Wrong Choice for Secretary of Education

A Dissenting Voice From Chicago

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Hailed by some as a pioneer in education reform, Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to be our next U.S. secretary of education. But Duncan’s seven-year track record in Chicago gives evidence of why he is the wrong choice for America’s schools.

Behind the rhetoric of reform is the reality of Duncan’s accomplishments, particularly the problems behind his signature initiative, Renaissance 2010. Launched in 2004, Renaissance 2010 aims to open 100 new, smaller schools (and close about 60 “failing” schools) by 2010. To date, 75 of the new schools have opened.

Many of these schools, however, are charter schools that serve fewer low-income, limited-English-proficient, and disabled students than regular public schools. More than a third are in communities that are not in high-need areas. During Duncan’s tenure, districtwide high school test scores have not risen, and most of the lowest-performing high schools saw scores drop. Renaissance 2010 is not doing enough to support those students who struggle the most.

“Public education should aim for more than high test scores and a stronger business sector.”

This should not be surprising. The blueprint of Renaissance 2010 lies in a report titled “Left Behind,” Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader produced a year earlier by the Commercial Club of Chicago. The report mapped out a strategy for schools to more closely align with the goals of the business elite. Central to that strategy was the creation of 100 new charter schools, managed by for-profit businesses and freed of the city’s local school councils and teachers’ union—groups that historically have put the welfare of poor and minority students before that of the business sector.

Business leaders have long had influence over America’s schools. In the early 1900s, the business sector influenced how large school districts were consolidated and managed. In the late 1900s, and into the era of No Child Left Behind, the Business Roundtable (the top 300 business CEOs in America) influenced how policymakers narrowly defined “standards” and “accountability.” Today, public debates on education are too often framed by business principles, and certain assumptions go unquestioned as they gain dubious status as simply “common sense.” These include the assumption that improvement comes when schools are put into competition with one another, like businesses in a so-called free market.

“Duncan’s reforms are steeped in a free-market model of school reform, ... but research does not support such initiatives.”

Duncan’s reforms are steeped in a free-market model of school reform, particularly the notion that school choice and 100 new charter and specialty schools will motivate educators to work harder to do better (as will penalties for not meeting standards). But research does not support such initiatives. There is evidence that opening new schools and encouraging choice and competition will not raise districtwide achievement, and that charter schools in particular are not outperforming regular schools. There is evidence, moreover, that choice programs actually exacerbate racial segregation. And, there is evidence that high-stakes testing increases the dropout rate.

Duncan’s record is clear. Less court intervention to desegregate schools. Less parental and community involvement in school governance. Less support for teachers’ unions. Less breadth and depth in what and how students learn, as schools place more emphasis on narrow high-stakes testing. More opportunities to certify teachers without adequate preparation and training. More penalties for schools, but without adequate resources for those in high-poverty areas. And more profit for businesses, as school systems become increasingly privatized.

Students do not benefit from these changes. Duncan’s accomplishments for Chicago’s public schools are not a model for the nation.

Yes, America’s schools are in dire need of reform. And in 2009, we have the opportunity to do just that—first by correcting the false assumptions and failed policies of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The research is clear: Students need to learn more, not less. Parents need to be involved more, not less. Teachers need to be trained more. Schools need to be resourced more. We need new ways to fund schools, to integrate schools, to evaluate learning, and to envision what we want schools to accomplish.

This will not happen by continuing to follow the perceived wisdom that is so blindly embraced by Arne Duncan and many other education leaders. Public education should aim for more than high test scores and a stronger business sector. Its goal should be to prepare every child to flourish in life.

We need a different leader, one with a rich knowledge of research, an unwavering commitment to educating our diverse population of children, and a vision big enough to make that happen.

Vol. 28, Issue 18

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