Spinning school improvement

Much was made of the progress in Chicago’s public schools when Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was tapped to become the U.S. Secretary of Education.

But maybe the gains made during Duncan’s seven-year tenure in the Windy City weren’t that boast-worthy, after all.

USA Today reporter Greg Toppo points out the contrast between some of the statements made by President Barack Obama about Chicago schools in December and the findings of a new report by the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, a group that backed Duncan’s and Mayor Daley’s calls for more mayoral control of the educational system.

Toppo writes:

Its key findings stand in stark contrast to assertions President Obama made in December when he nominated Duncan as Education secretary.

And though the findings are by no means as explosive, they’re reminiscent of revelations from Houston in 2003, when state investigators found that 15 high schools had underreported dropout rates under former superintendent Rod Paige, who by then was George W. Bush‘s Education secretary.

In December, Obama said that during a seven-year tenure, Duncan had boosted elementary school test scores “from 38% of students meeting the standards to 67%” — a gain of 29 percentage points. But the new report found that, adjusting for changes in tests and procedures, students’ pass rates grew only about 8 percentage points.

Of course, Duncan’s administration wouldn’t be the first to spin the results of its school reform efforts in its favor, and Illinois wouldn’t be the first to experience test score inflation (if that is, in fact, the case). States across the U.S. are free to set their own “proficiency” bar for No Child Left Behind purposes, and they arguably face an incentive to lower the threshold or make the tests easier.

The New York Daily News had an interesting take on the issue last month, saying that the test questions have become fairly predictable.

Teachers: Have you found this to be true?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Cranky Teacher

    For teachers, this is COMPLETELY unsurprising. Gaming the numbers and simply emphasizing multiple-choice test-taking skills and memorization over higher-order skills can drive up your numbers quickly.

    Arne Duncan is, by all accounts, a nice guy and a terrific basketball player, but he isn’t much more than a wannabe Harvard technocrat with a sweet jumper.

    Look at his resume. He has never been a teacher or school administrator. He got his start in the education racket when he got to play with the nonprofit funded by his childhood friend, who had become a Wall Street CEO.

    Then, in Chicago, where it is all about “who you know,” this likeable bball star jumped straight to just below the pinnacle of the Chicago district leadership, before later becoming its “CEO.” He would play pick-up with Barack Obama at lunch.

    Now he’s the top education official in the country, based not on his achievements but on having the right monied and powerful backers.

    Sound familiar, Oakland?

  • http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-356-SF-Education-Examiner~y2009m4d22-Care-about-public-schools-Come-to-PPS-annual-event-this-Saturday Caroline

    Readers of Oakland’s Perimeter Primate blog already knew about Arne Duncan’s “juked stats” (a term from “The Wire”):


    And there’s a slew of other education bloggers also providing early warnings on Duncan’s deception and similar deceit. You can find most of them on the Perimeter Primate’s blogroll. The mainstream media is coming later and later to the party.

  • Katy Murphy

    Catalyst Chicago is a mainstream media outlet — though, I believe, it’s independently owned — that provided early and deep coverage of Duncan’s legacy. I linked to Catalyst’s report in December when I blogged about Duncan’s appointment. Here it is again, in case anyone’s interested:


    The USA Today’s piece was written in response to a recently released report. It’s possible that the paper raised similar questions earlier on, as well, but maybe not.

  • http://j1t.blogspot.com Charlie Sutherland

    I teach high school, and like “Cranky Teacher” said, this is not news to me. I myself got so cranky about this issue that I compiled a bit of research and wrote it up here: http://j1t.blogspot.com/2009/05/star-struck.html

    I just want to add one thing: I think it’s worth looking not only at Chicago as a model of where Duncan’s policies could lead, but also New Orleans.

  • Teri

    None of this surprises me. Personally, I don’t think anyone should be legally allowed to become an administrator of a school or a district unless they’ve had at least 10 years of teaching experience. Not all teachers (and I put myself in this category) make good administrators, but in order to be a really good administrator, you have to have taught and taught long enough to really understand what it’s like to be a teacher. There are obvious exceptions to the rule. My previous principal was an excellent administrator in so many ways and only had about 6 years of actual classroom teaching under her belt before beginning her path to administrative positions. But, in my experience, she is the exception, not the rule.

    So when Arne Duncan talks, I don’t place much stock in it. I see him as a dilettante–dipping his toes into the current popularity pool on pedagogy, but not a serious student of educational practices. How can he be if he doesn’t know what it’s like to create, deliver, and evaluate lessons, to scrap everything you planned for that teachable moment or because you realize that the kids just aren’t gettting it and you need to reteach, or because half your class has come down with the flu?

  • Teri

    As for tests becoming similar from year to year, the CA DOE releases test questions that were used on previous tests and will have similar questions on current tests. I don’t look at them or teach them. I don’t even look at the test when my students are taking it. I don’t teach to the test. Research shows over and over again that lessons that develop critical thinking skills, develop vocabulary, and provide lots of opportunity for reading and discussing will give kids the skills they need to be successful on tests.

    Anyway, for the 8th grade history test, all of it’s useless since they are tested on what they learned in 6th and 7th grade as well as 8th, (and with our standards, who has time to reteach what they learned?) they test what we haven’t even taught yet, and the questions are mostly recall information and fact-based and don’t involve having kids use the basic skills they need to understand history and geography.

    (You might be wondering how I know all this since I don’t look at the test, but my colleagues tell me this even though we’re not supposed to talk about the test.)

  • Judy

    At one time it was required that you could not get an administrative credential unless you had taught for at least 5 years. Then the requirement eased up. Now classroom teaching is no longer required.

    There are always exceptions to the rule….but that would be rare.

  • Small Town Kid

    I agree with Teri – 5 years of teaching as an absolute minimum for exceptional cases and in most cases 10 years before becoming a school admininstrator.

    Being a school administrator is not like running a business – there are similarities but a lot of differences. I’m disturbed, but not surprised that a number of successful business leaders seem to think that they can be school administrators as well.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I think folks should be careful not to pretend principal and superintendent demand the same experience and skill-set. While it would be nice if all supers had taught, it seems unlikely that will ever happen. It is a macro-leadership job.

    However, just because a super (or state super) didn’t teach, doesn’t mean they have to be simplistic and shallow in their understanding. Visit schools, talk to teachers, read all the best books written in the past half-century…

    Some supers are quite sophisticated about pedagogy, others are purely political animals.