as a conciliatory figure – as low-key as Vallas was confrontational.

This view of Duncan as a peacemaker changed in April 2002 when he announced the closing of three elementary schools that he judged to be failing. It was the first time during mayoral control of CPS that schools were ordered shut down. As they would often over the next six years, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times approved Duncan’s decision and echoed his arguments. “These schools have been failing children, failing entire communities, for decades,” the Tribune editorialized in April 2002. “They’ve had umpteen chances and their excuses have been tolerated for too long. It’s time to put away the Band-Aids and head into major surgery.”

Duncan’s first school closings coincided with George W. Bush signing No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, into law. As secretary of education, Duncan wants to revise the law and change the Bush-associated name, but he champions the law’s central aim –  teacher and school accountability through standardized tests. But when he was running Chicago’s public schools, CPS realities made the normally diplomatic Duncan fight tooth and nail against NCLB. NCLB says that students at “failing schools” –  schools with poor results on national math and reading tests – can choose to transfer to better schools within their district. For CPS in 2003, this meant that 270,000 of the district’s 408,000 students could conceivably transfer. Duncan called NCLB “impractical” and “burdensome” – essentially opposing the new national education policy – and an infinitesimal 1,000 of the 270,000 students eligible to transfer eventually did so. Duncan also ignored NCLB’s provision that teachers at these failing school could not use federal money to tutor students. He pointed out that it was roughly a quarter of the price — $3,000 per pupil as opposed to $12,000 – to have CPS tutors instead of the private tutors Washington wanted. In 2005, after a year-long battle with the Bush administration, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acceded to Duncan’s demands: Chicago could hire tutors who taught at failing schools.

In 2004, Duncan and Daley announced their most ambitious reform effort – Renaissance 2010, a program that promised to open 100 new schools by 2010. The program has already opened 76 schools, 43 of them charters – schools that are publicly funded but allowed to run their own curriculum and hire teachers who are not members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Meanwhile, Duncan closed down yet more schools. He also introduced the school “turnaround” – where the students stay at a school but all its employees – teachers, the principal, even custodial staff – are fired and either rehired or replaced.  “I think that Renaissance 2010 woke people up and I am really pleased they are doing turnaround schools,” says Barbara Radner, a professor at the DePaul University Center for Urban Education. “He’s a learner – he’s tried to figured out what works.”

The reforms for which Duncan has drawn the most praise are new teacher recruitment and training strategies. In a comprehensive evaluation of Renaissance 2010 released last month (funded by Chicago’s private Renaissance School Fund, which solicits individual and corporate donations for renaissance schools), the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research noted that several newly opened Renaissance schools developed productive relationships between the teachers and principal. Specific goals are established for individual instructors. And performance evaluations mean the principal meets regularly with teachers and observes their work as opposed to just looking at standardized test scores. Radner at DePaul believes that “teacher quality” is Duncan’s defining legacy. “He increased recruiting and mentoring for the new teachers,” she says. “He encouraged a level of focused professional development that’s unusual for a large school system.”

Duncan’s policies – shutting down schools and letting go of the staff and then opening new schools often with first-time CPS employees – profoundly affected the livelihood of Chicago’s teachers, principals and school service workers like janitors. Yet after some early fireworks, he developed a civil relationship with the teacher’s union (which mostly appreciated his teacher training programs) and other groups threatened by his plans. “He was very careful about what he said publicly,” says Linda Lenz, the publisher of Catalyst Chicago, a non-profit magazine that studies urban education. “Much like Barack Obama he didn’t have any incendiary rhetoric. He sort of said nice things about everybody. And he tried to work with the unions when [the unions] had reform programs.

Duncan’s arsenal of reforms, his temperament, and his Chicago origins made him an obvious pick to lead the Obama administration’s Education Department. Like Obama did in the Democratic primaries, Duncan threaded the needle between “reformers” who are for charters and frustrated with teachers’ unions and Democratic Party stalwarts who are skeptical of any reform that threatens the teachers’ unions. When Obama nominated Duncan,Washington Post education reporter Maria Glod penned a glowing profile with the headline “Chicago School Reform Could be a U.S. Model.” “With a 408,000-student system, smaller than only New York’s and Los Angeles’s public schools,” Glod wrote, “Chicago has become a laboratory for reform in Duncan’s seven-year tenure.”

Nowhere to go But Sideways

Duncan’s reputation and reform efforts, though, coexist awkwardly with students’ actual performance during his time as Chicago school CEO. One metric that compares students across the country is the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test administered by the Department of Education. NCLB requires that in order to receive Title 1 funds –federal money sent to the states and intended to go to the neediest schools – each state must test 4th and 8th graders every two years in math and reading. NCLB also created a “Trial Urban District Assessment” that compiled a record of math and reading scores in 11 cities, including Chicago, scores that now include tests from 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007.

The NAEP records show that CPS student performance was very poor in 2002 and did not improve by 2007. On the NAEP reading test, scored from 0-500,, Chicago 8th graders got an average score of 249 in 2002. In 2007, they got an average score of 250. The nationwide average in 2007, by contrast, was 261.

In 2002, 15 percent of all Chicago 8th graders were judged “proficient” at reading. In 2007, that number had increased by all of two percent — 17 percent of all Chicago 8th graders were judged proficient. Nationally, for 2007, 29 percent of all 8th graders were deemed proficient at reading.

Chicago 4th graders not only fare worse than the national average in reading – they do worse than other urban school districts. In 2002, Chicago 4th graders scored an average of 193. In 2007, the average did jump to 201. But this score was not just significantly lower than the national average but the average among the 11 assessed urban districts, which was 208. The percentage of Chicago 4th graders who scored at the proficient level in 2007 was 16 percent compared with 22 percent in other urban districts. Only Cleveland and Washington, D.C. did worse. Moreover, the gap in scores between poor students – defined as those eligible for the federal school lunch program – and the rest of the district actually increased between 2002 and 2007. Upon the release of these results in November 2007, then-Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias commented, “Obviously, there’s more to ‘demographic factors’ than whether or not you qualify for the school lunch program, but as far as quick arguments go it’s pretty convincing evidence that there are things LA, Chicago, Cleveland, and DC could be doing to obtain the kind of better results that New York and Boston are getting with poor children.”

NAEP Math tests were another area where Chicago students fared poorly. Fourth grade math scores made the modest jump from 214 to 220 between 2003 and 2007. But just 16 percent of CPS 4th graders were judged proficient in Math compared with 28 percent in other urban schools districts and 38 percent nationally. The story is the same for 8th graders: scores made a modest climb from 254 to 260 between 2003 and 2007. But in 2007, 13 percent of CPS fourth graders were proficient compared with 22 percent in other urban school districts and 31 percent nationally.

There are standardized tests besides NAEP, but unfortunately, CPS students have done poorly on those as well. In June 2007, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research looked at scores on the Illinois Standardized Assessment Test. The consortium praised CPS for narrowing the reading gap between 8th graders, but noted that even these eighth graders, the highlight of Chicago’s results, were still more than a grade behind their peers across the state. “One still cannot escape noticing the very large gaps between Chicago and the rest of the state,” the study concluded.

Is it fair to hold Duncan accountable for these test scores? “I think you can absolutely hold the CEO and the school board accountable for these students because they have a huge impact on where the resources are spent,” says Linda Lenz of Chicago Catalyst. “The CEO is the one who needs to push things in the right direction. They’re the one who pushes the city for more after school programs. The change and ideas for schools often come at the local not the state or national level.” Don Moore, executive director of the Chicago-based education advocacy and research group Design for Change, takes a somewhat different view. “In CPS, Mayor Daley calls the shots,” Moore says. Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the Chicago group Parents United for Responsible Education, agrees. “Key decisions are made on the fifth floor of City Hall (the Mayor’s office),” Woestehoff wrote in an email, “not the fifth floor of CPS (the CEO’s office).” But these arguments concede that it is city government that primarily shapes CPS policy and performance. And even if Mayor Daley really called all the shots, Duncan is now taking these reforms – be they his or Daley’s or someone else’s – national.

The better defense of Duncan is that his reforms need more time. This was the crux of the University of Chicago school research consortium’s argument about Renaissance 2010. U of C studied the first 23 schools that opened under the program, the majority of them charters, and found that “the overall academic performance of the average student in Renaissance School Fund-supported schools is very low, as it is at most schools in the district.” But the study reported that, “It is unusual for students to demonstrate large learning gains on standardized tests during the first few years of a school development.”

But a RAND study published earlier this year – and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $21 million to the Renaissance 2010 Fund – found that, nationally, charters don’t make a difference. “In a majority of cases,” the study’s authors concluded, “The results suggest that differences in the performance of charter schools and traditional public schools are small or nonexistent.” The study admitted that methodologies for school comparisons are not a perfect tool, especially when looking at elementary schools. But it more confidently compared students at public middle schools and high schools to those at charters: “Non-primary charter schools are producing achievement gains that are approximately equivalent to those of traditional public schools.”

“We have an opportunity before us to lay the foundation for a generation of education reform,” Duncan said at Brookings, “And it requires us to hold each other accountable both for what we do and for what we say.” In the context of Duncan’s CPS record that’s a frustrating comment – When, and to what extent, should he be held responsible?

Duncan stresses data. But while other policymakers, like Bush’s first Education Secretary Rod Paige, looked at students, schools and state-wide performance, Duncan is more focused on how data evaluates the effectiveness of teachers. He won praise for improving the aptitude and preparedness of Chicago teachers, but this hasn’t, yet, translated into better students or a better school district. People made fun of George W. Bush for promising that NCLB would lead to every student scoring proficient in NAEP reading and math tests by 2014—a tidy six years after the end of his second term. But no one can say when data that keeps teachers on their toes will actually benefit students and heal a school system.

Arne over America

Nobody was a bigger winner from the stimulus bill than the Department of Education. A federal agency with an annual budget of about $45 billion, DOE saw $115 billion in stimulus money. The money is mostly for perennially under-funded long-time programs like Head Start and money to stabilize state budgets. But it also included outlays like a $4.3 billion in “Race to the Top” funds. There is also a $545 million school improvement program that Duncan can spend how he wishes. Duncan hasn’t yet allocated this money – yet more discretionary cash will come from the 2010 fiscal-year budget and maybe also a re-authorized NCLB.

But he has spelled out in the past two weeks – at Brookings and then in Michigan, California, Vermont, and West Virginia – what he wants the Race to the Top and capital improvement money spent on:  States should come up with sophisticated data systems that can hold teachers accountable for student performance. This data should also track students from kindergarten through not just twelfth grade but college graduation. Duncan is also advocating for “turnarounds” at the 5,000 worst schools in the country, which he calls “drop out factories.” In San Francisco this week, Duncan blasted California as currently unworthy of Race to the Top funds because the state was not using student achievement data to evaluate teachers. “The data doesn’t tell the whole truth,” Duncan said. “But the data doesn’t lie.”

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