Opinion
School & District Management Letter to the Editor

Duncan’s ‘Chicago Model’ Needs Special Scrutiny

July 14, 2009 3 min read
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To the Editor:

With billions of dollars and millions of children’s lives at stake, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s claims about his record in Chicago merit special scrutiny, especially if federal education funds are tied to requirements that districts across the nation rapidly replicate the “Chicago model” of school reform.

Advocates in Chicago have a special vantage point for this effort. We have been comparing Mr. Duncan’s rhetoric with reality for several years, and finding significant factual errors and misstatements. His remarks in his Commentary “Start Over” (June 17, 2009) fit this pattern.

For example, Mr. Duncan says that “Chicago’s success proves that we as a nation can expect dramatic and quick turnarounds in our lowest-performing schools.” Yet the RAND Corp. (2008) and SRI International (2009) found that Chicago’s new schools perform only on par with traditional neighborhood schools. Further, the traditional schools serve more low-income, special education, and limited-English-proficient students.

Mr. Duncan also writes that “in every elementary and middle school we turned around, attendance rates improved.” But state data for the 2006-07 “turnaround model,” Sherman Elementary School, show that attendance dropped from 91.4 percent the year before the takeover to 90.6 percent in the first year of the takeover. Attendance nearly recovered its pre-takeover rate, at 91.3 percent, in 2008. That’s not a terrible record, but it’s not an improvement.

Other post-turnaround data for Sherman Elementary are even more troubling. The numbers show a 20 percent drop in enrollment, a 10 percent decline in the number of low-income children, and a 17 percent increase in the mobility rate by 2008.

Reality, not hype, should provide the context for considering Mr. Duncan’s urgent call for bold and rapid change. Yes, our children need better schools, ones with more resources, more time, smaller classes, better-supported teachers, safer buildings, more participation of parents and the community, and programs with a real track record of success. But we fear that following Mr. Duncan’s lead will send us at a breakneck speed down a $5 billion path to privatization, national standardized tests, and loss of local control over schools, leaving our children even farther behind.

Julie Woestehoff

Executive Director

Parents United for Responsible Education

Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

I’ll say one thing about Arne Duncan: He is passionate about education reform. But as a parent with a child in a public school, I certainly hope he doesn’t come around to my neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Mr. Duncan’s reform agenda pins too much of the blame on teachers. I have liked all of my daughter’s public school teachers, so I would not want Mr. Duncan to move the “adults” out of my daughter’s building and establish a “new school culture.” I can’t help feeling that any new teachers would be motivated more by fear than by passion for teaching. And that is not good for learning.

I am also curious about Dodge Elementary School, which Mr. Duncan cites as a success story, a school he says was turned around during his tenure as the head of Chicago’s public schools.

A Feb. 25, 2008, report from the Chicago Teachers Union, “Moving Beyond Déjà Vu Reform,” casts doubts on Mr. Duncan’s claims. According to the report, the neighborhood surrounding the school has seen an influx of more well-to-do people in recent years; hence, the demographics of the school population are no longer the same as they were four or five years ago, making it misleading to compare tests scores. Finally, I am a little unclear about what the precise reforms are that Mr. Duncan wants to make in the public schools.

My fondest wish is that he will lower the class size at my daughter’s school. Right now, I think she has too many children in her classes, which makes it difficult for her teacher to provide any individual attention. I’d also like him to provide more money to fund enrichment activities, such as opportunities to engage in interesting science experiments, to help my daughter think in new directions.

Those are my hopes. My fear is that Arne Duncan is going to teach my daughter how to answer multiple-choice questions.

Walter Weis

Forest Hills, N.Y.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Duncan’s ‘Chicago Model’ Needs Special Scrutiny

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